A guide to 10 private streets in Toronto
According to Joan Clos, the head of the United Nations' human settlements program, gated communities - private urban enclaves with security cameras and in some cases a guard at the entrance - are becoming more common in the U.S., South America, and South Africa, a trend which breeds hostility, he says. For the most part, Toronto hasn't bought into the twitchy habit of private living, but there are several subtle non-public enclaves within the city.
The vast majority of Toronto's "private" streets are access roads on private property. Hart House and King's College circles on the University of Toronto campus make the list, for example. Many others are part of condominium developments, like Annex Lane near Bloor and Spadina and Agnes Lane off Queen just before Greenwood.
There are a few surprises, however. Some of the streets that run through St. James Town are technically private, including portions of Ontario Street and St. James Avenue. Station Street between Simcoe and York streets in the downtown core is private property, too. In total, there are about 600 streets or access roads that are designated non-public by the City of Toronto.
Here are some of the more interesting ones.
(A note to would-be flâneurs: These streets are all on private property and access is entirely at the discretion of the landowner. Though some streets welcome visitors (or at least don't make a fuss when a reporter shows up with camera) others might not welcome the presence of outsiders. Proceed with caution.)
PERCY STREETLittle Percy Street runs south off King, just east of Sumach, in a dog-legged kink that ends abruptly against the Richmond Street off-ramps from the Don Valley Parkway. The "Republic of Percy," as it's known by its residents, is not on a street that's owned by the city as and, as a result, residents pay for their own garbage pick-up, snow clearing, and sewer maintenance.
Percy Street was laid out by between 1885 and 1890 by property developer James Quinn, and its two-up-two-down mansard roof homes belonged to mainly to workers at the nearby distillery and breweries. Its history is full of stories of bootlegging and other shady activities. In 1988, workers renovating the home of former resident Cindy Wilkey found $50,000 in depression-era Bank of Canada bills behind a false ceiling. These days the street is much more down to earth.
Disguised as an unpaved service road off Verral Avenue near Queen and Carlaw, Bisley St. is actually home to a secret little row of brick homes that date back to the 1880s, when it seems access was made directly from Queen. The homes do not have a back yard and share a rear wall with a cluster of houses that face Verral. The only thing that betrays the existence of this weird private strip is a recently installed blue-and-white street sign.
Hidden away in north Cabbagetown, Alpha Ave. could be a cousin of Percy Street. Its rare collection of unadulterated 19th century cottages hark back to the neighbourhood's working class roots. As if to illustrate the upward trend in local housing prices, Nos. 1 and 3, which were knocked together to make one big house, were on the market for $985,000 in 2010.
The street was laid out some time between 1884 and 1890, but it's not clear where the unusual name comes from. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet but there is no Beta or Gamma or Delta avenues in the city. Similarly, just off Broadview, First Avenue exists without a Second Street (it was demolished along with the old YMCA.) Alpha Avenue, it seems, is one of one.
The mansions of Elmsley Place, a street on the University of Toronto campus named for a former Chief Justice of Upper Canada who owned the land and bothered his colleagues by quoting Latin, is probably close to what most people imagine a private street should look like: it has a gated entrance, a collection of massive red brick homes, and the distinct scent of old money, but Elmsley is actually entirely owned by the University of Toronto.
It was one of the city's first subdivisions in 1892, home to professional and managerial families, but in 1920, during the extension of Bay Street north to Davenport Road, the city ended up having to cede the street following a legal dispute with St. Michael's College. In 2007, the four homes on the west side of Elmsley - the Gilson, Maritain, McCorkell, and Sullivan houses - underwent a $4 million renovation.
MELBOURNE PLACEMelbourne Place is tough to find if you're not looking for it. Accessed between two houses on Melbourne Street, southwest of Queen and Dufferin, the short dead-end street is lined with seven gorgeous English Mews-style Victorian terraced homes. Like Percy Street and Alpha Avenue, Melbourne Place is listed as private, meaning that it's technically off limits to the general public although there are no signs warning off potential visitors.
That said, the wrought iron gates at the main entrance are a not-so-subtle reminder that visitors are entering private property. The street was laid out as one of the city's first non-public enclaves around the turn of the century, but it seems the actual gates are a more recent addition. According to a recent property listing, some of the homes still have their original gas lamps.
Hidden in south Etobicoke, just off Lake Shore Boulevard. near Royal York Road, Edyth Court is an unpaved, boomeranged-shaped road that provides access to a small collection of waterfront bungalows. Two of the homes have backyard lake access and it seems like a pretty nice place in the summer.
Benlamond Drive is so private that it doesn't show up on Google Maps or Street View (so no virtual nosing around.) Accessed via an elbow in the road off Glen Oak Dr. near Main Street and Gerrard, this private street provides access to two gigantic homes, one of which is the William Stewart Darling House, named for the rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity.
The large brick home was built in 1873 and was likely designed by architect Frank Darling who, with various partners, designed Convocation Hall and the Bank of Montreal branch that's now home to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The house has expansive views over the Benlamond Ravine all the way to the lake and was later owned by William Davies, the meat packing tycoon, partly responsible for earning Toronto the nickname Hogtown.
Sadly, this street doesn't share much with its New York City namesake. In fact, it could be an east end cousin to Etobicoke's Edyth Court. Located at the eastern terminus of Queen Street, where the road curves north to become Fallingbrook Road, the diminutive Rockaway Cres. sports a forbidding "No Exit" sign at its entrance but does not otherwise appear to be marked. Judging from an aerial view, it looks like there are at least two homes on the unpaved track that have almost exclusive use of a sandy beach.
The little northern extension of Edgewood Avenue north of Eastwood Road has all the classic hallmarks of a private street: decorative stone gateposts that form a psychological barrier from the public portion of the road, fancy paving stones, and, of course, a sign that says "Private Road."
Once inside, the messages get a little more threatening: "Private property. No trespassing. Trespassers will be prosecuted," one reads. "Private property. Visitor parking only. Unauthorized vehicles will be tagged and or towed at owner's expense," says another. This, I remind you, is a quiet residential street, yet its residents have felt the need to put up spiky iron fences and little lawn signs carrying the names of a home alarm systems. It's all a bit weird. Even the fire hydrants are angry red.
No list of private streets in Toronto would be complete without Wychwood Park, the most famous of them all. At Davenport Road and Bathurst Street, the bucolic enclave that shields the source of Toronto's historic Taddle Creek and once housed media theorist Marshall McLuhan, established in the 1870s as a community for artists.
The rules have changed over the decades, and the 60 homes of Wychwood Park are now managed a bit like Percy Street, where residents pay into a fund that ensures the roads are maintained, the gates are kept standing, and the central pond is free of silt.
The idyllic surroundings haven't always translated to neighbourly harmony. A number of disputes were covered by local press in recent years and, in 2008, 70-year-old Wychwood activist Albert Fulton killed himself after being charged in connection with slashing his neighbours' car tires. Unlike other private communities, Wychwood doesn't discourage visitors, it just asks that they pick up after their dogs.
Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.
Images: Chris Bateman, Derek Flack/blogTO