Jane Jacobs, an urban activist and thinker, wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. In an era when the norm was homogeneity, planned suburbia, freeways and malls, she made a plea for walkable cities, intensification, diversity, organic development thriving on the street scene and the local neighbourhood.
An American who had lived for decades in Greenwich Village, New York, Jacobs moved to the Annex area of Toronto in 1968. This is a neighbourhood of big old houses, some single family, many with flats and apartments, mixed with small apartment buildings, on tree-lined streets and with some lovely small parks. The Annex is bounded by busy commercial streets and bisected by Spadina Avenue which runs south from the escarpment below Casa Loma. When Ontario proposed to run the Spadina Expressway south from Eglinton through the ravines, the plan would have had the expressway cut right through the Annex to end west of the University of Toronto. A “Stop Spadina” movement, led by Jane Jacobs, among others, galvanized the City of Toronto. When the Ontario Municipal Board ruled that the expressway should continue south of Eglinton, the City and its citizens’ committee appealed to the provincial cabinet. On June 3, 1971, Premier Bill Davis announced that the expressway would stop at Eglinton. To ensure that the expressway would never be constructed further south, he conveyed a strip of land crossing the route on the south side of Eglinton to the City of Toronto. The preservation and vitality of the neighbourhoods in the core of the city to the south is credited to the wisdom of this decision.
When Jane Jacobs died in 2006, her admirers initiated what they called Jane’s Walks to celebrate her legacy. The idea was to encourage local people to organize and lead walks in their own areas, so that they could share their knowledge and enthusiasm with their neighbours. Walks focus on whatever strikes the fancy of the volunteer leaders. They are free, benefit from the resources available from the Jane’s Walk organization, and are generally held the first weekend of May which coincides with Jane Jacobs’ birthday. In 2007, volunteers organized 27 Jane’s Walks in the City of Toronto. In 2013, there were over 600 walks in 100 cities in 22 countries worldwide. The Jane’s Walk Toronto website describes each of the 139 walks offered in Toronto this past weekend.
My first experience with a Jane’s Walk occurred Saturday evening when Lori Myers and members of the West End YMCA Walking Club organized a culinary tour of local multicultural restaurants. Some 35 people joined the walk, all eager to learn about diverse eating opportunities in our West End Toronto neighbourhood. We visited six different restaurants: the Bairrada Churrasqueira (Portuguese); the Depanneur, a unique “restaurant hub” offering a variety of cuisine from rotating chefs, cooking classes and club dinners; and Arabesque, a Middle Eastern lunch and afternoon spot, all on College Street. And then La Bella Managua (Nicaraguan); MexiTaco (Mexican); and Lalibela (Ethiopian) on Bloor Street. At each venue, the owner or chef met with the walkers at the doorstep, talked about how they came to establish their restaurants, described the menus, and, in a couple of cases, offered tastings. All these restaurants were new to me and seem well worth a future visit.
We also walked through Dufferin Grove Park, located opposite the Dufferin Mall, which is unique for its year-round farmer’s market, its community garden, and its community oven where volunteers cook pizza and bread for sale. Dufferin Grove is the prototype community park in Toronto, a model for activities organized and run by locals for the community at large. I have heard of Dufferin Grove for years and this was the first time I had ever visited it. It strikes me as ironic that I needed a Jane’s Walk to actually visit this most significant community asset.