In the late 1800s, Parkdale was an elite residential suburb, that rivaled Rosedale
as Toronto’s most exclusive address. Today, with its absent-minded, wandering homeless and crumbling buildings, it is inconceivable that it was once an desirable neighborhood. Originally, it got its name from its park-like atmosphere – with many trees and by the lake. Its popularity led to it becoming a village in 1878 – imagine the island
of Parkdale surrounded by a sea of Toronto! By 1889, Parkdale’s citizens voted to amalgamate with the rest of the city again.
In 1922, Parkdale was Toronto’s playground by the lake, when Sunnyside Amusement Park and Bathing Pavilion opened for business on 15 acres of land off of Lake Ontario. Today, most people from Toronto could not imagine these toxic beaches, where no one would dare to swim, as a classy place to hob-nob – but Sunnyside was a place to see and be seen for many generations of Torontonians. Thousands of well-dressed citizens used to take part in the annual Easter parade, and it had one of the world’s largest rollercoasters, which drew crowds from all around the city.
In 1956, Sunnyside was shut down in order to make room for the Gardiner Expressway, which traces the north side Lake Ontario and the revamped Lakeshore which runs parallel. Unfortunately, these highways cut Parkdale off from the lake, and its glorious past, and Parkdale went into a long period of decay. As highway access improved, many single-family dwellings were demolished and replaced by inexpensive apartment buildings and others were divided into rooming houses. Parkdale further declined with the decentralization of the Queen Street Mental Hospital which left hundreds of patients out on the streets. Afraid to go far from their familiar atmosphere – many of the ex-patients settled into the area for life.
Today, Parkdale is a place where newcomers get their first chance in Canada. Attracting immigrants from around the world, it is one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country. However, it is a very transient place – over 90%* of the population are tenants, and one local school had 80%* turnover in one year. It is difficult to build a community when most of the residents, like the drivers on the highway, consider it as a place only worth passing through.
Parkdale is a case study on how building faster highways to the suburbs can empty out the core of a city. It is not a lost cause - it has a good foundation, and there is still a chance for it to recapture its glory days. Various business people and residents are seeing the potential in the beautiful old buildings, which are now available at a low price, renovating and reinvigorating life into them. It will take a grass-roots efforts like these to save the neighborhood - it is not worthwhile to wait for government to step in.
City Council has notions of burying the Gardiner Expressway into the ground and reopening access to the lake for locals, but it is not making any moves towards implementation of this plan. Hopefully through individual efforts, creativity of the local artistic community and practical improvements from groups like the Parkdale Business Improvement Area* this neighborhood will once again become "Park"-like - where people will want to stay for a long time. Further, it can use today's ethnic diversity as a source of enrichment, rather than a place so inhospitable that newcomers want to get out as quickly as possible.
*http://www.parkdalevillagebia.com/html/sections/about.html#6 (check out the before-after slides at the bottom of the page!)