If we live in a city, we all live in neighbourhoods. We are each in our own neighbourhood as soon as we step outside our front door. We seem to know organically where our neighbourhood ends and the next one starts, although some of our neighbours will always disagree if they perceive that our neighbourhood is better than theirs.
So it is in the Annex, where we live. Those to the west of our Bathurst Street boundary like to think of themselves as living in the West Annex, clearly annexing our neighbourhood’s name to gentrify their own. We think of them as living in Seaton Village or Koreatown, if we think of them at all, that is. Dupont Street is our northern boundary, Avenue Road to the east and Bloor Street to the south, making a nice convenient square.
Shortly after the city annexed the village of Yorkville in 1883, a developer subdivided the land to the west and named his new suburb the Toronto Annex, which itself was gobbled up by the city in 1887. Then and now it’s a place where people want to live.
When we walk along the Annex’s quiet leafy streets, we admire the gardens that flourish and the individuality of them all. Many residents have annexed the grassy verge in front of their homes and converted them into vibrant flower gardens. Diane was the first to plant in front of our row of townhouses and now the former strip of ratty grass is alive with flowers and bushes as neighbours have emulated her effort up and down the street.
We can tell immediately which buildings have student housing by the weed-filled gardens, or the multitude of bicycles chained to the railings. We abhor the lack of discipline and tidiness in student housing and fraternity houses, while admitting that it is inevitable with the vast University of Toronto campus sprawling to the south of Bloor Street. The only benefit is that there are lots of young people in the neighbourhood and fewer cars. The Madison Avenue Pub is famous as a hang-out for this younger generation. The pub is a pseudo-Brit affair, started in one house at the lower end of Madison Avenue in the 80s, and expanded to fill three of the traditional old Victorian houses.
Further up Madison, at number 37 to be exact, is the house that started it all a century before the Madison pub. In the late 1880s the prominent Toronto architect E.J. Lennox (he of Old City Hall and Casa Loma fame) designed a home in a style that would be copied and emulated for many years. The houses have two distinctive style elements, which can be seen all over the Annex. They usually have large Romanesque arches above doors and windows and often have fanciful turrets. They are typically red brick buildings, with the addition of some reddish Credit River sandstone decorative touches.
On several streets rows of these houses survive, though apartment buildings and condos have cut through the neighbourhood destroying fine examples of these lovely old homes. The wretched politicians and planners at City Hall are allowing monster buildings to nibble as the edges of the Annex. One of the worst examples of the desecration of this fine building stock can be seen where St. George Street meets Bloor Street West. On the north east corner sits the lovely and elegant York Club building, awash in Romanesque detail and carved stone cornices, turrets anchoring the warm red edifice to the earth. Next door is the hideous Royal Canadian Yacht Club building, a concrete and brick hulk of a bunker, where only parts of the original garden wall survive. It’s populated by very nice yachtsmen and women, but what were they thinking when they approved the plans, one wonders.
Three of our favourite Toronto restaurants are in the Annex. Bar Mercurio is on Bloor Street, not far from the corner of St. George. Joe Mercurio is the welcoming owner and host, where we often drop by for one of their specialty thin crust pizzas. Another Italian offering is Cantine, on Avenue Road nestled between the flower markets, where another Joe, Bersani in this case, has been a presence for many years. In the past few months, Cantine has undergone a splendid renovation, undertaken by the prestigious design firm of Powell and Bonnell, whose offices are just around the corner. I’m giving them a plug because they now manufacture and market Diane’s beautiful line of mirrors and mirrored furniture (see my blog THE ART OF REFLECTION April 13, 2013), examples of which can be seen in their showroom window on Davenport Road.
A different sort of renovation is underway at Le Paradis, on Bedford Road, a block west. Here French bistro owner David Currie has been ambling through a months-long refit. The place has been repainted and some of the older bits and pieces removed to update the place. Refurbished and upholstered bar stools and chairs have just arrived, much to the relief of our bottoms. Tables and floors have been refinished in such a subtle manner that most patrons haven’t noticed the changes. The menu has stayed much the same, to our relief. The hideous mural, which we have disliked for 25 years, has survived, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some guerilla staff or customers don’t paint it over when David isn’t looking. In spite of it all, we love the place, and the bartender pours a gentleman’s portion of scotch. The other night we spot Canadian author and icon Margaret Atwood dining there. She lives just round the corner.
Many other celebrated Canadians live or have lived in the Annex. One of the most curious was my late friend the eccentric explorer and horseman Norman Elder, whom I met through riding. He later appeared as a regular guest on several of my television shows. I helped him edit some film footage of one of his Amazon explorations, which showed him tussling with a massive anaconda. His home on Bedford was stuffed with curiosities, including several stuffed animals, a live 100-year-old tortoise and two very large pythons. Norman died in 2003. His house was renovated and sadly no trace remains of the decorative railings he rescued from the polar bear enclosure at the old Riverdale Zoo.
Another strange acquaintance from my early days in Toronto lived on Brunswick Avenue. William Ronald was even more eccentric, an artist in the abstract field, and we met when I was asked to direct a pilot for a television series he had dreamed up. It was weird and did not get picked up for production, but we had a lot of fun making the show. I have one of his colourful works hanging in the living room and one of his ugly nudes tucked away in a storage room. Bill liked to hold court in his massive bed, while his long-suffering wife Helen produced food for a crowd of admirers and acolytes. I lost touch with Bill when he moved to Montreal. He died in 1998 still painting and lived long enough to title his final work ‘Heart Attack.’
Noted urban activist Jane Jacobs lived in the Annex for 37 years until her death in 2006, and former television host and Governor General Adrienne Clarkson still lives in the neighbourhood.
Movie folk love the Annex, and there are very few days when a base camp of equipment trucks and star-filled mobile dressing rooms aren’t to be found parked somewhere in the vicinity. Our own row of townhouses doubled for Washington brownstones in the USA Network series, ‘Covert Affairs,’ filmed in Toronto and around the world. Our house exterior was cast as the home of a passport forger who comes to a sticky end. Diane couldn’t believe how long each scene took to shoot, but as a veteran of the biz, I wasn’t at all surprised when they finally wrapped at midnight.
That’s our neighbourhood, where we actually know and speak to our neighbours, and know the restaurateurs and shopkeepers by name. It’s an old-fashioned world and we like it that way.