Our daughter was born in the early autumn, when the leaves at St. James Park were golden yellow, and most of the birds had abandoned the city, except the sparrows and pigeons. The park was the first place we ventured outside our condo. It was a sunny October day and a woman on a bench nearby asked if we'd like her to take a photo of us.
"Even without the photos, I think I'd remember today's trio on the bench," she emailed later that afternoon, attaching the photo. "Now you won't ever forget Phoebe's first outing!"
We live not far from the park, in a neighbourhood where everything you need is a short walk away. I used to imagine a maternity leave ambling through the AGO with a sleeping baby, hauling a stroller on a midday streetcar, visiting family out of town when the city got to be too much.
Of course, it didn't happen like that. By November, Premier Doug Ford had introduced a colour-coded system of COVID restrictions. Christmas came with a lockdown visiting the festive trees of the abandoned financial district. January was endless grey. We only saw our family on screens, but we were safe.
The pandemic deepened with the cold and each day felt the same as the last. Life was small in our one-bedroom condo, where my partner was working. It didn't matter if it was snowing or raining — a few times a day I'd bundle up my daughter, roly-poly limbs into a puffy snowsuit, snowsuit into stroller, stroller into St. James Park. We made the rounds, past the dog people, the gardens covered with snow, the tents that came and went, housing people seeking safety away from the shelters.
The ground began to thaw, the park bloomed in greens, purples and yellows, but the case numbers only went up. My daughter was no longer a sleepy baby in a stroller, she was a curious baby in a carrier, strapped to me like a figurehead on a ship. St. James Park was our backyard, a spot that always made us feel better, the only place to go. In a year where we lived small lives in small spaces, we always had the park.
By the time summer dawned, I had my second vaccination. I could see family again. But for the first eight months of my baby's life, the park was our refuge. I'm not sure what we would have done without it.
The Cathedral Church of St. James has long stood at the corner of King and Church Streets. Just east of the church, dogs frolic where the church's first cemetery used to stand. And just east of that, where people stroll on pathways and children run on the playground, there used to be a tightly packed neighbourhood of small houses and commercial properties.
The church was the landlord, and by the 1950s, many of the buildings had seen better days, says former church archivist Nancy Mallett. The church approached the city with an offer to sell the land in 1959 on the condition it be used for a park. In turn, the city suggested the church take down the wall around its property so that the whole block, including the church, could be considered part of the park. The city would take care of the grass and flowers on church land.
Toronto's parks commissioner, George Bell, announced the new downtown park in 1960. "St. James Park will be a most valuable addition to the small amount of green space in the heart of the downtown area," the Globe and Mail said.
The idea of "sitting out areas" was lauded in the papers as a "boon to old people seeking somewhere to enjoy the sun."
On Sunday mornings, there is a stillness to the park. Sometimes it is so quiet you can hear the pigeons thwapping each other with their wings. One peaceful Sunday, we were walking through the playground when a pack of small dogs ran in front of us, toward Aldo Campagna. I recognized Campagna and his dog as regulars, just like us. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a plastic container of chicken. Sparky, Ernie and Cayenne all got a few pieces.
"He's the pied piper of the park," Cayenne's owner said.
Aldo got his dog a few years ago. She loves birds and squirrels, and he loves her so much that his goodwill spilled over to the entire species, which explains the chicken. He loves to see dogs running toward him. "It makes my day," he says.
The area beside the church is treated by many as an unofficial off-leash zone, but it is sometimes policed by bylaw officers. It is church land, but there is an agreement wherein the city "has carriage and maintains" that slab of well-trodden grass and "enforces the off-leash activities accordingly," a city spokesperson wrote in an email.
(One woman sent the church a donation, grateful for the space. "It is a delight to see dogs having fun next to our building," a church representative responded. "All part of God's beautiful creation and the joy it brings.")
I've never had a dog of my own, but by January we were lingering by Pepper, Freddie, Molly, Farley, Lola, Murphy, Jace and the other good boys and girls. Many were pandemic puppies, full of energy, running circles in the mud. And then there was Milli, a skittish Maltese poodle, away from the others, playing fetch with a baby carrot.
Callie Corrigan, who was throwing the carrot, was a flight attendant before the pandemic grounded her industry. She had reinvented herself opening a dog daycare and dog-walking company called Spaw Daze.
Milli was her morning client, and she immediately took to the tiny, nervous puppy.
I was in the middle of a long stretch of sleep deprivation when Corrigan told me that Milli had started anxiety medication. Months into motherhood and an isolating pandemic, I only felt empathy for the skittish dog. When the baby woke in the middle of the night, I couldn't fall back asleep. My mind wouldn't shut off. I lay there as the hours melted away, waiting for the baby to cry, and my day to begin.
The third wave numbers were growing exponentially. I talked to friends and family, but nobody could help in person, as much as they wanted to. I was isolated and anxious, but I had a comrade in this dog who was also trying to make the best of it.
Yellow daffodils began to pop up in the flower beds, and Milli started playing with the other dogs. In the mornings Milli bounded out of her condo where she had once been as wary as a child going to the dentist. I was doing better, too. I found some new moms on a community Facebook page and we started a group chat. I knew people at the park by name, and there was always somebody to talk to. When we left home each morning, and the park came into view, my baby would kick her legs and squeal with excitement.
It made me think of something one of my new friends mentioned about the transformative power of this place. She said when she walks into the park from the concrete and brick of King Street, it feels like Algonquin Park. I understood. It's not the size, or the scope of the place. It's the way it takes you out of the city, away from yourself, just for a little while. The way it gives you space to breathe.
One man who feeds the pigeons on his off-days told me there is a gentleness here. That's true, but there is tension, too: the occasional skirmishes over dogs, people dealing with mental health struggles.
One afternoon at the peak of the third wave, we were sitting on a picnic blanket when a man began aggressively approaching people and sitting down close, sipping their drinks. The park is an oasis, but not a utopia.
In its early years as Toronto's newest downtown park, St. James Park was a flat rectangle of green surrounded by a few benches and paths. In the 1970s, southeast downtown had largely been left behind by developers. It was a landscape of parking lots, garages and warehouses, but there were glimmers of promise: beautiful historic buildings and the new park next to the church.
The park was a great place for children to play soccer, or meet a friend for a coffee, but it needed something more. Toronto's Urban Design Group, then part of the city's planning board, approached the Garden Club of Toronto to see if it would be willing to plan and fund a 19th-century garden that would nod to the historic character of the street.
Nancy Colquhoun, a glamorous woman who loved opera, a good book, and had an attic full of dried flowers, was the leader of the project committee. Before she had children, Colquhoun had been a nurse, and like many of her friends, she poured her professional energy into the Garden Club of Toronto.
"These women were amazing," says Rosemary Dale, Colquhoun's daughter. "In another generation they would have been running companies."
There was no easy way to research in those days. As Colquhoun would later write, the committee decamped to the reference library to squint at microfilmed newspaper articles about the opening of Allan Gardens in the 1860s. They browsed old seed catalogues and learned about the importance of geometric design from yellowing back issues of the Ladies Magazine of Gardening.
They read biographies of famous landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted and studied historical photographs, looking for the details that would make their garden authentic. They travelled to Philadelphia to visit the garden of cloth merchant Ebenezer Maxwell, and contacted Owen Scott, a University of Guelph professor who specialized in period landscaping.
Scott, who now works in heritage consulting, said the inspiration for the park's 19th-century garden came mainly from the Union Jack. "If you look at an aerial photo now, you can still see bits and pieces of the crosses," he says of the way the flower beds and pathways were positioned.
Like most Victorian gardens there was carpet bedding — a mix of brilliant hues arranged in geometric designs like a fine rug, flowers strategically chosen so there was always something in bloom.
Colquhoun found an American company to make an exact replica of a three-tiered fountain that used to stand at the top of University Avenue in the 1870s. They sourced heirloom roses that bloomed in that same era and the committee acquired a historic hand-me-down fence from the University of Toronto. Garden Club members donated urns and cherubs.
Before the garden was unveiled in 1981, a "nimble fingered lout" made off with fuchsia standards and two dozen rose bushes, but the lout couldn't dull the magnificence that bloomed north of King Street: white and pink begonia, blue salvia, orange marigolds, deep purple lobelia, yellow and red lantana, burgundy coleus, creamy white mignonette, and all of those pink and red roses.
"It is already popular with the lunch bag crowd, a quiet place to sit and contemplate, a pleasing garden in the middle of the city bustle," the Globe said. Colquhoun, then in her 50s, would drive from her home in Lawrence Park to check on the garden. In those days, the neighbourhood was pretty empty at night. She once met a homeless man who slept on the benches and acted as a sentry for the flowers.
He loved the garden, says Helen Skinner, past president of the Garden Club. "In a way, it was home to him, and he made sure that nothing happened to it."
Years passed. Trees grew bigger, casting new shadows, and the flowers changed for the conditions. More native species were added, as gardening shifted toward a more sustainable ethos. In the 2000s, the garden was revitalized following a bequest to the city. It is more of a modern garden now, but it retains Victorian elements, like the radiating flower beds, the fountain, and those rose bushes.
The city plants the flowers, but this year, the garden club also designed a few beds, choosing yarrow, liatris, roses, lady fern, wild ginger, butterfly weed and wild bee balm, all supportive of pollinators, butterflies and native bees.
The gardens are a peaceful space in the midst of a now-bustling neighbourhood. I've lived here nearly a decade, and every spring, I look forward to the tulips that pop up around the fountain. Every year the colour is a surprise, but this year, the revelation was gloomy: forlorn patches of dirt with a few yellow stragglers from previous years. City staff, who keep the gardens so lovely, weren't able to plant in fall of 2020 because of the pandemic.
When Helen Skinner found out, she had to laugh.
If Colquhoun were alive, she said, "She'd probably be down there planting them herself."
I often see Michael Butcher sitting at the circular benches around the fountain in a button-up shirt, sometimes with a camera or a book, always with a thermos of coffee. His morning routine used to include a café; now he begins his day with the pigeons, sparrows and strangers.
"You can smell the leaves, you just look at the people — some people say good morning. I don't know who they are, it doesn't matter. It absolutely makes your day."
The early-morning exercisers, the amblers, the parents have told me the same thing: The park fills a need, brings a smile, provides a green space away from the condos. It is a crossroads of possibility.
In the last few years, St. James Park went through a revitalization. Nancy Chater, the senior project co-ordinator with the city's parks development and capital projects team, said the city doesn't have a lot of land for new parks, so it focuses on revamping what it does have, which includes a handful of "beloved" downtown parks in need of some upgrades. In the last few years, Berczy Park transformed with its famous dog fountain, and Queen's Park North got a makeover with more accessible pathways. Moss Park will be next.
Michael Butcher had his doubts when the crews came to St. James — he hated to see the gazebo that had been home to decades of concerts and dances torn down.
But as he looks beyond the pavilion with sculptural slabs of Alaskan yellow cedar that smell so nice in the rain, he admits it is all rather wonderful: "These designers really know what they're doing," he says, counting the distinct spaces inside the park. "Each one has its own character."
PMA Landscape Architects was in charge of the redesign. Fung Lee, a principal with the firm, said St. James is a "classic old Toronto urban park," so well-loved that any changes were "kind of quiet, and kind of discreet."
Kristine Morris, the chair of Friends of St. James Park Toronto, said one theme that emerged in consultations was that some people didn't feel safe in the old park, particularly at night.
She once read that mothers are a litmus test of sorts. If a mother doesn't feel safe, a park will be dead. She believes the new market-themed playground has made St. James more vibrant, drawing a critical mass of people. The park is now lined with sturdier benches, new artwork, better lighting. There are more functional pathways and loads of seating that allows people to bring a lunch and meet a friend. Some benches have armrests, and some spaces allow people to sprawl out.
It cost just under $4 million, not counting design fees, and the park was reopened late last summer.
For Kristine Morris, the old park was a shortcut between her home and the market. The garden was beautiful and movie nights and concerts enlivened the park in the summer, but it was mostly a place to pass through. She's not sure if it's the pandemic or the revamp, but that has changed.
"It seems simple, it's just a park," Michael Butcher told me one day as he looked around. "But it's not. It's so much more than that, especially now."
It is the bench decorated with streamers in winter for a senior's birthday. The men who tie resistance bands to trees and listen to 1980s pop as they exercise. The woman crocheting next to the rose bushes. The lady weeding the gardens early in the mornings. The older fellow sipping a tall can on a bench. The person who added hanging baskets to their tent. The man sleeping underneath a knotty old tree. The piñata swaying in a cold April breeze for a girl's fifth birthday. The park is anything you need it to be. That was never more true in the pandemic.
One Sunday morning in late spring, before I had my first dose of vaccine, I took my daughter down the playground's small grey slide for the first time. The case numbers were high, but vaccination was ramping up. A woman with a silver bob came over to us. Isn't that fun, she said, smiling wide, the way people do for babies. She asked how I was doing.
Maybe it was the way she tilted her head with concern, the look of kindness, the fact that my days were often starting at 4 a.m., but the question cut beneath the veneer of small talk.
"I'm good," I said, pausing to keep the emotion out of my voice, from this stranger. "We just really miss her grandparents."
It must be so hard, she said. There was so much that didn't need to be said. People have lost friends, mothers, fathers, careers, plans, trips, weddings, birthdays, mental health, entire years of their lives. Everyone has lost, and we are lucky to have our daughter, our home, our health, and this park, where the trees give us shade, a different type of flower is in bloom every week, where there are people to talk to and streetcars to watch.
"You're doing a good job," she said.
I thanked her and we walked home. My daughter had a nap, and then we returned to the park, like we do every day, like we will do long after the world returns to its old ways. We will walk our endless loops, say hello to our park friends, and watch the world take shape again. But we will never forget the shelter this place gave us during the hardest months of our lives, and the people who made our days brighter. We will never forget how St. James Park saved us.
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