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Real City Matters

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We Live Here: The Elephant House

It began as an art project, but a life-sized Indian elephant sculpture is now trumpeting the eclectic spirit of its adoptive neighbourhood.

We Live Here unlocks the stories behind some of Toronto’s most unique, quirky, and all-out weird homes, the people who live in them, and the people who live with them.

The majestic mammoth of 77 Yarmouth Road

In many cultures, elephants represent longevity, prosperity, intelligence, and good luck. And who wouldn’t want as much of all that as possible? So, why not? Might as well put a giant white elephant in your front yard.

That’s one interpretation a passerby could formulate as to why there is a life-size female Indian Elephant made of plywood, chicken wire, fiberglass, and spray foam taking up most of the front lawn at 77 Yarmouth Road, an otherwise nondescript home in the vicinity of Christie Pits.

“Everyone has their own relationship with [the elephant],” the owner of the property, 41-year-old IT worker James Lawson, tells us from inside the walls of his home as the elephant stands silently outside. “People put their own interpretations onto it that are more than what it is. Really, it’s just a piece of weirdness.”

Over the eight years the elephant has spent on his lawn, Lawson has watched reactions to it evolve day-to-day from his front window. Guided neighbourhood walking tours sometimes explain it as a symbol of peace and community; local elementary schools see it as an attractive and energy-burning destination for class walks; and fellow residents have left marks of their own—Lawson has found religious “baubles” as offerings, a festive top hat and bow tie on New Year’s Eve, and even a dropped love letter meant for another to pick up (or so he thinks—as far as he knows, the tale is unresolved).

Compared to the exotic romanticism the neighbourhood has imbued the elephant with, the actual set of circumstances that brought it to Yarmouth Road seems a tad mundane. It was part of an OCAD thesis project by a friend of Lawson’s, Matt Donovan, entitled An Elephant in the Room. It was originally displayed with a flock of black sheep and a red herring, but the arrangement was broken up when the exhibit closed. When the elephant outgrew the inhospitable habitat of Donovan’s parents’ basement, the artist wanted to put it up for auction—until he decided to take Lawson up on his repeated offers to display the animal at his newly purchased home.

“I’ve always really loved it, but it was never destined to end up here,” Lawson explains. “Part of it was that I just could. I had property, which was very exciting at the time. I thought ‘It’s mine, I could do that.’”

Literally overnight, the residents of Yarmouth Road got a new neighbour.

“I went to bed, it wasn’t there. I woke up, there was an elephant across the street,” says Danny Vala, who has lived in his home directly across from the Lawsons for the past 21 years. Vala is nonplussed by the sculpture. “It’s cool, it’s different,” he muses. “It’s a good conversation piece.”

James Lawson with the White Elephant.

No doubt. Both Vala and Lawson have fielded hundreds of questions from locals out for walks, cars that stop and back up to get a closer look, tourists exploring the area, friends and family over for a visit, and even local notables like CBC Radio host Stuart McLean (who mentioned his run-in with the mammoth on his show, The Vinyl Cafe). And as relatively tiny as Yarmouth Road is (it only runs from Ossington Avenue to Palmerston Avenue), Vala says there are some street politics that are directly impacted by the elephant’s status as a tourist attraction. His side of the street, he says, is the “poor side.”

“And now we’re getting all the talking over the white elephant. We’re getting all the attention,” he adds.

After eight years, the elephant is a neighbourhood fixture, an icon for nearby Junction residents—none of whom, according to both Vala and Lawson, have complained about its unusual presence.

“I think I’m integrated into the neighbourhood enough that I would know if people had a problem with it. They were probably surprised at first, thinking, ‘What kind of weirdo would have this in their front yard?’ but we never heard anything about it. Ultimately, the kids loved it. And now, I think everyone’s glad that it’s there. But, honestly, if the reaction was bad it wouldn’t be up. I’m not here to be the that guy causing trouble,” Lawson says.

Quite the opposite is true. Being “The Guy With the White Elephant” has made Lawson a sort of neighbourhood leader—because, of course, the people with the elephant have got to be friendly.

“In terms of impact on my life, people attribute certain qualities to me and the house. And they’re valid observations for the most part. Like, ‘He’s got to be weird enough to be comfortable with people asking about it,’ or that I’m someone who’s less concerned with convention,” he tells us as he stands shirtless, painting the walls inside his home (he and his wife are amid renovations) and fielding questions in an impromptu interview one Sunday morning. He says he doesn’t have quite as many people knocking on his door asking about the elephant these days, but we can tell you firsthand that when they do, he’s got more than a moment to spare. And it’s not just his time that he’s willing to share.

“It’s accessible. There’s no permission involved, it just stands there on its own,” he says. “…It’s not [Donovan's] elephant, it’s not my elephant, it’s the elephant. It belongs to those who observe it in the public.”

The elephant has seen better days—it’s got cracks forming along the seams of its skeleton and the front yard is filling in around it. Lawson had meant to pretty the scuplture up for the summer, but renovations and a wedding took priority. His aim, now, is to have the elephant spruced up before winter hits, though he’s confident it would survive the season even without repairs. Besides, like on previous occasions when the statue has fallen victim to rogue elephant-tippers, he’s got more than a few hands on deck from his neighbours to help make sure this school project remains a local darling for as long as possible.

Just like the tusked-and-true animal it’s modeled after, the white elephant is a lawn ornament one can never forget.

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