For the last several weeks, two local residents have been providing coffee and conversation in a greenhouse, red tape be damned.
For the last few weeks, the greenhouse in Trinity Bellwoods Park has been a hub of prohibited activity. The space has been the site of a Sunday afternoon pop-up café since the beginning of January. Officially labeled a “discussion group,” the café has been selling espresso and snacks without permission from City officials.
Gene Threndyle and Jiva MacKay are the people behind the project, which will have its final Sunday this week. They say they just wanted to create a place for their neighbours to hang out in the winter months, and make better use of a greenhouse that they say spends most of the year being used as a storage shed.
Threndyle, a gardener by trade, says he first came in contact with the greenhouse a while ago, when trying to find a place to store plants for the winter. He admits that, when he first went in, he wasn’t impressed with what he saw. “I couldn’t help but notice that the greenhouse is a little bit worse for wear,” he told us. “One particular guy has been breaking in there and sleeping for years, there were trees growing up [through the floor]. I got rid of those.”
It wasn’t until this past summer that he realized the space’s potential.
“In August, somebody got married in there, and they moved out the really ugly Home Depot shelves they’d had in there, and I couldn’t help but notice how great the space looked when it was empty,” he says. He decided that the greenhouse would be the perfect spot for a pop-up café. It was an idea that struck a strong chord when he mentioned it to his neighbour, MacKay. A trained chef, she says she’d been toying with the idea of a greenhouse café for a while.
“A few years ago, I’d gone to a green roof conference,” she said. “I’d had this vision of putting a greenhouse on a roof, and then putting a little café inside, where people could come in the wintertime and take off some layers and be sunbathed and surrounded by the vital force of all these plants growing. And Gene had the same idea, and said he wanted to put an espresso machine in the greenhouse.”
Threndyle and MacKay initially took the idea to the volunteers at Friends of Trinity Bellwoods, but Threndyle says that they “didn’t really get what we wanted to do.” Then, he spoke with Friends of Dufferin Grove’s Jutta Mason, who has spent years working both with and around the City’s Parks Department to hold unique events at Dufferin Grove Park. She told them that a café probably wasn’t going to fly. “She said ‘Well, they’ll shut you down immediately if you put a coffee machine in there and call it a café,’” says Threndyle. Instead, she suggested that they call it a discussion group, and just serve snacks while they were at it.
Threndyle loved the idea. He and MacKay started readying the space in December, clearing out what he describes as the existing plastic shelves and replacing them with cedar ones he built himself, along with some of his plants. By the first week of January, they were ready to go.
“We lined up a ton of speakers, including her, and she talked about how the Parks Department have the budget for all kinds of gatekeepers that tell you what you can and can’t do, but they have increasingly less and less money to run programs to make the parks more interesting,” he says. “We had [visual artist and long distance bike tripper] Jungle Ling talk about his bike trips, and they all turned out to be interesting little discussions that we’d have, and Jiva would bring in the food around noon.”
He adds that, by running a café out of the greenhouse, he’s not just serving up coffee and conversation. He’s trying to build a sense of community.
“There’s something very civilizing about people eating together, and it seems to be forbidden [in parks] in Toronto,” he says. “You can go across the street and get your coffee or whatever, but God forbid there be a little café in the park where you can get a coffee and meet your neighbours.”
He says that so far he’s had no objections from the Parks Department, even though he’s been bold enough to put a sandwich board out front. That said, he wasn’t really expecting any.
“They haven’t even noticed,” he says. “And I knew they wouldn’t. Someone said to me ‘Well, the Parks Department is going to notice,’ and I said ‘Yeah, I don’t think so. They didn’t notice the guy sleeping in there.’”
The greenhouse will be used to start seedlings in early March, which is why Threndyle and MacKay are getting ready to wrap up the café for the season. That said, they’re not giving up on their dream of communal dining in Trinity Bellwoods—they’re already planning a series of events for this summer.
“We’d like to have a more permanent set-up, which is very difficult with the bureaucracy,” says MacKay. “But we have the idea of doing suppers…of setting up tables under the trees one night a week, and I’ll do food.”