Gwendolyn MacEwen park used to be little more than a trash-strewn traffic island at the intersection of Walmer Road and Lowther Avenue in the Annex. There were a few decrepit benches there as a concession to anyone who felt like braving traffic to wander through, but the only habitual visitors were pigeons. Yesterday, during an afternoon dedication ceremony, local residents celebrated the end of a lengthy renovation that has effectively reclaimed the park for humanity.
At least, the portion of humanity that lives between Bathurst and Spadina, north of Bloor Street.
Gwendolyn MacEwen was a poet and lifelong Toronto resident who had a remarkably varied career. In 1969, she won the Governor General’s Award for a collection of her work, entitled The Shadow Maker. Capable of writing poetry not only in English, but in Egyptian hieroglyphics, MacEwen was also, briefly, a businesswoman. In the early seventies, she co-owned a café on the Danforth called The Trojan Horse, with her second husband. Margaret Atwood is quoted in the introduction to the 2007 edition of MacEwen’s collected works as saying that MacEwen was “by turns playful, extravagant, melancholy, daring and profound.” That is by no means an armchair opinion. The two women knew each other long before either had established herself outside of Toronto’s literary sphere.
MacEwen, who lived her adult life in the Annex, became the park’s namesake in 1996, almost ten years after her untimely death in 1987, at age forty-six. According to MacEwen’s biographer, Rosemary Sullivan, the cause was alcoholism.
At the park’s reopening ceremony, Stan Bevington, founder of Coach House Books (which had printed up programs for the event on creamy, thick paper), addressed a small crowd of neighborhood residents from behind a podium. “I first met Gwen at a collating party,” he said. “We drank beer until all the pages were gathered.”
Bevington, who was full of warm recollections of MacEwen, told the crowd that the poet was always of the opinion that “alcohol was such an important part of a writer’s tools.”
A bronze bust of MacEwen, installed in 2006, sits on a grey granite plinth at the north end of the park, where it gazed out over the entire year-and-a-half-long renovation process with total equanimity.
The state of the park prior to the renovation can still be seen in the photographic amber of Google Streetview, but it is perhaps more elegantly described in a poem by Karen L. L. Anderson entitled Gwendolyn MacEwen Park. It was published in the literary journal Taddle Creek in 1998. An excerpt:
A mumble of green
dissected by two inter-
that drop onto the road.
Here are seven trees, a couple benches
And here’s the official sign
With your name on one side only.
A photo of the park from 1913 in the Toronto Archives’ digital collection shows much the same, minus the sidewalks and the sign, which identifies MacEwen by name and profession. The old photograph is also missing the tacky sixties apartment buildings that now rise like bouffants on either side of the street.
Members of the Annex Residents’ Association spent over fifteen years in consultation with a succession of local city councillors in an attempt to muster the political will necessary to make the park into something more deserving of its monicker. Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) was there at the reopening to take his share of the credit for finally bringing the renovation about. At the podium, he called the redone park “perhaps the most beautiful battle in the war on the car,” referring to the narrowing of the roadways encircling the park performed as part of the renovation. The park is now effectively a giant, seamless, traffic-claiming instrument, and it also offers more green space to pedestrians. Over the past year, the intersecting sidewalks that ran through the centre of the grass were replaced with new sidewalks made of a noticeably higher grade of concrete and lined with multicolored chunks of stone. New landscaping was added in the spring, and the old benches were replaced with newer, sturdier, and more numerous benches.
“This has turned into a real park that you can use,” said Linda Dershman, an Annex resident since 1977, who helped bring about the renovation.
The ceremonial ribbon―the same type of blue, glossy, logo-bearing ribbon that the City uses at all official openings, and of which they must have a nearly limitless supply―was cut by Vaughan, Bevington, Dershman, and others who had been involved in the ceremony. They did the cutting in front of the bust of MacEwen, upon the plinth of which is engraved this small sample from one of the poet’s last published works:
But it is never over; nothing ends until we want it to.
Look, in shattered midnights,
On black ice under silver trees, we are still dancing, dancing.
MacEwen’s bronze face was as impassive as ever, as though embarrassed by the fuss over her little patch of greenery.
“Someone should have brought a bag of breadcrumbs,” said one woman, shrugging at the mostly pigeonless park. “Gwen would have liked that.”
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.