Why Tour Islington Village?
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Why Tour Islington Village?

Heritage Toronto traces the history of Etobicoke's Islington Village in its latest iTour adventure.

Islington Avenue and Dundas Street West.

Ask the average Etobicokian about the history of their former municipality and they’ll probably tell you a story like this:

“See those buildings over there? Seventy years ago that land was all farms. Thirty years ago it was a gas station/car dealership. Now it’s condos/townhouses/McMansions. The end… until it gets razed for an arco or something.”

Heritage Toronto‘s latest iTour on Etobicoke’s historic Islington Village doesn’t really dispute this narrative. In fact, the story it traces—from fledgling highway outpost to suburban wonderland—is an all too familiar tale starring Toronto’s good friend, Mr. Bulldozer.

Etobicoke Collegiate Institute.

First launched in 2009, Islington Village is Heritage Toronto’s fourth iTour, and the series’ second excursion into Toronto’s suburban past. Like previous iterations, the historic audio-visual walking tour is designed for mobile devices—though you can also watch it online. We demoed the tour last week, and we’re happy to report that with a few exceptions (too many blurry screenshots from Google Street View), the Islington Village tour lives up to the high standards set by its predecessors.

We tested the tour on both the iPod Touch and the iPad. Not surprisingly, the iPad, with its bigger screen, provides the better experience (though walking around holding up an iPad to buildings will get you strange looks from passersby). The narration is also available as a straight audio file, but since the images, videos, and maps are so integral to the tour, it’s hard to recommend.

The tour starts in Thomas Riley Park—named after Etobicoke’s former commissioner of parks and recreation—with a quick lesson about Mimico Creek. This probably won’t come as much of a shock to Islington Station’s regulars, but, according to the video, “Mimico” comes from an Anishinaabe term meaning “resting place or abundance of wild pigeons.” (Definitely the latter.)

The tour then pushes north to Montgomery’s Inn, a former mid-nineteenth-century Georgian-style inn and tavern, located at the southeast corner of Dundas Street West and Islington Avenue. As we learn, the Inn was constructed by Thomas Montgomery in 1832, and after housing a variety of tenants, now functions as one of the City’s historic museums. While it was operating, the inn was an important rest stop along Dundas Highway (modern-day Dundas Street) and a local watering hole where patrons enjoyed a variety of beverages such as whiskey, more whiskey, and peppermint drink (whiskey mixed with peppermint oil). Today, the inn is often mistaken for another historic landmark: Montgomery’s Tavern, the long-since demolished bar where firebrand William Lyon Mackenzie started the short-lived Rebellion of 1837.

Montgomery's Inn.

Like much of Toronto’s history, in the 1960s, Montgomery’s Inn was potentially set for a date with the wrecking ball. But, in a twist of fate (and with a lucky council vote) it was saved, largely thanks to the efforts of the Etobicoke Historical Society. Its sister to the east, Briarly House, wasn’t so lucky.

The former home of Thomas Montgomery’s son, William, Briarly was torn down in 1989 despite an outcry from the local community, and eventually replaced with a gated community. As the narrator notes with just a hint of lament, “It is an indication of what has happened to Islington Village as this part of Etobicoke has been increasingly urbanized…small older homes taking up only a part of a large lot are slowly being replaced.”

It’s a story that highlights the theme of this tour: what’s been lost and gained from rapid urbanization. “The village,” the narrator points out, “is striking for its lack of obvious 19th-century buildings…where are all the old rural era buildings?” Old buildings, he continues, are “common to so many other old Ontario villages.”

Well, as it’s revealed, there are a few hidden gems—buildings that have been re-imagined rather than outright demolished. The most noteworthy of these is the former Etobicoke Municipal Offices, located on Dundas Street West, just west of Burnhamthorpe Road. The building started its life as a Methodist church in 1843, became the village’s municipal offices in 1887, was expanded in 1946, became a police station in 1958, then a restaurant, and finally, in 2000, a Fox and Fiddle. It’s the kind of site that Heritage Toronto’s iTours were made for: a building that’s undergone multiple transformations, where each tenant has left a visual mark.

The tour also examines how Islington Village’s post–World War II population boom, and eventual connection to the Bloor-Danforth line, led to dramatic additions to local landmarks such as St. George’s on-the-Hill Anglican Church and Etobicoke Collegiate Institute, and the development of new housing initiatives such as the Mabelle apartment complex. The narrator briefly touches on Mabelle as an example of the once touted and now abandoned “apartment in a park” concept, but unfortunately cops out when it comes to more sensitive issues surrounding the buildings—most notably income inequality, crime, and racism.

Clocking in at around an hour-plus walking time, the Islington Village tour is a hefty but thoroughly enjoyable romp through Etobicoke’s past. The history of the village is a microcosm of Toronto—the story of massive post-war expansion coupled with lacklustre preservation efforts.

As for what’s up next, Heritage Toronto isn’t quite sure.

“The Islington iTour wraps up our first planned cluster of four tours,” says Gary Miedema, chief historian and associate director of Heritage Toronto. “Now is a chance for us to pause, consider the many changes in the app world since these were begun, and plan our way into the next cluster. There is no shortage of good stories to tell. We want to make sure we tell them as best we can.”

Heritage Toronto’s iTours can be found on their website.