One of Toronto’s charms is its abundance and variety of neighbourhoods. Make a wrong turn off the main road and you could discover an idyllic community, a treasured spot off the well-traveled path.
A misstep from Mount Pleasant Rd. lands you on Rosedale Valley Rd. and an exclusive enclave. Turn off Yonge St., just south of York Mills, and you are in The Valley, a unique rain forest-like retreat that’s a marvel.
And then there is Weston, a true town nestled in a triangle between Jane St. and the Humber River, south of Highway 401.
Weston has seen better days. Dollar stores reign where bustling shops once bulged with town folks. The lighted penny farthing bicycles perched on lamp posts to designate the Business Improvement Area along the main street, Weston Rd., offer the most inspired evidence of its dormant potential. Ironically, a city hall-inspired plan that would have all but buried the town is giving it a timely boost at a critical time.
What would you do if city hall showed up one day with a plan to wipe out the names of most of the major streets in your town?
If you are in the middle of a concerted and intensive effort to get the area designated as a Heritage Conservation District to preserve its historic homes and streets, you fight back.
Eighteen of Weston’s streets, in a square mile at the heart of the town, were targeted for extinction because they share the same name as others in the amalgamated city of Toronto. Weston residents fought back.
Instead of the upheaval and dislocation that seemed imminent a few months ago, city politicians are opting to add “Weston” to the 18 affected streets and call them Church St. Weston, John St. Weston, for example.
The victory, to be affirmed by council, signals a primal stirring in an old neighbourhood.
Weston was once thriving, with a streetcar line until 1954. Its retail strip along Weston Rd. was a happening place, bustling through the 1960s and ’70s.
But Yorkdale Mall arrived and lured away the upscale shoppers; the bicycle manufacturer CCM closed in the 1980s; and the slow decline became precipitous.
Dollar stores arrived to cater to the low-end shoppers from the apartment buildings. Now, if there’s a niche market, it’s for discount stores.
“From looking at (the) main street you’d think we are really sick because of all the doctors, we are good-looking (so many beauty shops) and we’re cheap (all the dollar stores),” jokes resident Jane Ross.
The residential sector has kept its value. A slip off main street, along King St., delivers the unsuspecting visitor right into a gorgeous old village, with many historic homes, some of them beautifully restored to their post-Victorian architectural charm.
It is here that the fighting spirit of the battered community finds its voice, battling furiously to keep hope alive.
A damp, dreary October day can neither dampen the spirits nor dull the enthusiasm of two of the biggest boosters of the town of Weston: Ross and Mary Louise Ashbourne, lifelong residents turned heritage buffs.
We’re standing in the parking lot of Ward Funeral Home, site of Weston’s first town hall and key meeting spot for the annual Santa Claus Parade.
“The streetcar used to come right by here,” says Ashbourne, whose Weston family roots date back to 1904. When Weston folks talk about where they live, they use terms like “ancestral home.”
“Weston was Weston before Toronto was Toronto,” Ashbourne has said.
The town was incorporated in 1881, “dragged kicking and screaming” into amalgamation with the township of York in 1967, and almost wiped off the map with the amalgamation of Toronto in 1998.
Despite falling on hard times, residents here are fighting back.
In 1976, residents rallied to save the public library, a classic Carnegie library built in 1914. Buoyed by this success, they formed the Weston Historical Society.
Now, this group conducts tours of local streets and neighbourhood walks along the Humber River, and promotes the historical and architectural features of a stable of homes, many dating back to the 1800s.
Their goal is to secure a designation of Weston as a historical preservation district. This would place limits on changes to the area’s architecture and streetscape.
Town enthusiasts are preparing the historical mapping that will make the case for the designation. They don’t take lightly to the threat of losing street names that have provided a focus, some dating to the 1830s.
On this day, Ashbourne and Ross point out the gorgeous old houses that still grace the old streets and describe them as one would a treasured heirloom.
They stop by the Gribben House, built by Alonzo Wheeler in 1894 and featured in a recent book of great Toronto homes.
They point out the home of William Tyrell, Weston’s first reeve. When you see a house with gingerbread and wooden windowsills you know it’s old, they explain.
“Haven’t we got wonderful, wonderful houses here?” says Ashbourne proudly. “If I don’t say it, who will? My mom’s mom lived here; my mom was born here. I think we have a right to brag.”
Laura Alderson, head of the business improvement area, says businesses here have not yet figured out how to create a niche environment for specialty shops and small cafes most suited to the desirable, small-town feel.
Instead, they cater to the obvious — the wave of seniors, people on fixed incomes, new immigrants along Jane St. and Weston Rd. High-end shoppers go to Yorkdale Mall, six minutes away.
When Ross was growing up in Weston all her family’s shopping was done in the town. Manufacturers such as CCM were big employers in the town. Most have left. And when the mall came, Ross was among those who giddily took their money outside the area.
“We thought, `Why shop at Weston Rd. when you can go to Yorkdale Mall?’ As an adult I realize I helped kill Weston Rd.”
Now, Ross and Ashbourne and Alderson are trying to stage a resurrection of Weston — “not as an old place, but as some place you can take pride in.”
Royson James usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org