A curiosity about
the poignantly pathetic, neglected, unwanted,
unqualified, rootless, accidental waifs that composed the 2000-model
Etobicoke LACAC Panel was that 4 out of its 5 members were of Slavic
origin --and there was even some halfway-whimsical wondering if, in a
strange contemporary echo of those bad bigoted old days of Toronto The Good
(as if those old attitudes decamped for Etobicoke as soon as Viljo Revell
arrived upon these shores), that was a reason why we were being shunned by
whatever might have passed for the old "Family Compact" in nominal charge
of Etobicoke heritage matters. (It's a more complicated story than that, I
With the common roots in mind, I thought up the following tableau as a
thankfully shelved "heritage aptitude test" for one of our more naive
members. But it's oddly pertinent to Etobicoke.
It's with regard to the Polish city of Wroclaw--which before WWII was the
German city of Breslau. That cultural fact, together with haphazard
postwar rebuilding, has rendered it--in my opinion--one of Europe's most
fascinatingly schizoid places; despite decades of Polish efforts at
cultural assimilation, it's still possessed by the spectre of its
extraordinarily sophisticated pre-war Teutonicism--and this was even more
apparent within the 70s-80s milieu of Communist-era neglect.
In the historic core of the city, a mere block away from the town hall and
central marketplace (Rynek), is the extraordinary former Petersdorff
department store of 1927-28, the work of the German Expressionist architect
Erich Mendelsohn. (Think of Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott transfused
with a little Mazda zoom-zoom.) It somehow survived WWII in reasonable
shape, and the Poles, making use of whatever salvageable building fabric
there was, adapted it for their own retail uses. While "progress"
unfortunately claimed several of Mendelsohn's other retail spectaculars,
Eastern Bloc entropy allowed Petersdorff to happily survive, virtually
pristine, into Perestroika.
Suppose, if you will, that an ambitious young entrepreneur acquired the
building in the 1990s, and proposed to replace it with, say, a
Neo-Gothic-Neo-Renaissance office/commercial complex which, it is claimed,
would be a beautiful asset to the city, a symbol of Wroclaw's "progress",
much more in keeping with the historic core and with the "true" Polish
Would it be more pertinent for a LACAC-type heritage organization be to
encourage such a project, or to discourage such a project?
Actually, such a project these days would in all likelihood be greeted
with a resounding chorus of horselaughs. And it'd only meet approval among
the most wild-eyed free enterprisers, yokels, and right-populist xenophobes.
But it's an interesting case to reflect upon, in light of what happened on
Kingsway Crescent and what's happening to the Old Mill. In fact, it kind
of paints an implicitly embarrassing picture.
As far as I know, there was never such a threat to Mendelsohn's store. It
still stands. From what I gather, it was recently restored. Godspeed.
Interestingly, my comparison point comes from a distinct left
field--German Expressionist Modernism, exactly contemporary with Kingsway
Park yet light years away in style and milieu.
Indeed, it may come with my sowing-wild-oats period; most of my heritage
concerns have hitherto been in a similarly fashionable left field, such as
the International Style Union Carbide Building (dec'd), which I memorably
dubbed "the Queen of Eglinton East".
If anything, the Old Mill, rather late in the game, has been the most
right-field issue I've been involved with. But it's that right-fieldiness
which may have cause me and others like myself to turn away in the
past--not only from the issue, but from the Etobicoke historical and
heritage networks in general.
It's a bridge worth building. A realm worth entering. Worth entering for
the bigger and brighter picture. Brighter for us all. (Think of when
Modernist architects "discovered", and then crusaded on behalf of, Penn
Station on the brink of its doom.)
For all my allusions, I am not telling the whole Old Mill story. In fact,
even I don't have yet a complete, systematic handle on things. And
discretion, motivated by my continued LACAC position, leads me to step back
from more (and more premature) disclosure than necessary. Yes, there's
question as to whether the degree of demolition/dismantling required was
fully justified, or if the previous LACAC was fully apprised of what the
project might involve vis-a-vis the old structure, or whether there were
proper, "acceptable" measured drawings, or legitimate approval each stage
of the way, et al. (Upon a late September on-site visit/meeting, the
Heritage Branch representatives in attendance were justifiably concerned,
and brutal in their questioning.) But beyond everything, the project's
been carried out under an ominous hush-clausey cloud, with little or no
press--positive, negative--whatsoever. (It may have been presumed that all
the press necessary--mainly local and parochial, by the way--happened ages
ago, and that can suffice.) It is only by accident that many have stumbled
upon the Old Mill activity, and they don't even know what hit them.
It is a discomforting issue, yet clearly a major one, that's been "sprung"
upon us, left us like prematurely widowed brides, and it leaves me in
discomfort. My impulse would be to defer to an appropriate "third
party"--a journalist--to convey the scope of the Old Mill issue, to
interview and quote the appropriate individuals, to help cement its place
in the public consciousness.
Yet it's been enlightening, even exciting, to be presented with the issue;
as I've indicated, as such it has the makings of a "flagship", albeit a
negative one, for the Etobicoke LACAC Panel. And just being within the
LACAC is invigorating--or rather, it should be. Like many, I suffer from a
severe lack of time and lack of means in order to do or act upon what I
feel Etobicoke might "deserve". In effect, what I've discovered as a
committee member is that I'd much rather be doing this within a paid
position, municipal or otherwise--perhaps as a kind of "official heritage
consultant". (Offers are welcome--I still have student loans to pay off.)
In the meantime, I hope the future is brighter for the LACAC; even if this
particular body turned out to be an inadvertently unaccountable farce, I'd
argue to the heavens that a LACAC for Etobicoke is an accountable proposition.
As I'm prone to saying, it makes us richer.
It may seem as if my aim in the present essay is to simply condemn or
bewail the Old Mill project; but it is a little more elaborate than that.
My aim is to contextualize.
With condemnation an integral part of celebration; rendering it a living,
We're richer for it.
Etobicoke deserves so much.
December 26 2000