Revealing a colourful Danforth history

[attach]4428[/attach]When neighbourhoods go into decline, people tend to look for simplistic explanations as to why. That’s usually not the answer as I learned on a Jane’s Walk along Danforth Avenue on May 8.

But, I’m told, complex problems can be solved by simple methods like walking, observing and describing what you see — a message that hopefully would have pleased the late urban planner Jane Jacobs.

On this walk, one of more than 400 that happen globally every year in Jacobs’ honour, the Danforth’s history is gradually teased out of our surroundings.

We start at Greenwood Avenue, well east of Greektown, and head for Monarch Park Avenue.

This is an area that our guide Girma Ayal and other members of Toronto’s Ethiopian Association want to rename that stretch Little Ethiopia — but that’s [url=]another story[/url].

Ayal has enlisted veteran journalist and former Globe and Mail writer Stephen Wickens, an area resident dedicated to studying the Danforth’s past, to provide the historical backdrop for our stroll.

Now in his 50s, Wickens grew up in the Beach, but tells me he was always intrigued by the Danforth as a kid.

“It seemed like an exotic, unsheltered place.”

Indeed, in its early years, the Danforth was home to outlawed activities like making moonshine and dog and cock fighting, he says.

[attach]4429[/attach]As our group of about 30 stands around just east of Greenwood Avenue, Wickens tells us of the Allenby movie theatre, which opened in the 1930s but by the 1970s, the rock scene took it over bringing with it plenty of dope smoke.

It’s hard to imagine now that it’s been converted into a Tim Hortons and On The Run.

As we walk along, Wickens surprises us when he says that five different streams used to run across the Danforth into Ashbridge’s Bay.

“Those five creeks made life pretty miserable for developers,” he says. “So we ended up industrial for a while, which is actually what made it a lively neighbourhood.”

Area restaurants relied on such industries, which developed after the streetcar tracks were added in 1913, followed by the Bloor viaduct in 1918, Wickens tells us.

What is now the Shoppers World mall further east used to be a Ford assembly plant, says Wickens. The Linsmore Tavern, opened in 1934, once bustled during shift changes at the nearby Canada Bread factory.

But the street plunged into decline in the ’60s, Wickens says, fielding questions from curious walkers as to why.

He tells our group that as the industries left the Danforth, so did the jobs, taking people with them.

Then when the subway replaced the streetcars in 1966, there were fewer pedestrians likely to visit the local businesses, he points out.

And the rise of cars meant that residents were more willing to travel elsewhere for their shopping.

I’m left wondering whether the section of Danforth we explored has recovered from that dive. According to Wickens, it already hit rock bottom in the ’90s with the closure of Woolworths, but he says he’s hopeful about its future now.

He mentions the Danforth East Community Association, which he says is helping some of the local businesses get on their feet.

“I think it’s contributing and capturing the imagination of a lot of people in the neighbourhood.”