Heather Yager can’t imagine living anywhere else.
She moved into the Bain Co-op with her family in 1971, when she was just 5 years old. Yager has lived in the co-op almost her whole life.
Yager likes the laid-back, cottagey feel of the neighbourhood. Even on a weekday, it’s not unusual to see residents in the courtyards taking time to catch up and make plans for the weekly community gatherings.
“I would not want to live anywhere else. This is my home,” she said, while taking in the late-afternoon sun on the picnic bench in her front yard.
When the co-op was recently listed as a heritage site, Yager, who sits on the co-op’s membership committee, was a natural choice to speak at the plaque unveiling ceremony. The listing came about after Riverdale Historical Society president Gerald Whyte led a campaign to get the location recognized by Heritage Toronto.
The plaque, which will be installed at the northwest corner of Bain Street and Logan Avenue in the coming weeks, recognizes the housing complex’s historical significance.
It is believed to be the first social housing development in Canada.
The defunct Toronto Housing Authority (now the Toronto Community Housing Corporation) built workers’ housing in 1913 and named it the Riverdale Courts, which, after several years under private management, was converted to the Bain Apartments Co-operative Inc. in 1974.
The design of the Bain apartments drew inspiration from the Garden City movement, popular in England around the First World War.
The urban planning concept called for communal green spaces and lots of gardens.
The 25 redbrick, Tudor-style buildings and two double houses that make up the co-op are built around six courtyards.
“It’s absolutely stunning — thoughtfully put together and stunning,” Ward 30 councillor Paula Fletcher said.
Though “stunning” is rarely used to describe social housing, Fletcher says good design is key to building secure low-income communities.
“You can never underestimate something that’s physically beautiful. Beauty has an effect on the people who live there.”
The usual markers of low-income housing elsewhere — broken glass, ripped screens and crumbling infrastructure — are discouraging to residents who may want to pull together and improve their surroundings, Fletcher said.
Unlike other government housing units that people are placed into, the Bain apartments are highly sought after.
Fletcher says she and councillors Pam McConell and Adam Vaughan are interested in converting some of Toronto Community Housing’s units into the cooperative model, despite what they see as a lack of political will at the federal and provincial levels.
It’s a proven model that promotes safety, community and social mobility for its residents, she says.
Yager agrees. She’s proof that it works.
She became a mother at a young age and living at the Bain gave her the opportunity to sit on various boards, which in turn gave her the confidence to pursue a university degree and a career. Currently, she’s the president of the East Toronto Community Legal Clinic.
Plus, the diverse membership taught her people skills, Yager says.
“It breaks down socio-economic barriers and it brings together mutli-level economic groups together. Myths that welfare recipients are bums that sit on their lazy rears are broken. We can learn and grow from each other.”
The co-op model demands full participation from its members. Residents attend quarterly meetings where all major decisions regarding the property are made. Volunteers oversee the maintenance and supervision of the grounds.
Shared computer and laundry facilities foster a village atmosphere. The community center located at the heart of the complex hosts activities, including movie nights, drag shows, potluck dinners, open mic nights and Scrabble tournaments.
But the lack of distance between units can occasionally make Yager feel claustrophobic. Sometimes she yearns for condo-life, where the demands on residents are fewer.
She calls the Bain her happy dysfunctional family.
Still, she couldn’t be more proud now that her little village in the city is listed as a heritage property.
“I think it’s about time,” Yager said. “We need to cherish these places.”
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