An aerial view of Forest Hill Village ca. 1935 via Toronto Archives.
If you take a peek through the Forest Hill Village on a Saturday morning, you’ll stumble upon neighbours walking perfectly manicured dogs, fitness freaks lathered in sweat from a torturous spin-class and old men sitting on park benches reading the paper and watching people cross the road. Every now and then you’ll hear: “Hi! Lovely seeing you here” and “Let’s grab a coffee, shall we?” When I get my haircut at the village Barber Shop (running on six years now) it seems everyone knows everyone and you get to hear the most fascinating conversations. Once, a lawyer was getting his haircut and unearthed his experiences with cyclists — as a driver and a cyclist himself — to the entire shop. He had everyone’s attention as he delved into a story about how he hit a cyclist at Bathurst and Eglinton Avenue. “He went tumbling over the bonnet and I thought the worst. I made sure he was ok and he was. Not a scratch. I was prepared to take him to hospital to have him checked out, but he said he was fine. So he rode off and we went our separate ways. I got lucky,” the lawyer said.
The village has always been a place where cordial chatter among neighbours existed on patios, along walkways, in stores and on public seats while eating deli meats and or sipping coffees. But with the fresh and continuing influx of retail mega stores, the tight-knit community could relinquish it’s grace and warm charm and instead mutate into a sterile franchise plaza (as I heard one local call it) with a fast food culture that would sabotage what the villagers do best: socialize.
What was once a bustling marketplace that oozed atmosphere, the Forest Hill Village has been soaked in a constant state of metamorphosis of late. The latest merchant to get the nod in the village is LCBO, which has replaced Parkers Dry Cleaning. It’s still yet to be built but the scaffolding is up and preparations have started. Added to the list of newcomers, are Aroma Espresso Bar and Hero Burger (a 24 hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week fast food operation) which has replaced Blockbuster and Southside bar-restaurant respectively. Cobbs Bakery recently closed and there is still no replacement yet for the Village Idiot. It’s hard to keep up sometimes with who’s coming and who’s going.
In the early days of settlement in the 1920s, the Spadina-Lonsdale intersection became the crux around the formation of Forest Hill. Back then it used to be called Spadina Heights where the streets were not paved, Eglinton Avenue was a wagon track and deer was hunted. According to William French’s “A Most Unlikely Village” (an historical perspective on the Forest Hill Village) on the corner where Hero Burger sits today, used to be the local purlieu for gangs of teamsters who were employed to dig out basements for new homes. A few doors up was the Chinese laundromat that had a garden in the rear. The teamsters used to tease the launderers and the Chinese owners would chase them down Spadina with rakes and hoes, shoeing them away. Today teenagers sip from their paper cups and hoe into fries and Angus burgers.Before: Looking North on Spadina ca. 1927 via Toronto Archives. After: Looking North on Spadina ca. 2009 via Google Earth.
As much as the colourful characters and local folklore helped shaped the village cajole, most of the credit must go to the clusters of stores that once existed that sparked neighbourhood gossip or catch ups. Irwin’s Hardware Store used to be where Aroma Espresso Bar is now and before that it was a Blockbuster. It was the type of place that, even if you didn’t own a set of tools, people would still swing by just to say hello. Then there was In Advance, an arcade and comic book store, a shoe repair store and two gas stations equipped with full mechanic service. The Village Diner was a popular haunt for teenagers after school and apparently had gravy to die-for. That has now disappeared. Three locals — Gerry Hennessy, Llyod Shaefer and Peter Culp — ran the Forest Hill Steak and Seafood House. Kitchen Table was once a Loblaw’s. Paul’s French Food Shop sold European foods but was known for his steak and kidney pie, quails and pheasant. There was also Longo’s Fruit Market, Bilton’s Fine Foods and Min-a-mart Bakery. Let’s not forget Coffee Tree (which locals say burned down suspiciously) and Fantasize Sports, too. Some locals say a movie theatre once existed right next door to the former village diner location.
But, aren’t all Toronto neighbourhoods like this: full of stores exuding comradery? Well, yes, to a degree, but the Forest Hill Village is different from any other neighbourhood in the city. Geographically it sits right in the middle of the Toronto — but there’s nothing medial about it. Here’s why. For starters, It’s off the beaten track. You have to go searching for it either north off St.Clair West or south from Eglinton making it elusive. Next, it’s home to some of the wealthiest Canadians: CEOs, doctors, lawyers, baseball players, hockey players. The average household income hovers around $100k compared to the city’s average of $40k. Such a concentration of riches for one neighbourhood is rare. Rosedale and the Bridle Path come to mind in this vein as well. It’s home to the best private school systems in the country. It’s also home to mega-mansions, condos and neatly kept properties that look more like acres than blocks. Lastly, it’s a village that boasts a running list of firsts. Here’s a couple: In 1956 the village became the focus of a five-year sociological study, the first of its kind, led by John R. Seeley who documented Forest Hill life in a book titled “Crestwood Heights”. In 2004, the village became Canada’s first wireless community. But underneath the glitz and Hollywood of Forest Hill lies its tiny cluster of stores and a hidden enchantment that resembles small-town Ontario. Where else in the city can you find such an eclectic mix?
Brian Maguire, the secretary of the Forest Hill Home Owners’ Association, said he’s lived through three generations of Forest Hill modulation and has seen it grow from a horse and cart boondocks to a modern-day metropolis. “With all the movement of stores coming in and out, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a bad thing that the big chains are moving in,” he said. “People’s needs change through time. But, people will still come to the village to shop or just grab a coffee. It’s just that it won’t be from an independent store like we used to have (more of) in the past.”
You almost get the feeling when you drive through the village, it now feels like a regular street with stores centred around commerce instead of being a meeting place. The Forest Hill BIA is hoping to lure $12 million through fundraising to help cover the costs of its latest village revitalization plan that would see extended patio spaces for businesses along Spadina, bold lighting fixtures for greater visibility and in-built trees along the sidewalk. The City of Toronto also has plans to add more parking at the north end of the village : but these things take time. The village folk need to embrace today’s evolution as it’s a sign of the times. Whatever you see happening in the village, rest assured it is happening in someone else’s neighbourhood too. So long as businesses replace businesses — a one in one out policy — people will still come to the village. People will still have the opportunity to socialize.
Justin Robertson is a freelance journalist from Toronto. His work has appeared in The Walrus, National Post and Toronto Standard. Follow Justin on Twitter @justinjourno