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Monday, April 30, 2012

Interesting People: Stephen Wickens

This weekend marks the 6th annual Jane's Walks (historical guided walking tours in honour of Jane Jacobs) in neighbourhoods across the city. We've got our own local Jane's Walk here called "The Other Danforth" (info and registration can be found here) led by local writer and urban historian (and one of the most interesting people I know) Stephen Wickens. Pioneer had a chance to sit down with Stephen and chat about our Danforth.

Q. How did your interest in the Danforth area begin?

I grew up in the Beaches and when I was young my father used to tell me about his streetcar ride along the east part of the Danforth. He would describe the crowded sidewalks and bustling store fronts - a far cry from what we see now. The Danforth (specifically Woodbine and Danforth) was the place to go for shopping. It was almost like an exotic destination, away from the insular community in the Beaches. My wife and I settled into the neighbourhood about ten years ago, to be close to the subway. I've always been interested in writing about urban affairs, so it took off from there.

Q. If you could name one Torontonian as your sort of role model/urban affairs super hero, who would it be?

Jane Jacobs is a very pivotal figure in my life. She was ahead of the curve when it came to thinking about urban planning issues. I consider myself lucky to have been able to meet her before she passed away. That was an incredible experience!

Q. What is your favourite story/urban legend about the Danforth, that people might not have heard before?

The Dorothy Cox story is pretty cool. When the Robertson Motors showroom at the corner of Parkmount and Danforth was demolished in 1995, they found her body encased in concrete. Her disappearance in 1943 was big news. She was last seen one evening at the Linsmore Tavern and then never seen again. They were able to confirm the identity of the body by DNA testing with one of Dorothy's surviving sisters. An interesting twist to the story came when they tried to do a DNA test with her two sons. Surprisingly, there was no match, so her sons (both in their mid-70's) discovered that they had been adopted. In Dorothy's case though, the murder is still unsolved.......although it's believed that her husband was working construction on the RM building at the time of her disappearance.
Wickens posing in front of the TTC yards at Danforth and Coxwell,

Q. What do you think the future of the Danforth is?

The Danforth will almost certainly become a place facing development pressure, especially in the spots closest to the subway stations. Much of the development can benefit the area because more people on the street as residents or workers coming to the area for office employment, will make a greater variety of businesses viable. But we'd better have an idea of what we want and what we don't want or we'll end up fighting absurd heights and inappropriate densities.

Q. What property along Danforth do you think is most pivotal to our community's future?
How the TTC property at Coxwell is used or reused or developed or redeveloped will have a massive bearing on the future of our neighbourhood. Right now, it's an under-utilized dead zone. But it's the site with the greatest potential, especially as it's so close to a subway station. It could bring good density and a vitality inducing mix of uses to the neighbourhood, or we could get something out of scale and problematic.

Stephen has been a Toronto journalist for 35 years, and most recently wrote a feature piece in the Toronto Star about the history of our fair city's transit system. His other musings can be found here: worldwidewickens.com.

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