The airport runway that sits in the middle of Downsview is probably the most appropriate geographical landmark for this idiosyncratic Toronto neighbourhood. Without airplanes and the people who built them, Downsview would never have taken shape years before the city stretched up to and past this onetime farm.
The runway was made to test the planes built by de Havilland Canada when the company, a local subsidiary of a British company, moved from Mount Dennis to farmer’s fields far north of the city. They built planes like the Tiger Moth, which was used to train military pilots, so when the Second World War began and demand for planes like this grew exponentially, so did de Havilland. It turned into a complex of hangars and manufacturing spaces that are mostly still there — forming the heart of the neighbourhood that grew up around the plant.
De Havilland built planes with names like the Beaver, Otter, Caribou and Chipmunk, and even after the Canadian Forces took over most of the Downsview plant after the war for an air base — and Bombardier ended up taking over the company in the ’90s — their legacy is preserved in the Canadian Air and Space Museum that’s moved into a few of de Havilland’s old buildings.
The museum’s home became available when the military base was closed in 1996. The buildings and the adjacent land provided the bulk of what’s now known as Parc Downsview Park. It is a complex of buildings, green space and prospective new residential development that is, in the absence of a historic main shopping street, the heart of Downsview.
David Soknacki is a former city councilor who now chairs the board of directors of PDP, and he says that the hope is that Keele Street will become the main street Downsview lacks when the old de Havilland lands begin to take shape.
Right now, the area’s commercial life boils down to the industrial park on the northern end of the park, and the strip malls on Keele, while the adjacent homes are a perfect time capsule of ’50s and ’60s suburbia, right down to the military housing that still remains by the entrance to the park — a collection of ranch houses and utilitarian Cape Cod style homes that evoke the little plastic properties in a Monopoly game.
“Keele Street is something that we hope on the park side will be very different in 10 years’ time,” Soknacki says. While most of the old hangars and plant buildings have become home to sports facilities — a collection ranging from go-kart course to rock-climbing gym — the parkland is a muddy work site, though with spring approaching, work is supposed to resume on the artificial lake and boardwalk that Soknacki is confident “will give the Beach a run for its money.”
The hottest issue right now, though, is how much of the land will be developed into residential and commercial properties — a controversial move that Soknacki says was a necessity. “When the federal government said that they believed in parkland space, their hand wasn’t on their chequebook. The challenge of the park has been to be financially sustaining as well as maximizing the open space and the public space.”
The finished parkland, Soknacki says, will be something like 365 acres of woodlot and water feature, playgrounds and pathways; by comparison, High Park is 398 acres, but the constantly shifting plans for the park made locals wary of what, ultimately, will be there when the work finally ends.
Right now, the best way to describe Downsview is a historically rich — and potentially revolutionary — work in progress.
What do you like about Downsview?
– compiled by Rafael Brusilow
Andres Cardenas: age 24, lives in the area
A: “Everything’s around here and anything you need is close by. Fuzion Lounge and La Rumba play great Spanish music.”
Maria Villalon: age 34, visits in the area
A: “I like that this area is very accessible. You can buy anything at the Btrust Supermarket.”
Joe Ikenovak: age 60, lives in the area
A: “It’s a wonderful place to live. The metro is convenient.”
• 1: Calico PS, 35 Calico Dr.
• 2: Sheppard PS, 1430 Sheppard Ave. W.
• 3: Canadian Air and Space Museum
• 4: Roller derby (at a hanger in the downsview airport)
• 5: Metro Place, Metropolis and Parkside Tower, condos by Liberty Development Corp.
• 6: Downsview aiport
• 7: Blaydon PS, 25 Blaydon Ave.
• 8: Downsview Park
• 9: St. Gerard Majella (school)
• 10: St. Phillip Neri (school), 20 Beverly Hills Dr.
• 11: Beverley Heights MS, 26 Troutbrooke Dr.
• 12: St. Conrad (school), 610 Roding St.
• 13: Pierre Laporte MS, 1270 Wilson
• 14: St. Raphael (school), 3 Gade Dr.
• 15: Downsview SS, 7 Hawksdale Rd.
• 16: Madonna (school), 20 Dubray Ave.
• 17: Ancaster PS, 44 Ancaster Rd.
• 18: St. Norbert, 60 Maniza Rd.
• 19: Yorkdale Shopping Centre
• 20: Gramercy Park Condo residences
• Average real estate value: $367,124
• Rent: $851
• Condo developments: Metropolis and Parkside Tower at Metro Place (Allen & Sheppard), Gramercy Park Condo Residences (Wilson & Tippet), Chicago (Wilson & Keele)
• Notable schools: Calico PS (35 Calico Dr.), St. Norbert (60 Maniza Rd.), St. Gerard Majella (35 Heavitree Rd.), Downsview SS (7 Hawksview Rd.), Sir Sanford Fleming Academy (50 Ameer Rd.), Sheppard PS (1430 Sheppard Ave. W.)
• Major grocery stores: Metro (1090 Wilson Ave.), Btrust Supermarket (1105 Wilson Ave.), Metro (600 Sheppard Ave. W.)
• Getting around: Nearby highway access to the 400 and 401, subway stations at Yorkdale, Wilson and Downsview.
– Rafael Brusilow