Kristyn Wong-Tam has big plans in store for Allan Gardens

Kristyn Wong-Tam has big plans in store for Allan Gardens
By Melissa Wilson
OpenFile Toronto
June 22, 2012

It’s been just under six months since a chunk of Allan Gardens was boarded up to make way for a new water main, and Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam has hated the sight of it ever since. Wong-Tam conceded that the repairs were necessary, but with an estimated completion date slotted for sometime in 2015, she wasn’t about to let 211 metres of ugly, 8-foot hoarding surrounding the construction zone remain to dominate an otherwise beautiful, if underappreciated, city park.

She told OpenFile back in January, just weeks after construction crews broke ground, that she was planning to have murals painted on the hoarding to beautify the space, and Wong-Tam has made good on her word: Thursday, June 21 marked the official launch of the mural project, which will be completely finished in early July.

The murals are designed and created by 21 members of Toronto’s Aboriginal community, and will feature five vignettes to illustrate Aboriginal history in the area: One will honour missing or murdered Aboriginal women, one will be a historical timeline that begins with the creation story, one will depict the coming together of North and South indigenous nations, one to illustrate various indigenous teaching and, appropriately, one will focus on the importance of water.

June 21 was also National Aboriginal Day, which Wong-Tam says made it a fitting time to officially let the community know about the project. More than 100 people flooded the park to celebrate the launch.

“The area has the second-largest Aboriginal community in Toronto,” says Wong-Tam. “We wanted to make sure their voices would be heard.”

“It’s very important to visually represent the recognition of traditional territory in this mural,” says Tannis Nielsen, artist coordinator for the project. “The culture and the memory is embedded in it.”

“It’s been a great learning experience as a councillor not of indigenous background,” says Wong-Tam. “We try to represent everybody in the area, and we have a very significant native population, but not significant gateway or monument to mark their contribution.”

The murals are funded by C&M McNally Engineering, the engineers behind the water main project, and is being painted on aluminum panels drilled to the hoarding, so it will be fully movable once the hoarding finally comes down. Nielsen hopes they might be auctioned off to charity, or given to organizations that have been supportive of the Aboriginal Community. Wong-Tam envisions some of the panels finding their way to the 2015 Pan American Games.

The mural project isn’t all that Wong-Tam has in store for the park, though. Currently in the works is a brand new, $850,000-plus playground for the park (Wong-Tam describes the current playground as “the most sorry looking in the city”) that will break ground this fall, and be completed by spring 2013. The new playground will be double the size of the previous one, and meet not only the province’s current accessibility standards, but upcoming ones as well.

The funds for the playground project come from Section 37 resources — money given by developers for social infrastructure as a condition of being allowed to build. Ward 27 is one of the most heavily developed in the city, so there was a fair chunk of change available to improve Allan Gardens.

Wong-Tam also has her eyes set on the creation of an architectural pavilion that will turn Allan Gardens into a “wonderful event and design-forward space, similar to the Serpentine Gallery in the UK.”

There’s also talk of improving the Jarvis corridor, to create an official gateway into the gardens, rather than “a city block with a lawn on it,” as Wong-Tam puts it.

“Our community is very proud of Allan Gardens,” says Wong-Tam, who challenges the skeptics to find her anywhere else in the city that houses palm trees and banana trees. “Yes, we have our issues like most dense urban areas, but we also want to tell the full story of the community, and part of that story is the beauty of the history and the culture.”

Toronto has recently developed something of a reputation of hemming and hawing over issues, rather than taking action, so it’s refreshing to see a councillor taking the reins on projects such as these. It’s nothing novel, to Wong-Tam, though: “I’m not a councillor who wants to wait.”

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