The Community’s Role in the Creation of the Artscape Wychwood Barns

The derelict TTC barns near Christie St. and St. Clair Ave. have always had a special place in the imagination of those who lived nearby. Kids would sneak into them and hang out, and people used to peer in hoping to catch a glimpse inside the massive structures. Not surprisingly, when local Councillor Joe Mihevc organized a community meeting to poll residents on the future of the barns, hundreds showed up.

In a church basement, citizens in the Wychwood and St. Clair Ave. area offered their views on what the site might become and whether the buildings should be saved or scrapped. Some suggested turning the long structures into bowling alleys. Others wanted to tear them down and sell the land to developers. Still others wanted the building to be converted and used to benefit the community.

Artscape was selected to develop the barns into a community hub with a focus on arts, culture and the environment. As the project moved forward, a vocal minority in the community opposed the project while the vast majority saw the benefit of transforming the barns. Residents who supported the project formed a group called Friends of a New Park (FNP) which tirelessly advocated for the barns to be re-imagined as an ecologically friendly community and arts space. The group’s efforts were essential to the success of the project and provide lessons for local community advocates everywhere.

Today, the community still participates in the Artscape Wychwood Barns through use of the space and the programming of the community gallery by the Wychwood Barns Community Association. Members of FNP still meet to drink wine and socialize, but feel their goal is largely accomplished.

Persistence and Constant Pressure

FNP maintained constant pressure on several stakeholders – on Artscape to continue pursuing its plans, the municipal government to help the project happen, and community residents to show their support. Applying pressure to the political process meant attending every meeting possible and expressing their views to any councillor or staff who would listen. FNP members attended meetings in numbers that dwarfed their opposition and presented compelling arguments. FNP had to combat the perception that decisions about the barns were out of their control, in fact, quite the opposite was true. According to local politicians and City of Toronto staff, without the pressure from residents the project would never have been realized.

“Without the Roscoes of the world… and a whole crew of folks, this would not have happened. These are the people who went to all the meetings, lobbied the councilors, created what we call cheat sheets which identified who was supporting it on council and who wasn’t. All those things were critical to the project’s success.” –Councillor Joe Mihevc

“The majority of people were under the impression that it wasn’t up to them. That decisions were going to be made at some level and they just didn’t want to fight.” –Cookie Roscoe Handford, community animator

Finding Allies and Maintaining a Relationship with Them

In the face of opposition from some residents, FNP had to find as many allies as possible to ensure the success of the barns. Councillor Mihevc and Artscape were already firmly behind the project; keeping these ties and creating an ever-widening circle of supporters was a key task for FNP.

While construction was underway, FNP and The Stop Community Food Centre organized a farmers market in the parkland surrounding the barn structures. Cookie Roscoe Handford and others sought the participation of farmers in the market through a variety of methods, including knocking on farm doors across rural Ontario. The first market sold out in less than 20 minutes; the next one was twice as large and sold out in 40 minutes. When the building finally opened in November 2008, the market was held a few days later and was a resounding success. Building bridges with organizations such as The Stop helped to expand the support base and maintain momentum for the project.

Combating Negative Factions with Openness and Positivity

A small but vocal group opposed the development of the barns early on in the process. The oppositions of this group were based largely on fear – fear of change, of added traffic, fears about safety and of outsiders. Combating these fears was the primary mission of FNP. Through a mix of friendly discussion, public relations and logical debate, FNP always maintained transparency in its processes, which enhanced the group’s ability to influence. While opponents to the project maintained anonymous websites, FNP’s website displayed the names of all their members and included a petition in support of the vision signed by more than 800 local community members.

“[Those opposing the Artscape Wychwood Barns] started a negative newspaper. It was incredible. The paper discussed [things like] ‘smells emanating from the lower classes’. Crazy. And there were ads in the paper, but no names of who had written the articles… So I went around to everyone that had advertised in the paper. And I [said] to them… ‘your name and your contact is in this paper… and it says things like ‘smells emanating from the lower classes’ and they were shocked. So I’ve heard that I was credited with killing that newspaper.” 
-Cookie Roscoe Handford, Community Animator

Keeping the Momentum Going

To maintain the momentum of support for the project, FNP helped to keep the project on the minds of local residents and enthusiasm for the vision high. FNP met every month in a member’s living room to come up with new ways to help move the project forward and foster support. Regular meetings with city staff, Artscape and architects also prevented the kind of confusion or misinformation that can slow or even derail a project.

Show Don’t Tell

FNP believed that more people would support the project and believe it could create something wonderful if they were also able to see the majesty of the old buildings. For years supporters of the project would organize tours for anyone that wanted to see the structures, believing that even in their dilapidated state, they would inspire people to dream big.

“The place closed in 1978, so for 22 years hardly anyone had been inside….
There was no living memory of, frankly, the majesty of the building and the height and the way the soft light penetrates the barn.”

–Councillor Joe Mihevc

“[by touring people through the barns] one at a time we won people over and helped them understand.”
–Cookie Roscoe Handford, Community Animator

Support from the community began to galvanize when a local resident cut a small hole in the fence surrounding the site and began flooding the park to create a community skating rink. Suddenly, residents could come inside the once-forbidden space and collectively imagine what the space could be.

“This one negative person called the city’s property department and got the city to send out guys with salt. They salted a children’s community skating rink at this man’s behest.”
–Cookie Roscoe Handford, community animator

Undeterred, the rink continued and in summer months, a bake oven was constructed from bricks and mortar and a donated heavy-cast iron door. Every week through the summer, pizzas were baked and the community gathered at the barns to meet and forge a relationship to the derelict structures and with each other. The skating rink in the winter and the pizza oven in the summer became and remain iconic images of community commitment to the barns and their reinvention.