Activist researchers to be honoured by Heritage Toronto

It has been called activist research, and it has reaped both results and, now, awards. York scholars Bob Hanke and Jody Berland will be among citizens honoured at the 29th annual Heritage Toronto awards dinner this evening. They are members of a community group – Friends of a New Park – that successfully lobbied to preserve rather than demolish the Wychwood Car Barns as part of a new urban park in mid-town Toronto.

Right: Aerial view of Wychwood streetcar barns

Hanke and Berland turned their work on the Friends’ steering committee into a “real-time” study of the public process of creating new park space from the former Toronto Transit Commission streetcar repair site in a residential neighbourhood west of Bathurst Street and south of St. Clair Avenue West. Their 27-page study, Signs of a New Park, published in the culture journal Public 26 – Nature, also formed part of the group’s submission to Toronto City Council that led to council voting to preserve the buildings.

The Heritage Toronto award recognizes the group’s efforts in communicating the case for preservation to the community through a Web site, flyers, brochures and media relations. In addition to their study, the two contributed articles and participated in the debate over whether to preserve the barns as historically significant to the community’s urban history or turn the entire site into a traditional green space.

Toronto city council voted last month to approve creation of a new city park at the site that integrates four of the five car barns – some built 90 years ago – and adapts them for use by the community as meeting space and artist studios.

Hanke and Berland, cultural theorists who teach in the York-Ryerson Joint Graduate Program in Communication & Culture, say the battle over park space signifies an important transition in thinking about urban parks.

“This has been a fight between the modernist concept of a park as open, landscaped green space and the postmodern belief that industrial history can be reclaimed. It is misguided to tear down industrial heritage and try to recreate nature in a highly developed urban environment,” Hanke says. “It’s not a fight for buildings versus green space. There’s room for both.”

“The traditional idea of a park as a green haven of grass and trees derives from an essentially romantic response to the corruption of nature brought on by industrialization,” Berland says. “Thinking we can repair nature this way is an illusion and shows how early modernists continue to influence us. But we are learning to think beyond it.”

Hanke joined the Social Science Division of York’s Faculty of Arts in 2000 and specializes in media and cultural studies. Berland is on faculty in the Humanities Division of York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies and is the editor of Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies.