By Stephen Yeates, Cabbagetown Preservation Association
If you had visited Cabbagetown 40 years ago, you would have walked through leafy streets of decaying Victorian era homes, many having been divided into rooming houses, most showing their age in decaying porches, trim and wooden detail. Many were painted, sometimes a brick colour, to hide the gritty film of smoke from the earlier use of coal.
For much of the century, Cabbagetown was a depressed area, which is why its houses and streetscape remained largely unchanged. It remained one of the largest, if not the largest, area of continuous Victorian housing in North America; a treasure waiting to be discovered. By the 1970s people who recognized the charm of the human scale and Victorian architecture began buying and restoring homes. The growing appreciation of Cabbagetown accelerated under the shadow of developers' blockbusting and the threat of dense high-rise development. Together, City politicians, urban activists and local residents fought off redevelopment attempts. By 1989 the Cabbagetown Preservation Association had been founded, which led to the establishment of the Cabbagetown Heritage Conservation District. Under Provincial law and City administration, the HCD ensures and encourages the preservation of the Cabbagetown streetscape and its facades.
A walk through our streets now is a rare experience in the centre of a city region of almost 6 million. Like much of the city, there is a green canopy of mature trees lining streets narrow enough to cause despair to any bus or trailer that makes a wrong turn into the neighbourhood. What is unique is the combination of small, sometimes tiny, nineteenth century workers housing close to the grand homes of factory owners and professionals, a majority having been all or partially restored to an approximation of their original appearance. The energy that goes into architectural restoration is often matched by the intense gardening of these sometimes tiny plots that can add an Eden-like quality to some of our streets.
Walking into a laneway can yield a surprise discovery of more small homes, intensifying an already fine urban texture. Larger homes and their gardens seem grander by comparison but Cabbagetown will never be a Rosedale. And therein lies the strength of the community: Cabbagetowners live close to each other. It is truly a village of neighbours that shovel each others' walks, have lane parties, organize activities and charities and find it impossible to take a quick run to the store without having a couple of conversations on the way.
The mix of income in Cabbagetown, the variety of housing styles and lot sizes, the proximity of Regent Park and St James Town and the melange of people on Parliament Street keep the neighbourhood and its residents grounded in reality and cosmopolitan enough that, even with its gentrification, residents here will never see themselves as an island.