While it is generally understood that the seedy reputation of Allan Gardens is the result of the seediness of the people who use it, such a conclusion cannot be drawn with much confidence if you spend any time in Allan Gardens. The other morning for instance -- in the soft city light that can make leafless branches and church spires and a gray sky as beautiful as the gaudiest moment of summer -- there were dog-walkers, and Tai-chi practitioners, and people on their way to work.
I'll admit that I saw one woman whose decision to wear stretch pants was ill-advised. And it's true, there was a man, sitting on a park bench smoking a cigar that did not smell as if it had come from Cuba. Not very recently, anyway. But other than that there was nothing remotely seedy about the people using Allan Gardens.
Nor is there anything low-rent about the park itself. The land was originally donated to the Toronto Horticultural Society in 1860 by George Allan, an early mayor, and it is one of Toronto's original public parks. It's handsomely laid-out, attractively landscaped with a kind of grande allée that runs through its middle, from Pembroke Street, south of Gerrard, to Homewood, north of Carlton. I can't think of an urban vista in downtown Toronto that compares. Spokes of sidewalks, lined with mature trees, extend to the corners of the park. And at the centre of everything is the grandly domed conservatory of the Palm House. It was built in 1909, and so isn't strictly Victorian. But the drooping fronds and the over-heated humidity sure feel Victorian to me.
In addition to all this splendour, the University of Toronto's old College Street greenhouses are currently being reconstructed in adjunct to the Palm House. A project financed by the City of Toronto, the University of Toronto and the TD Bank Financial Group, this will be the new Children's Horticultural Conservatory.
So what's with Allan Gardens? I have to wonder. It's not as if Toronto has so many beautiful downtown parks that I can afford to ignore one. But ignore it I do. I hardly ever think about Allan Gardens. I hardly ever go to Allan Gardens. And were visitors to ask me what to see in Toronto I would probably only remember the Palm House long after I'd waved them off to be bored to tears at Casa Loma.
The traditional explanation for Allan Gardens' image problem is that because of its proximity to addresses that are, shall we say, not the best, there are times of day -- and particularly times of night -- when, were you to stroll from the corner of Sherbourne and Gerrard to the corner of Carlton and Jarvis, you wouldn't meet the rector and his wife. Undoubtedly this is true. But I'm not sure it's the whole truth, and the other morning, while standing in Allan Gardens, I found myself wondering why it is that even when the park is full of blustery dog-walkers, energetic joggers and busy-looking people rushing off to their jobs, some faintly tawdry shadow hangs over it. Why does it seem down-at-the-heels when, in fact, it's anything but? By Toronto standards, Allan Gardens is spectacular.
It's not perfect. Some kind of modern-looking trellis thing has, for mysterious reasons, been established at the centre of it, and the City of Toronto must look long and hard to find signs that are as banal as the ones they use to identify municipal sites of interest. But still, it's a lovely spot -- all the lovelier for being right downtown, in Toronto. After all, how many grande allées and Edwardian botanical conservatories do you have in your neighbourhood? So why, I wonder, does Allan Gardens not figure more prominently among those public spaces of which Torontonians are most proud?
The answer can be found in the Garden View Apartments. This is not particularly fair to the Garden View Apartments -- a neatly kept building on the park's eastern flank that, by Toronto standards, is merely routinely ugly. The Garden View Apartments is no more hideous a piece of architecture than a half dozen others that border the east and north side of Allan Gardens. But its name makes it an irresistible example to make. Whoever its architect was -- and I think we can cross Frank Lloyd Wright off the list of possibilities -- he seems to have been aware that the residents of the Garden View Apartments would have a view of the park. What slipped his mind, though, is that people in the park would have a view of it.
Allan Gardens suffers as much from the haphazard cheapness of many of the buildings that surround it as it does from the not-entirely legal preoccupations of some of the people who can be found on its darker walkways. There may be good and not-so-good times to go for a walk in Allan Gardens, but the place has its dignity assaulted 24 hours a day by what the city has permitted to be established around it. Ugly high-rises, prosaic offices, unnecessarily large and garish commercial signs -- as much as the grand old trees and the graceful walks and the fantastical dome, these are the striking visual components of a visit to Allan Gardens. No wonder the place feels a little seedy. What a shame that the city doesn't make it clear that proximity to a civic treasure must come with some responsibility for not helping to ruin it.