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the architourist

Mid-century modern enthusiast Agatha Barc stands outside a Ben jungle home.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got fun and games

We got everything you want honey, we know the names

We are the people that can find whatever you may need

If you got the money, honey, we got your…house?

With apologies to Axl Rose and his Guns N’ Roses bandmates, today I am standing in the “Ben Jungle” at the corner of Benfrisco Crescent and Ben Stanton Boulevard admiring one of four house types. And the next time I write Ben Jungle, let’s save ink on those quotation marks, since even Google maps has the area labeled thusly. By my count, there are 15 street names in this Scarborough neighbourhood north of Lawrence Avenue West between McCowan Road and Bellamy Road North, and all begin with the prefix Ben, so a leisurely walk or drive will reveal beauties such as Benhur, Benprice, Benroyal, Benadair, Benlark and my favourite, Benorama.

While the builder, Price-Bilt, had christened the 500-plus single-family house development “Bendale Park” when it hit the market in the spring of 1955 – the farming community that had been here was named Benlomond in 1878 but that changed to Bendale in 1881 – it has been the Ben Jungle since at least the 1970s, perhaps earlier … which makes that moniker the clear winner.

But, as University of Toronto librarian and mid-century modern enthusiast Agatha Barc and I walk along Benfrisco picking out the progressive, split-level “Catalina” models (which feature a ground-hugging, shallow-pitch roof and a large living room window) from the more traditional peaked- and hipped-roof models, we can’t pick a clear winner as to which of the four – Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Catalina and Santa Anita – appealed most to Mr. and Mrs. Canada back then. It seems an even draw.

What’s not even is the amount of research Toronto’s postwar suburbs attract. Some neighbourhoods, such as Don Mills or Thorncrest Village, seem to hog the spotlight while others, such as Scarborough’s Ionview or Mississauga’s Lorne Park, seem to get very little attention. While that’s likely because the frenzy of suburban development from 1945 to 1975 means only the incredibly progressive or innovative neighbourhoods stand out to scholars – a cape cod or a saltbox house is pretty much the same anywhere after all – it does mean a great many stories fall through the cracks.

But the Ben Jungle is interesting not only for its catchy name. It was a sort of hybrid ‘hood where modernist design was allowed to co-mingle with safer, Levittown-esque styles, and was affordable to a wide range of blue- or lower-level white-collar commuters (a $1,578 down payment would secure a Pasadena at $11,950 and $2,325 would snag a Catalina of $12,500). And while the builder never mentions an architect behind the house designs, the community did benefit from master planning by architect/town planner Eugene G. Faludi and a model home decorated by Simpson’s interior decorator Madeline Bell.

  • Courtesy Jim Hughes/Courtesy Jim Hughes

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So, when Ms. Barc spotted a comment-with-photo about the Ben Jungle by Jim Hughes on a Facebook group discussing heritage architecture, she decided to contact him for more information.

“The process [was] a pandemic hobby,” she said to me about her website, midmodto.ca, which features the Ben Jungle as well as the Hunter’s Glen neighbourhood nearby, the Scarborough motel strip, Etobicoke’s West Deane Park neighbourhood, and others. “I feel like there’s a lot written about [Mies van der Rohe’s] TD Centre or [I.M. Pei’s] Commerce Court, but I find domestic architecture very interesting, and the small houses, and I’ve always loved anything from the 1920s to the early-60s.”

Mr. Hughes, surprisingly, wrote back and “patiently answered all of my questions regarding the early days” of Bendale, as well as sharing personal photographs. While he was just a little boy, his father, William P. Hughes, a T. Eaton Co. employee, loved documenting the neighbourhood in its infancy via photographs. Using his reminiscences and real estate ads (“10,000 people visited Bendale Park last week-end” trumpeted a May, 1955 Globe and Mail ad) Ms. Barc was able to paint a picture of muddy streets, yet-to-be-built strip plazas (the one with the Bendale restaurant opened in 1959 or 1960), and the differences between the domestic dream as portrayed and the realities of daily life. It’s worth the read.

With Ms. Barc’s research in mind, I reached out to my friend Steve Good, an upright bassist in multiple rockabilly bands, to ask him about his childhood, since he grew up at 47 Benlight Cres. “Much of the time was spent at Thompson Park [which was] easily accessible through the hydro field,” he wrote to me in an e-mail. “We’d venture into the creek swimming, catching crayfish, or hike through the fields. There was a bush common to the area, I don’t know what it was called, but in the fall it grew plump, white little berries that when stomped on just right emitted a robust fart noise.” Stomping on “fartberries,” he writes, caused much tardiness at elementary school.

Once Mr. Good entered David and Mary Thomson Collegiate and developed an interest in punk music and clothing, things changed. The neighbourhood “became a dangerous place for my best friend and me … often getting followed, harassed and beaten up walking home from the corner store. … There was really no recourse except to deal with it or avoid going out after dark.”

While a conservative (and dangerous) monoculture then, today the Ben Jungle contains Canadians from every corner of the globe. And the strip malls that service it contain just as many saree boutiques or roti restaurants as ‘traditional’ corner stores slinging slurpies or Wonder bread.

And with so many of today’s jobs being done remotely, is the Ben Jungle due for a renaissance?

“I wouldn’t live here, to be honest,” finishes Ms. Barc as she picks up a French fry at the Bendale Restaurant, “but I think [these communities are] representative of a way of life that’s sort of gone, and people are really nostalgic about it.”

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