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Cleaning up the gardens

City to renovate Allan Gardens to help curb drug and prostitution problems

By Jonathan Blackburn

A man slowly shuffles down the path at the north-east end of Allan Gardens. He turns his head in both directions as he walks, and stops to listen to the horn beeping and the engine revving of the morning rush-hour traffic. He opens a plastic bag of food and starts throwing it on the pavement. Soon a small flock of seagulls swarms around him.

“I only come here to feed the birds,” he grumbles, throwing more bread to the ground. “I bring a bag of scraps for them everyday, and in winter too. There’s no other food for them.”

John Montgomery, 71, is a local resident who is sometimes afraid to walk alone in Allan Gardens. “I don’t come here when the big gangs are hanging around,” he says, pointing to the conservatory in the middle of the park. “You can’t go through here at night either, or you’ll get mugged.”

Montgomery, who lives on Ontario St., just south of Gerrard St., has seen his neighborhood change over the past 35 years.

“It’s all dope now,” he shakes his head, “it only used to be drunks… this is an ideal spot to do your business because there are plenty of places to hide.” The thick trees, outdoor gardens and poorly-lit patches of the park have created a spot to buy, sell and use narcotics.

Toronto Parks and Recreation are trying to change this. Renovations to the grounds in front of the conservatory began this week. The outside planters have already been removed, the main north/south pathway will be widened and extra lights will be installed.

“People (will be) more comfortable being able to see across the park,” says Barry Hughes, manager of design at Parks and Recreation.

Hughes says this is the first phase of a three-step plan for the park. Step one should be finished by the end of November at a cost of about $250,000. Steps two and three would see the entire area at the front of the conservatory became Victorian gardens of small shrubberies and flower beds. The last two phases depend on whether or not city council will approve funding next year. Hughes says all three phases will cost anywhere from $750,000 to a million dollars.

“That’s why we’re doing it in phases,” he adds. “If we only manage phase one, then the park won’t look half finished. 

The design of the gardens won’t solve the drug and prostitution problems. But by making the entrance more accessible, it will increase what he calls “purposeful use” of the park. People will visit the gardens to visit the gardens, not to shoot up.

“It won’t solve the social problem, but make it easier to police.”

Jorge SanClemente, a horticulturalist at Allan Gardens, says Metro Police are no strangers to the park. Police drive through the park as many as three times a day. The police first approached the gardens with the idea of clearing out the shrubs blocking the front entrance, he says. 

“They (Parks and Rec.) destroyed the front,” he says, pointing to a bulldozed tract of land at the main door, “and left it like that.”

SanClemente says the new main entrance will help to attract people from surrounding communities, but it may take three to five years. It’s all a question of money.

SanClemente has worked at Allan Gardens for 22 years. Like Montgomery, he’s seen the gardens and the neighbourhood change drastically. “You see people changing. They used to be so laid back and pleasant; but they’re more tense now. It’s like paranoia.”

When SanClemente first began, the major problems were the winos and the prostitutes. Now it’s crack. “It’s grown worse in the last three years,” he says. “They do their business at night, right by the front door.”

However, there are some things the renovations might not change. “Harassment has been a problem,” he says, “for the staff and people visiting. I’ve been grabbed from behind once or twice. It’s uncomfortable.”

SanClemente says there is a lot of theft in the greenhouses.

Someone recently broke in and stole the microwave oven from the employees’ office. Plants are frequently taken too, he says, by people who just don’t want to pay for them,

He says that broken windows, loitering drunks and flashers compound the problems around the gardens.

“We have to be like the cops sometimes,” he frowns, “to keep the greenhouse in order.”

The question of what should be done to police Allan Gardens came up at a recent meeting of the Homewood Neighbor’s Association (HNA). A curfew was suggested and, though it has not yet been discussed, has not been dismissed either.

“How do you enforce it?” asks Jeff Radnoff, a Toronto Lawyer and HNA member. “I haven’t thought about it.”

It would mean putting up a fence around the park, and locking it up each night. “When someone wants to break in, they’ll do it, says SanClemente. 

There used to be a steel-frame fence around the gardens, but it was removed during the Second World War for scrap metal. SanClemente says he doesn’t want to see a fence go up because it will make the park feel like a prison. 

That prospect won’t come in the near future. Right now, the main job is to fix the main entrance to make people feel welcome at Allan Gardens again.

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