Chris Smith's Flemingdon Park
Chris Smith was 29 in September 1961 when he and his young family settled in townhouse #36 at 58 Grenoble Drive. By then, he had already witnessed more century-defining events than most of us will in a lifetime. What’s more, the former Flemingdon Park resident left an indelible mark on the neighbourhood, as well as the city.
Born in Montreal of Bermudian parentage in 1932, Chris grew up on the sub-tropical island in the North Atlantic. Before the Second World War, he, his mother and his sister left Bermuda aboard a passenger ship headed for Britain to visit family before the war made the voyage impossible. Among passengers were Canadian and American soldiers secretly organized to fight fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War.
The ship strayed off course, passing through the Strait of Gibraltar into a small bay with a fishing village in Spain's south coast. From the deck, Chris and other passengers watched with curiosity as the resistance fighters disembark. Tenders transported the fighters to shore. Within minutes came artillery fire. Chris recalls as though it happened yesterday, “All of a sudden there was a rumble of thunder, and an explosion and the sky ripped open with waves of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, divebombing and machinegunning at will.” Villagers were not spared. “I saw people run into a market. A bomb dropped on it, and the place exploded. I could see people and horses blown to bits.”
The passenger ship flew the Union Jack and avoided being shelled. “It was a few minutes of my life but quite interesting ones. It was pretty traumatic. My mom was freaked out.”
At 12, Chris left his family in Bermuda and enrolled in St. Andrew’s College, a boarding school in Aurora, Ontario. From here, he attended Royal Roads Military College in British Columbia. A member of the armed services during the Korean War, he spent the duration of that conflict in the navy aboard a ship performing maneuvers in the North Pacific.
An armistice signed in 1953 paused war on the peninsula, and Chris left the navy and enrolled in the University of Toronto’s School of Architecture. Graduating in 1958, he married Anne Mueller, a cousin of a roommate from St. Andrew’s. Anne hailed from Canadian hockey royalty. Her father, Norbert Stuffy Mueller, backstopped the Canadian hockey champs that took gold in the 1928 Winter Olympics in Switzerland.
Chris was advised by a professor to find work with an architectural firm in Sweden. Chris and Anne moved to that country and while there became parents of two children, Kerstin and Tomas. Living and working in Sweden was an illuminating experience. In 1961 the Smiths returned to North America; Chris to Toronto to find housing and a job, Anne and the children lodging temporarily with Chris’s parents in Bermuda.
“There was this place, Flemingdon Park, with some really nice townhouses. Quite unique construction with garage access downstairs.” Irving Grossman, the architect who designed housing in the community, had taught Chris at the University of Toronto. Chris found employment at Page & Steele Architects. Anne and the children returned to the city, and the family settled in at Grenoble Drive.
"It was different there than today." From his backyard at 58 Grenoble Drive, "There was nothing but a broad green field of grass stretching down to a line of trees down to the valley. When we walked through the long grass pheasants would fly up in front of us." Deer sightings were common.
“It was a very interesting community. There were all kinds of interesting young people there.” The Smiths were involved in the community from the start. For example, the neighbourhood lacked an adequate number of trees. When property management did not respond to requests from tenants to make additions, Chris and a landscape architect neighbour organized. “We got the people who lived in the houses to get involved.” Venturing into the valley armed with spades and shovels, “We dug up trees…and planted them throughout Flemingdon Park.”
Sixty years later, “Some of the trees are still there.”
To correspond with the 1968 Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France, parents and Grenoble Public School staff organized Olympic games for area children. Chris remembers, “We had toboggan races and ski races over on the golf course and skating and hockey teams [competed] on an outdoor rink behind the school.” There were also snowball throwing events.
On the subject of children, Anne delivered the couple’s youngest, daughter Annika, in the master bedroom of their townhouse. In Sweden, where their first two children were born, birthing at home was typical. “My wife didn’t want to go to the hospital. She wanted to have a homebirth.” Was this a first for the neighbourhood? “I’m not sure, but I have a feeling there were a couple of others.”
Chris credits an aunt as an early influence on his social activism. “I grew up in an apartheid state, and by the time I was seven, I knew something was terribly wrong with the system.” He was bothered by acts of cruelty, “That clearly didn’t follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.” As a teenager at St. Andrew’s, he spoke out against antisemitism.
In 1967 while still employed with Page & Steele, Chris ran in the provincial election under the New Democratic Party banner in the riding of Don Mills. It was a tough slog. Up to then, the NDP was not well organized in the community. Chris forged ahead with the help of many dedicated volunteers.
The main issue was housing, and polls showed Chris neck and neck with the incumbent, but when the ballots were counted on election day in October, he came a close second by a small margin.
Chris reminisces about how politics have changed. It didn’t matter to the partners at Page & Steele -- all Liberals and Conservatives -- that Chris ran as an NDP. Preparing to run, “The senior partner called me into his office and said take six weeks off with full pay.” When the election was over, Chris was exhausted but prepared to go back to work. He was given two more weeks off with pay.
Chris suspects this kind of offer wouldn’t happen today.
For much of the 1970s, Chris was involved with constructing the CIBC's Commerce Court development, landmarks in Toronto’s financial district, as Project Architect. The experience changed him. “After Commerce Court, I didn’t want to do any more big office buildings, banks, or anything like that. There were other things I was much more interested in.”
One of those things was co-op housing. An early advocate of co-op housing in the city, he was part of the team that saw the construction of numerous housing units in the GTA and elsewhere. He was also the Development Coordinator for the City of Toronto, developing rail land along the Esplanade which became the St. Lawrence neighbourhood in the late 1970s.
When the Smiths initially moved into #36, rent was $148 per month and remained frozen for several years. The freeze was lifted around 1969, and rent increased to six hundred dollars. The family then purchased a house in North York. The move never kept him away. “I like to drive through Flemingdon Park occasionally just to see what’s happening.”
Chris turns ninety soon. Flemingdon Park’s elder statesman shows no sign of slowing. He swims competitively in his age class. Retired? Not exactly. As he puts it, “I just don’t get paid anymore.”
Chris Smith’s Flemingdon Park? “It was a wonderful experience. I met fascinating people there.”
Interested in reading more? Read Chris Smith's first-person account
of walking through Flemingdon Park in the 1940s when the area remained farmland
Thank you Chris Smith for his contribution
Photographs provided by Chris Smith
Additional photograph from Toronto Public Library's digital archives and the author
Ed Brown lived in Flemingdon Park at 58 Grenoble Drive from 1969-1991