My Flemingdon Park: Ribbon Cutting
If Flemingdon Park—billed as a garden estate in a parkland setting—was born on a June afternoon in 1961, eighteen months after workies broke ground on construction, conception occurred six years earlier when developers purchased a 350-acre parcel of land from the estate of the late Robert Fleming, former mayor of Toronto.
More about Fleming and the developers later. Right now, there’s a ribbon cutting to attend.
The June 21 ceremony marked the completion of phase one in Flemingdon Park’s construction. The event took place in the dusty gravel parking lot outside the rental office of Webin Community Consultants (WCC), landlord to the emerging neighbourhood.
WCC staff operated out of an office about the size of a doublewide construction trailer located south of Eglinton Avenue, east of Don Mills Road, on the current site of the apartment building at 200 Gateway Boulevard. Tenants paid their rent here where a detailed scale model of the completed community was displayed. After a visit to the rental office, potential renters were encouraged to peruse the furnished model suites. There are fourteen floorplans to choose from.
In the first phase of construction, 500 units were completed. Two hundred were under construction. Housing options are currently limited to four addresses. Families have rented garden homes at 61 and 58 Grenoble Drive, maisonettes at 1 Vendome Place, and the apartment building at 1 Deauville Lane since the beginning of April.
Residents are a diverse socioeconomic group. School teachers, engineers, doctors, stockbrokers, lawyers, and chemists next door to truck drivers, printers, artists, writers, and retired folks. Rents range from $110 a month and top out at close to $160. In the waning days of the post-war baby boom, youngsters make up a noticeable proportion of the population.
Back to the ribbon cutting.
The midday sun hides behind a mantle of grey. Rain threatens. The temperature hovers around a cool fifty-nine degrees, making it feel more like mid-April than the first day of summer.
Lousy weather does not dampen the spirits of the dignitaries waiting on the ceremony to commence. Chairs are arranged left and right of a podium placed at the centre of a temporary platform. Seated is William Zeckendorf Jr., local developer Alex Rubin, architect Irving Grossman and urban planner Macklin Hancock. Metro Chairman Frederick Gardiner and civic leaders from the Borough of North York and Metropolitan Toronto are present along with a representative from a provincial government ministry.
Fronting the podium, a length of white ribbon droops between two chrome stanchions. American business tycoon William Zeckendorf Sr., 56, owner of the world’s largest real estate company, is here to do the honours.
WCC staffers canvassed the neighbourhood, enticing tenants to turn out with a promise of light refreshments. A clown with a large coiled brass bicycle horn slung over his shoulder wearing bright overalls and enormous red shoes to match his bulbous foam nose hands out helium-filled balloons. Turnout, better than expected, consists mainly of housewives, young mothers, youngsters, and a scattering of senior citizens.
A friendly policeman with dark eyes and a prominent chin leans on the hood of his scout car, keeping an eye on things. He folds his arms across his brawny chest, nodding at pretty, young mothers. Dignitaries chat with one another, ignoring the Globe man pestering them with questions. The frustrated reporter gives up, snaking through the crowd to the periphery, where he jots notes on his writing pad.
Before the ceremony’s scheduled start time, bulldozer operators grading roadways turn their machines off as instructed. Diesel-powered engines sputter, go silent. Men in shiny hardhats climb down off their rigs, dust themselves off, slowly making their way toward the gathering. Dump trucks and cement mixers rumble to a stop. Operators in soiled clothing leave their vehicles and saunter over. Clusters of sun-browned construction workers, plumbers, bricklayers, electricians, carpenters, gasfitters stand around impatiently, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and jawing with one another in their mother tongues.
The breeze lifts. A horse neighs in the near distance by the frog pond under the power lines on Earl Magee's farm. A noticeable portion of Flemingdon Park remains rural. Until recently, plowed-under meadows had been cultivated farm fields. Copses of trees rim the mile-long ravine that bisects the burgeoning community where a buried creek flows a mile south into the east branch of the Don River.
A mother with a beehive hairdo pushing an infant in a pram stops to take in the crowd. She asks the Globe man, “What’s this about?”
Glancing over the top of his black-rimmed glasses, he replies flatly, "A ribbon cutting.”
“The new neighbourhood. Zeckendorf flew in from New York just to be here.”
The Globe man directs his gaze at a four-door, chauffeur-driven, black Lincoln Continental. “Him.”
Huddled in the rear of the idling luxury car, William Zeckendorf engages in an animated conversation on a boxy car phone. Beside him, his young, perky personal secretary frantically takes notes.
This could take a while. Nobody rushes the millionaire developer. His company, Webb & Knapp, is footing the bill for construction of Flemingdon Park, estimated at a staggering $104,000,000.
Zeckendorf’s schedule is packed. Reputed to take up to thirty business calls in an hour, with a reputation as a flamboyant wheeler-dealer, the high energy, hefty six-footer remains an anomaly. By all appearances a glad-handing extrovert, in truth, Zeckendorf prefers to keep his own company. Close acquaintances describe him as something of a loner.
The high school dropout was born into wealth. As a boy, he didn’t have much use for school, routinely skipping class to tramp the fields of his semirural neighbourhood on the outskirts of New York City, alone except for his dog, a mutt named Mickey. While more academic boys his age were in class, he and Mickey escaped to the marshlands of Jamaica Bay with a fishing pole, the vibrato of harvest flies the soundtrack of his idle boyhood. A teenage Zeckendorf routinely snuck to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to see Dodgers games.
Times change. Today, Zeckendorf’s name adorns hotels, plazas and industrial complexes throughout the continent. Before the Dodgers left Brooklyn for greener pastures in California, he came this close to purchasing the team. He owned the Chrysler Building. He constructed the world’s largest shopping mall. Mutts like Mickey are long gone. Photographers frequently capture Zeckendorf leading thoroughbred Weimaraners, obedient and loyal show dogs, around on 10k gold leashes coupled to diamond and sapphire encrusted collars.
Zeckendorf touched down at Toronto International Airport aboard a company plane a few hours ago. Following today’s event, he jets to Philadelphia for a late afternoon meeting then a flight home to his mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut.
A WCC staffer growing antsy by the prospect of rain flits about with a clipboard. Some in the crowd contemplate leaving, wondering, was this a waste of time. Businessmen and government officials glance anxiously at their wristwatches but remain seated. Directly or indirectly, they are all caught in Zeckendorf’s web of big-money financing. Webb & Knapp have money interests in Alex Rubin’s firm, Toronto Industrial Leaseholds Company (TIL). Architect Irving Grossman is employed by Webin Community Consultants, a subsidiary of TIL. Politicos are entangled in Zeckendorf’s interests, too.
At last, Zeckendorf emerges from the back of the Lincoln. He smiles a big, greasy smile, claps his meaty palms together and wrings his hands. In the booming voice of a circus carnie, he exclaims, "So, where’s that ribbon?”
From here, it’s the usual fare. The politicians each take turns at the podium congratulating themselves. The architect tells the gathering about Flemingdon Park’s unique form and function. The developer discusses the promise of things to come. Praise for Zeckendorf is unanimous.
The time arrives to cut the ribbon, a feat the business magnate has performed so often as to become routine. He’ll utter the usual, obligatory words. Smile broadly. Grin at the dignitaries. Acknowledge the crowd. Cut. Light applause then on to the next big thing.
The WCC staffer presents Zeckendorf with oversized, gold scissors. About to cut the ribbon, he’s distracted by an unexpected clicking noise, a cicada-like racket coming from— where? The crowd, spilling onto the roadway, parts as a swarm of boys on bikes with playing cards rat-a-tatting in their spokes glide passed, calm and indifferent to the goings-on.
The crowd is awed by their tremendous red, persimmon orange and jungle green bikes. High-rise handlebars. Chrome fenders. Yellow banana seats with chrome crash rails. 3-speed stick shifters on cerulean blue crossbars. Big back wheels. Small front wheels. Miles of whitewalls.
The policeman moves to block their route, un-holstering his baton. He crouches, defensive. He spreads wide his arms, creating an imaginary net as though to scoop each and every one of them up—an impossible feat. Bikes flow around him with the ease of water.
There is a pause in which Zeckendorf, gripping the comically overlarge scissors, and one of the bike riders, a towheaded boy with virtuous eyes, hold each other’s gaze. Zeckendorf’s confidence vanishes like never before. If he can change the world with one arm behind his back, why is he suddenly unsure of himself? Is it because the tawny-haired boy possesses something Zeckendorf can’t buy, assemble, break down or build up, something Zeckendorf lost?
A little girl with pigtails in her hair wearing shiny black saddle shoes releases her scarlet balloon. She watches it soar, up and up it continues. The clown squeezes the rubber bulb of the bicycle horn slung over his shoulder. Honk. Honk. Someone in the crowd cackles.
Zeckendorf closes the scissors. The ribbon parts.
The ceremony ends. The crowd disperses. Chairs are stacked. The platform was dismantled. Construction resumes. Before any of this happens, though, Zeckendorf is whisked into the rear of the Lincoln. The car speeds south on Don Mills Road, right at Overlea Boulevard. Before reaching the new Overlea Bridge, however, Zeckendorf spots the boys on bikes pedalling across the field behind George Bell’s roadside market garden. He instructs his personal secretary to direct the chauffeur to the curb.
The boys circle the Lincoln. Zeckendorf powers down the rear window and asks, “Where’s the boy with the yellow hair?”
A freckled-faced youngster replies, “Gone.”
Zeckendorf points at the back wheel on the boy’s bike. “What’s in the spokes?”
The boy reaches down, removes the playing card. He holds up the ace of diamonds for the old man to examine.
Zeckendorf asks, “Can I have it?”
Freckle-face replies, “No."
"Go back to your mansions, mister.”
The rain begins.
Additional material from The Autobiography of William Zeckendorf; William Zeckendorf with Edward McCreary, Parker Publishing Co., 1970 The Globe and Mail, June 22, 1961; pg. 27
Ed Brown lived in Flemingdon Park at 58 Grenoble Drive from 1969-1991