My Flemingdon Park: The Portable
Remembered today as the hippy portable or hippy house, this long-absent structure, once located near the centre of the neighbourhood, occupies an intriguing place in the collective memories of Flemingdon residents of a certain age. The passage of time has obscured the origin story of the once-significant landmark. What began as a community initiative spiralled into a violent drug den ending in a pile of rubble.
From the edge of the ravine south of Saint John XXIII Parish Church at 150 Gateway Boulevard, Les Hutton returns to his old stomping grounds after decades of absence. He cast his memory back to a summer day in 1968 or 1969 – he’s unsure precisely when the portable first arrived and appeared on a cinderblock foundation. The arrival of the 24’ x 36’ wood-sided portable marked a high point for community organizers. Les remembers, “There was an effort made by a bunch of people to do something for the kids.”
Originally from Scotland, Les was 13 when his family emigrated, moving into a St. Dennis Drive townhouse in July 1967. A year earlier, the Ontario Housing Corp. paid $7,000,000 to British Commercial Properties Investment Ltd. for 524 housing units in the neighbourhood. The UK real estate company had acquired the townhouses and garden homes a few years earlier from William Zeckendorf when his development company, Webb & Knapp, became insolvent.
As the new landlord, the government of Ontario followed regulations laid out in the federal National Housing Act that contained no provisions for financing community or recreation services in public housing projects. This legislative detail significantly impacted Flemingdon Park, which in 1966 lacked publicly accessible social-recreational facilities.
The Anglican Church of Canada recognized this absence, establishing St. George’s House at 5 Grenoble Drive in December 1967, providing funds to construct the $70,000 worship centre doubling as community space. The Church of the Ascension, located near The Donway West, would administer the site boasting a 300-seat auditorium, a lounge, a kitchen and a nursery. St. George’s House hosted afternoon movies for children and vaccination clinics for infants, among other activities. Flemingdon Park residents participated on the governing board.
St. George’s House was a welcome addition, but the neighbourhood still lacked youth-oriented space. Filling this need, community organizers, in cooperation with North York Parks and Recreation, purchased a wood-framed portable from the North York Board of Education, allocating it to provincially owned land adjacent to Grenoble Public School.
For comparison, around the same time, the community north of Flemingdon Park, nearby the Peanut Plaza, took a similar approach to create a youth drop-in and installed a matching portable at 2955 Don Mills Road. Eventually winterized, it became the popular coffeehouse and folk music club Shier’s.
Flemingdon’s portable followed an entirely different trajectory.
The arrival of the portable fulfilled the need for a youth centre but lacked needed oversight. Les Hutton recalls, “Programming was loose and not too organized. The idea was the portable would be a place where kids could go and hang out.” A cadre of volunteers from the federally funded program, Company of Young Canadians (CYC), provided programming.
Founded in 1966, CYC was a youth-based volunteer initiative of the federal government to encourage social engagement and community development throughout the country. As a teenager, Les befriended CYC volunteers lodging in suites across the road from his townhouse in the recently constructed apartment tower at 25 St. Dennis Drive. “I remember one young woman from the Maritimes who lived there having the time of her life,” says Les today.
CYC volunteers took a laissez-faire attitude toward organizing events. A baseball tournament one day, crafts the next. Kids showed up with a bagged lunch, hung out the rest of the day, kicked back, and listened to music. Les remembers the ceiling supported by metal beams, “People used to climb up like they were monkey bars and hang from the rafters.”
Records indicate CYC involvement continued into at least 1970 before things began to change. Les; “It was fun [at first], then it turned into a place you didn’t want to go to.” In Les’s memory, unsavoury characters began showing up in the evening and occupying the portable that never had locks on the doors.
Even as violence and drug use incidents occurred, community organizers were determined to correct the deteriorating situation. A youth committee was organized and rebranded the space Portable ’71. The YMCA made a failed attempt at programming.
Eventually, the responsibility fell to local youth and the graffitied space metamorphosized into something resembling a psychedelic fever dream. An enormous whitewashed peace sign painted on the roof visible from nearby apartment towers appeared. Dubious characters took up residence. Drug use and violence spiked. The portable resembled a flophouse requiring repeated police intervention. The interior space was divided with beaded curtains dangling from the ceiling. The aroma of patchouli oil masked the heavy scent of marijuana. An entire wall depicted the image of a dragon. There were overstuffed armchairs and mattresses strewn on the floor. Trippy music like Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Cream’s Wheels of Fire played on a scratchy turntable from speakers hung in the corners.
The Moores lived at 61 Grenoble Drive. When Earla Moore (now Earla Phillips) was little, she and her younger sister ventured into the portable with her older brother, Rick, who, she says today, “Some considered a hippy.” She remembers the interior decorated with beads and painted in bright colours. Rick explained to his little sisters that the paintings displayed were for sale. Earla says, “They were selling them to live off the profits. They were colourful and detailed, in a Summer of Love style.”
The portable’s days were numbered. The Community Centre on Grenoble Drive, the ice rink nearby, baseball diamonds and soccer pitches in the hydrofield became accessible. Local youth had the option of joining sports programs. Les believes, “If those programs had [originally] been in place, the need for the portable would have never been there.”
Les Hutton became active in Bob Charity’s Flemingdon Boys’ Club, hockey and soccer. His family relocated to an apartment at Leeward Glenway and then left the neighbourhood for good in the late 1970s.
In 1973 the infamous hippy hangout was reduced to rubble as community organizers redoubled plans for the construction of the Human Resource Centre, inaugurated seven years later on St. Dennis Drive. Before this, Flemingdon Park Catholic Presbyterian Worship Centre welcomed parishioners in a new white church built on the edge of the ravine where the portable previously stood.
Ed Brown lived in Flemingdon Park at 58 Grenoble Drive from 1969-1991