Roncesvalles Village Neighbourhood: High Park Library

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, if you were to mention the name “Andrew Carnegie” everyone would know who he was: a massively wealthy industrialist who made much of his fortune in the steel industry. Even today the scale of his wealth is mind boggling. According to Wikipedia, Warren Buffet’s net worth is just under $83 Billion, Bill Gates’ net worth is around $99 Billion, and the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos is listed at $146 Billion. But adjust Andrew Carnegie’s fortune for inflation and he would have been worth over $400 billion dollars.

With that kind of money at his disposal he was able to do something that not only made a lasting impact, he did something that I personally get to enjoy. He gave away money to help build libraries. He started by giving his hometown in Scotland money, followed soon after by Pittsburgh where he lived. But he didn’t stop there. By the time he was done, he had given money to build 2,509 libraries in several different countries between 1883 and 1929. We are lucky to have ten of these libraries in Toronto. Just after lunch, Daegan and I set off to visit one.

The High Park Library is on Roncesvalles Avenue, a short distance from High Park – a massive city park in Toronto’s west end. It takes us a bus, subway, and streetcar to get there from our neighbourhood in one of the inner suburbs of the city. The streetcar lets us off in a part of town quite different from our own neighbourhood.

Unlike the last library I visited, this library is very close to the transit stop. It was only a few steps from the stop to the front door.

This library was built in the middle of Carnegie’s run of funding libraries – in 1916. There are two others like it: Wychwood and the Beaches library, neither of which I’ve visited yet. This design was inspired by the 17th century “English Collegiate” style. The chief librarian wanted people to remind people of Scottish and English village architecture while also being “Adapted to modern requirements”

In 1979, the library grew a bit with the addition of the north wing that you can see on the right. That part was extended a little further in 1990 when the glass canopy was added over the front door.

The entry to the library is unassuming and a little bit boring. A librarian sits at a desk just inside the door and the space is sparsely decorated. Though we entered from street-level, the space feels very much like a basement. However, that changes the minute you go up the stairs.

The space is meant to recall a Tudor Gothic great hall. At the far end, under the painting and obscured by a bookshelf is a large stone fireplace. All of this together truly gives one the feeling of being in a totally different place. Are we in Toronto or in an old chapel in England? With the sound insulation as good as it is, there is no sign of Toronto noise in the space so anything is possible. Something about this space also makes me think of rainy days. While it is a gorgeous almost-spring day in Toronto, I can see this place being particularly lovely on a rainy October afternoon.

The addition on the North side has a more modern and airy feel with the addition of large windows.

The church outside the north window helps with the illusion that we’re in an English village.

Daegan and I wander and gather up some books. I pick up a few graphic novels as much of what I am currently reading is on an e-reader, also connected to the public library. I’ve been enjoying graphic novels a lot lately as they can be a really interesting and innovative way to present a story or information that really does not translate to an e-reader in the way that a novel can.

As always I like to see what foreign language materials are available. This often gives an indication of who lives in this neighbourhood. There is almost always a small French section as this is one of our country’s two official languages. In this library there is one other language represented:

Roncesvalles has been known for some time as a Polish neighbourhood. When we first moved to Toronto there were several Polish restaurants, butcher shops that sold kielbasa (sausage) and bakeries that sold lots of different pastries including Pączki, a filled donut often served around this time of year – just before Lent. A bit of research on how to pronounce them leads me to discover that not only am I completely wrong about how to pronounce it, there’s even some debate between people in Poland versus people of Polish heritage in North America. How do you pronounce it? Watch below:

As of late, this neighbourhood, like many neighbourhoods close to the downtown areas of Toronto, is gentrifying. Many of the shops that were there when we first moved here have been replaced by fancy boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops. The area now is filled with new, mostly well-off families and a walk down Roncesvalles may require you to dodge a few massive strollers – most costing more than any one of my first few used cars did.

When we leave, though, we do manage to find one place that still has lots of Polish food.

When we walk in we can get a bit of a taste for what the neighbourhood used to be like.
Many people are speaking Polish. Many of the groceries for sale have no English on their labels. Buying food here could be an interesting adventure. Even the decor is a little different.

In the back of the store is a hot table, most of which I don’t recognize though I think I see stuffed cabbage leaves. But my eyes are drawn to the pastries.

There at the bottom are the things I’m looking for: pączki . We pick out three to share and continue to explore the space. As we turn around the corner we see the meat counter. It looks as if fresh kielbasa is still available in the neighbourhood even if most of the butcher shops that used to sell it are now gone.

We make our way to the front, picking up a bag of fresh-baked bread and a bag of frozen pierogi (potato and onion-filled dumplings) on the way. Daegan wants to try a drink from here and grabs what appears to be a juice but without speaking Polish we aren’t able to fully know what we’ve purchased. When we get outside we open that up and taste it.

The taste is somewhat berry-like, and a little like grapes. Daegan says he detects a not-so-nice aftertaste that makes him think of sweat though I can’t quite find that (I’m glad!). All in all it’s not bad but really sweet – not really my thing.

We head back out in to the day and continue south toward the lake. We find our way to the southern end of Roncesvalles and stop at a park where we plan to try our pączki. It is quite comfortable in the sun and the lake is looking especially nice.

We find our way to a bench and break out the pączki . We start with two identical ones glazed in sugar.

These are tasty. The donut itself is delicious and not too sweet. Inside is a jam that tastes like some kind of berry though I’m not sure which berry exactly it is. My only complaint is that the glaze is a bit brittle. When I take my first bite, most of it cracks and falls on the ground in front of me. The nearby pigeons will be happy.

The third one is different and instead of being glazed is covered in powdered sugar. It also has jam inside, though.

The donut itself tastes about the same as the previous one. The jam, though looking very similar to the jam in the other donuts, tastes very different. At first Daegan and I are unsure what it even is as it is a slightly unfamiliar flavour for us. It takes a couple of bites for us to figure out what it is. It is rose-flavoured. While many different cultures in the world use rose as a flavouring, it’s not something that Daegan or I have often encountered and it tastes a little strange. In fact, when I taste it I think more of the perfume my grandmother would wear in the 1970’s than of a delicious dessert. Still, I would call the pączki experiment a success overall even if I might not buy the second flavour again.

On our way out of the park we see this:

We get closer and find that on the side there is an inscription in Polish.

Fortunately, there’s a translation on the other side which says: “In remembrance of fifteen thousand Polish prisoners of war who vanished in 1940 from the camps in USSR at Kozelsk, Ostashkov, Starobelsk. Of these over four thousand were later discovered in mass graves at Katyn, near Smolensk, murdered by the Soviet state security police.”

More than once I have found myself learning of something I never knew stopping for a minute and reading an inscription. This one led me to the Wikipedia page for the Katyn Massacre which says:

The Katyn massacre (Polish: zbrodnia katyńska, “Katyń crime”; Russian: Катынская резня Katynskaya reznya, “Katyn massacre”, or Russian: Катынский расстрел, “Katyn execution by shooting”) was a series of mass executions of Polish military officers and intelligentsia carried out by the Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD (“People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs”, aka the Soviet secret police) in April and May 1940. Though the killings took place at several places, the massacre is named after the Katyn Forest, where some of the mass graves were first discovered.

The massacre was prompted by NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria’s proposal to execute all captive members of the Polish officer corps, dated 5 March 1940, approved by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, including its leader, Joseph Stalin. The number of victims is estimated at about 22,000. The victims were executed in the Katyn Forest in Russia, the Kalinin and Kharkiv prisons, and elsewhere. Of the total killed, about 8,000 were officers imprisoned during the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, another 6,000 were police officers, and the rest were Polish intelligentsia the Soviets deemed to be “intelligence agents, gendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials, and priests”. As the Polish Army officer class was representative of the multi-ethnic Polish state, the killed also included Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Polish Jews including the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army, Baruch Steinberg.

The government of Nazi Germany announced the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest in April 1943. When the London-based Polish government-in-exile asked for an investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Stalin immediately severed diplomatic relations with it. The USSR claimed the Nazis had murdered the victims in 1941 and it continued to deny responsibility for the massacres until 1990, when it officially acknowledged and condemned the perpetration of the killings by the NKVD, as well as the subsequent cover-up by the Soviet government.

An investigation conducted by the office of the Prosecutors General of the Soviet Union (1990–1991) and the Russian Federation (1991–2004) confirmed Soviet responsibility for the massacres but refused to classify this action as a war crime or an act of genocide. The investigation was closed on the grounds the perpetrators were dead, and since the Russian government would not classify the dead as victims of the Great Purge, formal posthumous rehabilitation was deemed inapplicable.

In November 2010, the Russian State Duma approved a declaration blaming Stalin and other Soviet officials for ordering the massacre.


If this wasn’t a shocking enough thing to learn, a simple stone monument next to the larger memorial bears a plaque that says “In memory of the 96 person Polish delegation headed by the President of the Republic of Poland Lech Kaczynski, who all died tragically in a plane crash at Smolensk, on April 10, 2010, en route to the official commemoration cermony of the 70th anniversy of the Katyn Massacre. – Without the Katyn Massacre – there would have been no Smolensk tragedy”

Always read plaques and signs when you’re out. You never know what you’ll learn.

14 thoughts on “Roncesvalles Village Neighbourhood: High Park Library

    1. Oh definitely – I’ve concluded there is no one “Toronto” – there are dozens of them with something different and interesting for everyone.

  1. I really enjoy your explorations of where you live. I often grab my camera and head off exploring the nooks and crannies of my city in Hobart Tasmania. It is a fun way to spend a day and one never knows what will pop up.

    1. It really does. It’s one of the prettier ones in the system. It’s so interesting to see how our libraries have different styles based on when they were built or had their last major renovations. Libraries renovated recently – in the last ten years – tend to have lots of windows and good light. There are comfortable chairs placed everywhere. Go back 20 years and there are not so many big windows and lots more browns and oranges in the carpeting. And this library is one of three very similar ones built around the same time.

      I can’t decide which style I like best, though. Each has its own attraction for me.

      1. You are right. If you notice the details there are patterns which most people fail to read. It is time you started a library walk in your city, Todd!

  2. We used to have a Carnegie Library in Guelph, and by all accounts it was really beautiful. But during the sixties the community needs had kind of outgrown it (necessitating more library space), and it needed repairs, so, as with many things in the sixties (a terrible period for architectural/building preservation in many places, but especially here where a lot was razed), they decided to pull it down and build a new one on the same site. I have a hard time talking about this on the walking tours I do, and if it were later, I’m pretty sure Guelph would have been finding a way to preserve at least some of it. Sigh.

    1. Wow – very sad. The 60’s were pretty awful in this respect, eh? On the other hand, I do have a soft spot for some of the architecture from the time – the brutalist towers in Toronto (including the one we live in), and the stations between Dupont and Yorkdale on the Spadina line come to mind.

      1. One of the things I share with people is that some of that sixties architecture really does rise out of that whole spirit of freshness and newness and blowing the dust of old institutions, and not all of it is bad. But in some places — particularly here in Guelph — there was this wholesale destruction of so many beautiful buildings, and it significantly changed our downtown landscape. Today, there’s much more emphasis on thoughtful renovations — an example of that is the Petrie building here, which preserved the wonderful exterior, attempted to preserve some wonderful details inside the building, and yet modernized the inside into a beautiful and useful set of spaces.

  3. Mmm mmm, I would love to try one of those adorable Paczkis!! I laughed about Daegan saying he tasted sweat in that drink & I’m actually a fan of rose flavored sweets, not when it is too “perfume-y” though! 😛

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