What’s in a Name: Joel Weeks Park

I’ve been watching the news and seeing a great deal of discussion about removing statues honouring people who were revered in history but on further reflection turned out to be horrible people for one reason or another: racist, colonialist, genocidal, and the list goes on. We’re having similar discussions here not just about statues but about named spaces, university names, street names, and on and on.

My feeling is that we should not be so attached to these. Just because our grandparents thought these guys were great doesn’t mean we have to continue to honour them. The time has come to move on. However, one way or another I’d like to also see us not forget them completely. Let’s remember what Columbus actually did or what Robert E. Lee stood for and educate people about that. But let’s not devote a place of honour to them.

But that’s not the point of this entry. I’ve been meaning to do an exploration of some of the named spaces in Toronto – ones that are not named after famous historical figures but ones we likely never heard of.

Today I got on my bike and headed to Riverside – not far from the mouth of the Don River – the same river some of you have seen many photos of as I ran or biked near it in previous entries. Today I took a different route for some variety and came across something I don’t remember seeing before:

This large piece of art apparently has been here since 2012 at 1135 Dundas Street East (Maybe Dundas only for a little longer – he opposed the abolition of slavery and the name should be changed.) A bit of research tells me it’s by Herakut – an artistic partnership from Germany that has done work all over the world. They seem to have done a ton of work over the years and it’s really lovely. We’re lucky to have some of theirs here and I’m glad to see it hasn’t been vandalized as some older art can be.

A couple of kilometres later I reach Queen Street. It’s not so busy and I’m excited to see that much of one lane has been eliminated. One end is blocked by a heavy concrete barrier and then after that are a series of patio tables for nearby restaurants. It’s part of our plan for opening.

It was still a little early so only one couple was eating.

I made it to Joel Weeks Park just around the corner. I’ve actually been here a few times as it’s near one of my favourite coffee spots in the city but never bothered to look up who Joel Weeks was.

It’s Easter 1982 and times were a little different. Often people from our generation (I turned 12 in November 1982) wax rhapsodical about how it was then. Helicopter parents hadn’t been invented yet and so we were generally free to go outside and do what we liked. I lived in the country but was free to go out for as long as I like, coming in only to eat or use the washroom. By the time I was 5 I would walk a couple miles to the library or pool in my grandparents town. By the time I was 10 I would walk alone in the woods. And so it wasn’t unusual for 8 year old Joel Weeks to go outside with two friends ages 6 and 8 while their families enjoyed the tail end of Easter Dinner.

The area didn’t have much of a playground – just a playground aimed at toddlers in the apartment complex they lived in. But those of us who grew up then know this isn’t a problem. When you’re that age, the world is your playground. When I was that age I would stomp around in the brook, crawling in culverts under the road following the streams or tobogganing at breakneck speeds down the dirt road. On this day Joel went to check out a “hideout” – going in a 9 inch opening in a concrete embankment. After squeezing through he fell in to a storm sewer. He fell in to an eight foot deep sewer rushing by at a metre per second.

After hours of searching, even shutting down the sewer they didn’t find him. It wasn’t until later that they found his body at the outlet in to the lake.

People of my generation romanticize our time and our freedom but it didn’t come without its risks. And there’s little doubt that were there more options for places to play, it’s likely he would be alive today.

In 2014 Joel Weeks Park opened, named after this boy. Today when I went there I found artwork, a playground (much of the equipment shut down due to the pandemic), a splash pad (allowed to be open), basketball courts and loads of beautiful plants. It is a terrible thing that he isn’t here to appreciate the change in his neighbourhood but I can’t think of a more fitting name for the park, as much an apology from the city as a memorial.

Since the 80’s our city has created a lot of public spaces. The next one I went to, a short walk from Joel Weeks Park was Underpass Park – utilizing a space underneath an highway flyover. Part of it is another playground while the other half has basketball courts and a skate park.

I was especially surprised and excited to see something else:

The weekly farmer’s market was open. The space was cordoned off with people stationed at the entrance with masks on offer and hand sanitizer for everyone coming in. People were giving ample space to one another and there weren’t any huge crowds. In April I worried that staying indoors 98% of the time and dashing out to get whatever groceries were available would be the “new normal” but it looks like this might actually be closer to the reality.

On the way home I saw something else I hope is part of the new normal:

With less motorized traffic, there’s now space for more bike lanes and throughout the city temporary bike lanes have been installed on major roads cyclists have been wishing for bike lanes on for years. The difference in safety and comfort is huge. It makes riding from one end of the city to another as stressful as walking to the bus stop.

When I look at the city today, it looks so different from what it did when we first moved here in 2004 and clearly that is hugely different from 1982. We’ve traveled leaps and bounds, sometimes in part, encouraged and motivated by tragedy. I hope that as we work our way through what 2020 has to offer, we are also learning the things our city, country, and culture need and take this opportunity to fill in those gaps – to genuinely care for one another, to keep each other safe from viruses and traffic, to work for equality for everyone. If we can transform our city into one with playgrounds and parks in 30 years, and transform our city to one with social distancing, masks, bike lanes online shows and classes accessible to all in a matter of weeks, imagine where we could be living in just a few more years.

15 thoughts on “What’s in a Name: Joel Weeks Park

    1. Yes – with the traffic as low as it is, it’s nice to see us repurposing the space for something useful while also increasing safety by reducing traffic speeds.

  1. Very moving story of the boy. You are right about the dangers we survived as kids and the risks to us all. My husband nearly went down just such a drain as a boy. Here there are some playgrounds named for the children murdered at Sandy Hook grade school. I like that beauty can come from tragedy.

    1. Yeah – I think we idealize pre-1980’s childhood a little bit though I think the safety pendulum has swung a bit too far the other way.

      Like your husband, and the boy in this story I think I would’ve been attracted to the same spot. Even as a teenager I remember going with friends to caves in Vermont – Probably not so safe.

      Incredibly sad about the playgrounds named after the children murdered at Sandy Hook. That still boggles my mind. I’m glad they’re remembered that way. At the same time so hard to have so many to remember.

      1. Same – I am glad they’re there. I’d be happier if there were no reason for them to be named since that’s happened, I’m glad they created those spaces…

    1. Thanks – it was a really nice trip. This resolution to do some form of outdoor exercise every single day has been such a benefit not just for my physical health but also for my enjoyment, city exploration and writing / photography.

  2. Naming places after people doesn’t appeal to me, especially when they are of politicians and that’s plenty here in India. But if they are famous people from history like social reformers, great kings, etc. it feels okay. In some cases, like the one you narrate here, those that are associated with a story, is a totally different thing. Such names are meaningful and maybe even teach a lesson or two, hence that does make a lot of sense. The squirrel temple is witty, BTW.

    1. I feel the same as you. Name places after people who worked for the greater good, not to grant some weird form of entitled respect just because they happened to have been elected to (or born in to) a position.

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