Adventures in Trespassing
November 1, 2013
Out for a dog walk one October afternoon, I came upon this house in the process of being demolished. We (sadly) pass a multitude of construction sites in our neighbourhood on any given day, but this one was unusual because the bungalow facade still stood. My sentimental brain began creating a narrative for this place – how many families were raised within those walls, how many kids played on that front lawn, and how many hands opened that gorgeous front door that now stood sentry over nothing. I felt the need to record the loss of yet another original Leaside bungalow, and hustled home to grab my camera.
The left side of the house had a high wooden fence separating it from a strip mall parking lot, and the front of the site was tightly surrounded by tall metal fencing through which my camera lens barely fit. The best view was from the parking lot, and I was happy to discover a few plastic chairs (like the one above) available for borrowing. It was a challenge, however, to balance the chair on the hilly ground and then try to balance myself on top of it. The view was worth risking a broken limb, however:
I was too excited by the array of photo ops to care about the fact that I was about to sidestep a law or two getting closer. It’s a busy street, with people passing on foot and workers milling about on another construction site across the street, plus I feared the neighbour may see me and call the police. Little did I know that less than 24 hours later I’d be inside that neighbour’s home, enjoying a tour and full verbal history of this house and our community!
The visual possibilities taunted me from my wobbly vantage point, but I caught sight of one very small, shorter section of fence at the back of the house which looked potentially scalable. I hopped down and walked back around the front, hoping no one was watching me. It goes against my nature to not get permission before shooting, but in this case there was no one to ask. I just tried to look nonchalant with my big camera, lens bag, and a few furtive glances over my shoulder.
From the neighbour’s driveway I checked out the low fence, and realized that any attempt to leap the chain link would likely result in ripped pants, skin, or both. Thinking that the plastic chair I’d just stood on could be the solution, I did another circuit of the house to go back and grab it…..and watched a woman with dogs pass me on the sidewalk, turn up the driveway, and knock on the door of the house I had hoped not to disturb. One minute later and I would have been standing in the middle of their driveway holding a chair, my intentions only too obvious. I have a real knack for getting caught when I attempt to do things I know I’m not supposed to. I rarely got away with anything as a kid.
Back in front of the house again, disappointed, I noticed the bicycle lock looping around the gate didn’t look properly secured. The two ends were sitting loosely in the lock chamber, but were not fastened. I dared to pull on them, and voila–I was in!
The bones of this house would be very similar to ours, which is also a pre-war bungalow. I think we are the last people in Leaside to have purchased one to live in as-is, appreciating the charm and beauty of what is already there. We fell in love with the leaded-glass windows, the gumwood trim, the variety of rooms with endless possible applications, the wood-burning fireplaces, and the huge blank slate of a back yard with 100-year old trees towering above. What is it with my generation wanting everything bigger, (subjectively) better, and newer? Sometimes houses are so neglected that starting over is the only option, it’s true, but we’ve seen lovely homes torn down and gutted even when renovations have recently been done. Worst of all, it seems as though next to nothing is ever salvaged – it’s all just destroyed and carted off to a landfill.
As the bungalows disappear, so does the opportunity to find a “starter home” in the neighbourhood for less than a million dollars. Every smaller home seems to be sold to professional builders, who stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars on each flip like this:
I poked around the construction site as much as I dared, afraid to tread too far across the partially demolished floors. The light was fading quickly and clouds were rolling in, so I had to call it a day. On my way out, I looked in a plastic tray filled with an assortment of mildewed mail, and took note of the names. Perhaps I could figure out more of the story.
As I rounded the side of the house, I realized the visitor was still talking to the neighbour on the porch. Seriously? Someone arrives at the exact moment I’m trying to find a way in, and is still standing in full view of my only exit?! I waited a few minutes, hiding out of sight behind the port-a-potty, but it became clear the conversation was not going to end anytime soon. I finally decided to just march out with confidence, and wrapped the bicycle lock up the way I’d found it.
That night, I was able to discover the former owner of this property was Dr. Gordon Nikiforuk, a successful dentist who had been the Dean of the dental school at U of T in the 1970s. I also had the name of the new property owner, but it meant nothing to me until I returned the next day. In the bright light of morning, I hoped I could still gain entry via the gate, and it was exciting to find the lock just as I’d left it. I quickly opened the gate, and explored the area again in new light, with everything wet from the night’s rain:
I was so focused on what I was doing that the noise didn’t register for some time. I gradually became aware of the rumble of machinery and unmistakable sound of destruction on a grand scale. While I was photographing this quiet site, demolition had begun on the bungalow across the street.
Standing on the sidewalk with my mouth hanging open, I was soon joined by the elderly neighbour I’d been trying to avoid the day before. His name is Peter, and it turns out he couldn’t have cared less about my picture-taking. He’s an incredibly friendly character who shares a lot of my feelings about the changes in our neighbourhood, and struck up a long conversation with me.
We talked about the loss of bungalows in the area, and how sad some of the changes were. Peter told me Dr. Nikiforuk and his wife had lived next door since the 1950s but had moved to a seniors’ residence two years ago. The builder working on the demolition of their house approached Peter one day and said, “We’re going to need to knock down your garage, but don’t worry–we’ll build you a nice new one.” Peter replied in no uncertain terms, “I don’t think so. I’m perfectly happy with the one I’ve got, and we’ve put a lot of money into it.”
In another conversation, the builder told Peter (note “told”, not “asked”) that they would need to use his hydro for some of the work they would be doing. They wanted to review his hydro bills for the last year, and then offered to pay whatever the difference was between that total and the total in the coming year. “Seems to me that the decent thing to do would be to just pay the whole bill, don’t you think? And they say they’ll need to use my driveway as well.” It makes me want to make a few extra passes by the area in the next few months to ensure no one is taking advantage of Peter and Trudy, although Peter seems pretty capable of standing up for himself.
“Want to see my garage?”
I could see why he doesn’t want it torn down; his lovely little garage, decorated on the outside with large butterflies, is a tidy space with designated spots for all his tools, and enough room to park his SUV. That’s more than I can say about mine.
This led to a tour of his garden, some advice on how to add the best deck for the least amount of money, a recommendation for a same-day shed builder, and the name of a woman who weeds gardens for an hourly fee. I imagine Peter could help with pretty much any question you could throw his way! He was also anxious to point out to me the posts that showed how big the new house will be: 65 feet long by his estimate. It just so happens that the new owner is a member of the Lea family, as in Leaside itself. A great-great-grandson (or thereabouts) of the founder, who also happens to be a lawyer. I’m doubly glad no workers showed up on site while I was in there.
“Why don’t you come on in?”
He showed me his basement workshop, which would make my wife drool with envy. Everything he needs to make everything he wants is right there, and his practical handiwork is visible everywhere you turn. His renovated pantry is insulated with styrofoam, and his handmade shelving is well-stocked with enough food to “keep us going a coupla weeks”, so I know where I’m headed if a blackout ever strands us.
Upstairs, I finally met Peter’s wife Trudy.
“Of course you can take my picture,” Trudy told me, “I’m very proud of my kitchen.”
Peter toured me through the rest of the rooms of his cozy house, and then proudly showed me the new access door and folding staircase they built to reach their attic. “I’ve got 900 square feet of storage up there!” he announced, hopping up those steep stairs like a man half his age. I gingerly followed and snapped a few photos, encouraged that this could be a viable solution to the minor hoarding problem I am developing at home.
After my tour, we just stood and chatted for a while. Trudy moved into this Leaside home with her family at the age of 4. Her father purchased the house in cash, and it has never been mortgaged since. Trudy recalled sitting on her grandmother’s lap on the back porch, watching people dig out the basements of the houses behind them one by one using a horse. “It was so hot one summer that the horse just went belly up and died,” she said, shaking her head. She feels the neighbourhood hasn’t been the same since they started paving Moore Avenue in the ’50s. Wow.
Trudy met Peter when she was just 16 years old, and married him in her 20s. They moved to another house in Leaside as a young married couple, but returned to the home she’d grown up in when her parents passed away. They’ve been married for 56 years, and raised three children in this house. I hope my wife and I will be as fortunate.
They told me I was welcome to stop by for a visit anytime, and I promised that I would. They have a beautiful yellow lab named Lucy, and I’m sure we’ve seen her on our countless walks past their house. Now we will know who is there, and can say hello.
It was the most extraordinary sequence of events, and none of it would have been possible were I still working at an office job. I was able to drop what I was doing and follow a photo story when I saw one, and then stay as long as it took to see it through. The freedom is worth the financial woes, and is like breathing pure oxygen for the first time in almost two decades.
Less than a week later, we were passing by on a dog walk and Peter was outside to greet us. I was happy to introduce him to Jody, and have a brief chat about the progress across the street, as well as next door to him. It seems the equipment returned the day after I left.
Even the front door is gone now, and that fence is locked up tight.