Presenting – Gene Domagala – A Human Convenience Store of Charity and Community Involvement in Toron

One of the lessons travel has taught me is to not only get to know the beauty of the foreign places, but to appreciate the uniqueness of home. The more I travel, the more I have fallen in love with my chosen home town, Toronto, a city that offers a myriad of possibilities for travelers and residents alike.

In this spirit I have embarked on 토토사이트. a path towards a series of articles and photo exhibitions to explore and celebrate my chosen home town. A batch of recent visitors from Europe has confirmed to me that Toronto is a great city, as each one of my visitors have ended up falling in love with this city, intending to come back and to get to know the Big Smoke better.

One of my visitors’ and my own personal favourites is Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood, or, as most local residents call it “The Beach”. It is a beautiful neighbourhood, located – you guessed it – right on the shores of Lake Ontario, and it has the feel of an ocean-front resort community combined with the ambience of a small town from yesteryear, with its dozens of individually owned stores, galleries and restaurants.

But what makes any neighbourhood special is not just its physical characteristics, its buildings and its architecture – it’s the people that make the difference. Every community has its key personalities, its human pillars, and my mission has been to search out the individuals that stand out through their commitment to the community. Often these are the unsung heroes who dedicate so much of their personal time to help others while shunning the limelight.

My quest for community heroes began with a meeting with local representatives and experts on the Beaches, which included Deborah Etsten from the Beach Business Improvement Association, and Michael Prue, the Provincial Member of Parliament representing the Beaches/East York neighbourhoods. Both of these experts pointed to Gene Domagala as one of the key people in the Beach community.

On one of the first really wintery days in Toronto, just a few days before New Years, I met Gene at a real local landmark: the Toronto Beaches Library. We met near the checkout counter where Gene introduced me to Barbara Weissman, the head librarian, who would later help me with some of my research by compiling relevant materials about the Beach.

Gene’s charitable spirit immediately became obvious as we stepped out of the library when he promised to get a cup of coffee for a local homeless man in a wheelchair who had set himself up just outside the library. Gene regularly helps out in local drop-in centres who open their doors to the homeless on different days of the week.

After dropping off the coffee Gene introduced me to one of Toronto’s most beloved outdoor spaces: Kew Gardens, originally created by one of the first settlers in this area. Joseph Williams and his wife Jane bought a four acre property in 1853 to turn it into farmland. Joseph, originally from London, England, always had fond memories of Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanical Gardens in London, and in this spirit he named his property “Kew Farms”. In 1879 he opened a twenty acre pleasure ground, suitable for camping and picknicking which he named “The Canadian Kew Gardens”. Gene explained that as a teetotaler, Joseph Williams would serve meals and refreshments, but definitely no alcoholic beverages.

A well-used bandstand anchors the park and Gene pointed out a dedication to a lifelong resident of East Toronto, Alex Christie (1917 – 1992) whose actions improving the community received permanent appreciation in the plaque adorning the bandstand.

A few steps eastwards is the Dr. William D. Young Memorial, a Renaissance style drinking fountain which was erected in 1920 to commemorate a local doctor who had dedicated himself to public service, and in particular, to the wellbeing of children in the area. Gene pointed out that when Dr. Young passed away in 1919, he was almost penniless.

We strolled south on Lee Avenue, the main north-south artery in the Beach, and Gene pointed out a former hotel with 13 rooms, today a private residence. For well over a hundred years, the Beach has been a popular recreation area, and from the late 1800s onwards, people used to come from downtown Toronto in steamers to enjoy the serenity and outdoor opportunities offered by the Beach.

By the late 1800s the Williams family had subdivided their plot and built an entire subdivision of homes in parts of today’s Kew Gardens. Joseph and Jane Williams’ son, Kew Williams, had built a house adjoining Lee Avenue for his own family. According to Gene, the grey stone was brought in by barge from Kingston, Ontario. To the Williams family’s dismay, the city of Toronto expropriated their property in 1907 to create a large park.

All of the residences built in the park were demolished with the exception of the Kew Williams House, which today is also referred to as the Gardener’s cottage, the only residential building west of Lee Avenue still standing in Kew Gardens. Gene mentioned that one of Kew Williams’ daughters never set foot inside of the house until about 12 years ago, in memory of the traumatic experience that her family had gone through.

From the foot of Lee Avenue we went southwards where Gene pointed out that years ago, the waterfront at the beach was composed of a sandy barrier island with a stretch of water flowing just inland. This inland river was later filled in. More than 100 years ago, the waterfront would have been full of cottages and houses. Today this area is a large public park with a wide sandy beach. Gene’s extensive history knowledge (he has written more than 300 articles for the local Beach Metro Community News) touched on the Kew Beach Club which existed here from 1903 and was demolished around 1930. The activities at the club included bowling, tennis and water sports. Numerous photos of the era show hundreds of canoes in the water and thousands of people partaking of various water sports. Three major amusement parks also adorned the Beaches at different times, all of which were demolished long ago. Landowners more than 120 years ago recognized the potential of this waterfront area for entertainment.

Throughout its history, the Beach has also been a centre of physical recreation. Even today there are facilities for lawn bowling, tennis, a big public swimming pool, a boathouse for canoes, hundreds of permanently anchored wooden posts for beach volleyball, the boardwalk and the Martin Goodman all-purpose recreational trail which are widely used by joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers. For about a century now, the Balmy Beach Club has been a recreational institution at the east end of the neighbourhood. Kite-flying on blustery spring and fall days is also a popular practice along the long sandy beach. Dog lovers flock to this area as well due to its extensive off-leash areas where they can let their furry friends run free.

On this cold and windy winter day, Gene took his big bundle of keys and opened the seniors’ room next to the club house of the Beaches Lawn Bowling Club so we would be able to continue our conversation sheltered from the icy breeze. Once inside, Gene showed me a variety of oversize photo boards that illustrate the history of the Beach. He explained that the original Bell Telephone Exchange for the Beach neighbourhood is located at the north east corner of Queen and Lee, and years ago was converted into a residential apartment building. After showing me various historic views of the area he also mentioned the Victoria Park Forest School that was dedicated to sickly children to help them regain their health. The Forest School was closed in 1932 due to the construction of the R. C. Harris Water Filtration Plant.

As we were talking all of a sudden the doors of the building opened, and we had an unexpected visitor. Angela Miller, a foreperson for the Toronto Parks and Recreation Department had entered to see what was going on, and this was a perfect opportunity to find out more about the City’s role in the upkeep of the Beach. Angela explained that her unit is responsible for maintenance, garbage pickup and special events in the area which spans about 80 acres. In the summer she runs a crew of 14 full-time workers while in the winter Angela and her colleague Laurie are the only ones permanently entrusted with the maintenance of the public parks in this area. Laurie went on to say that the area requires a lot of upkeep due to the frequent special events that are being held here. Virtually every weekend there is a permit for a special event, and big events like the Beaches Jazz Festival require a lot of setup in advance and extensive cleanups on a daily basis.

The logistics of public events are sometimes underestimated, and especially in a popular and busy area like the Beach, seemingly simple questions of maintenance and garbage removal are of critical importance to residents and visitors alike. Gene and I headed back out into the cold and we briefly stopped off at the skating rink that was busy with a group of hockey fanatics. In the summer this facility is used for roller hockey and lacrosse.

We then walked up Waverley Road, and Gene pointed out one of the many historic homes in the Beaches: a residential property called Inglenook, which was originally the Charles Frederick Wagner House, built around 1900 and saved from demolition by a local petition. Just a few steps away is the John Wright House, constructed just 3 years later in the popular Queen Anne Revival style as one of the first mixed-use residential-commercial properties on Queen Street East. Today the building features a storefront that hides the original north façade.

Gene pointed out that houses were originally set back from Queen Street and the front lawns were later filled in with commercial storefronts. We continued our walk westwards on Queen Street and entered the Beaches Mall, a large building that used to be called the Allen Theatre, one of several historic theatres in the Beach, all of which are still standing and most of which have been refunctioned. Only the Fox Theatre, Toronto’s longest continuously running movie theatre, is still used for its original purpose.

A few steps further west at the intersection of Kippendavie Avenue and Queen Street is a beautiful historic building that today holds one of my favourite restaurants in the Beach: Nevada’s. This is the former Home Bank of Toronto building, a financial institution created by famous Toronto entrepreneur Henry Pellatt, builder of Casa Loma. The name of the bank can still faintly be seen under the painted sign on the façade.

A few steps south on Kenilworth is the former Kenilworth Avenue Baptist Church that was converted into a synagogue in 1920 and named the Beach Hebrew Institute. Often this building is referred to as the Beaches Shul. Sure enough, Gene had the key and we entered this historic building. The original church façade was considerably altered to more closely resemble the architecture of synagogues in small Eastern European communities. In the early years, during a time when local residents were not particularly hospitable to Jewish citizens, the term “synagogue” was intentionally omitted in the name of this place of worship. Today the Beach Hebrew Institute is a small welcoming institution without a rabbi whose members lead the prayers and are very active in the community.

Just up the street, across from Nevada’s Ristorante, the former Whitelock’s Grocery store has morphed into today’s Whitlock Restaurant (which, by the way, features a delicious brunch), and is one of the few wooden corner buildings left in Toronto. With a growling stomach and all these wonderful restaurants around I persuaded Gene to go for lunch, and we headed into another institution in the Beach: Lick’s, a restaurant that features a variety of burgers, salads and one of my favourites: poutine (a popular sloppy yet yummy French-Canadian concoction of French fries, gravy and cheese curds).

Gene and I headed upstairs and sat down for a chat when he showed me his home-knitted sweater featuring “Centre 55”, a local community centre that serves the Beach / East York neighbourhood. Gene regularly helps with their Christmas activities which feature the “Christmas Hamper” where more than 900 needy families in the Beach receive a hamper full of goods including ham or turkey, milk, bread, pasta and toys for the children. Gene has volunteered for this organization for the last 25 years.

He is also very active with the Toronto Star Santa Claus Fund, a Christmas initiative that involves volunteers delivering boxes full of Christmas gifts to needy families. He has been delivering Star Boxes for about 47 years now in the Parkdale area. Gene Domagala traces his commitment to charity back to his mother who used to cook for poor people in this west-end Toronto neighbourhood. Gene’s parents were Polish immigrants who settled in the Bathurst and Queen area, and even as a child Gene got exposed to children of all different backgrounds and nationalities. All the children played together in this poor neighbourhood. Gene continues this spirit of inclusion today with his anti-racism work.

His interest in history was stoked early when he played with a bunch of boys in Toronto’s historic Fort York. Gene attended a technical high school and by his own admission, Gene realized early that his future would not lie in the trades. His favourite person in high school was his social studies teacher who got him a subscription to TIME Magazine. He also was inspired by the history teacher and the librarian. Gene’s early interest in history has resulted in hundreds of articles on local history. In addition, Gene regularly provides historical walks in the Beach that have become so popular that they are often attended by dozens of people.

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