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February 2, 2007

Tasty Caribbean Treats and a Neighbourhood Tour through the Beach with Sandra Bussin

In my neighbourhood portrait about the Beach I definitely wanted to include Sandra Bussin, City Councillor for Beaches / East York, who has represented the Beach for the last 18 years. After my January 25 interview with Carole Stimmell and Sheila Blinoff from the Beach Metro Community News and a wonderful tasty lunch at Konditor I headed downtown towards Toronto City Hall, where I had an opportunity to meet Sandra Bussin, City Councillor and Deputy Mayor of the City of Toronto.

I don’t usually get a chance to interact with senior city officials and I asked Sandra what the proper way of addressing her would be. She simply said “just call me Sandra”, and the ice was broken. We sat down and Sandra was ready to tell me her life story.

Sandra Bussin in front of the War Memorial in Kew Gardens

Sandra Bussin grew up just north of the Beaches, near Woodbine and Danforth, in the Dawes Road area. At that time the area was mostly Scottish, Irish and English. She attended a tiny primary school: Coleman Avenue Public School, a 6 room school house which functioned as a hospital during WWII. As a child she played in a series of parks: little and big Dentonia Park, where she also learned to play tennis. Some of her friends even went on to become provincial tennis champions. Recently she had a chance to meet some of those friends again at the 30 year anniversary of the Dentonia Park Tennis Club. When Sandra grew up there was no Crescent Town yet, the area of residential highrises just northwest of the Danforth / Victoria Park intersection. The entire area here was part of the Massey Estate, and Victoria Park Avenue did not even continue all the way through and dead ended at Dentonia Park. Sandra recalls construction work on the subway in the 1960s.

Her father and mother were both born in Toronto, while her grandparents came from Scotland. Her maternal grandfather had 13 children and owned his own business near Gerrard and Broadview. Two of her uncles were jockeys and had a race horse in their back yard. Sandra fondly recalls her mom’s stories, talking about her grandfather riding his horse along Gerrard Street.

As a child she displayed artistic talents and enjoyed drawing. Her father would take her to the ROM (the Royal Ontario Museum) on Saturday mornings where she studied civilization and drawing. By grade 4 Sandra would take the street car and go to the ROM all by herself. This exposure shaped her interest in the world and allowed her to interact with other people in a structured educational environment.

Toronto City Hall on a crisp winter day

During the summer Sandra attended art programs at Central Tech High School and participating in these activities helped her develop a sense of independence. Sandra was supposed to attend Monarch Park Collegiate once that newly built school opened. For some reason she had always wanted to go to Malvern Collegiate which had traditionally been the feeder school for this area. But Monarch Park Collegiate Institute had just been built, and Sandra was supposed to be sent there. Instead she decided that Eastern Commerce would be a good option. In later years, when Sandra herself became a school trustee, she tried to facilitate her constituents’ school choices when they presented a good reason for wanting to attend a particular school.

After high school Sandra went to York University where she studied fine arts. To get there she had to take the subway and a bus. During university she got involved in film and TV production. In her third year of university she took a summer job with then City Councillor Ann Johnston and got introduced to the dynamics at City Hall. Sandra got to run Ann’s constituency office as a volunteer. Leveraging this experience allowed her to get a job at Queens Park, Ontario’s provincial parliament, a year later. She had an interview with Morton Shulman, the former provincial coroner who had then become a Provincial Member of Parliament representing the Toronto area of High Park / Swansea.

At that time the CBC was running a TV series called “Wojeck” that was based on Morton Shulman’s character and John Vernon, a tall good-looking actor, was playing the lead role. When Sandra first met the real Morton Shulman she said “you don’t look like John Vernon”. (Morton Shulman was a short slight man). Morton broke out laughing, and Sandra had the job.

Right away Sandra felt at home at Queen’s Park. Originally she did not plan to stay in Morton’s office, she had planned to go back to university and take another degree. But she was impressed by Morton Shulman, “a fighter for the little guy” as she calls him. Dozens of people would line up to see him on a daily basis, and Sandra was there to assist them with their needs and inquiries.

Old City Hall

Before the Ontario government had an ombudsman, Morton Shulman would represent people that were wronged. Sandra's role was to be “Shulman’s sleuth”, to research people’s inquiries and prepare him for the legislature. People with concerns and worries would come in from far and wide, and Morton would help them. Later Sandra worked on a TV show called “The Shulman File”, a show where Morton would take up cases of people who had been unfairly treated and help them. She did a lot of research and investigative work and really enjoyed this opportunity.

When Morton Shulman retired he asked her to come work with him at his TV Show at City TV, but Sandra chose to stay at Queen’s Park, and worked on various politician’s campaigns until she decided to run herself. Somewhere in between Sandra got married and had a daughter. As her daughter got older she became interested in the school system and ran for school trustee. That was the start of her political career, and Sandra Bussin spent 9 years as a school trustee representing the Beaches and part of Riverdale.

Her next step was a decision to run for city Councillor in Toronto and for the last 9 years Sandra Bussin has been the city councillor, representing the Beaches/ East York area. To her long list of achievements Sandra Bussin has also added the titles of Deputy Mayor of Toronto as well as that of the first Speaker of Toronto’s City Council, a newly minted role which will streamline the operations of city council starting with the first meeting next Monday, February 5.

Among many other roles, Sandra Bussin is also a commissioner for the Toronto Transit Commission and the Chair of the Roundtable for a Clean and Beautiful City which promotes Toronto 's beautification and citizen engagement to achieve community improvements. One of her proudest achievements is the renovation of the Beaches Library, a historic building on Queen Street East. The tasteful architecturally compatible renovation and expansion was completed in 2005 and has made the Beaches Library one of the busiest and most used libraries in all of Toronto.

Sandra explained that there had been an earlier small glass-enclosed addition to the library which was not very functional. Librarians were required to carry heavy books throughout the library and the overall design was not very ergonomic. One of the main goals of the renovation was to create a highly functional yet visually pleasing building, and that goal was definitely achieved.

A display for Wintercity, Toronto's Winter Festival

Another local community project in the Beach was the renovation of the “Gardener’s Cottage” (the Kew Williams House). A group of local female artists had approached Sandra and asked to be able to access the building to put on some art shows. When the last gardener, who had been living in the cottage, retired, Sandra approached city council to secure the historic building as a community resource. In order to furnish and redecorate the building, Sandra partnered with the Beach Rotary Club – Barbara Dingle, the club’s president was a producer on the popular “Debbie Travis” decorating television series. The Rotary Club went to work and was able to furnish the Gardener’s Cottage with unique locally designed pieces. The city contributed $40,000 while the rest was raised by the Rotary Club and the entire building underwent an amazing facelift.

Architectural preservation and restoration has long been a concern of Sandra Bussin. She also got involved with the rehabilitation of the “Maple Cottage” a bit further west on Lang Street. In a local legend about Alexander Muir, a songwriter, poet and school headmaster in Scarborough, a maple leaf that had fallen on his shoulder is said to have inspired the song “The Maple Leaf Forever”, Canada’s first anthem. In collaboration with people such as Carole Stimmell from the Beach Metro Community News, Sandra created a committee to rehabilitate the Maple Cottage. The group succeeded and the historic building was preserved and is also used today as the location for a gardening club. A building that was awaiting certain destruction is now a beautiful addition to the neighbourhood.

One project that is currently underway in the Beach is the Skateboard Park at the corner of Lakeshore and Coxwell. Formerly a baseball diamond and sports field, construction has started to turn this area into a recreational facility for skateboards. The first of three phases has started, and Sandra has managed to augment the city’s funding with donations from local cement companies. Their contributions in the form of donated materials and labour are valued at $1 million. Sandra was hoping that the facility would open last fall, but the fill continued to settle on the low land, and another layer of fill will be required before applying the cement cap. Sandra likes being at the vanguard of community developments, engage the community and bring different stakeholders together to facilitate a successful outcome that works for everyone.

Toronto City Hall

We also briefly talked about the Toronto International Beaches Jazz Festival, the premier entertainment event in the Beach. Issues such as lack of parking, extended hours of noise and garbage collection were addressed. Measures such as private garbage collection were introduced, festival hours were reduced to close at 11 pm, allowing the local residents a good night’s sleep. Over the years Sandra has worked with the community, the merchants and the festival organizers to find a solution that will benefit everyone and facilitate an event that is one of Toronto’s most popular summer festivals and draws tourists from all over the world.

I also asked Sandra to give me a general overview of the Beach neighbourhood. She explained that the residents are on average well educated and really value their quality of life. They also pitch in to keep their area nicely maintained. On issues that are important to them they can be rather vocal in making their views known. Sometimes there are competing interests, particularly when you mix dog owners, seniors and families with young children together. That’s where Sandra’s talent as a mediator and compromise-seeker comes into play.

The Beach also has a strong commitment to the environment and Sandra was instrumental in closing down the local garbage incinerator. Other local environmental issues include the Ashbridges Bay Sewage Treatment Plant. Sandra added that local residents are very keen to get engaged, and they become experts on topics that are important to them.

We had just gotten into a really interesting conversation when Sandra’s 2:30 appointment arrived. That meant I had to reschedule for another time, and February 2 was going to be the date when both Sandra and I would be able to reconnect again. So I arrived shortly after 1 pm today at the lunch spot that Sandra suggested: “Cool Runnings”, a small neighbourhood Jamaican restaurant near Gerrard and Main Streets, just across from the Main Street Library.

Sandra had already arrived, her executive assistant Dave joined us for a bit, and we were ready to order. Caribbean food is one of my favourites, and this place certainly has it all: Oxtail, Curry Chicken, Jerk Chicken, Curry Goat and many other Caribbean delicacies, at extremely reasonable prices I might add. Sandra and Dave started off with a hearty looking stew and I ordered Fried Plantain as an appetizer. We continued our culinary samplings – I had a very filling Veggie Roti while Sandra ordered the Jerk Chicken and Dave had some Fried Salted Cod.

Lunch at "Cool Runnings" - my veggie roti

The food was definitely hitting the spot, and a perfect backgrop for our conversation. Sandra mentioned that the Main Street Library was the one that she would go to as a child. She explained that there are a lot of new developments going in on Gerrard Street just east of Main, and that some of the older residents in the area felt a little nervous about all the new homes going in. On the other hand, the area was going through a transition , and it was important to redevelop it.

Sandra and Dave shared some of their experiences about political campaigning, and that both of them together probably have about 50 or 60 years of campaigning experience between them. What I did not know was that at the municipal level all the candidates have to use their own funds for campaigning. There is no party support for candidates as there would be on the provincial or federal level. Sandra laughed and said when you run for politics you learn to be a “tinker – tailor, soldier – sailor”. Due to the absence of external funding, municipal politics apparently requires a jack of all trades to succeed. Sandra went through many years of campaigns by herself, and to this day she creates her own election signs. Many election pamphlets are printed on someone’s personal copier in a basement somewhere. I learned that it often takes a kind of apprenticeship to become successful in politics; Sandra for example worked with other politicians before running herself, and she learned some of the important ropes. She said “The press sometimes implies that it’s easy to throw your hat in the ring”, but based on the fact that candidates have to invest their own funds to run campaigns, it is not as easy as one might think.

Sandra had a jerk chicken

For the last 9 years Sandra Bussin has been representing the Beaches / East York area at Toronto City Council, and she says that development issues, i.e. new real estate developments, additions, any type of construction, have increased enormously. When she started at City Council there was relatively little redevelopment going on in the Beach. Today, this has become one of the most popular neighbourhoods in Toronto, and to mention one example, a 400-unit infill subdivision is being built as we speak in the area north of Gerrard and east of Main Street. Much to the chagrin of the neighbours, old historic homes are sometimes torn down and replaced with larger “monster homes”. Sandra explained that short of designating the entire area a protected heritage district, the hands of the planning department are often tied, and the city is not able to prevent a new project from going in.

Continuing our discussions about the changes in the neighbourhood, Sandra remarked that redevelopments along Kingston Road have revitalized that entire area and brought new retailers, galleries and cafes to the area. Sandra added that a local business owner by the name of Chris Papadatos, owner of the Fade In Café, has done much to revitalize the area around Main and Gerrard. Often one individual can make a large difference in a city.

Sandra Bussin, KC Kiplin, moi

The owner of “Cool Runnings” had entered the building, and this was our chance to get to know a local hospitality entrepreneur. Kiplin – “KC” – Cooper hails from the Port Antonio parish in Jamaica, an area where a famous Erroll Flynn movie was filmed. Since he was 18 years of age he has worked in the hospitality industry. After his move to the United States he completed a program in food and beverage management at Howard University. He decided to start a new life in Canada and arrived in Toronto in 1997 and settled in the Warden and Danforth area.

KC had a hard time adjusting to the climate and decided to return to Jamaica. After three weeks in his home country he reversed his decision and came back to Canada and has been in Toronto ever since. He became a chef in a variety of well-known bar-restaurants and started his first business, a Caribbean takeout, in the Danforth and Danforth area.

The key event happened in 2005 when he was delivering a catering order for a local restaurant to a nursing home in the Beach. He realized he is working so hard for someone else, and for a while he had been eyeing a local property just south of Main and Gerrard. When it became available for lease, KC had one look at it and signed the lease the same day. He completely redecorated the place and on July 23, 2005 “Cool Runnings” opened its doors for the first time.

“Cool runnings”, by the way is a Jamaican phrase, meaning “it’s going well, everything is cool”. For example: How is it going?” - “Cool runnings, man.” His friends said he was crazy, opening a Caribbean restaurant in this area, but KC had a dream and went for it.

Fried salted cod at Cool Runnings

He loves this little place and plans to open up the south wall of the building and build an addition that will hold an additional six to seven tables. Retractable doors will be able to open completely, adding an outdoor patio feel to the new section. At the moment, Cool Runnings is open six days a week, from Monday to Saturday, but when the new addition opens, KC plans to open seven days a week. In addition to all sorts of mixed drinks in this licensed establishment, he also plans to introduce a variety of exotic juices, for example a cucumber / ginger juice. KC is one example of the diverse entrepreneurs that make up the landscape of this multi-ethnic city. He has grabbed the opportunity to chart his own life as an independent business owner.

Meeting the owner of Cool Runnings provided a nice ending to our lunch, and Sandra was ready to head off with me on a personal introduction to her neighbourhood. As we walked to her car, she pointed out the Main Street Library where she went as a child. We started driving and passed by the Ted Reeve Arena, a popular skating rink in the area and the place where Sandra herself learned to skate. We drove down on a street called Kimberley, and Sandra pointed out a vacant lot where a new real estate development composed of several townhouses is going to go in. Sandra managed to get the neighbouring property designated as a historic property.

Lyall Avenue, an east-west connection north of Kingston Road, features a row of pretty historic homes, dating back to the early 20th century. Sandra pointed out two new homes that stood out from the visually homogeneous streetscape: in the last few years a developer had come in, taken down two historic homes and built two new larger homes that do not quite fit into the street scene. Again, unless a residential area is designated a protected historic heritage district, it is very difficult to impose restrictions on the design of new properties going in.

Our drive continued past Malvern Collegiate Institute, a local alma mater for many Beach residents. Back out on Kingston Road we drove by the northern end of the Glen Steward Ravine and turned left onto Glen Manor Drive, a curvy road that hugs the ravine on one side and is fronted with beautiful well-kept historic Edwardian homes on the other. Sandra’s residence is located right in this neighbourhood, just steps away from the ravine, which makes her a bona fide Beacher who enjoys walks on the Boardwalk and strolls along Queen Street East.

Original Toronto paving stones adorn a front yard

We stopped near Pine Crescent and Pine Glen Street, one of the few areas in Toronto that still features cobble-stoned streets. One of the local homes has salvaged some local paving stones and integrated them in their garden design.

A few steps further west is a wooden footbridge that connects Glen Manor Drive East and West across the ravine. Sandra explained that she is holding consultations for a new ravine management program in order to stabilize and improve the ravine. Natural and man-made erosion are creating significant stress in this nature area, and consultations with local residents include school age children and adults. A new footbridge will be built soon whose substructure will feature some rounded arches and an attractive design. Despite Toronto’s budget issues, Sandra was able to get some money set aside for the rebuilding of this bridge.

The foot bridge, connecting Glen Manor Drive East and West

Just south of the footbridge in Ivan Forrest Park is a natural ice rink that is built and maintained by local residents. Sandra mentioned that on weekends there are hundreds of children that use this facility which is particularly pretty at night. Christmas caroling, another community activity, takes place here around the holidays, a very popular event also organized by the local residents. Ivan Forrest Park is one of Toronto’s groomed parks and very popular with local dog owners and walkers. It features one of the few waterfalls in the City of Toronto.

Sandra in the library

As the Chair of the Clean and Beautiful Initiative of the City, Sandra Bussin has recently proposed a new program to make the city more attractive: a graffiti removal program has been in place for several years which provides summer employment opportunities for young people. Sandra just proposed to expand the program beyond the summer months and is hoping that the program will come through for next year’s budget. At the moment, home owners who have become graffiti victims face rather punitive measures and costs in order to clean up the unsightly graffiti. This type of youth employment program combined with organized art initiatives providing for official mural space may help alleviate the graffiti problems that exist in so many urban areas.

Our next stop was the Beaches Library, whose renovation and expansion is one of Sandra’s proudest achievements. The extension, completed in 2005, is indeed an extremely successful architectural project and integrates well with the historic character of the building. Sandra took me to one of her favourite spots: the sitting area on the south side of the expansion, which provides a beautiful view of Kew Gardens and the beloved bandstand.

Her favourite spot, with the Kew Gardens bandstand in the back

We also walked upstairs and looked at a few images from the renovations. Photos depict the creation of the famous owl sculpture in front of the Beaches Library, and an entire binder chronicles the contest which invited local residents to help with the naming of the famous object. Hundreds of ideas were submitted, including many variations of “hooter”, “hootie”, and “Alfred the Barnyard Owl”. The version that won out in the end was “Wordsworth”, a slightly more sophisticated tribute to the hallowed halls of literature that make up the Beaches Library. Sandra added that the Beaches Library is one of the busiest branches of the Toronto Library System. And since the renovation in 2005 public usage of the library has almost doubled, a testament to the success of this project.

Our little neighbourhood walk then took us to Kew Beach Park, which features one of Toronto’s most beautiful playgrounds, an important feature in an area with many young families. Sandra started the playground with seed money of $80,000 from the City, and the rest was fundraised by a local organization. The community pitched in with the construction of the playground since there are a number of talented patio builders and woodworkers in Toronto’s Beach.

The Kew Beach playground

A few steps away, the War Memorial is the location of the very popular Remembrance Day Ceremony that every year draws many hundreds of people. At the foot of Lee Avenue is the Gardener’s Cottage, or Kew Williams House, the only residential building in Kew Gardens and a designated historic property. After the retirement of the last gardener, Sandra was approached by several local artists to use this building for art exhibitions.

Sandra asked the city to designate this property as a community resource. The zoning department indicated that the building was zoned as residential and not suitable for non-residential use. So in conjunction with the Toronto Beach Rotary Club, Sandra raised money for the upgrading of the property so it would meet all the zoning and safety regulations that would allow it to be used as a community resource. Barbara Dingle from the Rotary Club, who was a producer with the famous “Debbie Travis” TV series, managed to get a group of local artists together to help with the decorating and furnishing of the cottage which today presents itself as a beautiful historic property.

The Kew Williams House, a.k.a. Gardener's Cottage

Another recent community project is so-called “Measurement Park”, an unused space behind the Beaches Cinema. Students from the Kew Park Montessori School planted some trees, and as the trees (and the children) grow, they will be doing measurements of the trees and learn about nature.

On our way east on Queen Street, Sandra drove by one of her favourite streets: Balsam Avenue, and along the way she pointed out one of her old campaign offices, today a Japanese restaurant called Ichiban. As we were driving east on Queen Street she explained her new role as the first Council Speaker of Toronto’s City Council. This position was created for the new City Council (2006 to 2010) due to a desire for greater continuity, and it was modeled on the Federal and Provincial structures.

The Speaker of Toronto City Council and Deputy Speaker of Toronto City Council became the presiding officers at the sitting of Toronto City Council beginning December 1, 2006. The two positions are elected by city council and replace the Mayor of Toronto as the convenor and chair of council meetings while the mayor remains the Chief Executive Officer of the city. Sandra Bussin has been elected to serve a four year term in her new official role.

On the way back up to where I had my car parked, Sandra pointed out another former constituency office of hers, a nicely renovated building with a mural, located on the north-west corner of Kingston Road and Main Street. Sandra’s footprints are all over this neighbourhood, as a local resident of this area who grew up around here, and as a city official representing this area for the past 18 years.

Main Street Library

Our Beaches driving tour had come to an end. Sandra dropped me off at the Main Street Library and I sincerely thanked her for taking this time from her busy schedule to show me around her neighbourhood. It was a pleasure meeting Sandra Bussin in person and hearing about her attachments to the community, a close-up look and personal introduction to one our key municipal decision-makers.

The Beach on a cold winter day

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