Draper St. is nothing short of a time-capsuled gem from the Victorian-era.
The 28 historic row houses that stand amid a condo boom near Spadina Ave. and Front St. back on to a giant hole where The Well, a retail, office and residential complex, is in the midst of springing up.
The little street has stood the test of time in part thanks to Bill Brokenshire, who cherished his vast collection of local and historic artifacts, staging a good street party and putting up a fight to preserve the quaintness of his neighbourhood.
He’s being remembered as a neighbourhood gatekeeper and founding member of the Draper Street Residents’ Association, who battled to preserve the street’s charm up until his death in September at the age of 73.
“Every time there was something related to Canada, Toronto or the street, they always have an event to mark those things,” said Frank Marshall, Brokenshire’s dear friend and estate executor. “He really promoted a recognition of the history of the street.”
Draper St., with its second-empire Victorian cottages built between 1881 and 1882 and larger homes constructed between 1886 and 1889, has withstood more than a century of development on all sides. Brokenshire’s legacy lives on through his contribution towards the neighbourhood earning heritage district designation in 1999, and the extensive community archives he stewarded.
His cat Dizzy, who was the unofficial mascot of Draper St. and could often be seen roaming the neighbourhood, may also soon be honoured with a cat-themed park and pedestrian promenade slated for Wellington St., parkland secured by the city as part of The Well development approvals. Neighbourhood residents and relatives confirmed the 14-year-old Dizzy died not long after Brokenshire last fall, in the Town of Caledon where the locally famous feline lived after being adopted by a former Draper St. resident.
Brokenshire’s neighbours are now left to carry on his legacy, and navigate the balancing act of protecting the area’s heritage among towering condominiums.
“Change is inevitable,” said Kamran Khan, who moved into the neighbourhood in 2002 and took over from Brokenshire as president of the neighbourhood association, a post he held from 2006 until 2018 when the group moved to a steering committee approach.
While Brokenshire was wary of the highrises elbowing in, Khan says he believes the development will accentuate the street as “a very special community” so long as they can maintain the spirit that Brokenshire helped instill.
Livability was important to Brokenshire, who helped to nurture the idea of creating a diverse community of people of all backgrounds and ages, he said.
“He had a deep connection around the history and the heritage aspects of the neighbourhood,” Khan said, noting Brokenshire was actively involved in restoration work and kept the community connected through street parties. And he “was not afraid to raise a bit of stink if an issue came up,” Khan said.
“He felt this was an important thing for us to protect,” Khan said, adding he has come to terms with increasing density. “We want to make sure we don’t lose the livability.”
Brokenshire, a retired public school teacher, moved to Draper St. in 1983 with his late partner, Ernesto Feu, following his brother Jim who moved into a home there earlier that year.
During a recent visit to Brokenshire’s former home, Marshall, who’s now charged with selling off two homes he owned on the street, emptied a box packed with reams of documents Brokenshire collected: newspaper articles, pictures of politicians who attended parties on Draper St., notice of city meetings and zoning change proposals, letters to politicians over unwanted development.
He also kept detailed minutes of community meetings and street party planning agendas. And has certifications of recognition issued by local politicians, such as Olivia Chow, lauding his contribution to protecting the block, which includes the Lincoln Alexander house, the birthplace of Canada’s first Black lieutenant governor.
“Any issues related to living here, he would tackle them,” Marshall said, while peeling back pages of files telling stories of closely knit residents resisting any threat to Draper’s originality.
Most of the archives has been gifted to relatives while the balance of his collection was auctioned or donated to a variety of entities such as Heritage Toronto and the Gardiner Museum. Neighbour Stephanie Kerr and her husband are now tasked with keeping the archives going.
“We’re all committed to maintaining the integrity of the street,” she said.
Kerr said Brokenshire didn’t let any violations slide. “If he saw people driving the wrong way on the street he wouldn’t hesitate to stand in the middle of the street and make sure they turn around,” she said. “He was a bit of a gatekeeper.”
She added he could be found playing cards in the neighbourhood parkette and liked a good party: “We use to have a street party every year.”
She has slowly warmed to the grandiose development that is The Well, but is concerned about the structural integrity of the century-old homes.
“It’s our home, we’re not prepared to move yet,” she said. But she added, “Progress is progress … It’s a good thing.”
Brokenshire’s sister, Jane Wright, who still lives in their hometown of Chatham, Ont., called Draper St. a “wonderful gem in the city.”
“From a young age, Bill had a love for older or unusual objects, and a passion for history,” Wright said. So much so that, after following his brother to Draper St., he purchased a second home there, which he used primarily as a rental property and also in the later years to display his keepsakes.
“He still had a few of those collectibles in his possession upon his death last fall,” she said. “He was proud of his collections — especially the Queen Victoria/royalty items, and his hat pins.”
Aside from the construction happening all around it, Wright said, “the biggest change in 35 years is that there are no Brokenshire brothers living on Draper St. any more.”
Jason Miller is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Reach him on email: email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @millermotionpic