Thursday, July 5, 2012
Toronto’s Rathnelly neighbourhood sprouting signs of secession
Step into the tiny neighbourhood west of Avenue Road, just above the railway line, and you’re not in Canada anymore.
Welcome to the Republic of Rathnelly, which cheekily declared independence during the 1967 Centennial celebrations.
It crowned a queen (Eileen the First), elected Bubbles the poodle as head of state, hosted its own Expo (just like Montreal’s Expo 67), issued passports and formed a military of broom-wielding local children.
And despite being politely denied foreign aid to build a new swing-set in the park by Prime Minister Trudeau, the 45-year-old running joke is getting some love from the city with approved street signs bearing the Republic’s official coat of arms.
The new signs, expected to be installed in about a month, were funded by the city and designed under the plan to replace old street signs across Toronto.
“The impetus (to apply for special street signs) was that a lot of the people involved in founding the republic are dying or have died,” says Pym Buitenhuis, the former president of the Rathnelly Area Ratepayers Association (RARA), and proud ex-member of the local militia, the Rathnelly Irregulars.
“We’ve kind of lost the oral history now . . . and there is a sense that this is something quite special that should be remembered.”
The coat of arms, created in one of the first declarations of the Republic, features four panels with martini glasses (a nod to street’s party vibe), the Expo 67 logo, a map of the neighbourhood and the railway tracks, for the CN Railway that forms the south boundary of the area.
The leafy, quiet neighbourhood of 250 households, was home to many of young professionals with families in the ’60s, said Buitenhuis. Many were academics, advertisers and artists and there was a healthy cocktail circuit upon which the plan to secede was born.
“They weren’t afraid to be engaged in the world, to be part of it,” she said.
“It was very irreverent . . . it was a very fun place to grow up,” said Buitenhuis, who moved back to her childhood home ten years ago and has become the unofficial archivist for Rathnelly.
However, the camaraderie came from less frivolous activity. The community fiercely rallied to halt the development of the Spadina Expressway in the 1960s which threatened to turn the neighbourhood into an off-ramp onto Avenue Road.
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The area motto became: “to protect so you can be free,” said Buitenhuis. It’s a sentiment still taken seriously by the RARA, who maintain an emergency fund should encroaching developers need to be challenged.
The neighbourhood over the last five years has changed with aging residents leaving and young families moving in, but the biannual Rathnelly Day street party still continues in Republic tradition.
Buitenhuis remains nostalgic about the quirkier parts of the neighbourhood history.
“I think we miss the spirit, which I think was a unique celebration of unity and community here.”