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Street art preserves Islington Village's history with remarkable attention to detail

At first glance, the stretch of Dundas West between Islington and Kipling doesn't look like much.
"For a lot of people, the neighbourhood is just a way for them to get to the 427 and then the airport,” says Linda Plater, the Village of Islington's BIA coordinator.
As a kid growing up there in the mid-90s, I didn't realize what the neighbourhood had to offer. I loved history class, but when I didn't find any Roman ruins in the immediate area, I decided that Etobicoke must lack any distinguishing history. 
It turns out, I wasn't looking hard enough.  
Urbanization has hidden much of the area's rich history under heaps of concrete, but it's slowly emerging with the help of a vibrant set of murals popping up along Dundas. One shows the Guelph Radial Line, a precursor to the modern TTC subway line, shuttling kids to the area; another shows painters taking in Mimico Creek during the 1920s. In all, there are 25 murals that cover more than 15,000 square feet of wall space, and each shows a different episode from the area's history. 
According to the BIA's chair, Lola Macanowicz, the mural program was born out of funding received under Section 37, an amendment in Ontario's Planning Act that allows the province's municipalities to secure funds for local projects from property developers. In exchange for allowing a developer to bypass density and height zoning restrictions in their neighbourhood, councillors can negotiate that their ward receives cash or in-kind benefits. When the Pemberton Group proposed building a condo development at Michael Power Place, Councillor Peter Milczyn was there to secure the funds for his ward. He then entrusted those funds to the BIA, asking them to find a suitable use for the money. 
The funds were received in 2004 and the BIA quickly decided, based on the suggestion of then-coordinator Linda Pederson, that commissioning a series of murals was the most cost effective way to beautify the neighbourhood. It was also Pederson's idea, in conversation with the employees at Montgomery's Inn and members of the Etobicoke Historical Society, that the murals should depict snippets of local history. The first mural went up shortly after. 
In addition, the City of Toronto, through its Mural Financial Incentive program, was also instrumental in helping fund the project. Started in 1999, the program provides $50,000 annually to local BIAs to help commission officially sanctioned street art. On average, that money helps produce 15 to 20 murals a year. According to Angela Varone, an economic partnership advisor with the city's BIA office, the program offers BIAs "an opportunity to brand, beautify and market their area."
"Today, most BIAs apply for it to help combat graffiti, and it’s been an instrumental tool in that regard. Once a mural goes up on a building, it doesn't seem to get tagged anymore," she says.   
That said, while almost all BIAs have to contend with tagging to some extent, the issue is less felt in the Islington area than it is other areas of the city. "I don't have a budget for graffiti removal," admits Plater. Instead, the BIA has used its murals as opportunity to brand itself and bring in visitors, and in that respect it has been tremendously successful. 
In fact, several years into the project, the BIA decided to rebrand the neighbourhood as "The Village of Murals." It's as Varone says, "the murals have helped create a destination." Once the weather warms up, the neighbourhood will host guided tours of its street art. In turn, those tours will help bring people to the area's local restaurants and shops.  
It's not just the sheer amount of art that brings people in, but the style in which the murals are painted. "Our murals are distinct in the sense that they’re all photo-realistic and largely impressionistic in style," says Plater. "It's not for everyone, but we have a high concentration of seniors in the area and they love it."
And although several different artists have helped paint the murals, the man responsible for most of them is Toronto-based artist John Kuna. "John differentiates himself by finding a local story, and telling it in a way where our community thinks it's a really cool story," says Plater. 
Indeed, many of the Kuna painted murals show an almost exhaustive attention to detail. A personal favourite shows an episode from 1944 when a Lancaster Bomber flew over a crowd gathered to watch a football game at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute, the area's local high school—and the school I attended as a teenager. An 18-year-old Etobicoke Collegiate student named Harold Shipp, who would later become a prominent businessman, convinced the pilot to drop leaflets contraining special promotions on the game's spectators. Unfortunately, the wind blew the leaflets off course, causing them to land in a local cabbage garden. As a result, the game's onlookers, rushing to get the leaflets, trampled the carefully tended cabbages.  
It's a moment with no real historical significance, but Kuna paints it in a way that makes it important.
Of course, no work of art, however realistically rendered or deftly executed, can ever completely capture the varied nuances and details of real-life. An artist must, by necessity, choose what to include and discard. The murals, with their primary focus on life in the 19th century and early 20th century, have, for the most part, chosen to highlight the area's white history. 
"We're a very multi-cultural area now, but a lot of the stories the murals tell are white anglo-saxon stories," says Plater. "Some people have said, 'I don’t see myself in these murals.'" In an effort to address those concerns, the BIA recently commissioned a piece called Faces of Islington. 
Located on the local 241 Pizza on the corner of Cordova and Dundas West, the mural—also the work of Kuna—is made to mimic a classroom portrait. On the far left, the mural, there painted in black in white, shows Islington Junior Middle School's early and predominately white students, but later in the mural and, in an explosion of colour, the school's more recent students are shown. In contrast to the earlier students, these students, like their real-life counterparts, hail from all corners of the world.
As someone who went to Islington Junior Middle School, the mural perfectly captures my experience of the school. My classes were filled with students from across the globe. The placement of the mural is also noteworthy. The 241 it's located on has existed on that same corner for as long as I can remember—more than 20 years at this point. A fact that's probably attributed to the countless students who have visited it during their lunch break to get a slice of pizza. 
Other organizations have stepped up in this regard as well, including Arts Etobicoke, which has contributed two murals to the neighbourhood. One of their murals features a poem by Toronto's third Poet Laureate, Dionne Brand, on Article 13 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; another, on the bridge at Islington and Dundas West, is on Article 6 of that same deceleration. 
As for future murals, however, there's not much room left to accommodate them. “We’re running out of walls," says Plater. "There’s a limit. I have my eye on a couple of other walls, but it takes a while to negotiate with the property owners."
Still, there's a lot there to discover, even for someone who used to call the area home.

Igor Bonifacic is a Toronto-based writer interested in exploring the intersection of technology, entrepreneurship, and life. He frequently contributes to Yonge Street. 

This article contains some corrections. Originally, the total area of the murals was reported as being 25,000 square feet, but in fact it is 15,000 square feet. Lola Macanowicz is now correctly identified as the chair of the BIA, not the director. 
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