When I recently talked to several people about my Celebrate Toronto project, which starts with an article & interview series and a photo exhibition about the Beach, about 4 or 5 different people concurred that one person should not be missed: Glenn Cochrane.
When I approached Glenn, the former CFTO news personality kindly invited me into his beautiful condominium high above Queen Street and gave me a chance to sit down with a real veteran of Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood. After explaining my mission to Glenn, he was very forthcoming welcoming and willing to share his life’s experiences and his neighbourhood’s stories with me.
He first clarified that the true Beach area is bounded by Kingston Road and Lake Ontario, as well as Woodbine Avenue and Victoria Park Avenues on the west and east sides respectively. Particularly due to the increasing demand for real estate in this popular area, the term “Beach(es)” has expanded in recent years to include other adjoining areas. Beach residents are quick to point out that this is a real estate term.
Glenn himself was born in Hamilton and came to Toronto in 1964. He worked at Canadian Press and moved to the CFTO Television Station where he started out as a writer. His particular talent lay in light writing, and Glenn was often assigned to write the closing remarks for Ken Cavanagh, the anchorman at the time, who liked to close his newscasts with a light comment.
His career in front of the camera started accidentally when an assignment editor sent Glenn out with a cameraman to cover a local story as the regular television reporter was not available. Glenn’s talent in front of the camera got noticed and he received rave reviews from the audience and his peers. From that point forward he had a weekly feature in the news called “Our Man Friday” and later got a daily spot in the newscast, focusing on human interest stories.
Glenn fondly recalls this time as he was given free reign to interview people as he wished and to cover stories that he found interesting. One story that comes to his mind was about a life-long farm worker, an individual without a lot of formal education, but a lot of practical talent. This gentleman would turn disused farm machinery and implements into creatively re-functioned objects. Glenn mentioned a big tractor wheel that was equipped with flower pots that could be watered by turning the wheel.
For a practical example of this gentleman’s creative handiwork Glenn took me out onto his balcony and showed me a small round garden table, handrafted by this individual from a round heating grate while the feet were made from railroad spikes. Glenn fondly recalls this person as a quiet very humble individual.
Glenn and Jean Cochrane have been living in the Beach for almost 40 years now. As a matter of fact, Jean was the one who discovered the neighbourhood when she did an interview with a local resident as the woman’s editor for Canadian Press. Right around 1970 the Cochranes moved into their first owned home on Beech Avenue.
At that time, Glenn adds, the Beach was really a forgotten neighbourhood. During the 1970s the Beach had an aging population and the area was not nearly as pristine as it is today. Glenn explained that the boardwalk was located about half an inch below the lake, and routinely in the spring, shards of ice would lift up the boards and big gaping holes would appear in this treasured waterfront promenade, regularly requiring expensive repairs.
When Glenn and Jean first moved here, most of the commercial activity on Queen Street was concentrated between Woodbine and Lee Avenue. As a matter of fact, Kingston Road further north was thriving much more than Queen Street. According to Glenn’s research for the book he is currently working on (his new book will be about the Beach), Queen Street was not a particularly exciting destination in the 1930s and 1940s as it was mostly characterized by gas stations and discount stores. These so-called “junk stores” were frequently visited by the police, until their owners decided to call them “antique stores”. With the name change, the image of these stores changed as well and the frequent police visits stopped.
Glenn really credits the revival of this neighbourhood to the rebuilding of the Balmy Beach School. The school was old and cramped and in a public hearing with the local residents, an expert demographer proclaimed that the school would need to be rebuilt in order to attract young families. And so it happened, the school got rebuilt and the entire Beach neighbourhood became attractive to families with young children. Large houses that were originally built in the 1920s for large families were filled with life again.
Referring to the transitions in his neighbourhood, Glenn mentioned that the Beach has never really been known as a primary destination for fashion shopping although there are several established retailers selling men’s and women’s fashions. He indicated that the demolition of the race track in the early 1990s had a big influence on the neighbourhood. While the race track was still in existence, local residents experienced significant problems with race track customers parking in their driveways and front lawns. A shortage of parking is a common refrain in the Beach.
That does not prevent the neighbourhood from throwing major parties throughout the course of the year. The most well-known event is the Beaches Jazz Festival held over four consecutive days every summer. Although a delight to the revelers and music fans that descend on Queen Street East every year, the residents were affected by the increased traffic, congestion and crowds at that time. Many of these concerns have now been addressed in collaboration with Sandra Bussin, the City Councillor for the Beach area. Activity generally shuts down at 11 pm so local residents can still get a good night’s sleep while visitors are able to enjoy a great street party. Compromise solutions have helped to address the needs of residents and visitors alike.
Glenn’s eyes twinkle when he tells me that right in front of his condo a percussion band regular sets up during the Jazz Festival and their repeated drumming sessions can get to you after a while. Some local Beach residents will actually make a point to get out of town during the festival for a weekend of rest and relaxation in the country. Glenn and his wife Jean love the Jazz Festival, the only downside is that actually very little jazz music is played during the festival. Glenn explains that today there are very few New Orleans-style jazz bands left, and the ones that do exist are very expensive to bring to the city. One group of oldtimer jazz musicians still participates every year at the corner of Lee and Queen, but due to their advanced age, jazz fans need to contend with frequent breaks in their program so these jazz veterans can catch some rest and recharge their batteries.
Particularly since his retirement, Glenn Cochrane has become even more involved in local community work. One of his early introductions to charity work was when he purchased a wooden hand-carved rocking horse from a local artist, sold draw tickets for the horse and raised $500 for the Beaches Library, a local community institution that the entire Beach neighbourhood is very proud of.
Centre 55, a local community centre and social services agency, is another one of Glenn’s endeavours: he is the Chairman the Board of Centre 55 and claims that he is not a dominant figure in the running of this important organization. He defers all the credit for the work of this institution to Bob Murdoch, the executive director, who in Glenn’s words, doesn’t like to be praised. Gene Domagala, who I recently interviewed, and Glenn Cochrane were both voted “Citizens of the Year” in consecutive years (2001 and 2002) and Glenn says that they are very good friends. Glenn regularly volunteers as the master of ceremony for the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony and he also donates his time to the Jazzfest Winegarden Fundraiser and many other local causes.
One of Glenn’s important causes is architectural preservation, and along with Gene Domagala they almost singlehandedly saved the famous Leuty Lifesaving Station from sure destruction. Glenn explains that when the city no longer deems a building useful they bestow it with “benign neglect” which sometimes results in the destruction of a historic building. In this case a committee of concerned citizens led by Glenn Cochrane and Gene Domagala started a major fundraising drive to save the Leuty Lifesaving Station. The campaign was called “SOS” (“Save Our Station”) and through the sale of mugs, t-shirts (“by the truck load”, as Glenn says) and a wide variety of special events, the group raised tens of thousands of dollars and the Leuty Lifesaving Station was saved. He even organized several harp concerts as fundraisers. The historic structure was completely saved in all its glory; the only difference to the original version was the installation of a female change room, reflecting the fact that times had changed and that lifesaving today was no longer an exclusively male domain.
Another fundraising event involved a replica of the Leuty Lifesaving Station: slightly bigger than a garden shed, the “Little Leuty” would be given away in a draw to the lucky winner, and the funds raised went to important local causes. A woman finally ended up winning the draw and the “Little Leuty” found a welcome spot in her backyard as a playhouse for your young daughter. Creative fundraising has long been one of Glenn Cochrane’s strengths.
Community action kicked into high gear again when the Greenwood Racetrack lands were closed in 1993, and demolition was set to start. Glenn and a group of concerned citizens lobbied to turn the former race track area into parkland. Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprising considering this was prime real estate, the lobbying effort failed, and the developments of new townhouses and condos on the former race track lands went ahead. However, the developers were open to the idea of integrating some space for the community, and according to Glenn, this sent an important signal that Beach residents were not just going to be pushed around.
We discussed that residents of the Beach are very protective of their neighbhourhood and would like to keep it the way it is. Currently, the neighbourhood is experiencing some degree of controversy over a new proposed program called “Come in from the Cold” which would have homeless people pend one night in a local church in the Beach. The program has already been operational in other parts of the city. A small group of local residents has expressed concern about this initiative, and there has been some negative media attention, accusing Beachers of having a certain NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) attitude.
On the other hand, a drop-in program that is open to homeless people and various disadvantaged residents, has been successfully in operation for the last 6 years. Four churches in the Beach and the Beach Hebrew Institute each open their oors once a week from Monday to Friday, welcoming anyone off the street to a healthy and nutritious lunch that is run by local volunteers. Glenn’s wife Jean regularly volunteers for this program and helps prepare the meals for this drop-in program.
Glenn further explains that it is a common misconception that everyone who lives in the Beach is wealthy. There are a significant number of low-income families in the Beach and a variety of community programs is dedicated to helping impoverished residents. One of the most important ones is Centre 55’s Christmas program which delivers food and toys to hundreds of low income families. Glenn’s wife Jean has also been very involved in the Neighbourhood Link Support Services, a ommunity organization that helps seniors, newcomers, unemployed and homeless individuals and provides transportation services to seniors. Many businesses in the Beach are ongoing supporters of Neighbourhood Link Support Services – the spirit of charity and neighbourly help is alive and well in the Beach.
In addition, both Jean and Glenn Cochrane are highly respected authors: Jean has penned a book about Kensington, one of Toronto’s colourful neighbourhoods. In 2005 Glenn published his book “Glenn Cochrane – Tales of Toronto” which features a history of Toronto that won’t be found in travel guides or city archives. Glenn is currently working on another book, as yet untitled, which will be about the Beach and hopefully will be available later this year.
What I really enjoyed about meeting Glenn Cochrane (and his wife Jean) was that they so graciously opened their home to me and so freely shared their stories and insights. Glenn and I share a passion about Toronto, our respective chosen home towns, and he most willingly shared his stories and experiences with me, another writer who loves to celebrate Toronto and its neighbourhoods. When I mentioned that to Glenn he simply said “The more the merrier”. Toronto can probably use as much support from as many different people as it can get.
After our conversation we put on our heavy winter coats and headed out for a nice walk in the neighbourhood. We emerged on Queen Street near Beech Avenue where Glen pointed out Quigley’s Pub, a neighbourhood institution for good food and entertainment. A few doors down is Ed’s Ice cream, a real success story in the Beach, and a place that I have visited many a time for a sinfully sweet treat. From there we walked south towards the Balmy Beach Club where Glenn invited me into this private members club which, in his words, has the “best patio in all of Toronto”. Talking about Toronto and our mutual observations, we then strolled further east on the boardwalk, past the “Legend of the Lake” mural that adorns the south wall of the Balmy Beach Club.
Having reached the end of the Boardwalk we turned around and headed back west to the former location of the Scarbourough Beach Amusement Club that is marked today with a historic plaque. Just across the street are some older apartment buildings with a long history (including the Ramona and the Hubbard Street Apartment Buildings, named after one of the first black City Councillors in Toronto’s history). Up we strolled on Wineva Avenue, named after daughters Winnie and Eva of one of the Beaches early residents and then headed back east on Queen Street.
There is no doubt that Glenn Cochrane is an expert on the Beach, and he gives a lot back to his beloved neighbourhood. I for one can’t wait to read all the stories in his upcoming book on the Beach.