The Heritage of Riverdale & Playter Estate
Riverdale, formerly known as Riverside, was a small village and a home for a very rural community. That all changed by the 1850s when the Grand Truck Railway put down tracks through the area. Many industries opened soon after, bringing a mass of working class families and people in need of a job. The first homes built south of the tracks were for these workers and their families.
Just north of the Riverside village was the estate of George Henry Playter, a Loyalist captain that moved to the area in 1793. The Playter clan lived there for a long time, and one of Captain Playter’s descendants, John Lea Playter, built the farm house that still sits today at 28 Playter Crescent. The home is currently undergoing a major restoration project with the construction of a massive brick addition at the back of the original house.
The Playter Mansion, before it went under many modifications. Photo credits: Andy66
In 1884, Riverside became Riverdale, as part of the bigger city of Toronto. The amalgamation brought richer Torontonians to the neighbourhood, but the real rush of people happened some years later, in 1918, with the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct. That bridge, along with the rest of the city brought the golden age of the new eastern Toronto. Riverdale became a very popular neighbourhood.
The Prince Edward Viaduct under construction in 1918. Photo credits: City of Toronto Archives
By the 1970s, many of the homes had fallen into disrepair. The Victorian and Edwardian grand homes were a vague testimony of the long gone wealthy residents. In time, Riverdale got back on track stimulated by the arrival of a new artistic community.
Navigating the Area
Riverdale is considered a fairly large neighbourhood bounded by Jones Avenue to the East – Lake Shore Boulevard to the south – Playter Estate and a portion of Greektown to the north – Don River Valley to the west. This area also encompasses East Chinatown, Studio District and South Riverdale. Also part of Riverdale, as a satellite neighbour, is the Jones Pocket. It is bordered by Danforth to the north, Pape to the west, Greenwood to the east and CN Railway tracks to the south. This area is call “the Pocket” by its residents, a more affordable counterpart to Riverdale.
For people using public transportation, there are two ways to enter Riverdale from the downtown core: the subway and the streetcar. On Danforth Avenue, the Bloor-Danforth subway line has the Broadview, Chester, Pape, Donlands and Greenwood stations. Streetcars or buses are also available with regular service offered on Broadview, Queen, Gerrard, Carlaw, Greenwood and Jones.
Commuters owning a car are surrounded by easy to access expressways and boulevards… when traffic is good! Rush hours in the morning and in the afternoon can bring traffic to a snails pace.
Riverdale is a good example of Toronto’s ethnic diversity. Food, history and culture from around the world can be found within couple blocks. Greektown, along Danforth Avenue, offers a diverse selection of restaurants, shops and businesses that are owned by Greek families. On Gerrard Street, East Chinatown, offers a quieter version of Spadina’s Chinatown, and is known for its many fresh food markets.
Riverdale offers a lot of greenery throughout the area with many grand Victorian houses framed by mature trees. There are many parks in the area, including Riverdale Park, Withrow Park and Jimmie Simpson Park. The largest one is Riverdale Park, which borders along the Don River. A good portion of the park almost disappeared in the 1970s when the city was planning on building a large stadium. Thanks to local resistance, the project was rejected and later renamed “SkyDome”, which was built downtown.
Another major attraction of Riverdale is its incredible view. The entire west border has a natural geographic slope, looking toward the Don Valley. It creates the perfect panorama on the downtown high-rise buildings.
Also located on the western border is one of Toronto’s oldest public buildings, the Don Jail. Built just before the Canadian Confederation in c1862, this jail was designed by the architect William Thomas. This landmark is an exceptional structure, almost unchanged since it was first opened. Nowadays, the Bridgepoint Health Foundation is incorporating the famous jail to its facility. Once finished, the jail will be accessible to the public, but will be mostly an administrative centre for the hospital.
The distinctive facade of Don Jail, in 1950. Photo credits: City of Toronto Archives
Situated next to the jail is the Riverdale Public Library. If not for the books, one should go there to enjoy its architecture! This branch of the Toronto Library was actually a Carnegie gift. In 1903, the Carnegie Corporation of New York granted $350,000 for a new central library. In 1910, the new Riverdale branch was opened to the public. Since 1977, this wonderful structure is listed on the Toronto Historical Board’s Inventory of Heritage Properties.
The Riverdale Public Library, seen here circa 1910. Photo credits: Toronto Public Library
It’s in this neighbourhood, on Broadway Avenue, that we can find one of the oldest residential houses of Toronto still on its original site. In 1807, John Cox built his little cabin for his family. The house went through some renovations and changes during the Victorian era, but it is still used today as a private house. One interior wall at the rear of the residence highlights the original structure that John Cox built himself.
John Cox cottage, on Broadview Avenue. Photo credits: Snuffy
Unlike many other neighbourhoods, Riverdale never experienced the full inner city residential collapse, even during times of working class poverty, or a downturn in the 70s. This may be explained by the presence of the Don River, which protected Riverdale’s tree-lined Victorian streets. While there are some rental towers on Broadview Avenue and other small projects scattered throughout the area, these projects never reached the expansion levels of St. Jamestown, in neighbouring Cabbagetown.
Exemple of a restored house in Playter Estate. Photo credits: Eric Pellerin