Friday, August 16, 2013

Notre Dame Avenue at Victor Street - Jacob Penner Park

On Saturday, August 17 come check out Jacob Penner Park and my next Random Act of Heritage during SummerFest !

Jacob Penner Park

Place: Notre Dame Park / Jacob Penner Park
Address: Notre Dame Avenue at Victor Street
Established: 1894

This four-acre site on Notre Dame Avenue between Victor and McGee Streets was one of the "original eight" pieces of land purchased in 1893 - 94 by Winnipeg's first Parks Board to establish a city park system. The other seven sites would become Fort Rouge Park, Central Park, Victoria Park, St. John's Park, Selkirk Park, Dufferin Park, and St. James Park.

The city paid $4,500 for the property which was not fit for much other than a park. It was low-lying and swampy; unsuitable for residential or commercial development. (It was a similar situation to the land that became Central Park.)

The area around the park wasn't fully subdivided for residential development until around 1905 when city sewer and water arrived. Through the 1890s the city allowed exclusive use of most of the site to private individuals in exchange for making improvements such as building fences and otherwise maintaining the property. 

In 1900 when residential development started to appear, the city resumed control.

Above: England's Elms ca. 1910 (source)
Below: April 14, 1905, Winnipeg Free Press

The south-east corner of the site was put into use right away. In 1894 it became home to the city's greenhouse and plant nursery under the supervision of the city's first Park Superintendent and City Gardener David D. England

England, originally from Scotland, was responsible for growing all of the plants that filled the city's parks and other high profile spaces like city hall square. He also chose the elm as the city's tree of choice and oversaw the transplantation of tens of thousands of them from the nursery to city boulevards and parks. 

Though he foresaw a day when the city's green spaces would be filled with indigenous species of plants, flowers and grasses, for the time being, most of his work involved determining what foreign species could be grown here.
Notre Dame Park gardens ca. 1922

In 1904 the park underwent some major improvements. The swampier parts were drained and 2,000 cart loads of earth were brought to fill it in. This allowed for additional greenhouse space, the installation of public walks and the creation of experimental gardens. Addressing the Parks Board in March 1905, England said:

“...there are thousands of plants and perennials being tested, which make the park very interesting and instructive and hundreds of people go there for no other purpose than to see the trials and the varieties” 

March 17, 1905, Winnipeg Free Press

December 22, 1906, Winnipeg Free Press

Though well respected for his green thumb, England was a poor manager. There was growing tension between him and the parks board over employee performance and questionable spending. It came to a head late in 1922 when he was accused of using parks employees and funds to make improvements to his own property. It was a charge that England denied.

Despite the anger of most board members, as a favour for his fourteen years of service he was given an opportunity to resign moments before tehy voted to dismaiss him. That allowed him to collect two months severance.

England soon found himself in Victoria for a brief stint as their Parks Superintendent then he moved to Los Angeles where he did landscaping for private estates. He died in L.A. on June 18, 1929.

Jacob Penner Park

In the mid-1920s the greenhouses and nursery were moved to Assiniboine Park. The 1912 era warehouse and workshop were expanded in 1929 to include a vehicle garage.

The park space nearly disappeared in 1930. It was chosen as the runner-up site for the city's proposed Public Baths No. 2. When negotiations for the preferred site on Sherbrook Street bogged down, the city walked away from the table and settled on Notre Dame. The Board of Trade pressured the city into trying one last time to get the Sherbrook Street land. They did and the park was spared. 

Circa 1947 (source)

With the Sherbrook Pool's construction underway, the city focused on making further improvements to Notre Dame Park. The small playground was expanded and on July 2, 1931 a thousand children flocked there for the opening day of the new wading pool.

May 2, 1938, Winnipeg Free Press

In the 1930s the warehouse became headquarters for the city's mosquito fighting campaign. At the time, mosquito control consisted of a fleet of trucks pouring oil into standing ponds and ditches around the city to kill the larvae.

Through the decades the park received numerous upgrades but the footprint has remaiend essentiially the same.  

Source: MHS

In 2000 the park was renamed in honour of Jacob Penner.

Jacob and Rose Penner came to Canada in 1904 from their native Russia and settled in Winnipeg where they became increasingly concerned with the plight of the city’s poor and working class. Jacob, an accountant by trade, felt that political activism was the best way to achieve improvements. he was a labour organizer during the Winnipeg General Strike and a founder of the Socialist and Communist parties of Canada. 

In 1934 he was elected to Winnipeg city council representing Ward 3 (the North End) as a Communist.  Even though the position of alderman was part-time, he gave up his job to serve full-time on his $25 per month city salary. He fought for quality, affordable housing and a better treatment for working men and families.

June 12, 1940, Winnipeg Tribune

Penner served until 1940 when he was arrested under Ottawa’s wartime Defense of Canada Regulations for being a “known and dangerous communist” and was interred in Quebec for 22 months. Upon his release he was re-elected to his old seat and remained on council until he retired in 1961. Another Communist, Joe Zuken, was elected to the seat in the October 1961 election.

Penner died on August 28, 1965.

May 9, 2000, Winnipeg Free Press

The decision to rename the park wasn't without controversy. Councillor Garth Steek voted against it stating that "If more people like him had been elected we wouldn't be sitting here right now", (Winnipeg Free Press, May 9, 2000.)

Free Press editorial writer Tom Oleson also connected Penner with atrocities that happened in the USSR. He write "That he was a communist is without doubt and it is a fact of life that we cannot get around and still maintain any sort of moral integrity", (Winnipeg Free Press, May 13, 2000.)

Most realized that it was his community service, not politics in the USSR, that was being honoured and the decision to rename the park passed. On August 25, 2000, with son Roland Penner in attendance, the park was renamed in a small ceremony. The plaque inside the park reads:

"Jacob Penner, city alderman 1934 - 1962. He dedicated himself to the people of the city he loved so well."

 Jacob Penner Park

In recent years the park had become run down in places. In 2011 it was announced the it would receive up to $225,000 in renovations supported y both levels of government under the Building Communities Initiative. The city worked with community groups like the Daniel McIntyre St. Matthews Community Association and Spence Nieghbourhood Association to find out form residents what they wanted in an improved park.

Jacob Penner Park Renos

In summer 2013 construction began on new pathways, a half-court basketball court and a skateboard park. new furniture and a community garden were also added.

The park re-opened in August 2013.

Still to come: more historic photos and newspaper articles !


No comments:

Post a Comment