By Christina Leadlay. This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2021 edition of New Edinburgh News
This year marks 10 years since fire gutted a section of Beechwood Avenue between MacKay and Crichton Streets. On Mar. 16, 2011, fire started in the basement of the Home Hardware store. All told, six businesses were lost, a number of people were left homeless, and countless others were evacuated or affected by the disaster. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and many of the businesses have since relocated within the community.
New Edinburgh News reached out to some of those people affected by the fire to ask them all:
What is your lasting memory from the Beechwood fire of 2011, and what did you learn about the community in the aftermath?
Below are their answers, which have been edited for length and content.
Heather Matthews, owner of Sconewitch (35 Beechwood Ave.)
“Around 10 o’clock that morning I noticed a lone police car parked across Beechwood Avenue at MacKay. The officer was standing in the middle of the street facing the hardware store. He was soon joined by a single firetruck. I couldn’t see anything happening from outside my shop until moments later when the smoke poofed out of the second floor [of the hardware store] and emergency vehicles began to arrive from all directions.
At 10 p.m. I stood in the Metro parking lot with neighbours and watched as the fire fighters poured water on the dying embers of some of my earliest childhood memories. [The fire] had a devastating impact on local business. Sales at the SconeWitch took seven years to recover to pre-fire levels.
Eric Passmore, store manager at Nature’s Buzz (relocated to 55 Beechwood Ave.)
“It was a surreal day losing our shop to the fire. It took us nine months to reopen and there was a ton of risk involved with that effort. However, when we did finally open our doors again, we were met with nothing but support and kindness from this incredible Beechwood community!”
Tracey Black, owner of Epicuria (relocated to 357 St Laurent Blvd.)
“My lasting memory of the Beechwood fire was watching a traffic webcam of the scene until the early morning hours and seeking information the following day as many of us tried to understand the impact of what had happened. I recall the real loss felt by the neighbourhood, and customers continuing to call months later to see how we were doing. The value our community places on its small businesses really hit home when we reopened a year later, and struggled during the first few days to keep the shelves stocked!”
Kellyann Riley, barber at Lester’s Barbershop (now owner of Kelly’s Barber & Beauty and KBB Boutique, 30 Marier Ave.)
“My lasting memory of the Beechwood fire is just being there and watching your life change in front of you and not really realizing that’s what was happening. Lester’s shop was fine for most of the day, and then it wasn’t. I kept thinking ‘We’ll be back in a little bit,’ but of course that wasn’t the case.
I learned two things when it was all said and done: that block really was a hub and represented what Beechwood was known for: community. The support from everyone before, during and after the fire has never ceased to amaze me, even after all this time. People live and breathe Beechwood and I think that is a very special thing you don’t see very much anymore.”
Paul Williams, owner of the New Edinburgh Pub (now owner of Whispers Pub, 249 Richmond Rd. in Westboro)
“My lasting memory of that day was the fear that the wind would change direction and take out the Pub. I’ll never forget the number of emergency vehicles and the acrid smell in the air.
Now your question regarding what I learned about our community: ‘Generosity’ comes to mind. It was a pleasure for [my wife] Tracy and myself to operate a business in New Edinburgh for 26 years. It always felt like we were in a small village. The village came together for our fundraiser, helping to raise over $20,000 for the victims of the fire. It’s a very close knit community where everyone looks to help out others. We have many examples of the charitable acts from this amazing community.”
Leesa Sereda, tenant at 409 MacKay (now living near the Central Experimental Farm)
“One of my lasting memories is the week-long physical exertion and trauma of working alongside a professional restoration team to remove all my belongings from my soot-contaminated apartment. The community was very generous in donating over $30,000.
The board of the Crichton Cultural Community Centre [now NECTAR] was very thoughtful in their distribution of these monies amongst the affected tenants, considering individual situations. The annual Lumière Festival on Aug. 20, 2011 offered an opportunity to show appreciation to the community, so I installed solar-powered lanterns in the trees spelling out ‘thank you’ on behalf of myself and the other affected tenants. It was comforting for me to see people stop by and I hoped that they appreciated its significance.”
Joan Mason, then-president of the New Edinburgh Community Alliance (NECA)
“That day, we lost one small block of shops that met most of the community’s needs. It was a fun place and we all cared for each other. Like New Edinburgh, it was a rare survival! The smoke was toxic, but so were the months of broken promises and insincere consultations, until we ended up with just another concrete canyon. We can only hope that the huge changes that the world is experiencing will right many wrongs. New Edinburgh was a superb template of a walkable, workable community.”
Cindy Parkanyi, editor of the New Edinburgh News (now president of NECA)
“After the initial shock of this devastating event, what struck me most was how quickly the community was able to mobilize to provide help to those directly affected. The Crichton Cultural Community Centre (precursor to NECTAR) quickly sprang into action to be a central point for gathering information from those in need of help and those offering help. The New Edinburgh Pub, and specifically Paul and Tracy Williams, put together a fundraising event, which was extremely well-attended.
At the time, we had no idea how long and how deep the effects to our main street would be, particularly in what was once a vibrant and community-centre shopping area – now a veritable retail dead zone, with more like it coming (the Claridge project comes to mind) if we don’t shake some sense into the City’s planning department and committee. It is odd that the lasting effects of a devastating fire would resemble so closely the current pervasive transformation of our 15-minute neighbourhoods.”
Due to concerns about the smoke’s toxicity, residents from the nearby New Edinburgh Square (NES) retirement residence had to be evacuated overnight. Some residents shared their memories of that experience:
Archie Bowen and his wife were having her birthday meal at Fraser Café. Archie calls a police cruiser and a fire truck pulling up in front of the restaurant. Officers came in. Was the retirement home threatened, they wondered? “We had seen a lot of smoke on our way to the restaurant,” he remembers. “It was a very exciting dinner. We hadn’t counted on the entertainment.” Shortly afterward, the Bowens moved into NES where their apartment afforded a sad view of the devastation just across the street.
“It happened so quickly,” recalls NES resident Deborah Sparks of Mar. 16, 2011. She remembers feeling a sense of concern when the amount of heavy and thick smoke continued to drift into the NES building. She was so appreciative of all the people who helped with the evacuation including all the NES staff, the fire department and The Good Companions. Miss Sparks still very much misses all the village-like stores, including the hardware, bakery, and ice cream shop. The eyesore of the building’s remains that remained for so long was always a sad reminder of what was lost.
“We sure miss the convenience of those friendly little shops,” says Bob McLachlan, who in 2011 had been living for just over a year at NES with his wife Marg. Bob was at the dentist when Marg phoned with news of the fire. When the order came for all NES residents to be evacuated due to the fire’s toxic smoke, Bob, Marg and the little retirement community were soon being smoothly evacuated by bus to the safety of a staging facility nearby.
From there, they were quickly despatched to stay a few days with family, friends or at a local hotel. Bob recalls people scurrying in and out of the gallery at the corner of Beechwood and MacKay, carrying paintings to a waiting van. And there was a certain NES staff member, a server whom everyone called Big Sam, who greeted every arriving evacuee at the staging centre with a most enthusiastic hug. “Maybe it’s the sense of collective vulnerability, but people do seem to close ranks when they are threatened like that,” Bob recalls.
The day after the evacuation, resident Joyce Lowe returned a bit too early the day only to discover NES had not been cleared by the Fire Chief for the residents to return. Happily, she found The Clocktower Pub was open! Joyce was deeply saddened by the loss of so many valuable small businesses in our community, but she continues to make a point to buy local and support our community. –with files from Keith Newton and Catherine Scrivens-Bourque