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Better than the rest

By Eric Clement

Many Londoners may have never heard of Woodfield, but come late April, it might just become the nicest neighbourhood in Canada.

Wes Kinghorn, chair of the Woodfield Community Association, agreed to show me around the 172-year-old neighbourhood one afternoon to demonstrate why it’s in the running. 

Kinghorn’s infectious knowledge of the pre-Confederation neighbourhood radiated as he walked. His love of Woodfield has even propelled him into a PhD program in heritage districts this coming fall. It was hard to tell who was more eager to hike the 100-year-old streets, Kinghorn or his two-year-old West Highland Terrier, Clover.

But Kinghorn and his four-legged friend are not the only revellers of the well preserved Victorian streetscape.

Thousands of residents of Woodfield are currently awaiting the results of the Great Places in Canada contest. The contest is an annual competition sponsored by the Canadian Institute of Planners recognizing the nation’s favourite streets, public places and neighbourhoods. This year, the competition is stiff with voters choosing from 90 nominated places. The prize consists of gift cards from the contest’s many sponsors but communities are more focused on the honour that goes with being named the best neighbourhood.

Although the votes are no longer listed, the last time anyone checked, Woodfield was in first place.

“There was one night we were having a Robbie Burns party at our house and suddenly we were in the lead,” said Kinghorn. “That shocked us all. We thought, ‘Holy smokes, we’re up here on top!'”

Wes Kinghorn with Clover
Photo by Eric Clement
Wes Kinghorn and his dog, Clover, stand outside his Queen Anne Revival style home in Woodfield, London.

No one can be certain how well the neighbourhood is doing now. In the last days of voting, the website went into a blackout period, and the results were removed from the web. During that time, votes were still being cast.

With locations such as Montreal’s Old Port, Yonge Street in Toronto, parts of Stanley Park in Vancouver and the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper making the list, Woodfield’s victory would be no small accomplishment.

But not everyone is surprised by the underdog’s success.

“We’ve seen a lot of places doing well that maybe a lot of people don’t know about. It really just takes one group to promote it and spread the word,” said Amanda Kutler, a member of the board of directors for Great Places in Canada.

And that’s just what Kinghorn and the community association started doing.

“We got really protective of our lead,” said Kinghorn. During the last days of voting in March, Woodfield’s ‘vote’ button was linked to the city hall webpage, Tourism London and the mayor’s Facebook page. But it was the Twitter page set up in the name of Woodfield’s stuffed groundhog mascot that really got the word out.

“We had people voting in England. We had people voting in Switzerland. It was crazy!”

Almost 1,400 homes are in the neighbourhood encased by Adelaide and Richmond Streets to the east and west and sandwiched to the south and north by Queens Avenue and the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks.

Kinghorn said that in addition to the pristinely preserved Victorian streetscape, it is the tight knit community that makes the neighbourhood so special. Without it, he said, Woodfield would not have done so well.

“I swear it’s the porches, I’ve said it for years,” he said. “Almost every home has some kind of porch. If you’re sitting on this porch and your neighbour is sitting on that porch, you’re just going to talk. Pretty soon you’re up having a glass of wine and pretty soon everyone knows each other.”

As Kinghorn sauntered past an early 20th century bungalow displaying a City of London Heritage Plaque — not uncommon for this neighbourhood –— residents on the front porch made sure to greet him and his pint-sized canine. If there was ever any truth to the East-of-Adelaide myth, it might only be because Woodfield took more than its fair share of neighbourhood charm.

Mouse house
Photo by Eric Clement
Every house in Woodfield has a stamp that makes it unique. This sophisticated three-storey mouse house has been built into the staircase in Kinghorn’s home.

“It’s a super neighbourhood, we’ve got the crème de la crème,” said Dorothy Waltes, who is retired and owns a variety store that has stood in Woodfield since the 1880s.

She’s not kidding.

Over the years, Woodfield has been home to some of London’s biggest names. Both the Ivey and Labatt families once lived in the neighbourhood — near Victoria Park. Hollywood actor Hume Cronyn also grew up in Woodfield. Today, the neighbourhood is home to residents ranging from artists such Tom Benner, builder of the rhino that sits at Museum London, to Order of Canada recipients such as journalist Peter Desbarats.

Woodfield is not just privy to superstars though.

“It’s kind of a mix of established people and students. It’s really nice,” said Fanshawe College student Kaitlin Lamsa. Many residents said that it is because of the co-operation between these different groups that the neighbourhood is doing so well in the contest.

At last count, of the 218,000 votes cast in the competition, Woodfield had almost 27,000 votes and was sitting only 2,000 votes ahead of second place.

But it’s often difficult to keep Toronto out of the spotlight.

In this case, it’s Roncesvalles, a neighbourhood located just east of High Park in Toronto’s west end and known as the centre of the Polish community in the city, that was putting up a fight.

“We feel great about it,” said Keith Denning, co-ordinator of the Roncesvalles Village Business Improvement Area. “We conducted a pretty intense social media campaign, and I know that an awful lot of people in the neighbourhood were enthusiastic participants in the vote.”

And that’s what has Kinghorn concerned.

“On the last day of voting, there was a tweet that went out. It hit about 20,000 people, and someone told me it was then re-tweeted many times. I’ve heard numbers as crazy as 80,000 got this call to vote by the Toronto group,” said Kinghorn.

“Our worry all along was that we were Woodfield here in little London and they were Roncesvalles in huge Toronto. If they ever got the vote together, we’d be in huge trouble.”

Regardless of what the end result may be, residents of the neighbourhood are glad people are talking about Woodfield.

“The prize is really just the bragging rights associated with winning, but so far the support has been amazing,” said Kinghorn.

“However this turns out, we’ve already won.” 


Woodfield tour
Map courtesy of the Woodfield Community Association

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