I grew up in Huron Heights.
I spent my first 18 years in the suburb known as Hillcrest, just east of Kipps Lane. It was the definition of 1980s suburbia, filled with middle-class brick single-family homes, free-range children, a local shopping plaza, and huge swaths of woodland for doing dangerous things with no parental supervision.
My mother, a boomer, had grown up in Old North, and she would tell me about how when she was a little girl, this whole east end neighbourhood had seemed like it was outside the city, a long drive from my grandmother’s house — which was really only a ten-minute commute. The reason it seemed detached from the city was because, even into the 1970s, much of the area was undeveloped and remained open fields, farmland, or orchards. Grandpa would drive his family past St. Peter’s Cemetery, where I would later ride my bike and not much else.
The only other thing out there, past the K-Mart where Grandma bought her five children discount clothes, were some sporadic houses, and the Grove at Clarke Sideroad and Huron Street, which had a rural schoolhouse and a church. It really was, at the time, out in the country. The area wasn’t even part of the City of London until 1961.
Early Days in Huron Heights
Non-Indigenous settlers began accepting land grants in the Huron Heights area as soon as the 1820s. Some early names that would have been recognizable to Londoners were Tackabury and Webster. This agricultural area became known as The Grove and was marked on maps as such at the main intersection of Clarke Road and Huron Road. Here would later be built the Grove Church and the Grove School.
The Grove Cemetery can still be found on Huron Street, between Highbury and Sandford on the south side. It was very much a rural area, and residents felt more affinity to those in the eastern lying town of Thorndale and Nissouri Township than they did London.
Towards the 1870s, the rolling vistas and river views appealed to wealthy London families like the Whites, who owned an agricultural machinery empire, and others who bought parcels of land to build countryside get-aways or summer homes. Many of these manors were elaborate, built of unique stones taken from the river bed, or featuring the most stylish architectural details of the time. Some built multiple cottages on their land for extended family, creating private camping areas.
The Blackburns, who owned the London Free Press, were late to the party and bought an estate in the 1920s. Most of the properties came off Kilally Road, which became known as a rather posh address. The heritage value of these manors has protected that area to some extent over decades of expansion, so developers first began creating Huron Heights southeast of Kilally Road.
Suburbia Begins in the Northeast End
Beginning with the post-war cottages of the 1940s, farmers parcelled off their land and sold it to developers, who created subdivisions, along with the K-Mart plaza my mom and her family used to drive out to at Huron & Highbury.
Bungalows like the one I was raised in were built in the 1950s. Then, higher density housing geared to lower incomes was built in the 1960s with the construction of townhouses along Kipps Lane and Boullee Street.
The shopping mall popped up too. From about the age of twelve, I used to bum around Northland Mall, which had the city’s last real vintage black & white photo booth until about 2007.
Nearby was a movie theatre — the Huron Marketplace, where I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the He-Man movie, and Forrest Gump. And there was a Zellers complete with a restaurant, where smoking seniors sat and ate jello in little glass cups.
Across the street at the K-Mart plaza was another 1960s creation, the Huron House, a much-loved landmark restaurant run by Jimmy “the Greek” Agathos. He started out as a cook at Hotel London when he immigrated to Canada after WWII, and wisely had the forethought to put his new establishment out where it would reach Londoners as the city grew.
It was a pretty cool joint, with interior brick archways and a Sunday buffet. There were murals of Greece on the walls. I liked how the main restaurant felt like a speakeasy, hidden through a hallway at the back of the front-facing diner, which was decorated with pictures of all the sports teams Jimmy had sponsored over the years. You could rent banquet rooms and have your wedding there, and drunk guests could sneak over to the adjacent pub called Jimmy’s Corner.
Jimmy became a legend. When developers tried to force him out of the Huron Heights plaza, he refused to leave, with local support behind him. As a result, he single-handedly determined the development of the southeast corner of Huron & Highbury for about twenty years. The restaurant is now closed, but it was an unchanging icon for Huron Heights for half a century.
Fighting for Green Space
A debate began in the 1970s as the Ontario Housing Corporation owned a large piece of land in the boundaries of Adelaide and Barker, Kipps Lane and Huron. The OHC was going to build affordable housing there, but rising crime rates and a high turnover in tenants in the rentals on Kipps Lane led homeowners in the surrounding area to object.
The chorus became even louder when more townhouses and highrises were built at Briarhill and Huron. Residents were worried that the city planning office was allowing what they referred to as a “ghetto” to develop. They instead wanted a massive park and conservation area, one to rival Springbank and take advantage of access to the north branch of the Thames River. In the end, they ended up with mostly split-level single-family homes and Ed Blake Park.
By the time I lived there in the 1980s, the area had developed pretty much the same temperament it has today. Middle-class houses were interspersed with low-income high-density housing. There was a Pizza Hut and a No Frills. I went to Blockbuster to flirt with a cute teen boy from Thorndale who worked there (and would later become my husband). It felt safe and banally Canadian.
The Battle of Kilally Road
I spent hours tromping around in a marshy forest we called “the ravine” just north of our house and down the Highbury hill. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was an environmentally unique woodland filled with 200-year-old black maples and soft-shell turtles. My mother would show us the beaver dam, and I would look for fairies in the brush. We watch tadpoles skim the water in offshoots from the river. The hours I spent in that landscape made a fundamental mark on my concept of beauty, how I interacted with nature, and my ideal sense of home.
Imagine how horrified I was when I heard that my favourite place in the world, the ravine, was going to be destroyed by developers. I wasn’t the only one. There was a massive outcry from the neighbourhood, including petitions and stand-offs at planning committee meetings. My father ranted about how all the houses “down there” would be in a flood plain anyway, and would all be destroyed eventually.
I was ignorant of the battles fought by the McIlraith Naturalist Society (now Nature London), taken all the way to the Ontario Municipal Board, to halt the destruction of what was a remarkable habitat and natural landscape. The failure to save this land parcel only reinforced the ideas of working-class residents that city hall never listened to them anyway, and we all went on with our lives.
A Sense of History
The battle for the ravine did urge my parents to tell me more about the area as we zipped up Kilally Road on our way to church on Sundays. This wasn’t just a boring old suburb, they told me. They pointed out stone houses along the backroad, made with rocks taken from the Thames, and the grand estates occupied by the Blackburns and the Ontario Premier David Peterson.
Wealthy London families like these, and others whose names are no longer familiar for the modern reader, had built summer homes there, starting in the late 1800s. These rolling green hills and elegant manors were just around the corner from the local high school, and I recalled even then my mother’s stories about driving out to K-Mart in the 1960s and felt that this was the equivalent of her experience, twenty years later. I wondered what would be built there someday, destroying those vistas and those heritage houses.
We sometimes rode our bikes up Kilally to sneak into the Fanshawe Conservation area and see the fireworks. Back then, it was pretty easy to do, and the moral dubiousness of the parent-sanctioned-breaking-into-a-government-parkland was an exciting adventure.
Riding up Kilally, it felt like we travelled back in time, to when Huron Heights was nothing but farmer’s fields, rich men’s estates, country roads, and groves of ancient trees.
Feature Photo of Shopping Plaza Construction at Huron & Highbury in 1962, courtesy of Western University Archives via historypin.org.
The London Neighbourhood Histories series aims to highlight and chronicle some of the rich, layered heritage of many of London’s neighbourhoods, the diverse individuals who have lived within them, and the events that have impacted their development. The series is made possible by the Community Heritage Investment Program (CHIP) through the London Heritage Council and the City of London.