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Known locally as “Roncy” or “Roncesvalles Village,” this predominantly residential area in the city’s west side has a firm spot among Toronto’s most well-known neighbourhoods. Taking its name from the long commercial thoroughfare which runs north-south through its centre, Roncesvalles is conveniently located, filled with residential amenities, and has plenty of local history.
It has a reputation for being the centre of the Polish community in Toronto, and although prominent Polish businesses and other institutions can still be found in Roncesvalles the community is not as densely Polish as it once was. However, you can still experience the Polish heritage while the Roncesvalles Village Business Improvement Area hold their International Polish Festival.
In this neighbourhood guide on Roncesvalles we’ll start with the history of the neighbourhood and how it came to be what it is today then move onto what life is like for its residents.
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Before Roncesvalles was settled, Toronto’s boundary was Dufferin St.. Although the Dufferin region was sparsely populated, a small village had sprang up along Dundas towards Ossington. Since Dundas St. was the first major highway going west from Toronto, it served as a natural location for settlement.
This village gradually amalgamated with 2 settlements further west in the modern day High Park / Roncesvalles area which started as farm lots given to prominent Toronto families – The Ridout family and John George Howard, the 1st professional architect in Toronto. Since the men worked in the city, much of their land remained unfarmed, resulting in the intact natural beauty seen in High Park today.
The area was originally called Howard Park after the architect who owned it. Although his name is gone from the map his legacy lives on in Colborne Lodge, the cottage he built in 1837, which remains in High Park as a historical museum to this day.
A memory of indigenous presence exists in Roncesvalles in the form of Indian Rd., a street which is named after a trail running through the region that was thought to have been an ancient Mississauga Indian path leading north from Lake Ontario.
By 1850, much of the land North of Queen St. was acquired by Colonel Walter O’Hara, a former British soldier who immigrated to Canada. It was also O’Hara who gave the neighbourhood and many of its streets their names.
The name Roncesvalles itself comes from the Roncesvalles Gorge in Northern Spain where O’Hara had been wounded and captured by the French. Toronto was already taking on a multinational identity with a Spanish name given by an Irishman courtesy of the French.
Although the neighbourhood’s name may be Spanish, the street names are far from it. O’Hara hailed from Ireland and bestowed the names of his Irish family members to the city’s growing number of streets. Among them you’ll find O’Hara, Constance, Sorauren, Marion, and Fermanaugh, the Northern-Irish province the O’Hara clan comes from.
Present day Roncesvalles is really a product of the street-car which came to the neighbourhood in the early 1900’s. With viable public transport, the area quickly became a recognized family neighbourhood. Nearby industry provided employment for the mostly British immigrants, and community life was largely built around the landmark St.Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church.
It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that Roncesvalles would get the Eastern European charm and character for which it known. An influx of immigrants, mostly Polish, settled and built their own church St. Casimir’s after a Polish patriot and early settler of Toronto who was instrumental in building Toronto’s road and railway infrastructure.
The major North-South promenade and commercial hub of the neighbourhood, which shares its name, Roncesvalles Ave. is an iconic fixture of Toronto’s West End. On weekends this street is filled with pedestrians strolling and enjoying the area with a vibe not unlike what you would find in The Beaches or Queen St. West. Further north near Bloor St. is the street’s commercial centre while the southern part of Roncesvalles Ave. is predominantly residential, giving it a more balanced feeling than some of the city’s other pedestrian thoroughfares.
St. Casimir’s Polish Church
Following the influx of new Polish families settling in west Toronto following WWII, the local Polish community immediately identified the need for a place of worship in Roncesvalles. By 1948, the land for St. Casimir’s was purchased and not long after that the church was ready. It takes its name from Casimir Gzowski, a Polish-Canadian patriot, and continues to serve Toronto’s Polish community.
The Revue Cinema is Toronto’s oldest operational cinema. Built over a century ago during the theatre building boom, it ran for years as a regular cinema before serving as a repertory cinema from the 80’s onwards. Due to the rise of personal media players, the owners could no longer sustain the business and it closed in 2006. Fortunately, two community members bought this piece of Toronto’s heritage and endowed it to the Revue Film Society who run it as a non-profit. Although Toronto has plenty to offer residents with both TIFF and Hot Docs, no self-respecting Toronto film buff should miss this true piece of cinema history in our city.
The “Central Park of the North” serves residents from all over the city, especially in the summer months or during the annual blossom bloom which brings droves of Instagram users hungry for that perfect shot. It’s a perfect place for practically any outdoor activity, from taking a break from the sights of the city to playing sports or even catching Shakespeare in the Park. There’s really too much going on in High Park to list, especially since it’s not technically even in Roncesvalles!
St. Joseph’s Health Centre
An iconic building on the waterfront, St. Joseph’s is a large Catholic Teaching hospital which marks the beginning of both Queen St. going east and Roncesvalles going north. The story of how the hospital came to be is an interesting one, with the land first being used as the Sacred Heart Orphanage which opted to convert part of it’s space to a hospital in order to stop the city from expropriating its land for use as a high school. The city still got its high school further north by Bloor St., but now residents also have access to a full-service hospital.
St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church
Although it is also a Roman Catholic Church, St. Vincent de Paul predates St. Casimir’s Church yet has a remarkably similar story. Following the 1st large wave of non-British immigration to Toronto in the early 20th Century, there were enough Catholics in the city to warrant a parish in the western part of the city. With a more imposing facade than its Polish “child parish” St. Vincent de Paul is one of the preeminent landmarks along Roncesvalles Ave. as well as one of the most recognizable historical buildings in the area.
High Park Branch of the Toronto Public Library
As one of Toronto’s Carnegie Libraries, the High Park Branch of The Toronto Public Library features an architectural style which will be familiar to many Torontonians. In service for over 100 years, the library has been remodelled and expanded to better serve the needs of Toronto’s growing population. Today it not only serves as a local landmark and piece of Toronto’s heritage but offers community programs, a large library catalogue, and the city’s largest public collection of Polish-language library books.
Pope John Paul II Statue
Universally revered and practically venerated in the Polish community, Pope John Paul II has a unique place in the hearts and minds of Polish-Canadians. To commemorate the Pope’s 1st visit to Canada in 1984, the statue was erected by the Polish community in front of what is now the Polish Credit Union.
The oldest of the TTC’s active carhouses, the Roncesvalles TTC Maintenance Facility services the city’s busy streetcars on numerous routes. It’s fitting that the carhouse is located at the nexus of some of the city’s busiest routes – the 501 Queen St. and 504 King St. routes. The facility’s history is long and intricate, but it started its service life as a Toronto Railway Company service centre before being taken over by the then-new TTC in 1921.
Jami Mosque Toronto
In a neighbourhood seemingly dominated by Roman Catholic heritage and culture, there’s still plenty of room for a Mosque. Jami Mosque’s status as the oldest Canadian Islamic Centre in the city has earned it the title, “mother of all the mosques in Toronto.” Curiously, the building began as a Presbyterian Church before it was purchased in 1969 by a small and predominantly Balkan muslim community to be converted into a mosque.
Take A Stroll Down Roncesvalles
There’s always something happening on Roncesvalles Ave. Its reputation as a pedestrian thoroughfare brings people from all over the city to peruse the local fare. Watch the street life from a patio, try one of the authentic local restaurants, or just grab a coffee on your way to the park or beach.
Go Visit High Park
There’s something happening and something to do at High Park year round. It truly has the diversity of activities befitting a world-class city like Toronto. Picnicking, birding, biking, playing sports, visiting the zoo – there’s really too much to list. You can visit the High Park website for more details of what to do, but one activity that definitely stands out is the annual Sakura Bloom which brings droves of amateur photographers, Instagrammers, and nature enthusiasts to overrun the park. If you’re going to go, be prepared for the crowds.
Hit The Beach!
It may not hold a candle to Woodbine Beach in the city’s east end but for a major metropolitan area, Sunnyside Beach is a terrific place to go out and enjoy the outdoors. Located at the foot of Roncesvalles Ave. you’ll find a stretch of sandy beach as well as parkland spanning several kilometers. There’s plenty to do other than merely enjoy the outdoors, too. With an outdoor pool, tennis club, paddleboard rental, and more, there’s no shortage of excitement by the water.
Check Out Sorauren Avenue Park + Gallery 345
Sorauren Park may be modest in comparison to High Park’s rolling expanse, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in local charm and culture. It’s much more of a local spot and it’s great for a light stroll or a more active outing. There are public tennis courts, a soccer pitch, and a baseball diamond if more organized sports are your thing, but you can also see if anything is on at the adjacent Gallery 345, a local arts gallery and culture venue that usually has a static exhibition in addition to performances and events.
Check Out Colborne Lodge
If history is your thing, John Howard’s former cottage-turned-museum is for you. After the architect’s death in 1890, the became property of the city which eventually turned it into a museum. There is a small entry fee, but for a few dollars you can explore the world of 19th century technology, innovation, urban planning, science, and design right where it all took place.
Visit The Farmers Market
These days no residential neighbourhood seems complete without a farmers market. Luckily for Roncesvalles residents, Sorauren Farmers Market happens weekly at Sorauren Park – year round! Thanks to City of Toronto facilities, the market can run throughout the year, giving you a great excuse to get out of the house and access to over 20 great local vendors offering everything from fruit & veg to honey and even perogies.
Catch a Movie At Revue Cinema
Revue Cinema on Roncesvalles recaptures a time before movies theatres were corporate and only played new releases. This independent, non-profit movie house offers enough movies, talks, and special screenings to make a movie buff forget about TIFF. While it may be a great place to watch a classic film on the big screen, the Revue Cinema also offers access to a community of film lovers that’s getting increasingly hard to find offline these days.
Annual Polish Festival
Live music, dancing, entertainment, beer gardens, exhibitors, and of course, Perogies. What more could you ask for on a summer’s day in Roncesvalles? Find it all and more at Roncesvalles Annual Polish Festival. For a full weekend the avenue is closed to traffic and taken over by a street festival with something for everyone, whether that’s arts, culture, history, or food! Although it only happens once a year, you won’t want to miss this west-end festival if you love urban life.
While it may have been on the edge of Toronto just 100 years ago, now Roncesvalles is practically downtown and with such close proximity comes tremendous accessibility. Practically all urban transportation options are available to you in Roncesvalles: the highway, busses, streetcars, the subway, and even commuter trains.
TTC Routes in Roncesvalles
No matter where you’re heading in the Greater Toronto Area, there’s probably a convenient way to get there from Roncesvalles.
Keele and Dundas West Subway stations at the top of Roncesvalles make any destination along the Bloor-Danforth line just a short train ride away, not to mention granting access to the north-south Yonge-University Line just a few stops east.
In terms of streetcars, 5 separate routes criss-cross Roncesvalles. To go east you can take 505 along Dundas, 506 along College, or the 501 & 504 along Queen & King, respectively. One of the more popular routes is the 504 King St. route which starts up at Dundas West station and runs down along Roncesvalles Ave. before cutting downtown. Since High Park poses a big obstacle for streetcar tracks going west, the only route in that direction is the 501 Queen Car which takes passengers all the way to Mississauga along the Lakeshore.
Because of the extensive streetcar service in the neighbourhood, Roncesvalles has fewer bus routes than other parts of Toronto. The primary bus is Route 80 along Parkside Dr. which runs north-south along the eastern border of High Park.
For a complete list of TTC options, consult the TTC Trip Planner.
Bloor GO Station
Servicing the Kitchener Line, Bloor GO Station is a nice addition to the available transit options for travellers leaving Toronto. With so many other options available, the GO Train isn’t too convenient for travelling within the city or even accessing other GO Trains. However, Torontonians travelling to Brampton, Guelph, Kitchener, or anywhere in between could certainly find value in Bloor GO Station.
Visit the GO Transit Website for details about schedules and route options.
The Bloor GO Station also grants commuters access to the Union-Pearson Express, direct-service train between Toronto Pearson International Airport and Union Station. Drastically reducing the transit time from the city’s downtown to the airport, the UP Express is an amenity most neighbourhoods don’t offer. Trains typically run every 30 minutes, but you can find full itinerary details on the UP Express website.
Roncesvalles may be known as a historically Polish neighbourhood, but these days the area is far more diverse when it comes to culture and demographics.
Historically a neighbourhood for working-class families, Roncesvalles remains a predominantly residential neighbourhood largely populated by families and young professionals.
The latest census data lists a population of just under 15,000 with about 10,000 people per square mile, giving the area a medium density for Toronto standards. This medium density is due in large part to the amount of single family homes and low-rise buildings in the neighbourhood.
Remarkably, the population decreased during the last census period by half a percent. That seems unthinkable considering the city’s population has been steadily increasing and was most recently assessed at 2.5%, but it seems that at least for the time being Roncesvalles is keeping its character.
In terms of resident age Roncesvalles sticks to the city’s trend pretty closely other than a considerably higher number of working aged people, though that’s likely due to the neighbourhood’s location and proximity to employment of all kinds.
The families that call Roncesvalles home are predominantly middle class with a recorded median income of about $100,000. Out of these families only 30% are immigrants, considerably less than the city average of 50%.
A majority of residents have completed higher education and the number of people without income or unemployed is decidedly lower than than in the rest of Toronto.
As might be expected for a neighbourhood that’s so well connected by public transportation almost half of residents use TTC to commute to work, and fortunately for them only about 1/10th of commuters spend more than 1 hour getting there.
Think of Roncesvalles as the popular residential area without the fuss. Compared with other well-known spots like The Beaches, Roncesvalles has a much tamer character. Sure, it can get busy, but there’s a lived-in quality to the area that makes being there feel more personal than you might amid the towering condos of Yonge St.
Another key factor in creating this more laid-back vibe is the extraordinary walk-ability. People can and do get by quite comfortably without cars or even public transportation. Getting between the main commercial strip, home, and local parks is not only possible but enjoyable when done by foot, creating a welcome change from the status quo of urban life.
Real Estate in Roncesvalles is predominantly ground-based property like townhomes, semi-, and fully-detached homes. The condo boom that’s taking over other parts of the city hasn’t made its mark, partly because of the many historic structures in the area.
Along Bloor St., Roncesvalles Ave., and Dundas Ave. you’ll find high-density housing and mixed use buildings, but the majority of Roncesvalles Village is covered in low-density housing.
The types of homes you’ll find here will be familiar to anyone who has visited an older neighbourhood in Ontario. Between Parkside and Roncesvalles is packed with historic homes, old-growth trees, and plenty of local character. This section of the neighbourhood has the most high-end real estate due to its proximity to the park, seclusion from the hustle and bustle of the city, and gorgeous selection of detached properties.
East of Roncesvalles contains a nice residential pocket as well, although property values tend to be slightly lower. As one of Toronto’s older neighbourhoods, Roncesvalles isn’t home to many post-war type homes. Most of the recent development is along the main thoroughfares where commercial real estate was needed.
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There’s no stand out geographic feature which defines Roncesvalles aside from the avenue which gives the neighbourhood it’s name.
Western Roncesvalles Village slopes gently towards the water, especially along Parkside Dr., but the eastern half is more level. The neighbourhood’s eastern border is defined by train tracks which separate it from Little Portugal while High Park meets it on the west.
With the Lakeshore within walking distance of almost any point in the area, Roncesvalles may not be a lakefront neighbourhood but getting down to the water is convenient.
Parkdale Community Recreation Centre (Local Community Centre)
Although designated under a different name, Parkdale community centre falls within Roncesvalles’ boundaries and provides residents with the full suite of recreational facilities one can expect from a public rec centre.
That includes an indoor pool, 2 gymnasiums, and several multipurpose rooms. On top of that, the facility runs both registered and drop-in programs for kids and adults who want to take part in sport, arts, or camps.
High Park Club
Curling facilities can be hard to come by in the big city, but if it’s your sport you can do it at the High Park Club. This historic building has been serving the community for over 100 years and offers some of the best ice in the city. There are also grass tennis courts available during the warmer seasons.
Sorauren Farmers Market
Farm-fresh food and goods are brought right into the heart of Roncesvalles each week of the year at the Sorauren Farmers Market. The organization also puts together events, workshops, live music, and more. Find a full list of vendors and updates on the Sorauren Farmers Market website.
Park Place LINC Centre
Adult learning can be a worthwhile experience at any stage of life. The LINC Centre offers courses for language learners who are new to Ontario. Run by the Toronto Catholic District Schoolboard,the LINC Centre offers programs for all skill levels and all you need to get started is to take a language assessment test.
Toronto Public Library High Park Branch is another of Toronto’s Carnegie Libraries, and as such is nearly identical to the Wychwood and Beaches libraries. Opened in 1916, the library is listed on Toronto’s Register of Historic Properties but continues to serve the public thanks to a renovation in the late 1970’s.
Today, you can find a respectable catalogue on site as well as regular programs for adults and children. Given Roncesvalles’ nature as a family neighbourhood, much of the regular programming at the library is for young children and parents, though programs for seniors are also offered.
Additional library resources include a large Polish Language collection to serve the historically polish neighbourhood as well as meeting rooms available for public booking.
Schools & Education
As a well-established family neighbourhood, Roncesvalles unsurprisingly has numerous public and private schools as well as supplementary educational resources and preschools.
Garden Avenue Junior Public School, 225 Garden Ave., (416) 393-9165
Mary, Mother of God School, 1515 Queen St W., (416) 531-7897
Howard Junior Public School, 30 Marmaduke St., (416) 393-9255
Westminster Classic Christian Academy, 9 Hewitt Ave., (416) 466-8819
Fern Avenue Junior & Senior Public School, 128 Fern Ave., (416) 393-9130
St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School, 116 Fermanagh Ave., (416) 393-5227
Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School, 1515 Bloor St W, Toronto, (416) 393-5545
West Park Secondary School, 1515 Bloor St W., (416) 393-0320
Park Place LINC Centre, 2299 Dundas St W. Theatre, (416) 397-6593
Childcare & Private Schools
The Artful Child, 214 Wright Ave., (416) 970-9004
High Park Gardens Montessori School, 35 High Park Gardens, (416) 763-6097
Odyssey Montessori School, 136 Sorauren Ave, (416) 535-9402
Similar to most residential neighbourhoods that are peripheral to the downtown core, most employment opportunities in the area result from the businesses which serve residents and visitors.
As a largely pedestrian-oriented location most of the businesses in the area offer service jobs, although there are some small businesses offering professional services around Bloor St. or Queen St.
Many of the residents seeking gainful employment turn to commuting either to the downtown or to other parts of the city.
Roncesvalles is remarkably walkable. With a walkability score of 91 there’s really no definite need to own a car if you live here. If you do need transportation, the local transit is exceptional even for Toronto’s standards.
Perhaps the neighbourhood’s only accessibility shortcoming is it’s bikeability, which only comes in at 64. The streetcar tracks on Roncesvalles make bike lanes impractical going to show that you can’t have it all, unfortunately.
Green space may not be abundant in Roncesvalles itself, but just at the neighbourhood’s borders you’ll find numerous places to enjoy the outdoors. We’ll cover the local greenspace first, then fill you in on parks in the immediate vicinity.
Sorauren Ave. Park
The largest park in Roncesvalles Village, Sorauren has sports facilities, a farmers market, and is the site of a soon-to-be-completed community centre. Good for a stroll or some good old-fashioned relaxation, Sorauren Park serves the eastern have of the neighbourhood who have to far to go to High Park.
Charles G. Williams Park
Just south of Sorauren, this park is made up mostly of playground space for kids along with a winding path south that can extend your walk around Sorauren park by a few meters.
West Lodge Park
Located just east of Sorauren Park, the defining characteristic of this greenspace is the skatepark which dominates most of its surface area.
Albert Crosland Park
A small L-shaped park just north of Queen St., Albert Crosland may not have much to offer in terms of space but it does offer a break from the city next to one of Toronto’s busiest streets. It even has a wading pool for families with young children to enjoy.
While it’s not strictly within the neighbourhood, High Park might as well be for how close it is. Bordering the western side of Roncesvalles, High Park requires no introduction to any Torontonian. It’s a great place to go year round for recreation of all kinds.
Parkettes in Roncesvalles
Scattered throughout the area you’ll find several parkettes that serve just fine as a place to stretch the legs or walk the dog but just don’t have the space to offer proper park-like amenities. However, with High Park so close by it’s hard to complain.
Sorauren Dog Park is about the only off-leash dog park in Roncesvalles proper. Fortunately the dog park is well appointed with a ground surface designed for canines and plenty of space to play.
For Dog owners seeking more greenspace for their canine companions, High Park is just west of the neighbourhood and has an off-leash park of its own.
Featured Image Courtesy of Municipal Affairs & Housing : Flikr