Peace garden redesign draws anger

  • June 12, 2007

{mosimage}TORONTO – Setsuko Thurlow claims she has personally been “deceived and betrayed” and Toronto has dishonoured commitments it made to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 23 years ago.

Thurlow survived the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima when she was 13. Now a senior citizen, she has been brought to tears by city hall plans to revamp Nathan Phillips Square and move the peace garden from its central location to a grove of trees planned for the west side of the square, tucked behind a new, permanent stage.

In 1983, at the behest of Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton and Fr. Massey Lombardi, Thurlow went to her home town to ask the mayor to share the eternal flame from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park so it could be the centre point of a peace garden at the front door of Toronto city hall. The organizers also begged a vial of water from Nagasaki, the other city destroyed in an atomic attack at the end of the Second World War. Toronto’s peace garden was built in 1984, blessed by Pope John Paul II, inaugurated by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth II.

“The flame of peace is most sacred to us, because that is a symbol of hundreds and thousands of people who simply vaporized, and melted, and blackened, and swollen — the imagery comes back to me as I talk,” Thurlow told The Catholic Register, fighting back sobs.

{sidebar id=2} Mayor David Miller defends his plan for rejuvenating Nathan Phillips Square, denying the city has any intention of tearing down or downgrading the peace garden. Plans call for the garden to be moved and redesigned, but if anything the $40 million revitalization will enhance the peace garden, Miller told The Register.

“It’s accurate to say there is a proposal to move the garden for a couple of reasons. First of all, in its current location it’s not the best location for a place of contemplation,” Miller said. “Secondly, it’s to allow Nathan Phillips Square to be used as a place of protest.”

Chris Pommer, partner with Plant Architects, which will redesign the square, claims opponents don’t understand what is being proposed.

“We took great pains with respect to the flame and the water from Nagasaki to make those more prominent, and in the case of the flame make it something that is actually visible — as opposed to something hidden away under various safety gear,” he said.

He also claims the redesigned peace garden will be more than twice as large as the old one, closer to the front door of City Hall, more peaceful and still open onto an enlarged square with more room for protests and other public gatherings in the name of peace.

Lombardi, Thurlow and other peace activists, however, may have managed to throw a wrench in Pommer’s plans for the garden. At a government management committee meeting June 12 the peace contingent reminded councillors of the history of the garden and elicited a motion from Scarborough Coun. Raymond Cho to move the peace garden, whole and in tact, to the new location. Cho’s motion was originally passed then reopened and replaced by a motion from North York Coun. Joe Mihevic requesting the architect consider preserving the pavilion in addition to the sacred water, eternal flame, and sun dial already incorporated in the new design.

Mihevic’s motion also called for consultation with peace and interfaith groups during the design process.

The peace groups, however, are concerned that Mihevic’s proposal only asks the architects to consider moving the pavilion, and they believe Pommer to be contemptuous of the pavilion as a dated, and ugly piece of architecture. They’re hoping to revive Cho’s guarantee that the pavilion would survive architectural updating at a full city council meeting June 19.

St. Wilfred’s Parish pastor Lombardi was the driving force behind the peace garden in the early 1980s, when he headed up an archdiocesan office for justice and peace. He’s not buying the architect’s or the mayor’s claims that they’re just moving the garden.

“The peace garden they’re proposing is not the peace garden that was inaugurated, that was started 20 years ago, that was approved by the city. It’s another peace garden,” Lombardi said. “It has some of the same elements, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t have the same significance.”

Lombardi objects that by omitting the pavilion with its burned and bombed roof the new design ignores the nuclear threat to civilization and forgets the cost of war. Instead, the new design proposes a black, stone memorial wall. The city is opting for a fashionable design, and in the process destroying the legacy of a site which has been the setting for vigils and protests for 23 years, Lombardi said.

“Isn’t there any sense of legacy?” he asked. “Isn’t there any sense of history? Isn’t there any sense of continuity? Or is everything up for grabs?”

All the talk of quiet contemplation mystifies Thurlow, who believes the original purpose of the garden was to inspire people to act to end war. She also questions what a black stone wall will add to the memorial.

“It must have some meaning. So what is it?” she asked.

The younger generation of politicians and architects behind the square’s redesign don’t have the experience of war or the sense of moral outrage which made the peace garden an important addition to Nathan Phillips Square in 1984, said peace activist Anton Wagner of the Hiroshima Day Coalition steering committee.

“You can’t tell what it is. It doesn’t evoke war. It doesn’t evoke any call for peace building,” Wagner said of the new design.

The city is still $24 million short of the funds it needs to execute the redesign and it will be at least a year before anything happens, Miller said. Miller is counting on private donations and other levels of government to fund the Nathan Phillips Square revitalization.

The current design is not absolutely final, said Pommer.

“I think some people are perhaps concerned that what we’ve shown so far is cast in stone and will not evolve in any way. And of course that’s not the case.”

Whatever is preserved or thrown out in the new garden, unless Toronto’s peace garden is given the prominence promised to the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1983, Toronto will have betrayed a sacred trust, said Thurlow.

“We have a partner in this,” she said. “We asked Hiroshima and Nagasaki to share something precious to them — to become part of our peace garden. Before a final decision is made, I think prior consultation with those partners on the other side of the globe is essential.”

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