Suburban Treasures: Is the End of Richmond Hill's David Dunlap Observatory Near?

Urmi in Urban Issues

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Ed. Note:  Thanks to a sharp reader for pointing out that the total area of the David Dunlap Observatory Lands is 190 acres, not 90 acres as originally reported.  In addition to the observatory, the site is also home to the Elvis Stojko Arena.

Friday's snowstorm resulted in the postponement of a planned rally in support of the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill.  But as every school kid knows, snow days can be a good thing.  More citizens now have the opportunity to learn about the pending sale of the observatory and consider joining efforts to save it. 

In spite of the myriad of "save the" efforts taking place across our city-under-renovation any given weekend, it is rare that I can actually feel for - not just think about - the objects in peril.  This is because I spent most of my time growing up in a suburb (or in this case, a suburb masquerading as a town).  The suburbs tend to be littered with public buildings notably lacking in public affection, so it's rare to bemoan the demise of anything out there (the exception to this being nature).

But hearing that the Dunlap was a step away from the auction block made my hard heart stir.  For those of us who grew up in the Hill when its major high schools could be counted on one hand, trips to the observatory were not uncommon.  More memorable than the sanctioned curriculum-filler that was the elementary field trip to the observatory were later evenings on the surrounding grounds.  On dusky evenings, we laid out our picnic blankets, unleashed a smattering of badly-tuned guitars (cue Zepplin's "Friends") and got up to the kinds of things that politicians clumsily find themselves denying years later.  It was that rare suburban species - community.

The observatory has played an even more important role in the scientific community.  Owned by the University of Toronto, it marks the spot where Toronto astronomer Tom Bolton first discovered the existence of what had been a fancy theory only thirty-five years ago - black holes.  The pivotal discovery was made after a determined Dr. Bolton bunkered down in Richmond Hill, not the first time a genius has had to do time in the burbs en route to greatness.

But urban sprawl has claimed another victim.  The encroaching lights of the city are diminishing the gaze of the observatory's powerful tools which include Canada's largest optical telescope (formerly a world-leading piece of technology).  The University is now looking to sell both the observatory and its 90-acre property.  Both are expected to fetch a tidy sum in today's market.  With housing subdivisions long having erased the surrounding farmland, it takes little imagination to see the property's future.

The Dunlap family, which originally donated the land in honour of their patriarch, David Dunlap, a mining executive and amateur astronomer, has had a say in the University's plans.  Under the terms of their original bequest, any non-astronomical use of the land would result in its return to the family.  However, the family has agreed to allow the proceeds of the sale to fund a cutting-edge astronomy and astrophysics centre of excellence at U of T's St. George Campus.

While many accept that the "bread and butter" activities taking place at Dunlap today will no longer result in scientific leaps and bounds, some are disappointed at the prospect of losing the historical landmark and forgoing the opportunity to renew its importance to the community, perhaps as an educational facility and park.  Dr. Bolton, perhaps most justifiably, is one.  This starry-eyed emigrant of the burbs is another.

For more information on the David Dunlap Observatory campaign, visit the Richmond Hill Naturalist's online petition and the Facebook community group.

Urmi Desai is an economic analyst and a freelance writer specializing in urban issues.  She is editor of the Move Smartly blog. Email Urmi

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Photo credit: Save David Dunlap Observatory and Park Petition
 

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