Windsor takes its art seriously and uniquely. It’s impossible to walk around downtown or along the riverside without one’s eye being caught by a mural, a sculpture, or memorial to someone who touched this city in some way.
Many buildings got a fresh coat of imagination in 2013 through a partnership with Windsor and Free 4 All Walls that gathered 30 local and international artists including Daniel Bombardier, who told the Windsor Star at the time, “I find blank spaces dead and boring. These murals show that the city is alive.”
At the edge of downtown is a five-kilometre riverside walk I got to know well during my stays in Windsor. This is the museum without walls: 31 sculptures ranging from a giant hand to a crazily realistic elephant to awkward little penguins that Canada geese step gingerly around. There are dozens more sculptures around town, hidden in laneways and planted in the middle of parks. I photographed a few, but you can see them all (and better lit) by clicking here.
As if all that were not enough, there is more art to be had. Every green space and courtyard seems to boast a memorial to war veterans, a sculpture commemorating Windsor’s rich history or a monument urging peace and a brighter future.
Windsor is known for its auto industry and whiskey and the Detroit skyline, but its deep connection with its artists cannot be ignored.
WINDSOR, Ont. — There are days that I walk toward one story, only to trip over the curb of another. The story I was walking toward was that of Hiram Walker, and I had thought to tell it from the point of view of the fetching historical building I had seen from my taxicab. But the story I wanted—still his—turned out to be of the building across the street.
It’s impossible to underestimate Hiram Walker’s influence on the Windsor area. He moved to Canada in the 1850s, putting the Detroit River between him and the puritanical sensibilities of the United States, while he turned a cider vinegar distillery into something so much more.
Walker built the Silicon Valley of the whiskey world and launched a legacy when he responded to American demands to clearly label foreign imports by boldly branding his liquor Canadian Club. So much for Buy American, my Yankee friends: Canadian Club was a hit south of the border (by which I mean, since we are discussing Windsor and Detroit, north of the border).
Walker built a town to house his workers, creating a community that would reflect his own values: a church was designed, and schools, barbershops and public swimming pools, and public works programs were put in place, including such innovations as streetlights, running water and a railroad. He arranged for police and firefighters to protect the 600 or so citizens—mostly his employees—in Walkertown.
He is everywhere in Walkertown, a funky, mixed community adjacent to downtown Windsor. He is in the red brick buildings and the church he built in memory of his wife. He is in the (now unused) train tracks that follow the curve of the river. He is in the curlicues of the main Walker building, which now houses a museum and gift shop.
And though it would not have been the legacy he’d choose to leave behind, he is in the shadows of the once-magnificent Walker Power Building.
Made of red brick and whitewashed wood and covered from ground to roof in climbing ivy, this river-facing edifice was built in the 1900s. It overlooked the main office from which Walker and his sons ran their empire, and would have helped power their enterprises.
As technology overtook the building’s usefulness, it was repurposed and reused and reimagined. But by the 1980s, it was struggling. Its neighbour, the Peabody Building leather manufacturers—which had survived a bombing during the Great War—was set to be demolished. The Walker Power Building was sectioned into a series of offices and cubicles, each wired haphazardly by tenants while the landlord was either clueless or wilfully blind. The fire department was unforgiving.
It became a haven for ravers, taggers and squatters, till even that was stopped, and its glorious windows were boarded up, its doors sealed, and the ivy allowed to overtake it. It is, though crumbling at the edges, a beautiful specimen of an industrial age that is ever so romantic in the rearview mirror of history.
Who’s the best man in this town? Hiram Walker, Hiram Walker.
What’s the best brand in this town? Old Club Whisky, Old Club Whisky. — A drinking song from the 1880s
It’s about history, sure. It’s about equal rights in 1950s. It’s about a guy who became the first black detective in Canada.
But Alton C. Parker’s story is a lot more than that: It’s the story of a man who held the heart of his community.
Born in 1907, Parker became a mechanic, as many men of any colour did in Windsor during that era, when Cadillac and Pontiac and Ford were becoming names less associated with historical figures than with the miracle of modern engines. A job like that, in a city like that was something to be desired: steady and sure. But Parker had a calling, and in 1942—two years before Ontario enacted the Racial Discrimination Law and one year before the Detroit race riots of 1943—he became an officer of the law.
History tells us that his road wasn’t smooth, but that his charm and gentle manner quickly won him a place among his white peers. He felt he had been called to serve his community, and his strength of character and work ethic saw him promoted to the rank of detective in 1951.
“When they promoted him, they also took a risk,” Const. Mike Akpata told Share newspaper in 2012. “They could have said, ‘we’ve got him here so let’s just keep him in the corner’ as opposed to moving him forward and putting him in a position of authority.”
Though his work load would have doubled, one imagines, Parker and his wife, Evelyn, never lost sight of their joint calling: helping the community.
“A lot of people talk about doing something for these kids,” Parker said. “I don’t just talk. I want to do it.”
He and Evelyn organized and paid for Uncle Al’s kids’ party in their neighbourhood every year. Over two and a half decades, hundreds of children turned up in Broadhead Park for party games and treats and a picnic.
His desire to serve didn’t stop there: He co-founded an organization to help disabled adults find apartments and was on Goodwill’s board of directors. For his selflessness, he was awarded many honours, including the Order of Canada.
Years after his death in 1989, his granddaughter Cherie Steele-Sexton told the Windsor Star the most important lesson she learned from Parker: “You don’t have to do huge things to make a difference. Sometimes just the small steps, once you put them all together, there’s a journey.”