Debora Kuchmé with her Pixies (in centre) /Photography by Peter Tucker
How caring for trees built a brand-new community
The indomitable Bayview Pixies are beautifying a pocket of the city—and then some—one planter at a time
BY Tabatha Southey
Shortly into my conversation with Debora Kuchmé, founder and organizer of the volunteer group the Bayview Pixies, we touched upon the subject of “kids today.” Many people seem pretty down on them, we agreed, but Debora was having none of it. “They don’t get a bad rap from me, I’m their biggest fan,” she says. “I keep embracing the Millennials, they’re the best hope we’ve got.” It struck me then that Debora is a woman anyone would want in their corner.
Debora, a former fashion designer and one-time owner of the ever-so-stylish “Kuchmé” couture shop that once graced Toronto’s Queen Street, is a force—and, these days, she’s a force of nature. It was under her guidance that the Bayview Pixies first formed in early 2015 and began caring for the 79 young (and struggling) street trees and the six rather forlorn-looking planters that had been plonked down on Bayview Avenue, the main street of Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood.
Thanks to the Pixies’ considerable efforts, the program blossomed, (oh, come on, I had to) and together these 12 retired professional women—a former high school English teacher, a veterinarian, a membership director for the Royal Ontario Museum—now maintain some 166 planters, many of them quite large. Together they plant, weed, trim, water and pull the endless litter (because people can be awful) from some serious acreage.
The Pixies prefer to use perennials and native plants, not “big stupid annuals” as Debora calls them, which suck water and undermine the group’s sustainable mandate. Water is always an issue. One year a grant from the New Horizons for Seniors Program (the oldest Pixie is 88) allowed the women to access water from a fire hydrant. Currently, an old olive oil container found for free at a garage sale because it had a hole in it (they mended it with a glue gun) is used to lug the water the Pixies collect in a rain barrel. Many local stores provide water as well.
The work is artful. Debora has more than 10 years experience in horticultural design and many of the women have gardening backgrounds. For some who have downsized into condominiums, the planters provide an outlet for itchy green thumbs. The result is that each planter is its own landscaped miniature garden on Bayview.
I met with most of the Pixies in one of the many businesses that support their work, the fine and friendly Rahier Patisserie. Once you sit down with the Pixies, you don’t want to get up again. They tell me they tried meeting for coffee before they got their work done and, “Nah, that didn’t work,” says Debora, and they all laugh. They laugh a lot. They also talk “about everything,” they tell me, when the work is done. Books and politics get discussed; subjects light and dark are delved into. They have supported each other through some very difficult times and celebrated some well-earned victories.
“I had aprons made up that say, ‘Bayview Buddies.’ But we still have yet to get a guy. I’ve got four aprons, with Buddies on them…waiting.”
One of the first things you notice about the Pixies is how aware they are of what a good thing they have going on, as well as what a good thing they’re doing. Their respect and affection for each other leaps out at you. Ask them what they take away from working with their fellow Pixies and they all echo Debora, who says without hesitation, “What we really get out of this is us. We became such a sisterhood. We look out for each other. We care for each other.”
The Bayview Pixies really began when Carol Smith wrote a letter to local news service The South Bayview Bulldog. Carol complained about the rather desolate state of her local shopping strip, as many people do. She offered to clean it up, something far fewer people actually consider. When Debora, an early member of The Bayview Leaside Business Improvement Area, then still in its infancy and now the Pixies’ only sponsor, read the letter, she knew the two had to meet. “I was so inspired,” Debora says. “I got hold of her and said maybe we could do something here.”
Meanwhile, Helen Godfrey had been trying to get the stores to water the trees herself, an enterprise she called “Bayview Buckets,” but “nothing really took off” until Debora “got us organized,” Helen says. Now the team have a book coming out, written to inspire wannabe Pixies. It’s a how-to that will be sent to BIAs, libraries and seniors homes, and will also be available to order.
It’s notable that none of the Pixies, all local residents who now finish each other’s sentences, knew each other before the group was formed. Some joined up after meeting other Pixies working on the street. They all have nicknames: Marilyn is Marigold, Helen is Hawkeye, Anne is Annie Oaktree. “We’re adorable,” says Debora, and it strikes me both that she is right, but that I wouldn’t dare argue with her if she wasn’t right and that this is the perfect kind of adorable to be.
Do they ever have creative differences, I ask, and they laugh more. “She’s a bit of a bully,” someone says, gesturing at the very pixieish Debora. “We’re pretty sure Debora comes out at night and fixes our work,” someone else chimes in. “You know how the kids hang all the Christmas tree decorations at the bottom of the tree and the dad comes down at night and moves them all, that’s Debora,” another Pixie adds. “That’s why they call me Tinkerbell,” Deborah chimes in, “I tinker.”
Are there any men involved in this venture? I ask, thinking about what absent men are missing out on. No, says Debora, adding in a comically confused tone, “I had aprons made up that say, ‘Bayview Buddies.’ But we still have yet to get a guy. I’ve got four aprons, with Buddies on them…waiting.”
“Men do come along when we’re working and say, ‘Good job, ladies!’ and sometimes we say, ‘Would you like to join us?’ And they say, ‘Oh, no, I’m retired’ someone adds later. Eyes-roll, but people thank the Pixies all the time. “We’ve got our aprons that say ‘Bayview Pixies’ on them and we just look so damn cute,” says Debora, who understands the branding itself benefits the neighbourhood, warms up the city street. “People shout out to us, ‘We love you Pixies!’”
A lot of “young people” also stop to tell the Pixies how much they appreciate their efforts. Debora even has some “Bayview Juniors” aprons, should any enterprising high-school student want to get a jump on their community service hours. As I leave the Pixies, my mind returns to those “young people” Debora and I talked about when we began our meeting, but I find myself thinking that, right now, it’s these women who make me feel most hopeful about all of us. ♥