London

Has London's so-called 'Banana Kingdom' been painted over by 'joyless bureaucrats?'

Charming or not, the Banana Kingdom isn't appreciated by everyone. The City of London considers the slogans graffiti and has painted over them, much in the same way government agencies redact sections of documents they don't want journalists and the public to know about. 

Officially named Baldwin Flats, some colourful grafitti has given this natural area a new name

Over the years someone has painted signs on the Thames Valley Parkway alerting people to the fact that they've entered and left an area referred to as 'the Banana Kingdom.' (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Graffiti is often denounced as vandalism, but in a small section of the Thames Valley Parkway, a series of eccentric messages paired with drawings of fruit has actually given rise to a new name for an area officially known as Baldwin Flats. 

"I didn't even know it was the Baldwin Flats," said Graham Broad, a professor of history at King's University College, who during the school year passes through the area on his bicycle on his way to and from work. 

"Over the years somebody, we don't know who, or perhaps a group of people, have created this 'Banana Kingdom,' which is essentially a work of street art on the Thames Valley Parkway. It has a message as you arrive, it says, 'Welcome friends, to the Banana Kingdom.'"

The clandestine decorations have become so popular, the name has stuck even though it doesn't appear on any official maps — though that hasn't stopped some people from making their own. 

In fact, many people wouldn't know what you were talking about if you said Baldwin Flats.

The last time CBC News reported from the area about a mysterious stone idol prophesizing the end of days, a number of people wrote in to complain the area was not Baldwin Flats, but in fact the Banana Kingdom. 

'Character' not appreciated by everyone

Graffiti on this section of the Thames Valley Parkway between Gibbons Park and the Parkway once said 'Welcome to the Banana Kingdom' has been painted over. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"This is something that's fun and charming and everyone knows about it and it gives the neighbourhood a little bit of character," Broad said. 

Charming or not, this particular brand of character isn't appreciated by everyone. The City of London considers the slogans graffiti and has painted over them, much in the same way government agencies redact sections of documents they don't want journalists and the public to know about. 

"I thought it was really disappointing that they chose that, especially when we could all use a little bit of cheering up during the pandemic," said Broad, who also expressed his dismay on social media. 

It's not clear who the "joyless bureaucrats" Broad referred to in his tweet are, but Scott Stafford, the managing director of parks and recreation for the City of London, is where the buck stops when it comes to the Thames Valley Parkway. 

"Yeah, I saw that [tweet]," he said. "It's definitely an upside-down world, the things we've been having to do in parks and recreation with some of the closures. It's been a tough year for sure, but I certainly hope I'm not a joyless bureaucrat." 

Stafford said the Banana Kingdom graffitti, which he called "light-hearted fun," was not deliberately targeted. Rather it was painted over as part of a sweeping program run by the city to erase graffiti across the city. 

"I would say it's because we've had an increase in graffiti along the Thames Valley Parkway, in particular Springbank Park and Greenway Park. The directive was just to remove graffiti," he said. "So the people removing the graffiti would be removing the graffiti all along the entire stretch of the Thames Valley pathway." 

Graffiti a real problem along the TVP

Minette Gaudet said graffiti has been a problem in the area, vandals once defaced a memorial bench dedicated to her late husband Paul. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Call it what you will, graffiti or street art, unsanctioned drawing and writing along the serpentine pathways that run parallel to the Thames River are a real problem. 

Minette Gaudet, a former Western University instructor, lost her husband Paul a little over a decade ago. He now has a memorial bench located just off the TVP at the northern edge of Gibbons Park, not far from the Banana Kingdom. 

She said it doesn't matter whether something is graffiti or street art, especially when it's in a place someone considers sacred.

"I don't really know the distinction to be honest," she said. "They like to desecrate benches."

City crews took care of the graffiti the same way they took care of the paintings on the Thames Valley Parkway: they painted over it the same way someone might paint over a typo or a spelling mistake with white-out in the days of type writers or hand written letters. 

"I preferred the graffiti," she said. 

Origins of the 'Banana Kingdom' a mystery

One of the many bananas painted along a section of the Thames Valley Parkway officially know as Baldwin Flats, but referred to by many as 'the Banana Kingdom.' (Colin Butler/CBC News)

She had her husband memorialized at the bench because the meadow at Baldwin Flats was one of the couple's favourite places to go for walks. Gaudet still makes the pilgrimage 11 years after Paul passed away. She still lives in the nearby Victorian home that she and her late husband moved into in 1974. 

"Somebody called it the Banana Kingdom, I don't know who did it, I couldn't figure it out," she said. 

Hilary Neary, a local historian who literally wrote the history of nearby Gibbons Park for the City of London, wasn't sure either. She's lived nearby since 1978 and said the name and the graffitti is a recent invention. 

"These are probably people who moved more recently to the area," she said. "Names change over time."

For example, Neary said the prestigious Old North neighbourhood she lives in that rims the Baldwin Flats is now known as the Parkway. Today it includes some of the city's grandest homes, but it was once shanty-town and a slum. 

"This area below the hill on St George Street, this low area used to be called Tipperary Flats because there must have been a time when a lot of disenfranchised Irish lived here."

Neary said the Baldwin Flats are named for the family who donated the land to Western University. The name Banana Kingdom appeared about 15 years ago and to this day, its origins are a mystery. 

"I think most people who see this graffiti have no idea what it means," she said. "I never got to the bottom of it." 

Neither has anyone else for that matter and rumour has it, anytime in the past the Banana Kingdom has been removed, it has quietly reappeared. 

"A lot of graffitti certainly reappears in short order for sure," said Stafford, is open to making the Banana Kingdom more official, if that's what people want. 

"I'd be happy to have somebody reach out to say 'Hi' and maybe we can do something to make everybody happy. I'm happy to chat for sure. There's all kinds of ways to make things fun and we want parks to be fun." 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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