Wednesday, June 23, 2010


 Black bears, painted by James Audobon

Last week, in an incredible children's book about the history of Toronto called The Toronto Story (which I'll now be stealing all sorts of great stuff from), I found a brief mention of the fact that Bay Street was originally known as Bear Street... because of all the bears. A quick Googling confirms that, yup, the area around Bear Street was home to more than one bear sighting in the city's earliest days, around the turn of the 19th century.

The street was apparently given the name after a bear was startled out of the woods that used to stand at Queen and Bay, where City Hall is now. It took off toward the lake (which was much closer in those days; it came all the way up to Front Street) and was chased right down Bay/Bear/whatever people called it before they called it Bear Street.

It wasn't the only bear-related incident in those early days when the new town was being carved out of the vast forests which had stood on the northern shore of Lake Ontario for thousands of years.  A little bit west of Bay Street, a bear found its way into a horse pasture. The two badass horses inside, Bonaparte and Jefferson, killed it with their bare hooves. And in 1809, a bear turned up on George Street, just a few block east. A Lieut. Fawcett split its head open with a sword.

Googling around about the history of bears in Toronto will also lead you to some other interesting info. Like that in 2006 a polar bear at the zoo was bitten by a mosquito and died of West Nile. Or that an obviously disturbed man brought a rifle to the Riverdale Zoo in 1965 and shot and killed a grizzly. Or that it was a Torontonian-turned-Winnipeger, Harry Colebourne, who bought an orphaned bear club, named her Winnie and donated her to the London Zoo during WWI, where she would inspire A.A. Milne to write Winnie-The-Pooh.

Mostly, though, those Google searches just lead you to a lot of websites about hairy, gay men.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Toronto Blessing

Catch The Fire/Toronto Airport Vineyard/
Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship

So there's this crappy-looking church housed in a former conference centre out by the airport. It's called "Catch The Fire". It's surrounded by a wasteland of highways and parking lots and ugly hotels, located pretty much directly under the flight path of the enormous jets that scream into Pearson International every few minutes. It is also, as unlikely as it may seem, home to a congregation which witnessed the birth of a religious movement that swept across the globe in the mid-'90s: the Toronto blessing.

It all started in January of 1994. Back then the church was called "The Toronto Airport Vineyard" (part of the Vineyard evangelical association) and was held in a smaller building by the end of one of Pearson's runways. That month, Randy Clark, a minister from St. Louis, was invited to preach to the congregation. And boy, did he ever: by the end of his first sermon, he had the 100 or so in attendance rolling around on the floor, shaking and weeping and laughing and moaning in ecstatic worship. They hailed it as a "divine visitation". The Holy Spirit, you see, had filled them to the point of bursting.

They called the phenomenon the Toronto blessing (or The Anointing, The Awakening, The River, or The Fire depending on your taste in cheesy names for bizarre religious practices) and it also included everything from speaking in tongues to roaring like a lion. And it was popular. Like really popular. In the next couple of years, hundreds of thousands of people would travel to the church from around the globe. It would be forced to move into a bigger building. Hotels would start running shuttle buses. Worshipers would line up for hours to get in six nights a week. And then those worshipers would take the Toronto blessing back to their own congregations, thousands of them around the world, in Europe, in Africa, in south-east Asia, in Australia and New Zealand and Iceland and the Middle East. In fact, the phenomenon got to be so big that it even made its own small dent in popular culture, appearing in Petter Mettler's Gambling, Gods and LSD documentary and turning up in an episode of Law & Order: SVU.

But not everyone was thrilled. In 1995, the leader of the Vineyard had the church expelled from his organization. And others suggested that maybe, just maybe, all those people weren't actually filled with the Holy Spirit at all—maybe they were just being psychologically manipulated. By the turn of the millenium, the Toronto blessing's popularity had begun to wane. The church faded from popular consciousnes.

Even now, though, years later, people still show up at that ugly-ass church just off Dixon Road every week to roll around on the floor and worship their god. If you'd like to experience the blessing yourself, they've got a handy how-to on their website, here. And yes, one of the steps to salvation does involve browsing through their online store.

Here are some folks in Boston doing the whole Toronto blessing thing. It's, um, worth watching. And there are a bunch more related videos on YouTube.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Marilyn Bell Kicks America's Ass

In 1954, Florence Chadwick was one of the world's most famous swimmers. The 34 year-old American had crossed the English Channel in record time. She'd been the first woman to swim the 26 miles (of shark habitat) between Catalina Island and the California coast. She appeared in movies and on television. She was a celebrity. And in 1954, that's exactly what the Canadian National Exhibition was looking for.

The CNE had started off as a farmer's fair all the way back in 1879, but in the years after WWII it was moving away from those agricultural roots toward a more modern feel. And that involved things like promoting the 1954 edition of the fair by offering Chadwick $10,000 if she successfully became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario.

Of course, the idea of a Canadian icon like the Ex offering the prize to an American seemed like an insult to some, including at least a couple of Canadian swimmers. Winnie Roach and Marilyn Bell were younger than Chadwick, but they were already accomplished long-distance swimmers. (Roach had actually been the first Canadian to swim the Channel—as she stood dripping on the beach at Dover in her bathing suit, her face all messed up from a jellyfish sting, a British customs official asked her if she had anything to declare.) Annoyed at the CNE's snub, both Roach and Bell decided that they would try the 52 km crossing at the same time as Chadwick. And so, on the night of September the 8th, all three women entered the waters of New York State and aimed for Toronto.

The water was rough. Strong winds whipped up the waves, which towered nearly five meters high. Below the surface lamprey eels—hideous and parasitic, some nearly a meter long and armed with round, toothy mouths used to latch onto fish and feed off their body fluids (their Wikipedia page actually says that, "body fluids")—were everywhere, attacking legs and arms and bodies. After only a few hours, stomach cramps forced Chadwick from the water. Soon after that, Roach followed, leaving the 16 year-old Bell as the last swimmer in the lake.

She had been pushed off course by the winds and, on at least one occasion, had been disoriented enough to swim in the wrong direction. But she kept on, through the night and into the next day. Radio stations began providing regular updates on her progress. Local newspapers printed one extra edition after another. And finally, at about 8:15 pm, nearly 21 hours after she first entered the water, a cold and exhausted Bell reached a breakwater just south of Sunnyside. She had officially become the very first person to swim across Lake Ontario.

A roaring crowd of three-hundred thousand was waiting to welcome her home. 

The CNE eventually decided to give her the $10,000 they had offered to Chadwick, but for Bell, of course, that had never been the point. "I don’t think I was sure I could make it," she later admitted, "but I wasn’t so sure Florence Chadwick could make it either. The challenge for me was to go one stroke further than the American. As corny as it sounds… I did it for Canada.”


You can listen to her being interviewed by the CBC after the swim, here. Or watch a different interview and some silent footage over here. Or, if you're looking to kill even more time, how about an hour-long documentary on YouTube?

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Tallest Building in the British Empire

Toronto, 1935ish

I just stumbled across this photo taken from the island sometime around 1935. The tall skyscraper on the right is the Bank of Commerce Building, which, from the time it was finished in 1931 right up until 1962, was the tallest building in the British Empire.

It was designed by the architects at Pearson and Darling, the same firm responsible for U of T's Convocation Hall, the original ROM, the original AGO, the Dominion Bank Building at One King West and a bunch of other shit. These days the building is still used by the CIBC under the uninspiring name "Commerce Court North"; it's hidden in among the newer bank towers on King, right across the street from the Scotiabank building. It also has a kickass observation deck on the 32nd floor, decorated with four giant, gargoylesque heads meant to represent bank-approved virtues like "Enterprise" and "Foresight". It was closed to the public, though, after the view got blocked by newer buildings.

The stockier building on the left-hand side of the photo is the Royal York Hotel, which had apparently broken Toronto's old height bylaw to become the tallest building in the Empire before the Bank of Commerce Building stole its crown. Near the middle of the picture, on the right-hand side of that cluster of buildings there, you can just make out the clock tower of Old City Hall.

Torontoist has a much more detailed post about the building's history here.   

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The University of Toronto's 1853 Screw Up

T.H. Huxley
This giggle-inducingly werewolfish fellow is T.H. Huxley. These days he's probably best known as the grandfather of superfamous mescaline user and Brave New World  author Aldous Huxley, but decades before baby Aldous was even born, his grandpapa was already one of the world's best known and most important scientists. He was a pioneer in evolution, called himself "Darwin's Bulldog" and was, next to Darwin himself, the leading advocate of the theory. He's the guy who suggested that birds were descended from dinosaurs, who coined the term "agnostic" and who got British universities to start giving out degrees in science. Dude wasn't just one of the leading naturalists of the 19th century, he was probably one of the most important figures in the entire history of science. And in 1853,  he wanted to work at the University of Toronto.

At the time, the U of T was looking to hire someone to head up their brand new natural history department, and Huxley—who in those pre-Origin of Species days was a young, but already award-winning biologist—applied, backed by glowing recommendations from many of Britain's best scientists, Darwin included.

His main rival for the position was a one-time Unitarian Minister from Ireland, the Revered William Hincks. And Hincks was no T.H. Huxley. He didn't believe in Darwin's theory, and would soon be attacking it in favour of the “unity of plan and perfection of design” put forth by the Old Testament. Scientifically, he adhered to his own version of the totally bullshit theory of quinarianism, which claimed that all species had been created in groups of five and sought to arrange them into pretty little circles. His biggest professional accomplishment would prove to be a collection of dead birds and plants, which he donated to the Royal Ontario Museum. Tellingly, while Huxley's contributions are now listed in a nearly 10,000 word Wikipedia article, Hincks doesn't have one at all. And if you're looking for a photo of the good Reverend to, oh, I don't know, say, stick at the top of a blog post about him, good freaking luck. He's an obscure footnote; his views on natural history were completely wrong-headed, his contributions were negligible at best and harmful at worst.


Hincks had one qualification that Huxley didn't: he was the older brother of Francis Hincks, who just so happened to be the Premier of Ontario. So guess who got the job.


This post is related to dream
02 The Adultorous Fox
William Hincks, 1853

Friday, June 4, 2010

Bloor Station Back In The Day

Here's Bloor Station, some time back in the days before people were very good at dating their photos. Those elegant black-on-white signs were the standard for the TTC in the '50s and '60s and, I believe, were in the Commission's original unique typeface.

If you're a font freak, you can find lots more about the fascinating history of TTC typography in a so-impressively-detailed-I've-only-just-skimmed-it paper by Joe Clark, which I found thanks to Spacing, and is housed online over here.

The Casa Loma Orchestra

By 1927, when The Orange Blossoms started an eight month stint as the house band at Toronto's "castle", Casa Loma, they had already been home to an impressive line-up of musicians over the years, including the Dorsey brothers and alcoholic trumpet genius Bix Beiderbecke. But it wasn't until after their time at the then-classy-hotel-and-nightspot, now-cheesy-tourist-trap, that they changed their name to The Casa Loma Orchestra and (according to my copy of Wikipedia) went on to become one of the most popular swing bands in North America thanks to hits like "No Name Jive", "Maniac's Ball" and "Casa Loma Stomp". There's a bunch more of their stuff on YouTube, here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Punching Ernest Hemingway Right In The Face

Ernest Hemingway in 1923

I sort of get the impression that a lot of people who met him probably wanted to punch Ernest Hemingway in the face at one point or another, but Torontonian author Morley Callaghan was one of the lucky few who actually got to do it.

Apparently, the story goes something like this: The two writers became friends in Toronto in the '20s, while Hemingway was living on Bathurst Street and they were both working for what was then called The Toronto Daily Star. It was as a foreign correspondent for the Star that Hemingway had first lived in Paris and since, drunken lout that he was, he hated the then-still-more-than-a-little-bit-uptight Toronto, it wouldn't be long before he headed back to France

Callaghan was now living there, too, and one night the pair of reporters was hanging out with F. Scott Fitzgerald, having an argument about boxing. Hemingway and Fitzgerald thought Hemingway was good enough to be a professional. Callaghan had his doubts. To settle the argument, Fitzgerald convinced the two to spar while he served as audience and timekeeper.

As it turns out, Hemingway could not have been a professional boxer. Callaghan, though smaller and an amateur himself, was better. Not only did he get to punch Ernest Hemingway right in the face, he knocked him down to the mat.

A moment later the legendary friendship between Hemingway and Fitzgerald was over. Fitzgerald, who had gotten caught up in the action and lost track of the time, exclaimed, "Oh, my God! I let the round go four minutes."

All right, Scott,” Hemingway shot back. “If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.”

And that was it; he never forgave Fitzgerald. He was still bitching about it in the last letter he wrote before he killed himself, nearly 40 years later.

Callaghan wrote about it too, in his memoir, That Summer In Paris. And, as if this story hadn't already filled its quota of asshole writers, that memoir was then reviewed in The New York Review of Books by Norman Mailer. The review was called "Punching Papa" and you can read it online right over here.

This post is related to dream
07 The Lake Sturgeon
Ernest Hemingway, 1923

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bathurst Street, north of St. Clair in 1912

From Urban Toronto's "A Pictorial History of Cedarvale", which uses plenty of pretty pictures to tell the story of the development of the area around Bathurst, between St. Clair and Eglinton, which just so happens to be my 'hood.