Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Link: Old CNE Posters

The poster for the Ex in 1937

Tonight I'm heading down to the Ex for the first time in like a bazillion years, so it seems like a perfect time to direct your attention to a small online archive of old CNE posters collected by a geography professor at York University. You can check them out over here. They range from 1884 to 1939. I'm especially struck by the Communistic worker imagery in a couple of the designs from the '20s and '30s. And the way the kid in the last one looks like an enraged mini-King Kong, ready to swat a plane out of the air.

There are some other cool ones here and here and here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Étienne Brûlé Gets Cut Up Into Pieces And Then Eaten

Étienne Brûlé Arrives At Lake Ontario
It seems that Étienne Brûlé—the man many historians think was the first European to set foot on the land that would eventually become Toronto—was more than a bit of an asshole. Samuel de Champlain, his long-time boss, called him "licentious and otherwise depraved", plus "very vicious in character, and much addicted to women". A francophone priest called him "a transgressor of the laws of God" who led a "wretched life in vile intemperance". Even worse, in 1629, he turned traitor, helping to lead the British down the St. Lawrence to capture Quebec City.

But he's also one of the most important figures in Canadian history. He arrived in New France as a teenager in the early 1600s to work for Champlain (the explorer/solider/dude who founded Quebec City). And he'd soon talked his way into becoming the first European to spend time living with the Huron and the Algonquin, learning their languages and customs. The experience made him an incredibly important interpreter and go-between. The original coureur du bois, he traveled further into the continent that anyone from the Old World ever had before—the first to see huge parts of Southern Ontario and the Northern U.S.—while exploring, trading and developing alliances with the First Nations.

It's far from clear, but many historians believe he passed through our neck of the woods in 1615, when Champlain sent him on a mission to recruit native allies for the fight against the Iroquois. He traveled south from Lake Simcoe into what would later become the Northern United States—a trip that usually meant taking a portage route down the east bank of the Humber River. That trail, called the Toronto Carrying Place, was the main route between Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario for hundreds of years, right up until Yonge Street was built in the late 1700s.

It was on the way back from that trip that things started to go wrong. Brûlé was captured by the Seneca, one of the Iroquois nations, and tortured. He would later tell Champlain that he escaped by convincing them that a sudden storm was a supernatural omen, but it seems more likely that he promised to arrange an alliance between the Seneca and the French. Which was a lie.

Now, the last bit. I'm guessing this should probably be taken with a grain of salt since specifics about Brûlé are always fuzzy and most of the information comes from the French, who were, you know, horribly racist colonizers, but pretty much every reliable historical source I find seems to agree on at least the basic outlines of Brûlé's death: 

Years after he escaped from the Seneca, he was captured again—this time by his former friends, the Huron. The reason isn't entirely clear, but it seems they might not have trusted him anymore after his capture by—and suspiciously miraculous escape from—their Iroquois enemies. And so, in a ritualistic ceremony in 1633, Étienne Brûlé was killed, dismembered and then eaten.


There's all sorts of contradictory information about Brûlé, since he didn't keep his own records, so if you're interested in sorting it all out for yourself, you could start by checking out his entry at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, or his Wikipedia page, or Earliest Toronto, the book I'm reading right now which prompted this post. The painting above is by C.W. Jeffreys, a Torontonian artist from the early 1900s who painted lots of events and figures from Canadian history.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Photo: Yonge and Eglinton in 1922

Eglinton Avenue, 1922

Yesterday, blogTO posted an article full of nice photos of Toronto during the 1920s. If you're interested in that kind of thing (and since you're reading this blog, I'm thinking there's a good chance you are), it's well worth checking out. 

The photo I've posted above was taken in 1922 looking west from Yonge Street down a very different Eglinton Avenue. It's something that I hadn't really realized until I started this research: just how undeveloped midtown was even in the early 20th century.

I'll post another couple of my favourites from the article below as well. The first is  looking north at the intersection of Queen and Bay in 1923. You can see Old City Hall on the right (along with the small set of steps that are still there) and, in the middle of the photo, buildings standing on what would  later become the flat expanse of Nathan Phillips Square.

Below that is a pretty photo of Sunnyside, the brand new amusement park which had just been built on the south side of Lakeshore Boulevard. It would be demolished in 1955 by the geniuses planning the Gardiner Expressway, leaving just a few buildings behind, like the Palais Royal and the Sunnyside swimming pool. (The merry-go-round, kind of awesomely, was also saved: moved to Disneyland and renamed the King Arthur Carousel.)

But really, again, you should probably just go check out the original article.

Queen and Bay, 1923

Sunnyside Amusement Park, 1922

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Vertical Haight-Ashbury

Rochdale College back in the day
Toronto, I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn, has historically been a pretty conservative place. It stretches back to our earliest days as a fiercely Protestant, fiercely British colony. In the 1830s, Anna Jameson, a writer and wife of the Attorney-General, was already complaining about the city's "cold, narrow minds", "confined ideas" and "by-gone prejudices". And when Hemingway lived here in the '20s, the city's Protestant reserve annoyed him enough that he told Ezra Pound that Canada was a "fistulated asshole". Even Marshall McLuhan came to the University of Toronto in part because he thought the city was small-minded and resistant to new ideas—and that would give him an intellectual challenge.

But by the late '60s and early '70s that had started to change. McLuhan had his own centre at U of T. Jane Jacobs had arrived and helped to kill the Spadina Expressway. Urban advocates like David Crombie and John Sewell were being elected to city council—soon they'd be winning mayor's races, too. And a few block west of hippie-filled Yorkville there was Rochdale College.

Today, you might know it as the ugly concrete apartment building beside the Bata Shoe Museum (on the south side of Bloor just east of Spadina), but Rochdale started out life in 1968 as a radical experiment in post-secondary education. There would be no tuition, no traditional classrooms or professors. Students would plan and organize their own courses; if someone was interested in learning about something, they'd find some other students who shared their interest and maybe recruit "resource persons" to lend their expertise. They would work together to form the college's policy and administration, with each student sharing an equal vote. Even the building itself was designed with those collective principals in mind, centered around communal living spaces they called "ashrams". And out front went the "Unknown Student" statue, erected, it would seem, as a monument to all those made to suffer at the hands of a traditional education.

Over the next seven years, Rochdale became a crucible for Toronto's quickly growing arts scene. Coach House Books, House of Anansi Press and Theatre Passe Muraille were all either founded at Rochdale or strongly involved in the college during their early years. And between them, they would g on to help support a generation of Toronto's writers—Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Timothy Findley, bp nicol, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Gwendolyn MacEwen—and are still at it today, publishing the Christian Böks, Sheila Hetis, Michael Winters and Zoe Whittalls of the world. This Magazine was at Rochdale, too. And so was Dennis Lee, who would go on to become Toronto's first poet laureate, write Alligator Pie and co-write Labyrinth and the songs for Fraggle Rock. Science-fiction author Judith Merril was there. And so was Reg Hartt, showing films at Rochdale years before he started the Cineforum out of his house on Bathurst. And as if that weren't enough, the Hassle Free Clinic started there, too.

Of course, Rochdale also had its problems. A construction strike had delayed the college's opening, forcing them to take in non-Rochdale students who weren't interested in an experimental education. Meanwhile in Yorkville, the government was actively working to—in the words of hockey-hero-turned-Conservative-politician Syl Apps—"eradicate" the hippie culture from the neighbourhood. Lots of the people driven out by new, upscale development and baton-wielding cops just moved the few blocks to Rochdale. The building, originally designed to house 840 students became home to thousands—even more people who didn't care about the college's goals.

How big a problem that was depends on who you ask. Most people tell the Rochdale story in the format of the cautionary hippie tale: idealism + drugs + time = tragedy. The college's open door policy made it easy for biker gangs and hard drugs to move in. The halls teemed with tripping young people. There were overdoses and a few people jumped or fell or were pushed from windows. Lots of people were appalled. Ontario's Minister of Housing wasn't even sure they'd be able to sell the building if they wanted to. "I think you'd have to send in the men in white coats and butterfly nets and clean the joint out before anybody could make an offer on it," he said. The press started calling Rochdale "the vertical Haight-Ashbury" and "North America's largest drug distribution warehouse".

Not surprisingly, some former Rochdale residents tend to tell the story a little differently. They suggest that having a few overdoses and suicides over the years wasn't exactly rare for a downtown apartment building. And that the college was a beacon for distressed youth—many more of whom might have killed themselves if they hadn't found a welcoming home. The speed and harder drugs were a problem; softer drug use at Rochdale had always been open, abundant and, for the most part, peaceful. Even the federal government's own Le Dain Commission, looking into recreational drug-use, had studied the college as part of its process and eventually recommended the legalization of marijuana.

Still, by 1975 the authorities decided it was time to end the experiment. Police stormed the building, literally carrying the last few stubborn students out of the college and welding the doors shut behind them. The government renamed the building after a senator, turned it into an old folks home and, just in case the elderly had any revolutionary plans of their own, promised to "carefully screen tenants to keep any possible problems out."


Heck, I suppose you can even add the Toronto Dreams Project to the list of artistic endeavors that owe some kind of vague, indirect debt to Rochdale, since at least a couple of my more inspiring professors were Coach House authors. There are great photos of life at Rochdale here and here and here and here and here and there's a copy of the 1969 curriculum here. (Some of which are from the college's online museum.) On YouTube, you can watch most of Ron Mann's Dream Tower documentary about the college, but the first part has no sound, so I'm just going to link straight to the second part.

BlogTO has also written a couple of articles about the college, which are especially worth checking out because of the comment sections; they've spontaneously become a place for former Rochdale students to reconnect and reminisce. My favourite excerpt comes courtesy of Reg Hartt himself:

In Hollywood a police officer who stopped me, when finding out I was from Toronto, asked what I had done there.

"I showed films at Rochdale College," I told him.

"Do you mean Canada's Communist Training Center," he asked.

Right there I knew that if the Hollywood police knew about Rochdale it had to be the hippest place on earth.

This post is related to dream
11 Feeding The Annex
Dennis Lee, 1974

Friday, August 13, 2010

Photo: Downtown Toronto in 1857

York Street in 1857

That's York Street, looking north from King in 1857. These days, it's a just a block east of University, in the heart of downtown, lined with skyscrapers. That little white building the bottom right-hand corner of the photo is right where the Toronto Stock Exchange is now. The columned building you can see at the end of the street, at Queen, is Osgoode Hall, which was serving as the Superior Court of Upper Canada at the time. Back in those days it had two domes, only one of which you can see in the photo, but still hadn't been given the iconic black fence that surrounds it now.

You can see a bigger copy of the photo here, which I found via the always helpful History of Crime and Punishment in Canada website.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The 11,000 Year-Old Footprints At the Bottom of Our Lake

Footprints on the bottom of Lake Ontario
During the last ice age, a really, really, really, really big glacier covered pretty much all of Canada and the northern United States, including the Toronto area. When the ice age ended, about 12,500 years ago, the ice sheet gradually melted, receding north until it became nothing more than the remnants that are still hanging out around Baffin Island today.

In our neck of the woods, the water that melted off the glacier formed a giant lake called Lake Iroquois. It filled the basin where Lake Ontario is now all the way up to Davenport Road. The big hill running along the north side of the street is the shoreline of the ancient lake.

Now, the reason Lake Iroquois was so big was that for a while the St. Lawrence River was still blocked by the retreating glacier. The water flowing out of the lake had to go south instead, down the Mohawk River, eventually hooking up with the Hudson before flowing out into the ocean. So when the ice dam blocking the St. Lawrence finally broke, much of the water in Lake Iroquois suddenly rushed out, and what was left was a lake that was way smaller than Lake Ontario. Science-y folks call it Lake Admiralty, and its shoreline was five kilometers south of where our waterfront is now.

That meant that about 11,000 years ago the entire Toronto area was a vast plain of tundra and spruce forest. With the glacier gone, animals moved in. There were mammoths and mastodons, ancient caribou, musk ox and bison, bears and wolves. And with them came the Paleoamericans, who are believed to be the very first humans to ever set foot on this land. They were nomadic hunters with stoned-tipped spears and small settlements throughout the region.

At one point, it seems a family of them walked north up from Lake Admiralty toward what’s now downtown Toronto. They were wearing moccasins, and for at least a few steps, they walked through clay, leaving their footprints behind.

Over the next few thousand years, Lake Admiralty gradually grew, filling with water until it became the Lake Ontario we know today. And those 100 footprints, frozen in that clay, were hidden from view. That is, at least, until 1908 when workers installing a waterpipe on the lake bed just east of Hanlan’s Point discovered them.

It was easily one of the most spectacular archeological finds in Toronto’s history, probably the earliest evidence of humans living here. “It looked like a trail,” a city inspector told the Toronto Evening Telegram. “You could follow one man the whole way. Some footprints were on top of the others, partly obliterating them. There were footprints of all sizes, and a single print of a child’s foot…”

But the city was in a rush. They wanted to build a tunnel and they didn’t want to slow down. So they just poured concrete over the prints and kept going.


I first read about the footprints in HTO: Toronto's Water from Lake Iroquois to lost rivers to low-flow toilets, which is on Google Books, here. And the best article I've found about them is on the Toronto Star's website, here (which is also where the photo's from, though it doesn't seem to show up on the article's page for some reason).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Torontoist Interview

Suzannah Showler at Torontoist was kind enough to ask me a few questions recently about the blog and the Dreams Project and my thoughts on the city, which, should you be interested in doing such a thing, can be read right over here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Map: Toronto in 1894

Toronto in 1894

Among the prettiest maps of Toronto is this one from 1894, which covers whats now just the core of the city: from the Exhibition Grounds in the west to the Don River is the east and from the lake to Bloor Street. You can see the full-sized version here.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Blackburns' Harrowing Escape

King Street in 1846
That's what King Street looked like in 1846, when Toronto was about 50 years old. You can see some of the city's oldest store fronts and, rising above them at the corner of Church, the spire of St. James Cathedral, which would soon burn down and be rebuilt as the church that stands there now. But the reason I Googled around looking for this particular painting is in the middle of the road, painted bright yellow: Toronto's first ever horse-drawn taxi cab. And perched atop it is the man who started the city's first ever cab company, Thornton Blackburn.

Just 15 years earlier, Blackburn had been living in Kentucky as a slave. He and his wife Lucie (or Ruth; there seems to be some confusion) were "owned" by an American judge who planned on selling Lucie down the river into the even-more-brutally-racist Deep South. But before he could, the couple escaped, fleeing up the Ohio River on a steamboat and eventually settling in Detroit.

They lived there in peace for a couple of years, but it didn't last. In 1833, they were tracked down and arrested by slave hunters who planned on shipping them back to their "owner" in Kentucky. Thankfully, that enraged Detroit's African-American community and white Abolitionists. They worked quickly and before long Lucie was free: a woman came to visit her in jail and they switched clothes so that the visitor could take her place while Lucie escaped.

Thornton, however, was shackled, bound and held under heavy guard. It took 400 men storming the prison to break him out and smuggle the couple across the river into Windsor. When Detroit's white bigots retaliated, attacking blacks in the streets, it kicked off Detroit's first ever race riot, which raged for three days and ended with the sheriff being shot and state troopers being called in.

In the aftermath, the governor of Michigan demanded that the Blackburns be extradited from Upper Canada and returned to slavery in the U.S., but the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada refused. "A man," he's said to have said, "can't steal himself."

Soon, the Blackburns had settled in Toronto, living in a house on Eastern Avenue at Sackville Street. Our city, of course, had plenty of its own bigots, but it promised to be a much safer place to live: while slave hunters were known to cross the border in search of their targets, there were already stories of Torontonians driving them out of the city once they'd been discovered. 

Thornton Blackburn got a job as a waiter at Osgoode Hall for a while, but soon came up with an idea for his own business. Getting a copy of the plans for Montreal's first horse-drawn taxi, he had another one made for himself. He called it "The City", painted it yellow and red, and used it to start Toronto's first ever cab company. It was a huge success. "The City" would roam our streets for nearly 60 years, from 1834 until Blackburn's death in the 1890s. The cab became such an important icon for the city that the TTC ended up adopting the same red and yellow colour scheme, which they still sort of use to this day. Before long the Blackburns had managed to buy a few other properties around town and used them to help make Toronto a hub for the Underground Railroad, renting their houses out cheaply to other escaped slaves.


After the Blackburns' death, their story was forgotten for nearly 100 years. It wasn't until 1985, when an archeological dig accidentally stumbled across the remains of their house on Eastern, that people started poking around looking for more information. Karolyn Smardz Frost was one of those people, and she wrote a book about the Blackburns called I've Got A Home In Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, which I'm thinking I may very well go out and buy as soon as I get off work today. The Star published excerpts from it here and here and somewhere else I can't find. You can also go visit Thornton Blackburn's grave, which rests in the Necropolis cemetery in Cabbagetown.

This post is related to dream
14 The Great Fire
Lucie Blackburn, 1849

Friday, August 6, 2010

Video: Building the CN Tower

It's un-narrated and, at six minutes, a little longer than it really needs to be, but here's some neat raw footage from the CBC's archives on YouTube. It shows a bit of the CN Tower's opening night in 1976 and then some shots of the construction of the very top of the spire, with people pulling over on the side of the Gardiner to watch and take photos, and a few fellows who clearly have a better relationship with heights than I do.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The T Dot's First Hanging

It seems that sometime around the turn of the 1800s, when our city was still just a town only a few years old, John Sullivan and Michael Flannery went out one night and got drunk together. Sullivan was an Irish tailor and they called Flannery "Latin Mike" because he liked to recite Latin proverbs, which I guess was a thing back then. At some point their drunk asses must have run out of money, because Latin Mike decided to forge a bank note worth about three shillings so that Sullivan could use it to buy more booze. Shockingly, their plan backfired and while Latin Mike managed to escape and fled to the States, Humphrey Sullivan landed in Toronto's first jail, sentenced to death. Which, you know, seems a little harsh.

The jail was brand new, built on the orders of the slave-owning gambling addict/politician, Peter Russell, who was running the young town while Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe (the dude who founded Toronto) was back in England, slowly dying. The "gaol" was built on King Street, where the King Edward hotel is now (there's a plaque) and as you may have guessed from the drawing above, it was a little wooden building with a log fence. Inside, there was just enough room for three prisoners and it seems that while Sullivan was there it was filled to capacity. Next door to him was John Small, on trial for having recently killed the Attorney-General in the city's first duel. And in the other cell was a Mr. McKnight. When the officials running Sullivan's execution ran into trouble finding someone willing to do the actual executing, it was McKnight they convinced to do it in return for $100 and a pardon.

McKnight, however, was not awesome at hanging people. He screwed up the first attempt. And then the second. By the third, even Sullivan was getting impatient, saying something along the lines of: "McKnight, I hope to goodness you've got the rope all right this time."

He did.


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller
There seems to be some confusion about a few of this story's details, like whether John Sullivan's real name might have been Humphrey, but I've mostly cobbled that all together from The Toronto Story and Jarvis Collegiate's startlingly informative website, which are both fantastic. They've also got lots more about Peter Russell and John Simcoe and the city's first duel, which are all so getting their own posts sometime. (Update: I've written the Peter Russell post here.)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Photo: King Street in 1878

King Street

Here, quickly, just because I like it: a photo of King Street, looking east from Yonge, in 1878. (I found it here, in an amazing online database of old Toronto photos by the Archives of Ontario, which I just accidentally stumbled my way into.)