Thursday, March 31, 2011

Photo: Playing Baseball At Riverdale Park in 1914

If you've read many of these posts, you may have already started to suspect that I'm a bit of  a freak for baseball—while I have yet to mention hockey at all on this thing, this is at least my fourth post about my favourite sport. And since today is Opening Day and the Blue Jay's new season  kicks off tomorrow down at the Dome, it gives me a perfect excuse to post this photo I've been sitting on for a while: of a game held on the banks on the Don River, at Riverdale Park, in 1914.

I found it on Torontoist, in one of their always-excellent Historicists posts, this one about boyhood summers in the city. You can find it here.

Update: Kevin Plummer, who wrote said excellent Torontoist post, tipped me off to a couple of his other baseball-related Historicist columns. He talks about the T-dot's days as a minor league powerhouse here. And about our players' old-timey baseball cards here. I'm sure to steal liberally from both at some point down the line...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Yonge Street Riot of 1992

Queen Street during the G20
Lord knows there were plenty of ignorant things said during the G20 in 2010. Among them was the suggestion that Toronto had never seen violence like that before. Pfft! Anyone who bothered to check their Google would find that our city has had riots like that on a regular basis pretty much since the day Toronto was founded. We've had Protestants riot against Catholics. Nazis riot against Jews. Conservatives riot against liberals. We've had police riot against unions, against Communists, and against firemen. We've had firemen riot against firemen. We've even had firemen riot against circus clowns. We've seen riots that brought more than 10,000 people into the streets and we've seen riots where people died. In the mid-1800s, we were averaging more than one violent riot a year for twenty years.

But our riots aren't a thing of the distant past. In the late-1980s and early '90s, we'd riot every time the Ex closed for the year. We rioted on New Year's Eve to ring in 1992. And then, a few months later, when white cops beat a black man in Los Angeles and were acquitted, we rioted again. As South Central L.A. exploded into flames and destruction, a small group in Toronto protested the Rodney King case outside the U.S. consulate on University. Soon, the crowd had swelled and some turned violent. Something like a thousand people marched up Yonge Street, smashing windows, overturning hot dog carts and generally being destructive assholes. From the footage, it looks like some were even throwing molotov cocktails.

Somehow, that time, the police managed to handle the situation without completely ignoring due process or arresting more people than ever before in the entire history of the country. There were about 30 arrests, a few injuries, and—despite the usual warnings that "we might just see the face of downtown Toronto changing forever"—things got back to normally pretty quickly. So much so that  twenty years later most people seem to have forgotten it ever happened.

Here's the Citytv coverage from the day after, complete with painfully punny titles and an adorably young Ben Chin:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor's Love Nest

Cleopatra was a BIG movie. It had lavish sets. Elaborate costumes. Thousands of extras. It was the most expensive film ever made. It ran more than four hours long. It won four Oscars, earned more money at the box office than any other movie in 1963 and still managed to lose tens of millions of dollars. But nothing about it was as big as its stars. Elizabeth Taylor, hailed as one of world's most beautiful women (um, see left), became the highest paid actress in Hollywood when she signed on to play the title role. And starring alongside her as Marc Antony was one of the most respected thespians of his time: Richard Burton.

To the joy of paparazzi everywhere, the two fell in love. They were gorgeous, tempestuous, alcoholic, entertaining. Their director said working with them was "like being locked in a cage with two tigers." Every twist and turn in their relationship became international news.

The whole thing was a little less fun for their spouses. Burton had been married for more than a decade; Taylor, 28, was already on her fourth husband. Neither marriage would last much longer. When Burton's wife saw the way he acted with his co-star on the set of Cleopatra, she fled—not just the set, but the entire country. They were divorced by the end of 1963.

But this was back in the days when divorces were super-hard to get, so they'd had to go to Mexico for it. And Taylor's was taking even longer. That was a problem. Burton, you see, was returning to the stage in a John Gielgud-directed production of Hamlet. It was debuting in Toronto at the O'Keefe Centre. Which meant that since the two lovers didn't want to be away from each other, they would be living here. Together. For eight weeks. In sin.

They arrived in January of 1964 and took over a five-room suite on the eighth floor of the King Edward Hotel. (Good luck finding a newspaper article that doesn't refer to it as a love nest.) And oh man, did some people freak out.  There was no shortage of religious nutjobs back in the early 1960s. The Vatican had already denounced Taylor's "erotic vagrancy". Judgmental teenagers showed up at the hotel with signs saying creepy things like "Drink not the wine of adultery" and "She walks among your children". A congressman in the States even suggested that Burton's U.S. visa should be revoked.

Taylor & Burton at the King Edward Hotel
But the prudes were fighting a losing battle. There were more fans than picketers. The Star even ran an editorial defending the couple. And then one day, when Taylor came down from their suite to meet Burton for lunch, there he was, sitting at their usual table in the Sovereign Ballroom. It was strangely deserted; he'd reserved the entire room so that he could propose.

Nine days after Taylor's own Mexican divorce was finalized, the couple were married—in Montreal, since Ontario wouldn't recognize their quickie, foreign divorces. A couple of days later, they were back in Toronto showing off their wedding rings. The minister who performed the ceremony would be getting angry phone calls for weeks.

A few days after they got back, Taylor and Burton were off to the States; Hamlet opened on Broadway. Over the course of the '60s, they'd make seven movies together and drink and fight and write passionate love letters declaring their undying love. He called her "a poem", "unquestionably gorgeous", "extraordinarily beautiful" and also "famine, fire, destruction and plague". They divorced in 1974. Remarried in 1975. Then divorced again in 1976. That would be for the last time; a few years later he was dead.

When she came home from the memorial service, there was one last love letter waiting for her in the mail. He'd written it three days before he died, asking her to give him one more chance. In one of the last interviews she gave before she died in 2011, she said it was still there, where she kept it, in the drawer beside her bed.


Crowds gawk at Taylor & Burton in their car outside the King Edward (via the Toronto Archives)

I cobbled most of this story together from articles in the Toronto Star and on the CBC, which you can read here and here and here. And there's more about them (with more passionate quotes) here and here and here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Photo: Scaling The Bluffs in 1909

I don't have much to say about this one, since the awesomeness kind of speaks for itself. Here are two people who have climbed to the tip of an outcrop at the Scarborough bluffs, in dress shirts and ties, in 1909. It's from one of the more helpful books I've come across, Toronto: An Illustrated History Of Its First 12,000 Years, which you can see more photos from here and buy here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

From The Graveyard Of The British Empire

The durbar for King Edward VII, 1903

We'll get to Toronto by the end of this story, I promise, but we start in India, at a place called Coronation Park. It's a grand, wide-open space on the edge of Delhi, the dusty capital of what will soon be the most populous nation in the history of the world, a city teeming with more than 12 million people. It was right here, in this park, that the British threw their biggest parties to celebrate their rule over the "crown jewel" of their empire. The first one was in 1876, to honour the day Queen Victoria was crowned as the Empress of India. There was an immense, lavish procession, with the country's most important British officials riding in on elephants and 70,000 people in the crowd.

When Queen Victoria died and the crown was passed down to her son, King Edward VII, they did it all over again. This time, the durbar (which is what they called these things) was even bigger. The celebrations went on for two weeks. More than 100,000 people showed up. There were fireworks. Parades. Even polo matches. An entire city of tents rose up on the grounds, supplied with their own electricity, running water and rail lines. There were commemorative stamps printed. Maharajas, Viceroys and Governors came from all over India. The King's own brother even made the trip from England.

And that was nothing. A few years later, King Edward was dead. And the new one, King George V (who you probably know as Colin Firth's dad in that movie), decided he wanted to attend his durbar in person. He and his Queen sat on golden thrones under golden umbrellas as 80,000 Indian troops paraded through the park before them. There were vast seas of horses and camels and cannons. King George even seized the moment to declare that Delhi would be the new capital of India.

Of course, the whole thing was a giant pile of horseshit; a pretty facade to help mask the vile things they were doing. At the Jallianwala Bagh massacre they ordered fifty British Indian Army troops to fire on a trapped crowd of unarmed men, women and children for ten to fifteen minutes until their ammunition ran out. By the end there were more than a thousand bodies on the ground. At the  Qissa Khawani Bazaar massacre, they drove armoured cars through crowds of non-violent demonstrators, used machine guns on the ones who refused to leave the injured behind and then hunted the rest through the streets for hours. The members of a regiment who refused to fire on the crowd were all arrested. Some got life in prison.

But the Indian demonstrators, led by heroic figures like Mahatma Ghandi, would eventually win. India declared independence soon after the Second World War. And Coronation Park became nothing more than a reminder of a terrible time. So it was left to decay; the grounds mostly untended, overgrown with trees and shrubs. And it wasn't the only symbol of colonial rule left in Delhi. All over the city, the British had erected monuments to their kings and queens and aristocrats. And all over the city, people didn't want them anymore. So they were pulled down off their pedestals, rounded up, and shipped to Coronation Park, where they were tucked away in an obscure corner and forgotten.

Coronation Park
Most of those statues are still standing there now, rows of monuments to men and women who once ruled half the world, rotting quietly away in this overgrown patch of land at the edge of a park no one remembers. The BBC recently called it "the final graveyard of the British Empire."

We're interested in one statue in particular. It's of Kind Edward VII, who ruled in the early years of the 1900s. His statue was designed by a big deal royal sculptor guy, the same one who built the giant memorial to Queen Victoria that towers outside Buckingham Palace. His bronze Edward sat astride his horse in Delhi's Edward Park, just across the street from the medieval Red Fort which had served as the Mughal capital in India for centuries before the British drove them out. And the statue even got a bonus plaque when King George swung by during his durbar to pay tribute to the tribute to his father. But after the fall of the empire, the Indian government renamed Edward Park after one of the heroes of the independence movement, put up a statue of him instead, and had King Eddie join the other relics.

King Edward VII in Queen's Park
He wouldn't stay there long.

Twelve thousand kilometers away, there was another former colony with a very different attitude toward the British. We kinda mostly think they're cool. And in Toronto in 1969, there was a super-rich conservative businessman/philanthropist/politician by the name of Hal Jackman. He's the guy who got the statue of Winston Churchill put out front of Nathan Philips Square. And he thought Queen's Park was in need of a good statue of a guy on a horse. Super-rich conservative businessman/philanthropist/politician strings were pulled. King Edward and his horse were cut into three pieces and shipped almost literally halfway around the world. Today, the same statue that once stood outside the medieval Mughal Red Fort and among the forgotten monarchs of Coronation Park sits with the other monuments outside our legislature, where King Edward himself came to open the park back in his days as a Prince.

And where they say once a year, like clockwork, mischievous U of T students polish the horse's balls till they shine like gold.


There's actually footage of the durbars in Delhi. You can watch a YouTube video of King Edward's 1903 durbar here. And of King George's 1911 durbar here and here. There some quick of what some of what Coronation Park looks like today, here. You can read about the BBC visiting those forgotten monuments here. And about how India is now planning on restoring them here. A whole lot of the information I got comes from a post by a blogger understandibly peeved that the statue's plaque doesn't acknowledge it as a gift directly from the Indian people. You can read that post here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Photo: A Monster Atop Old City Hall, 1920

Someday I'll have a full post about Old City Hall and E.J. Lennox—the mustachioed architect who built it, Casa Loma, the King Edward hotel and some of the other most beautiful buildings in the Toronto. But I just came across this neat photo of one the gargoyles which used to sit near the top  of the clock tower and wanted to share it. The photo was taken in 1920, 20 years after the building opened and nearly another 20 before the gargoyles were taken down due to wear and tear. It was just a few years ago that bronze cast replicas were added back where the originals once were, keeping a monstrous vigil over Queen Street and Bay.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tragedy At Hogg's Hollow

Rescue efforts

Toronto has been, in the most literal way possible, built by immigrants. English hands raised the timbers of Fort York. Germans carved Yonge Street out of the forest. Irishmen and Italians, Ukrainians, Poles and people from all over the world have built our bridges, paved our streets and erected one of the tallest buildings in the history of the world. 

In return, generally, they've been treated like shit.

The example that comes up most often is from March 17, 1960. That night, in a tunnel more than 10 meters beneath the snowy ground near Yonge and York Mills—in the not-in-any-way-related-to-the-Harry-Potter-franchise Hogg's Hollow neighbourhood—a dozen construction workers were putting in a new water main. The sandhogs, as they were called, were working in stupidly unsafe conditions, unprotected by any meaningful safety regulations. There were no fire extinguishers. No flashlights. Weak support beams. Inadequate equipment. And no way of communicating with the outside world. Supervisors who complained were fired.

It was around six o'clock that they first noticed the smoke. Half of the workers escaped quickly to safety, but six men were trapped below as the fire spread. The heat was intense. The smoke was toxic. And the tunnel was filling with water.

"I tore my shirt off, soaked it in water and covered my face with it," remembered one of the workers (a Belgian, the only non-Italian in the group). "The other five did that but kept their heads up. They started screaming 'Mama Mia.' They got down on their knees and started to pray. I couldn’t keep them quiet. I told them to stay put, that the boys upstairs would come down and get us out. They wouldn’t keep their heads down and conserve energy. The smoke was awful and then the water hit us. It came up to our knees. I was scared but I knew they would come and get us out. But the heat was draining our energy. There was a glimmer of hope; I could see a light from the shaft and I just knew we would be all right. I started back toward the shaft. The other five wouldn’t come with me. They were screaming and down on their knees praying. I grabbed Pasquale Allegrezza by the shirt and started dragging him along the pipe. There was no room to carry him and I couldn’t fight the smoke any longer. I had to let go of Pasquale. Another few feet and I had to put my face down on the pipe. I was sleepy. And then I guess I passed out. Just before I passed out I was afraid for the first time that I would not get out."

Meanwhile, on the surface, rescue workers were in disarray. Their equipment wasn't working either,  there was no back-up plan, and no one could get to the men.  The fire was just too hot; the valve to clear the tunnel of smoke was stuck and there was a risk the whole thing would collapse. A couple of men who did crawl in only made it far enough to hear the moaning voices before they were forced to turn back. It would be more than an hour before anyone else could enter the tunnel. And by then, Pasqualle Allegrezza, Giovanni Fusillo, Giovanni Correglio, Alessandro Mantella, and Guido Mantella were all dead. The Belgian was the only survivor, miraculously dragged to safety, disoriented but alive, hours after the fire had started.

The city's Italian community was devastated. In the wake of the disaster, a fund was set up to help the victims' families and Johnny Lombardi (the friendly old fellow who ran CHIN until he died a few years ago) held a benefit concert at Massey Hall.  On the political front, the Toronto Telegram  led the charge, running one front page story after the other with headlines like "SLAVE IMMIGRANTS" until, finally, the provincial government ordered a Royal Commission to investigate. In the end,  stricter safety and labour laws were passed.

And that's pretty much been it. As the Toronto Star pointed out in an article last year, the laws haven't really been updated since.  More than 400 construction workers in Ontario have died on the job since 1990—most of them in gruesome and preventable ways: crushed by equipment, fallen from scaffolding, drowned, electrocuted, sliced open. And as employers continue find ways around the fifty-year old  laws, those numbers are expected to go up.


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
I can't stress enough how much this post owes to Jamie Bradburn's Historicist article about the tragedy over at Torontoist, which you should totally read, here. You can find more info and pictures on the city's website here, and from a Toronto Star article about the commemorate quilt that now hangs in York Mills Station here

Oh and if you're wondering why the neighbourhood around Yonge and York Mills is called Hogg's Hollow, it's cuz of a dude named Joseph Hogg, a Scotsman who ran a whiskey distillery there back in the 1800s. 

This post is related to dream
03 The Death of Giovanni Fusillo
Giovanni Fusillo, 1960