Articles

THE STREETS OF CANADA SPADINA

The homeless and the hopeful flock to the cluttered melting pot of Toronto’s Spadina where an immigrant boy can hustle his way to a million—or to a flophouse

KEN LEFOLII July 6 1957
Articles

THE STREETS OF CANADA SPADINA

The homeless and the hopeful flock to the cluttered melting pot of Toronto’s Spadina where an immigrant boy can hustle his way to a million—or to a flophouse

KEN LEFOLII July 6 1957

THE STREETS OF CANADA SPADINA

The homeless and the hopeful flock to the cluttered melting pot of Toronto’s Spadina where an immigrant boy can hustle his way to a million—or to a flophouse

KEN LEFOLII

“The Avenue,” says one of its leading public figures, a "legitimate bookmaker" who heard the formula somewhere else, "is all things to all men."

For the bookie "all men" break down into the horseplayers, crapshooters, cardsharks, panhandlers, hoods, hopheads and a residual pool of "wise guys" whose grifting arena is Spadina

Avenue. He's hit on the right thumbnail characterization, but he doesn't know how right it is.

On the teeming angle-parked sweetand-sour-smelling downtown Toronto thoroughfare named Spadina there are evangelists, brassiere designers, bankers. professional chicken slaughterers, morticians, rabbis, steambath opera-

CONTINUED OVER PAGE

WALTER CURTIN

They rent rooms. They tout horses. They sell shoddy and stand In souplines. The street will clothe you, feed you, fleece you. And now and then it will hand you a laugh

tors, Communists, mannequins, Jesuits, sausage stuiters, marriage brokers, union bosses, merchants, midwives and European immigrants by the square block who'd all agree with the bookie's proposition for their own reasons, and probably in their own languages.

“Spadina is the foreignest street in Canada,” says hat merchant Sammy Taft, who's been on the Avenue since he was born there above his father's barbershop forty-four years ago.

When the Liberal party staged its nominating convention last March for the Spadina federal riding, the party brass took a back scat while seven seconders speaking for, successively, the Ukrainian, Polish, Japanese, Hungarian. German, Negro and Italian votes, urged the nomination of one of the two candidates. It goes without saying that their man won, to foot-stamping approval and shouts of “Go Go Go with Givens.”

The post-nomination keynote speech was delivered by a onetime federal member for the riding. Senator David Croll, who passed permanently into Spadina folklore when he said “I'd rather walk with the workers than ride with General Motors” during an auto industry strike in the 1930s. Croll's speech, inevitably for a Spadina political meeting, demanded an “open door immigration policy.”

Spadina’s wide-armed welcome for anyone who just got off a boat goes back to the turn of the century, when Toronto's Jewish community set up house and shop on the Avenue and its narrow tributaries. By the end of the First World War the six-pointed star of the Mogen David was the Spadina Strip’s signature.

There were four synagogues in one short

continued overleaf

Jesuits and Jews worship, merchants and middlemen barter and bicker. And the kids have a world of their own, on “the foreignest street in the country”

block on D'Arcy off Spadina, and over thirty more within five minutes walk on and off the Avenue. The Bank of Commerce branch on the College Street corner had and still has more Hebraic than English gold-leafed on its windows.

Most of the people of this closely-held Jewish village spoke a couple of European languages as well as Hebrew and Yiddish. The flavor of their enclave was high continental. and by natural association other racial groups fixed themselves on the Spadina Strip's outskirts — first a Ukrainian settlement, then an Italian village, then a pocket of Magyars who built a red brick cathedral to St. Elizabeth of Hungary across the Avenue from the grey brick Hebrew Men of England synagogue.

By the time Canada pulled the latchstring for the homeless and hopeful of Europe after the Second World War Spadina and its residential backwash was the nearest thing to home on this side ol the water lor anybody from anywhere. About two-thirds of the immigrants who landed in Canada in the last ten years have stayed for a while at least in Toronto, and for most of them Spadina is the main street of the nation.

On the Avenue or just around the corner an Estonian can find a landlord who speaks his own language, and an Italian can take home a square meal of gnocchi and Sicilian olives. A Syrian tailor can find a job under a Syrian foreman, a German youth can make a down payment on a bride who’s stili in Bonn, and a Polish mother can call in a midwife from Warsaw. A Hungarian can buy forints to send home to relatives at a third of the official exchange continued on page 33

continued on page 33

Continued from page 23

rate, a Ukrainian can go to a Ukrainiandialogue movie (with English subtitles), and an Orthodox Jew can have an Orthodox funeral.

When a flash fire on Baldwin Street oil Spadina sent sixty-two people scrambling for safety one night last March a Greek father dropped his fifteen-month-old daughter from a third-floor window into the arms of a bystander. The odds are stacked heavily against anyone but a skilled athlete catching twenty-odd pounds of squirming baby from that height. But on the Spadina Strip it wasn't even marked down as a coincidence that the onlooker, who fielded the infant flawlessly, was once a professional soccer player in Poland.

Spadina is a little more than five miles long and wears at least three hats; one, at its northern end. as the High Street of a wealthy residential district, Forest Hill, and another as a midtown office and apartment block artery. The manytongued enclave known as the Strip is cut off from the midtown section by a near-Gothic stone pile that straddles the Avenue just north of College Street like an island in a river, forcing traffic to flow around it.

This formidable barrier was built as a Presbyterian College in 1874, almost forty years after the original section of the domed Jesuit Seminary that marks the south limit of the Strip around the Wellington Street intersection. The Jesuits, who are planning a move to the suburbs now. outlasted the Presbyterians. For the last fifteen years the Gothic island has been used for the production of penicillin, insulin, and, more recently, polio virus and Salk vaccine by the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories. I.ike the rest of the world, the Spadina Strip has been strung out between the priesthoods of religion and science.

Religion is incomparably better represented along the length of the Strip. The Avenue and its backwaters are studded with churches — Russian, Greek, Hungarian. Ukrainian, Lithuanian; Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Jewish. Buddhist, Evangelical. The Church of All Nations, as you'd expect it to be, is just around the corner on Queen Street.

“It is the churches that bring us to Spadina when we are strangers in a strange land,” says Wilhelm Hranilovic, a onetime movie distributor in Yugoslavia who had grave need of a church when he settled on the Strip five years ago. “Myself, a few prayers were everything 1 had in those days.”

In “those days” Hranilovic’s wife was slowly dying of cancer while he tried to father two young sons who were “running wild” and at the same time find a job that would look after all of them. Characteristically—for Spadina—a priest ministered spiritual help and the "strongly evangelical” Scott Mission, Inc., took it from there, supplying food for the family, underwriting hospital care for the mother, and finally landing a job for Hranilovic himself.

That was five years ago. Hranilovic, remarried and the beaming proprietor of a Spadina Strip magazine and gift store, changed his name to Hill when he became a Canadian citizen in June.

"Listen,” he says, happily ' twiddling

the knobs on his spanking new air conditioner. “In Yugoslavia I try it four years to settle with the Red ones. It doesn't go. Here, I know where I am. That’s a penny business I’ve got. We never get rich, but I can make plans. Now I look for ten years ahead.”

Hranilovic’s story, with variations on the theme, is played out a dozen times a day in as many languages on the Spadina Strip. Sometimes the story ends as hopelessly as his began. Janar f ulos, a 44-year-old Hungarian tightrope walker with an artist’s temperament, went back to Budapest not long ago. He had spent his courage on the Strip, lost a hand under the cutter of a bookbinding machine he had been set to run. and wanted nothing more than to return to a place where “there is something for a tightrope walker.”

But most of the Strip’s swarm of Europeans-becoming-Canadians are working too hard to give much thought to how things used to be. Men, for example, don’t usually last long as pig-slaughterers. The gush of hot blood swells their hands and arms to crippling proportions. But Abram Charney, who “came here to work,” slaughtered enough pigs in two years to finance half a European-style butcher shop on Kensington Street in the Strip's Jewish Market.

“My hands were big like a pig’s leg,” says Charney, “but we came in the business.”

The Market where Abram Charney “came in the business” is an old-world warren of clogged streets with a bloodfish-and-spice smell in the air. a jumble of fruits, vegetables, grains and shoddy piece goods spilling over the sidewalks halfway to the curbs, and a more cosmopolitan press of customers than back home in Cracow.

In five minutes in the Market a Jewish matron can buy bagels at Lottman’s Bakery, lox at Reinstein’s Fish Market, and unsalted cream cheese at Daiter’s Dairy. In the same five minutes a Negro porter’s wife will bid on a live fortypound carp from Jim Windecker’s tank truck, pick up a dozen yams at Zimmerman’s Produce, and a bunch of green Fortuna bananas (for stewing with the fish) from Sam Sanci, who’s sold twenty varieties of banana in the Market for twenty-six years.

Without moving the length of a supermarket aisle you can buy eggplants from Greece, artichokes from Italy, oranges from Israel, and pickled herrings from Iceland. There are three kinds of peppers, paprikas to boot, peanut oil, bay leaves, three kinds of rice, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, lentils, millet, nabit, eight other grains and seven varieties of nuts in open tin cans in one store front. You can choose your own from any one of a dozen breeds of live chickens and within a hundred paces there’s a Schocket who'll give it the Kosher kill for sevencent fee.

For almost forty years the Market was in lusty operation for just about every daylight hour of the year. But by 1955 most of the merchants were tired of paying a police summons every Monday, and now many of the shops are shuttered on Sundays.

By sunup every other day the delivery trucks that choke the Market streets— four or five blocks on Baldwin, Kensington and Augusta—all week are beginning to pull up with loads of live fish, live fowl, sides of beef, bushels of vegetables and baskets of fruit. The dry-goods stall keepers are festooning the sidewalks with cotton underwear, imitation oriental rugs and seventeen-dollar three-piece suits, while the furniture merchants roll out a clutch of cheap household goods

with placards exhorting you to buy in as many as ten languages.

The customers, when they begin to show up around seven, are as mixed as the merchants. A petite Japanese bride who’s just picked up some bamboo sprouts, yam noodles and Kikkoman shoyu (soy sauce) at Furaya’s across the Avenue will browse through the Market for leeks and unpolished rice to round out the sukiyaki. Toronto’s mayor, Nathan Phillips, who's gone to bat more than once in his years on city council to defend the Market’s practice of setting up shop on the sidewalk, may stop by for some krep lach (the “eternal triangle,” made of boiled meat baked in a dough shell) and a loaf of challah (Saturday bread); and a Romany down-andout from a Strip flophouse will bargain tor a quarter bushel of barley for the week’s home brew, and a couple of gallon wine jugs to keep it in.

By the time most Toronto shopkeepers are taking their shutters down the Market's pedestrian traffic is spilling off the strip of sidewalk that's left and into the streets. Most of the women wear the head kerchief, and the men the wide bottomed trousers, of the Europe that’s

still rubbing off. But there are bargain hunters, gourmets, and plain kibitzers adding their own brands of English to the Babel of Anglo-Yiddish mingled with all the tongues of Europe that the Market transacts a normal day’s business in.

A cockney is back with the barrow boys of Rupert Street when he walks through the Market, and a New Yorker finds Old Orchard Street almost intact. The likeness, in both cases, is more than skin-deep. All three are multi-tongued islands silted into English-speaking cities by the political and economic run-off of the old world. They disappear every generation and are repeopled by a fresh outbreak of hunger and fear in Europe. Many of the Jewish shopkeepers who made the Market from the tail-gates of their horse carts forty years ago are living out a comfortable retirement in the middle-class northern suburbs of Toronto. Their sons are as likely to be securities salesmen as fish peddlers.

The Charneys from Cracow and the Zimmermans from Breslau, who've moved into the vacant shops and coldwater fiats as the original Jewish community “graduated” from the Market and the Spadina Strip, are already taking aim at the suburbs. Meanwhile, there is more than one television antenna sprouting over the Market.

The Spadina Strip's bread and butter, which is sold in the Market, is earned farther south on the Avenue. The corner of Spadina and Adelaide is the hub of

Who is it?

She’s a champion in a field that calls for lots of drive. Turn to page 38 to see who this girl grew up to he.

half Canada’s garment industry, a frenetic business that's a peculiarly apt outlet for the creative drive as well as the muscle of the Strip’s manpower.

The section of the trade that Spadina has cut out for its own—in a sawoff with Montreal for domination of the industry —is the “better dress" field. Better dresses. as the trade sees it. are anything that will provoke a style-conscious stenographer or a young matron to separate herself from between twelve and sixty dollars. If it costs less or more it's probably made in Montreal and took simple sv\eat or near-genius to produce.

A Spadina dress, modish but not high fashion, is the product of nervous talent. Most Spadina styles aren't “original;” they're adapted from New York designs, which in turn follow a "mode" set by the couturiers of Paris, with an occasional assist from Rome or London.

“A Canadian girl will hold back from most New York styles, even though she might admire them.” explains Joe Gossk\, a Spadina dress designer who makes a dozen trips a year to New York for inspiration. “She may want to look just as bitchy as anybody on Fifth Avenue, but she doesn't quite dare—at least not in public.”

Like the rest of the designers on the Avenue, Gossky plays out his talent trying to take the “bitchiness” out of his New York models without losing whatever it is that makes them fresh and fashionable. He has five lines to design every year—one for each season and a “party-time” group of semi-formals for Christmas and New Year's merrymaking —and he has to guess right every time.

“If you once lay an egg," Joe says in a weirdly effective metaphor, “your goose is cooked."

The theme recurs in almost every conversation about the fashion industry. “We're in business twenty-five years,” observes Jules Shcenan. the sales manager of one of the successful Spadina style houses, “and we're in a new business every season.”

Most Spadina houses show buyers across Canada about twice as many sample styles as they expect to produce. Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary usually buy the same styles that will be popular in Toronto. The rest of the west, including Winnipeg, leans to more straitlaced models. Chic is where you'd expect to find it, in Montreal and Quebec City; and the Maritimes might as well be back on the Prairies. Most of the dresses made on the Avenue are in the nine to nineteen size range; the best part of New York s dresses arc comparatively petite five to fifteens. These odd-numbered sizes are known as “juniors:” they're compact in all the places where it counts, while an even-numbered, or “misses” size, is more mature around the bosom, statelier around the hips, and maybe even a little full around the waist.

The Spadina garment men hang their hearts on their labels. They make Fabulous Formals. Flattering Frocks and Klever Klad Dresses. Height is an asset in a Mademoiselle Tall, tininess a tribute in a Paradise Junior. I hey want you to feel you'll look patrician in a Lady Beatrice Hat, alluring in a Lovable Bra (It Costs So Little To Look Lovable), and right out of this world in an Exquisite Form Biflex Foundation. You can fit your gayest mood with a Melody Dress or whoop it up modishly in a Junior Vogue Cocktail Timer. And if you're cagey with a buck you can’t do better than a SelMore Garment. At least half the garment firms flourish under their owners’ names, and at least nine in ten of these are Jewish.

That Spadina’s garment industry is all

but entirely in Jewish hands is probably due less to a natural affinity for style than an intimate knowledge of the mechanics of the business, drudged out of the sewing and cutting rooms over a couple of generations. Thirty-five years ago or so the industry was owned by Anglo-Canadians and the shops were manned by the Jewish immigrants who were making the Spadina Strip over into a Semitic village.

The owners' sons were at university studying the professions, and the Jewish boys in the shops were hungry and in a hurry. Now the cycle has come full turn.

"You see young Luigi over there?” one of the Avenue's brightest successes asked, pointing to a swarthy youth whose name may or may not have been Luigi, who was scuttling past under a load of cuttings. "In twenty years I'll be out and he'll be in. He's stepping about as fast as 1 did when I was hustling bundles."

Luigi and his Italian countrymen, most of them recent immigrants, are the largest racial group in the shops right now. they work cheek-by-jowl with smaller groups of Syrians. Japanese. Greeks. Central Europeans, Cockneys. Irishmen and the

occasional fifth generation Canadian. They’re usually under a union contract and almost invariably on piece rates, which they prefer because the piece-work system "makes a man his own boss.” There was a time when Spadina’s employers and needle-workers dealt at arm’s length, and often as not with bare knuckles. For six years during the 1930s there was a picket line somewhere on the Avenue every day. Effective legislation and goodwill on both sides have changed this, and almost erased even the memory of old grievances. There hasn't been a strike

on the Avenue for a decade or more, and the union delegates are as quick as the employers to boom the industry as a “paragon” of labor relations.

The Spadina sewing rooms are a more or less rewarding place to work for at least ten thousand people. According to a needle-trade union official, a bundle hustler “with an ounce of co-ordination between his eyes and his hands” who starts work for twenty-five dollars a week can be earning eighty-five within a year as a pattern cutter. Most weekly pay cheques fall between the two figures.

The Avenue is so congenial to labor that it’s host to a couple of dozen other unions as well as an even ten that look out for the needle-workers’ interests. The unions have had their troubles with Communist members as well as employers—it's only a couple of years since the Amalgamated Clothing Workers local was split open in a near war with a Communist faction—but they’ve broken every attempt to dominate the locals so far.

At one time Spadina regularly returned J. B. Salsberg as an LPP member to the Provincial Legislature, a habit that inspired a waggish reporter to tag it the “Little Red Riding." But Salsberg won his last election in 1951. The eclipse of the LPP is credited to prosperity by most of the Strip's citizens, although there are still about four hundred men, mainly elderly pensioners eking out their government allowance, in the lineup for a square meal at the Scott Mission every day. And there’s always a gang of able-bodied loiterers hanging around the National Employment Service building farther down Spadina. ready to jump on the back of a contractor’s truck for a dollar an hour. But across the board the Avenue, like the rest of the country, never had it so good. Even the Toronto Labor Lyceum, built co-operatively by the Spadina unions to house their offices, is catering to the good life these days. There’s a bar in the basement and there’s dancing to old-time music in the auditorium every Friday and Saturday night.

And if you don’t run into the right girl here or at one of the other Avenue dance mills you can shop through an illustrated catalogue of 227 German girls for two dollars at Waldi’s marriage brokerage on Augusta in the Jewish Market, or a roughly equal number of Italian girls at your choice of similar establishments elsewhere in the Strip. If one takes your

fancy—judging by the pictures the odds are one will—and if you’re well enough heeled the agent will handle the rest of the deal right through a proxy marriage and delivery of the bride.

There are three mail-and-money brokers on the Avenue who’ll take cash here and arrange for, say, streptomycin to be forwarded to Prague from Geneva, and coffee and cocoa to be sent to Cracow from Copenhagen, saving you the cost of airmail across the Atlantic.

The same agents will look after you if you want to send money home to relatives in East Europe without paying the ruinous official exchange rate. The Hungarian forint, for instance, is officially pegged at about eleven to a Canadian dollar. But in terms of purchasing power it finds its level on the open market at about thirty to the dollar. This is the price that a Hungarian businessman, who can't buy dollars legally at home at any price, is willing to pay. Your dollars are usually left on deposit in Canada. The Hungarian delivers forints to your relatives, and congratulates himself because he’s traded soft money for hard and has it in a safe place to boot. The Spadina agent greases the wheels of the deal, takes a small commission, and leaves everyone smiling.

Their activities have convinced a good many New Canadians that the agencies are all-knowing.

“People come in off the street and write from all over the country asking us to pick out a good Canadian Christian name for their babies,” says Laszlo Csatho. a young lawyer from Budapest who’s the manager of the largest agency. “What can I say? I like George myself.”

Sometimes the questions are easier to answer. “A man wrote us from Saskatoon wanting to know what to do because he was bothered by fierce itching. We told him to take a bath more often.”

Baths are a Spadina specialty; there are five full-scale public steam baths on the Strip (ladies’ nights Wednesday and Friday). Funerals are another. Six morticians are established on or just off the Avenue. Rites can be arranged in almost every service and tongue known to man, from Hebrew to Buddhist.

Cleanliness and godliness provided for, the Avenue looks after its stomach. A single Spadina poultry house kills and plucks three and a half thousand chickens a day, and there’s chicken tortellini on

the menu at Little Italy, chicken paprikas at Little Hungary, and fresh schmaltz, in four dozen Kosher delicatessens. You can buy nasi goring from Surabaya, Kegami crabs from Yokohama, and Gouda cheeses from Amsterdam.

You can sit down to goulash in an iron pot, chop suey in a bamboo bowl, and —at Passover—matzoth on a Seder tray. You can set a bar mitzvah banquet at twenty-five dollars a plate and for two days last April you could have tucked into glazed capon, Restigouche salmon and butter-drawn lobster at the Scott Mission without paying a nickel or even listening to a sermon. (The Mission's menu, which is free to all comers every day of the year, isn't usually cribbed from the Ritz. Most of the food is donated, and that’s what turned up last April 3rd and 4th.)

Although there’s hardly a dish of any origin you can’t order on the Avenue, Kosher food is still the staple and the supreme specialty. Jews and Gentiles, Torontonians and tourists come to the Strip for the spiced titillations of Kosher cookery. Kosher dairyman Harry Daitcr's name has been circulated far beyond the Avenue and the city by his products.

as has bakcryman Sid Lottman's. Sausage maker Sam Shopsowitz has stepped up into the big time with frankfurters named after himself.

“Shopsy’s” Kosher restaurant, in fact, bracketed with Sammy Taft's hat store next door, is a regular calling place for many of the American movie, music and sports personalities who pass through Toronto from time to time. Big Benny, the colored panhandler who works this block on Spadina, recalls the day when Jimmy Durante. Louis Armstrong, Rudy Vallee and Jersey Joe Walcott all stopped by for headgear and/or headcheese.

After ten years of panhandling on Spadina Benny is case-hardened to a cosmopolitan clientele. “Some days I can stem the Avenoo for an hour and never get answered in the same language twice,’’ he observes. But the racial virtuosity of the Strip is equal to surprising even Benny from time to time.

He’s still shaking his head over a phenomenon that turned up in the Christmas season last year. Toward the close of a festive day a frail and silent Chinese began panhandling on Ben's beat.

Benny, who usually discourages the first sign of competition on his block

with all the muscle he’s got, was too rattled to say an unkind word.

“What could I do?” he asks with a roll of the eyeballs. “The only Chinese panhandler in the free world!”

Benny and the Avenue regulars named him the Mandarin and three weeks later he disappeared as quietly as he'd come, but not before he had taken his place in the Strip’s character gallery. But by and large the Avenue pays little attention to characters. It’s wrapped up in other things —in rolling with the punches day after day until, in time, a Canadian has been made out of a European washed up on a strange beach.

A sightseer from out of town, rubbernecking through the Strip not long ago, stopped in front of a large building set back of College Street just around the corner from Spadina. The only lettering on the face of the building was in a running Eastern script. Curious, he asked a bearded bypasser going through the gate whether he’d mind deciphering the inscription.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” the beard threw back over his shoulder, hurrying on. “Can't you understand Ukrainian?” -AT

ANSWER TO

Who ÍS it? on page 34

Marlene Stewart Streit, who holds Canadian Open and Closed titles and U. S. women’s amateur golf titles.