Portrait of Little Italy
Its citizens are 160,000 Italian Canadians. They've so changed Toronto that "leaving Little Italy is like leaving the city behind"
Robert Thomas Allen
FOR A TORONTONIAN of my generation, it's hard to lose the feeling that Toronto is a staid British settlement on the north shore of Lake Ontario, adequately and cautiously run by solidly landed Protestant Scottish - English -| Irish aldermen in striped pants and plug hats. But things have changed. The mayor is an astute Jewish lawyer from Augusta Avenue in what used to be called snootily "the ward.” but which is now so popular a source of grassroots origins that it's become a status symbol. One alderman is a fiery young Slovakian-born lawyer given to slapping dowm books, quoting statis-
tics and citing scathing examples of city-hall incompetence. His ward running mate is a huge-girthed Canadianborn Catholic-Italian banana wholesaler named Joe Piccininni who, after his election, passed around the ornate, galleried, old council chamber, beneath paintings of Queen Victoria As a Girl and Nelson Boarding the San Josef, passing out bananas to the council members. The city hall now leaves up its Christmas decorations for the Byzantine Christmas. At the time of this writing a Ukrainian flag floats outside the window of City Clerk Edgar Norris’ office, and a move is under consideration to proclaim Cristofero Colombo Day a national holiday (continued overleaf)
To some old Torontonians they We.
(continued) on the just grounds that there wouldn’t even be a Toronto if Columbus hadn’t set out from Italy to look for China.
Over seven hundred thousand people in Metropolitan Toronto are now of non-British descent. The number of Italians, by far the biggest group, was estimated in 1961 at more than 140,000 and the figure is probably closer now to 160,000. Torontonians of British descent have dropped to a minority group of forty-five percent. In the west-central section of the city you can wander for hours trying to get Toronto street directions from people from Naples and Palermo, looking at snails in grocery stores, listening to Italian records and enjoying the novel life of a community of Italian movies, espresso bars, pizza parlors, pointed shoes, short jackets, Sicilian shawls and such vitality that going home to, say, north Toronto is like entering a decadent suburb and leaving the real Toronto downtown.
Many Torontonians welcome this exotic tidal wave that has given texture to the city and suddenly made Toronto as self-consciously cosmopolitan as a teenager who has just discovered beer. But quite a few Torontonians look on these changes dourly, still call Italians “Eyetalians” and misuse the word "ethnic" to mean exactly what they used to mean when they said "foreigner.” A few think vaguely of Little Italy as a cluster of grocery stores in an old part of town and many think of it as a tough neighborhood of ward heelers, underground
societies and Tammany Hall politics, where Italian youths pinch girls’ behinds, and more mature citizens, when they aren't eating spaghetti, are stealing jobs from Canadians. To take a closer look at the source of this mythology I wandered around town talking to social workers, politicians and businessmen about just what Little Italy is, where it is and what goes on there. I found Italians whose background and outlook were no more Italian than mine; I found morality and family ties that we could use a lot more of, courage, thrift, disillusionment, enthusiasm, deep social problems, politics about the same as politics anywhere else, and nothing simple and clear-cut.
Little Italy, if the term is applied to the small, congested area of stores, movies and streets of closely packed semidetached houses which has its centre around College and Bathurst Streets, and which until 1950 contained most of the Italians in Toronto, is still there. But it is now a funnel through which immigrants pass to an enormous area of Italian concentration one and a half miles wide and four deep that thrusts north through central Toronto beyond the city limits. There are new areas of heavy Italian population around Kcele Street, Jane Street and Highway 401 in the northwest part of the metropolitan area, and many Italians live in such unltalian sections as suburban Victoria Village and Don Mills. The previously predominantly Anglo-Saxon district of Bloor Street West has a
welcome "exotic tidal wave"; to others, the y'i'e interloiier~
dense Italian population, and one of the city’s most heavily populated sections, Ward Five, which houses some thirty thousand Italians, takes in part of St. Clair Avenue, which is as far north from Little Italy as you can get while still remaining in the city.
The idea that the foreign element of Toronto’s population is a solid antiAnglo-Saxon political bloc is as naive an Anglo-Saxon notion as the one that all Italians eat spaghetti. (Italians watch with amazement Canadians going out for spaghetti dinners; about the way an Irishman would regard a couple who went out to eat potatoes by candlelight.) Politically the Italians are neither solidly anti-Anglo-Saxon nor solidly anti-anything. The area roughly congruent to Ward Five is considered one of the liveliest political battlegrounds — federal, provincial or municipal — in Canada; election signs there are flattened like wheat by rival parties, and “the Italian vote” is a fond dream of all political parties. But this is a politicians’ tournament. The average Italian, by and large, is too busy surviving and coping with his new problems in a new country to give it much thought. There are many jealousies and feuds between selfappointed leaders. Nobody agrees who they are. Alderman Piccininni is generally identified as spokesman for the Italian community, but I talked to three Italians who claimed the same title for three other men. One theorist said that Piccininni nosed out Harold Menzies, a veteran Toronto-Tory Alderman who operates a real-estate of-
fice on Bloor West, because one busy ward worker (a non-Italian) “didn't like Menzies more than he didn’t like Piccininni.” Mayor Givens says that it's unfair to Piccininni to tag him as leader of the Italians, and that everyone should just let the guy do a job as alderman. But Piccininni doesn’t discourage people talking up his role as representative of the Italians, and Toronto newspapers have portrayed him so often as a fun-loving fat man with a big appetite that 1 half expected to find him chuckling over a bottle of wine and a plate of spaghetti and sprinkling his conversation with “Mama mia’s.” Instead, I found a hard-working, practical, rather serious man with a fine voice who is mainly doing a competent, routine job as a city councilman. He was raised in north Toronto, lives far from his ward, speaks Italian with a Canadian accent and has been to Italy only once, when he won a ticket on a draw last year. When he’s not at city hall, he’s in a small cluttered office in the family’s banana warehouse, a plain concrete-block building on Merton Avenue in north Toronto, trying to straighten out ordinary matters for unknown callers, about half of whom are Italian. I sat one morning listening to him take his phone calls, give quick, clear advice, suggest courses of action on some very non-Italian matters, make notes to start things moving wherever possible. A man with a pregnant sister called to say his sister was trying to get her boy friend to pay for her confinement and that when she
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PORTRAIT OF LITTLE ITALY
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Toronto’s Italians are changing. Now, some join the Lions Club
threatened to phone the police the boy friend came around and threatened to beat her up. An Italian laborer said he'd been laid off on compensation, had gone to the city to get light work, had been told to go to the unemployment people, who had said they couldn't do anything for him while he was on compensation. An Italian phoned to say he hadn't received all his unemployment insurance. Another man called to say he'd been laid off from the city's winterworks program. A householder phoned to say that the garbage men were damaging his garbage pails and doing it deliberately. The caretaker of a school in Piccininni's ward phoned to say that he was getting only one pickup a week, which meant that he had to carry out thirty or forty pails on one morning. As I left I heard Piccininni saying to one caller “Si. Si. Okeydokey," which seemed to sum up his confusing role as leader of the Italians.
The general picture of an Italian immigrant as a laborer in a soiled ivyleague cap or as a swarthy, sinister fellow with hooded eyes was one that I shared, as a Torontonian with all the prejudices, and I never quite got used to meeting many Italians who spoke, thought and looked essentially the same as the people I grew up with in Toronto. Johnny Lombardi, a well-known Toronto Italian who runs a supermarket at Grace and College Streets in the west-central part of the city, is a brisk, greying businessman who recently helped bring the Italian musical comedy Rugantino to O'Keefe Centre. At a Lions Club dinner I listened to thirty-five Italians, many of whom looked like Scotsmen or Englishmen, sing God Save the Queen without music, and yell “skibbydibbydoo” when guests were introduced, like visiting boosters from Ohio. They even had a Tail Twister, something I hope I'll never see again.
About twenty percent of Toronto's Italian immigrants are from educated middle-class families from northern and central Italy, and recently there’s been a wave of technically trained Italian craftsmen who came here from Germany. But the majority of Toronto Italians come from the poor provinces of southern Italy and Sicily, and many came as illiterate peasants, when those areas were much more impoverished than they are now. They came here to escape a life in which they got occasional jobs as factory workers or stone breakers, and scratched out the rest of their sustenance with perhaps a donkey, a few chickens, a patch of maize and vegetables and an occasional cut of meat from a kind of smoked ham called prosciutto. But these people now have grown-up families who took much of their schooling in Toronto; they have sons working in offices and stores, daughters who resemble the general idea of a European peasant about as much as Suzy Parker does. Talking
to these young people, who have been here perhaps seven or eight years, it’s hard to relate them to their background. A young Italian clerk said that before he left Italy he'd never had shoes or a whole suit in his life. A pretty, fashionably made-up business girl who might have been a model in an ad for. say, Alitalia Airlines told me that she had never been in a home with a vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, radio, TV, or in an automobile, until she came to Toronto.
The idea of Italians taking jobs from Canadians must be hard for a lot of Italians to swallow. A social worker told me of just a few people she had tried to help. A lawyer who had for sixteen years supervised the auditing department of a town in southern Italy, who is trying to support a wife and child, hasn't been able to get a job even as a junior clerk in a law office, or any other office, and the social worker has so far put off propositioning him on taking a job
as a dishwasher. Another lawyer from Milan has been a locker-room steward at a Toronto golf club, a construction laborer, and when last seen was making deliveries for a grocery store. One Italian with a PhD in philosophy is keeping up his studies in spare moments from the assembly line of a factory, but keeps a copy of Mickey Spillane in his pocket in case any of the boys ask him what he's reading.
The Italians who have standard salaried office jobs arc a delight to
their employers. They have a reputation for being hard and willing workers. A Scottish office manager who has six Italian girls on his staff told me. “If you ask me, those girls are worth waiting for. 1 tell you they look after you. If I ask one of them to get me a glass of water, she goes downstairs to our refrigerator and gets some ice cubes and brings me a cold drink. If someone wants an invoice or something looked up. I mean they really do it as if they enjoyed it. Very few Italian girls smoke and they don't even take coffee breaks. They’re always willing to work late because when they go home they have to start working around the house anyway.”
The behavior of Italian daughters would wring an envious groan from most Canadian mothers who arc wrestling with the problems of parenthood without the backing of consistent group standards or social codes. The respect of young Italians for family authority just doesn’t fit the picture of Italians, created largely by U. S. script writers, as potential hoodlums. Yet the picture remains. A manager of a hank in a solidly Italian district told me that he tries in vain to convince his friends that he is in no special danger. One thing that helps along the tough-gang idea, and something which Toronto police have begun to take into consideration only in recent years, is the tendency for young Italian men to congregate and promenade on the streets. Coffee shops are usually noisy with six or seven men of all ages talking endlessly and as if they arc all fighting. In one pizza place I listened to a young man who looked exactly like Sir Laurence Olivier tell a story in Italian that lasted half an hour and was punctuated about every two minutes with expressions like “Pow!" “Okay!” “Geesh!”
Italian girls are strictly brought-up and strictly chaperoned. They're not allowed to go out with boys in cars. Drive-ins are so unthinkable that when I asked one girl if she'd ever been to one she appeared to turn a bit pale at the very thought of it. If a girl sits up with her boy friend to watch a late show on TV, one of the family, probably her brother, sits up with her — and it doesn’t make any difference if she's engaged. Discipline is sharp. “See that girl over there,” an employer said in a College Street office, indicating a well-groomed young woman of about twenty-one. “Her mother belted her right in the office here last week. She’d seen her talking to a boy in a coffee shop.” Italian girls are expected to marry Italian boys and generally do. Marriages arc often arranged between one family in Canada and one in Italy, and the marriage performed by proxy.
Most Italians come to Toronto sponsored by a friend or member of the family. Italians retain close family ties and want to bring everyone over, including the grandparents. They often borrow money from a bank to send to Italy for fare, and when the new arrival reaches here he goes on the note and starts making payments. A bank manager told me that his losses from bad Italian debts totalled seventeen dollars in five years. The immigrant arrives off the boat train at Union Station or off a plane at
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Mahon, sees an ice-bound Toronto for the first time, compares it with the hills of his sunny Italy and is liable to reach his first acute homesick stage at the end of three months. He moves in with his friends or family. It’s common for sixteen people to live in one well-kept eight-room house. Getting work becomes the primary, underlying factor in life. The big areas of employment are construction and factory labor for men and cleaning jobs for women, but language is a constant barrier. Plant foremen look over the papers an Italian brings with him from the Canadian immigration screening in Italy, know he’s a welder but can't quite figure out what kind of welding he does and tell him to go out and get some C anadian experience and come back. When the newcomer does land a job, he makes every nickel count. Italians are so frugal that they kid themselves about it. In most Italian homes all the money made by the family is handed over to the father who dispenses it as it's needed.
There are important problems in trying to retain the old customs and at the same time fit into the life of a burgeoning industrial Canadian city. One social worker told me of a woman for whom she got a job as a dishwasher. The husband made a call on the agency that found her the job, asked if there were any men dishwashers in the same restaurant and when he was told that there were, said that his wife couldn’t take the job. His wife had to go back job hunting again. She finally got a job as a cleaning woman in a hospital where she's getting along fine. Italian women don't go out at night without their husbands and an Italian husband, after an eight-hour day as a laborer, comes home tired and just wants to go to bed. For this reason Italian women find it difficult to get out to night-school classes in English. It’s also one of the reasons why they seldom attend parent-teacher-association meetings, to the delight of the teachers, who are already very fond of Italian youngsters because they’re unusually polite. There’s also the difficulty of bringing up daughters in the vvay of Italians when they are going to school with Canadian girls who still haven’t quite caught up with American girls in being allowed complete freedom but who aren’t far behind. The Italian girls feel like outsiders. Priests try to talk Italian parents into seeing things from the youngsters’ point of view. But there’s some rebellion among the young girls, and some violent family flare-ups. Italian families, in spite of their close ties and a mutual consideration that’s on the decrease in this part of the world, are not without the Italian version of the everlasting war between the new and the old.
“The old people talk about going back to Italy,” said one pretty nineteen-year-old girl with blue eye-shadow and an enormous arrangement of jet-black hair. “But if they do go back, they can't wait to get back to Canada. They forget why they come over here.'’
My own feeling after seeing a lot of Toronto's big Little Italy is that whatever the reason for the change of mind Toronto should put the mat out: “Welcome back.” ★