Part 5 - Cecil Street - The West End
In 1884 an impressive double residence was built on the SE corner of Spadina & Cecil, later numbered 377/379 Spadina Avenue. In the north half lived Dr. John Ferguson, an up-and-coming medical prof and future co-founder of Toronto Western Hospital. The south half was occupied first by William Stratton, a senior Tax Inspector, then from 1891 to 1922 (and beyond) by wealthy building contractor, cement manufacturer, real estate magnate and erstwhile city councillor, John Lucas.
With three storeys and a mansard roof, it was the biggest residence on Spadina north of Queen. But a building boom was underway, and within a few years it was hemmed in by stores and houses:
Ferguson‟s home included an office for his medical practice, which was to characterize usage of the property‟s north half for the next fifty years. When he moved out in 1890, he was succeeded by Dr Henry Hunt until 1905. In 1906, Edward Rutherford, a medical & toiletry supplier on Spadina, moved in and shared space from 1907 with Dr. Malcolm Cameron‟s practice. Cameron became sole occupant from 1909 to 1919, followed by Dr. Murray Robertson from 1919 to 1923, and then Dr. Frederick Hayes till 1935. Then it became a private dwelling occupied first by Mary Koski, then Rama Walno.
In the late 1940s both houses were bought by Lou Grossman and his wife Rose, recent Jewish immigrants from Russia. They knocked together the two halves of the building, added a nondescript one-storey frontage on Spadina, and opened it as a kosher-style diner or cafeteria.
They attempted many times to get a liquor licence, but were stymied by objections from local churches. The magistrates finally relented in 1957, and the bar was renamed Grossman‟s Tavern. From the outset, even before alcohol flowed, live music was a feature of its appeal. Initially Yiddish songs and klezmer sounds held sway, but genres changed with each successive clientele. Son Al Grossman, manager of the tavern, explained this several years later:
When we opened there was quite a large Jewish community and they started moving away. Then we had the Hungarians come through. They were the so-called Freedom Fighters. They created a whole new culture around Spadina Avenue. Now we started off with the music. We had gypsy fiddlers and singers and our clientele, I would say, was mostly Hungarian. Then the „hippie movement‟ started to come into the area because of the large homes on Cecil Street, Beverley Street and Baldwin. And they started a complete new culture! And that‟s when we started going in for rock ‟n roll and blues. We started off with a group called the Downchild Blues Band and he‟s still around, Donny Walsh. They were our house band. Then we had our so-called „draft dodgers‟ – I used to say „political exiles‟, it was a tremendous brain-drain when they came up here from the States. You had your professors, teachers, artists and musicians. Local artists like G. Raynor, Bob Markle, John McGregor and Gershon Iskowitz started coming in also… [1984 interview]
The Grossman family sold the bar in 1975 to the Louie family, immigrants from China, who still run the joint; it has carried on the same vigorous life under the same name. For over forty years, well before this area became part of Chinatown, rambunctious New Orleans Jazz has been a regular fixture on Saturday afternoons, featuring Kid Bastien‟s Camelia Band, later reinvented as The Happy Pals. This seven-piece band still plays every week, long after trumpet-player Cliff Bastin‟s sudden death in 2003. By 5:30 every Saturday afternoon, the Tavern is always filled to the brim, teeming with life and memories, spontaneous invention, contemporary humour and tradition.
And during the week, a host of other rock and blues bands perform. One on-line reviewer waxes poetical (a tad over-poetical) about the place:
As the daily bustle of Chinatown dies down and the garbage flaps up and down the sidewalk, it begins to feel like you‟re on Lonely Street. Is there a more perfect bar to duck into? Musicians sweat out the blues on stage, while weathered regulars line the bar. Everything is covered in a layer of grime and ashes. This is not a case of bad housekeeping, this is character. This is the real deal ..
Legendary bluesmen like the late Jeff Healey, Danny Marks and Downchild have been regular performers down the years, but the tavern itself - an unprepossessing dive - is in many ways the real star. Bill Smith gives a whiff of its counter-intuitive appeal in his Rant & Dawdle blog:
.. Hundreds of photographs hang on the drab green walls like a gallery of police mug shots, now faded behind multiple layers of grease and nicotine, bearing witness to its history of the (in)famous customers that sat around the metal topped tables (easily wiped clean with a damp rag) on rickety wood chairs…
The ‘former coach house’ that really wasn’t: 60 Cecil and Chinese immigration
On the opposite (north) corner of Cecil Street from Grossman‟s, and built at the same time, there is a narrow store at 381 Spadina. It retains some Second Empire features, now rather dilapidated. It has undergone a succession of temporary incarnations, including furniture store, restaurant, billiard hall, Christian Science centre, pizza joint, KFC outlet, and currently Sizzle Kababs. But more interestingly, squeezed between the rear of this store and a laneway north off Cecil - beside the Community Centre‟s west wall and leading back to „Glasgow Street‟– there‟s a tiny brick building. Easy to overlook physically, its significance is equally hard to pin down.
In the fertile imagination of its current (café) owner, it was constructed as a „coach house‟ for No. 381 Spadina - the laneway garage of its era:
“The carriage would have been downstairs, the horse would have been in the kitchen, and hay was stored in the loft that is now the upstairs seating area.”
Its size and location make that a plausible guess, but the timeline is dubious (vis à vis arrival of automobiles), and its brick structure and height seem a little discordant with that theory. Its original purpose and ownership remains a mystery. It‟s actually first listed (No. 60) in the 1896 & 1897 Toronto Directories, as „Ontario Academy‟. In the 1898 Directory, it‟s the „Mental & Psycho-therapeutic Institute of Canada‟. From 1899 to 1903 it was designated as „Cecil Hall‟, perhaps tied to the nearby Church of Christ at #58. But within a few years, by the time of the 1905 Directory, this miniature building had been repurposed:
It was now occupied by Charles Kee‟s laundry. He may or may not have lived on site; it would certainly have been cramped, but that was not untypical for such places. Later Toronto Directories confirm its continuing usage, e.g. 1922:
In fact a Chinese laundry survived there until long after the Second World War. According to Stewart Scriver, who converted No. 60 into an antique clothing store in 1975, “when the first store was rented on Cecil Street the sign said Lee Sang‟s Hand Laundry.”[“A cute sign”, he adds, “but not the image we wanted to portray”]. A 1973 Toronto Archives photo shows that sign in situ.
Chinese Laundries in Toronto:
When Kee‟s Laundry opened at 60 Cecil, there were very few Chinese inhabitants around Spadina, or indeed in Toronto as a whole. But it was far from being the first Chinese Laundry in town; the earliest, in 1877, was Sam Ching‟s at 9 Adelaide East, and Wo Kee‟s at 385 Yonge. By 1901, there were at least 96 Chinese wash-houses. Lee Wai-Ma, in an article Dance No More: Chinese Hand Laundries in Toronto, depicts how the Cecil Street hand laundry may have looked and operated:
The physical set-up of a typical Chinese laundry in North America became a familiar sight everywhere. Usually it was a small place in a modest building in the working-class residential area. A red „Hand Laundry‟ sign hung outside the premises, or was painted on the window. Inside, a wall-to-wall counter divided the shop into a reception area and a working place. Behind the counter, some brown packages of clean laundry, with Chinese labels to identify the customers, were tucked on several shelves, waiting to be picked up by the clients. On the other side of the shelves, which functioned as partitions as well, was the working and living quarters of the laundry-house. Washing troughs and machines were aligned near the water supply and drainage systems. If the business of the laundry was large enough, a big stove would be used to warm up several irons, each weighing about eight pounds and alternately used by the pressers. In earlier days, however, Chinese laundry workers ironed at tables in the front, close to the street, where a curious passer-by might watch the operation if he pleased. They also used a more primitive type of pressing equipment – an ingenious iron saucepan about half a foot in diameter. An American writer once described that “in this saucepan he contrived, by some mysterious agency, to make a charcoal fire, though whence the draught was obtained would puzzle the Caucasian..”
The phenomenon of Chinese laundries stirred up a wave of irrational and virulent public prejudice, fanned by newspapers of the time. The Toronto Star reported allegations “by those who claim to know, that in most of these places their working boards are used for bedsteads, and the soiled linen which comes from the houses of Toronto citizens are utilized for bed clothes.” It made a further gratuitous claim that “Canadian laundries wash and dampen their clothes with pure water, while the Chinamen dampen their clothes with water thrown from their mouths, doubtless often giving clothes a contagion which is ironed into them for the benefit of the Canadian patron.” Complaints and rumours were legion regarding unhygienic, unsafe workplace conditions and poverty wages, not to mention ridicule for cleaning white folks‟ dirty underwear, and „wantee washee?‟ jokes. Somehow it was also implied that white folk were being ripped off and prevented from making a decent living. It formed part of a nasty stew of racist stereotyping and propaganda about Asian crime, opium and gambling dens, dirty hovels, eating rats and cats, extortion, even sex slavery.
This was not just street talk. In May 1914 Ontario‟s Factory Shop and Office Building Act was amended to state that: “No Chinese person shall employ in any capacity or have under his direction or control any female white person in factory, restaurant or laundry”. And, far from defending fellow workers, the union movement often treated them as contemptible alien cheats. One delegate to the 1906 Trades & Labour Congress of Canada convention complained, on behalf of the Shirt, Waist & Laundry Workers, that “the actual tax imposed upon Chinese immigration does not prevent the great overflowing of yellow workers to injure especially the laundry workers of our country”; Congress put on record a demand that the Chinese Head Tax be doubled from $500 to $1,000.
In the face of bigotry and regulatory shackles, Chinese laundries in Toronto nevertheless thrived. By 1921 there were 374, at a time when the Chinese population was only 2,134. “Assuming an average Chinese laundry employed four persons, including the owner himself, then over 50 per cent of the Chinese Canadian population in Toronto was related to the laundry business in the early 1920s.” (Lee Wai-Ma). But then the racist 1924 Chinese Exclusion Act put a sudden halt to immigration, and was not repealed until 1947, by which time the Depression of the Thirties, the introduction of coin laundries and the spread of drip-dry fabrics had put most Chinese hand laundries out of business…[Further research deserves to be done on the 70-year Chinese laundry business at 60 Cecil …
In the 1950s, Toronto‟s first Chinatown in an area of „the Ward‟, between Dundas/ Queen, and Bay/ Elizabeth Streets - much of it a slum - was demolished to make way for Toronto‟s new City Hall. Some Chinese businesses still remain there, but most have disappeared over time.
The Chinese community migrated a short distance west, to Spadina & Dundas, between Sullivan to the south, College to the north, Augusta to the west and Beverley to the east. Although close to the heart of this development, Cecil Street saw less residential Chinese ownership than did nearby streets. Apart from the Buddhist temple and Tong headquarters at Nos. 20/22, it did not experience a major influx of Chinese institutional usage like that created by the earlier Jewish settlement.
In 1947 Canada repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1949, the Communist Party came to power in China. In 1967, Canada‟s immigration policy was further liberalized. As a result of these events, thousands of Chinese immigrants, especially families and descendants of men already in Canada, streamed into the Spadina area. Students and skilled workers arrived from Hong Kong and Guangdong, along with ethnic Chinese communities from other southeast Asia countries and the Caribbean. Although Spadina‟s Chinatown is now one of the largest in North America, bustling and vibrant, it has struggled to redefine itself since the 1990s. Younger, professional, higher-income families from China have settled elsewhere in the city and suburbs, and the Spadina community has aged. Vietnamese Chinese generally arrived as impoverished refugees, and many still live in this old Chinatown, but others now reside in Mississauga while wealthy Hong Kong Chinese tend to settle in Markham and Richmond Hill. Although most of the Chinese grocery, clothing & dry goods stores remain, along with restaurants, fewer tourists visit the enclave and, apart from two major malls on Spadina, most businesses are relatively small scale.
The New Wave: Youth & Student Culture
Fast-forwarding from 1905 to 1975, No. 60 Cecil, the former Chinese laundry, was rented by Patricia Roy, art teacher & fashion collector, and her partner Stewart Scriver, a freewheeling traveller & trader. Together they opened it as a tiny store called Courage My Love, an outlet for second-hand vintage clothing and associated antiques. They scavenged Goodwill and the Salvation Army, the back rooms of small rural general stores, the rag businesses of Toronto and Montreal, the attics of big old Victorian homes…They attracted the custom of students and of Annex professionals, but also of film and theatre companies and museums. They were the leading edge of the late hippie revolution that swept through the Kensington Market area. Along with beads and incense, schmatta had turned trendy. So successful were they that, in 1980, Courage My Love had to move to more spacious digs at 14 Kensington Avenue, where it still is found. But the romance of its original „polly pocket‟ setting – little more than a stone‟s throw from Spadina‟s iconic El Mocambo, and adjacent to Grossman‟s Tavern -was a key part of its identity:
The building at 60 Cecil Street was unheated with no plumbing. The floor had rotted. A cement floor was poured, a deal was made with a neighbourhood pizza place [381 Spadina] for the use of their bathroom, the three rooms were filled with clothing, dishes and furniture, and much to everyone‟s surprise, a wildly successful Toronto institution was created which would eventually be known worldwide. (Stewart Scriver)
After 1980, the zamboni-sized „Little Building That Could‟ stood empty for a couple of decades, used chiefly as a band rehearsal space. But in late 2009 it re-opened as the Sonic Café, which remains its current incarnation.
A sympathetic blog at that time describes the café‟s social roots, its ambiance and its self-image: Environmentally-friendly coffee in the student ghetto.
If you live in the student ghetto below College Street, you may have noticed a new bicycle-themed café in the neighbourhood. Located on Cecil street, just east of Spadina, and a short hop away from campus, Sonic Café has added a burst of bright, spray-painted colour to the street since it opened this winter ..
Owner Anthony D‟Arcy created Sonic as a stop for cyclists to come in and tune up their bikes. The café, which is loosely affiliated with Toronto DIY cyclist groups, will hold a repair stand and tools for tune-ups on its front patio by April.
Not only is Sonic‟s coffee organic and fair-trade, it‟s environmentally friendly, too. Most local bean roasters emit a highly carcinogenic product, roasting their beans in residential areas with no emissions standard. Sonic is different. “We get our beans from this old Italian fellow who was an engineer before he entered his family‟s coffee business. He built this absolutely amazing roaster .. You end up with a bean that is organically grown, fairly traded, and environmentally roasted,” says D‟Arcy…
Sonic Café is comfortable and unpretentious. The menu is simple and straight-forward; espresso, macchiato, lattes, drip coffee, vegan muffins, bagels, grilled cheese ..
“The fengshui of the building is beautiful,” says D‟Arcy. “If you want to come in quickly, there‟s the downstairs patio. If you want to come in and mingle, there‟s the downstairs seating area with the piano. If you want to stay longer, there‟s the upstairs. And if you want to seek solace from the Cecil Street crazies, there‟s the upstairs outside patio.”
Nowadays (2016) the link with bicycle maintenance seems to have been dropped, but the super-tiny Sonic Café has become a venue for raucous live music, crowded poetry readings, stand-up comedy. It‟s The Sixties in a shoebox.
A few steps from the former Chinese laundry, on the east side of the Cecil Community Centre, is the hidden gem of Glasgow Street. To call it a street is an exaggeration; it‟s no more than a narrow laneway. It can be entered from Cecil Street, alongside the Community Centre‟s east wall. On the earliest map (1889) it was named Spadina Place. That changed to Glasgow Street in 1906.
This cul-de-sac opens up to reveal a cluster of tiny row houses built to accommodate workers who came over from the British Isles in the latter decades of the 19th century. They probably look like the dwellings most of them had left behind, standing flush against a stone pavement beside a narrow street. When the first five houses were recorded in 1889, three were occupied by labourers, one by a house-painter, and the other by a piano maker. They were moderately priced family homes. Their charming Second Empire style was very popular in Toronto during the 1870s; mansard roofs, as opposed to peaked ones, provided more interior space for large families. But, unusually for that style, they were built not of brick, but of frame and clapboard. Many now have mini verandas, which were likely not there when first constructed. At some point in time, tiny porches were added to some verandas to protect their front door from winter winds.
Tucked away from the noise and activity of the bustling downtown, yet close to its cultural and commercial activities, this tranquil little enclave – a miniature village in itself - is a rarity in a city of Toronto‟s size. Another attractive feature of the street is that, although less than a block long, it has its own small parkette, on the east side, an intimate leafy space, well maintained, with benches where residents – and outsiders - can sit in warm weather to read, chat, text…
As in many fairy tales, however, a wicked wolf casts a baleful shadow over this idyllic wee world. It‟s a greedy wolf, name of Eddystone Capital Management. The University of Toronto, hand in glove with this developer, has pushed through a project to build a 24-storey, 78 metre high, 830-bed student residence on the south side of College St, replacing No. 245 College (a former U of T print shop) and No. 253 (a former storage warehouse).
It had over 12 times permitted density, and 5 times permitted height for the site. With hostile residents up in arms, City Council rejected the controversial plan in 2012. But one year after this decision, the unelected developer-dominated Ontario Municipal Board overruled it and rubber-stamped the plan. And that was that. The social movements that gave us the Hydro Block, and which stopped the Spadina Expressway in its tracks back in the day, seem pretty dormant nowadays. There were no protesters in the street. Construction went ahead. It has eliminated No. 39 & 40 Glasgow, and blocked off the little footpath that gave residents narrow access to College. Its bulk looms over everything already. Huddled at its base lies Glasgow‟s wounded stump.