Off the Grid (Ghost City): 346 Spadina Avenue

Part One: Ghost City

Originally published on The Grid on September 12, 2012.  This was my first piece under the “Ghost City” banner, which the publication had used periodically for similar pieces. “Ghost City” lasted as a weekly column through June 2013, though the title was occasionally brought out of mothballs by other writers. 

When the Gold Diamond restaurant opened this summer, it inherited a building teeming with ghosts: Paranormal spirits are reputed to have inspired the lion statues out front and once required the services of an exorcist. Symbolic ghosts have also left their mark through the legacies of a Jewish-community landmark and a series of Chinese eateries.

Dress-making strike, crowd at Labor Lyceum, 346 Spadina Avenue, February 25, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 23262.

Originally occupied by residences, the southwest corner of Spadina Avenue and St. Andrews Street was purchased by the Toronto Labor Lyceum during the 1920s. Founded in 1913, the organization promoted trade unionism among the city’s growing Jewish community, and offered a home for garment-industry organizations like the Internatonal Ladies Garment Workers Union. As longtime union activist and politician J.B. Salsberg observed, “no single institution and no single building on Spadina—the main street of Jewish Toronto—was more important in the refashioning of the Jewish immigrant into an actively involved Canadian Jew than was the Labor Lyceum.” Beyond union meetings, the building met the community’s cultural and social needs by providing a venue for concerts, a beer parlour, dances, lectures, and hanging out.

tely 40-05-14 goldman obit

Obituary for Emma Goldman, the Telegram, May 14, 1940.

Anarchist Emma Goldman spoke many times at the Labor Lyceum while intermittently residing in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s. Her talks ranged from lecturing about drama to raising money for the defence fund of condemned American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. While Goldman respected the city’s appreciation for the arts, her criticisms of the influence of the Anglican and Catholic churches did not make her a fan of the “Toronto the Good” mentality. When she died in May 1940, her friends told the Star that the funeral service would “not be a religious one but will be rather just a gathering of friends.” While her body lay in state at the Labor Lyceum, she was remembered “as a woman who had put ideals above suffering.”

cjn 71-12-24 lyceum to become chinese restaurant

Source: Canadian Jewish News, December 24, 1971.

When scaffolding went up after the building was sold in 1971, locals figured the wrecking ball would follow to the increasingly shabby-looking site. Instead, new owner Yen Pin Chen, a Taiwanese restaurateur, spent $1 million over the next four years refurbishing the building into a restaurant complex he hoped would become the focus of the new Chinatown emerging along Spadina. Décor included walls filled with handcrafted detailing and a ceramic reproduction of Beijing’s Nine-Dragon Wall that had been in Chen’s family for two decades. Outside, observed the Globe and Mail, “two bronze-coloured lions crouch and stare imperiously from the front door into the window of the Jewish hard-goods jobber across the avenue. The façade glows with the colour of sunrise over Shanghai, that imperial shade of yellow once reserved for emperors.”

gm 1975-08-02 yen pin palace Source: Globe and Mail, August 2, 1975. Click on image for larger version.

Despite being the largest Chinese restaurant in the city, Yen Pin Place was an expensive bust. The luxurious décor was offset by bland food that the Globe and Mail’s Joanne Kates figured “would be perfect for a convention of 1,000 dentists from Des Moines.” After it closed in 1978, Yen Pin Place was succeeded by a string of eateries that Kates described as “each more outrageously pretentious and gastronomically mediocre than the last, and all of them doomed to failure.” The flops included Genghis Khan (a Mongolian BBQ), Paul’s Palace Deep Sea Shantung (once the city’s premier Szechuan restaurant, it had served better food elsewhere), and the President.

ts 86-01-24 hsin kunag review

Source: Toronto Star, January 24, 1986. Click on image for larger version.

In 1985, the building was purchased by the Hong Kong-based Hsin Kuang restaurant chain, whose name still graces its facade. The Star enjoyed the warm towels that bookended every meal and the dim-sum offerings, but found the flavours of the rest of the menu lacked character. Hsin Kuang gave way to Bright Pearl in 1997, which carried on serving dim sum until a landlord dispute led to its closing in 2010.

That Bright Pearl lasted for 13 years supports the superstitions and accounts of ghost sightings associated with 346 Spadina. The presence of the paranormal has been blamed on everything from an onsite mortuary to the billboards forming a “V” pointing at the entrance that channelled evil spirits. Ghosts are said to haunt the washrooms, even after an exorcist was sent in. Feng-shui masters have been consulted in design elements such as the placement of the “foo dog” lions to provide a healthier aura.

Additional material from Spadina Avenue by Rosemary Donegan (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985); the December 24, 1971 edition of the Canadian Jewish News; the August 2, 1975, November 15, 1976, and April 4, 1981 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the May 14, 1940, May 15, 1940, February 19, 1983, January 24, 1986, and August 31, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star.

Part Two: Vintage Toronto Ads – A Place for Food, Spirits, and Movements

Originally published on Torontoist on October 23, 2007.

Yen Pin Place

Source: Toronto Life, December 1975.

Mid-1970s diners expected a certain level of ostentation when eating at finer Chinese cuisine establishments. Decor was touted as much, if not more, than what went into one’s mouth. The atmosphere diners were promised at today’s featured restaurant hints at a feast for the senses.

Except that the foo dogs were not mere decoration…

The history of 346 Spadina Avenue reflects the neighbourhood’s ethnic shifts. During the mid-20th century it was home to the Labour Lyceum, a centre for Jewish labour movement activity. After her death in May 1940, anarchist/activist Emma Goldman was placed in state in the building until the go-ahead was given by the United States government to bury her in Chicago. The lyceum later moved east to Cecil Street.

The site has long been regarded as haunted, which may explain the presence of the foo dogs guarding the building. One set of restaurant owners called in an exorcist, who noted that the billboards across street pointed like an arrow, directing bad spirits into the building. Apparitions favoured the washrooms, catching patrons at the weakest moment of their meal.

UPDATE

As of 2017, the main restaurant space sits vacant. In 2013, Heritage Toronto installed a plaque commemorating the Labor Lyceum.

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Vintage Toronto Ads: Let’s Go to the (Pre- and Post-War) Ex

Part One: A Thousand Things to See for Everyone

Originally published on Torontoist on August 14, 2007.

2007_08_14cne30s.jpgSources: National Home Monthly, August 1937 (left), August 1939 (right).

The Canadian National Exhibition opens this week, bringing with it nearly 130 years of tradition, from its beginnings as an industrial showcase to its current role as a signal that summer is drawing to a close. Today’s pair of ads provide a glimpse of what the Ex was like on the cusp of World War II, before it was closed for wartime activities.

The “new amusement area” touted in 1937 proved significant, as it marked the beginning of the CNE’s long relationship with James “Patty” Conklin and the Conklin organization (now folded into the North American Midway Entertainment following several mergers in the carny world). The first year of the contract was not lucrative for Conklin or the CNE due to a polio epidemic that struck the city. Parents were urged to keep their children away from the fair to lower the risk of transmission. The effect was short-lived, as attendance bounced back by the turn of the decade.

That Toronto was still firmly tied to the British Empire is evident in both ads. George VI’s coronation in 1937 is duly noted, with that year’s nightly fireworks show dedicated to the onward march of Britannia. For 1939, note the placement of the pictures of the British exhibits and the promise of “two famous English bands.” No comment for the 48 groups from elsewhere.

The swing era was in full bloom by 1939, with a highly impressive slate of big bands that year. American saxophonist Glen Gray’s group earned its name, the Casa Loma Orchestra, after a residency at the Toronto landmark during its brief phase as a hotel in the late 1920s.

Several of these bands were signed to RCA Victor records, whose corporate parent showcased the future with its television display even though Toronto was 13 years away from its first station. Another RCA division, NBC, launched its TV broadcasting service in April at the continent’s largest exhibition of the year, the New York World’s Fair.

After the 1941 edition of the CNE, the grounds were turned over to the military for training purposes, with the fair put on hiatus until 1947.

Part Two: Welcome Back CNE

Originally published on Torontoist on August 21, 2007.

2007_08_21_cne47.jpg

Source: National Home Monthly, July 1947.

As mentioned in last week’s ad, the Canadian National Exhibition took a break during World War II. Once the war was over, the existing buildings were modernized to prepare for the Ex’s return. “From acting as a depot through which passed thousands of young Canadians to the theatres of war,” noted a Toronto Telegram editorial, “it now reverts to its role as the window through which the world may glimpse the peacetime strength and wealth of the country in all its amazing variety.”

The CNE was officially opened, after a concert by the United States Navy Band, by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King on August 22. King emphasized that Canada’s postwar stability was linked to the recovery of Great Britain’s economy, which saw a series of austerity measures introduced the following week. As recounted that evening in the Telegram, King noted that “the Exhibition affords a vivid illustration of our Canadian way of life. More may be seen here in a day than might be learned from books in a month.” Over 103,000 people passed through the gates that day, the first a pair of children from Springhurst—the first adult, according to the Telegram—”was an annoyed CNE worker who had forgotten his pass.”

The next day saw 273,000 visitors, many on hand for “Warrior’s Day,” a salute to veterans.

The Globe and Mail pondered what would bring people to the fair in an editorial on opening day eve:

What actually drives the people to the Exhibition? Undoubtedly the advance notices on such things as rides, sideshows, marathon swims, speedboat races, baby contests, fireworks displays and so on are the primary eye-catchers. But we will wager that more people will want to see the new automobile with three front headlights than will rush over to the sword swallower’s tent. More will want to see in action the television set they would like for their own living room than the careening speedboat which they never will be able to afford.

One lasting memento of this edition was a short produced by the National Film BoardJohnny at the Fair. The film follows the adventures of “Johnny,” a four-year-old who wanders away from his parents and explores the grounds, meeting all of the celebrities on hand that year. Among those he encounters: Prime Minister King, boxing great Joe Louis, skater Barbara Ann Scott, and comedians Olsen and Johnson (best known for their anarchic revue Hellzapoppin’). “Johnny” was chosen from hundreds of children who auditioned. In a Globe and Mail interview, his mother believed that he won “because he was born with a pleasing personality…or maybe it’s because his father is a kibitzer—a prankster, I mean.”

Johnny at the Fair gained new life in the 1990s, when it was lovingly mocked by the crew of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. As for “Johnny,” he fared well in adulthood, growing up to be artist Charles Pachter. The film is being shown at this year’s CNE, along with a documentary reuniting Pachter and director Jack Olsen.

Additional material from the August 21, 1947 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the August 21, 1947 and August 22, 1947 editions of the Telegram.