Lying in State at Old City Hall

Originally published on Torontoist on August 26, 2011.

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“Some of the thousands of citizens who passed through City Hall today to pay their final respects to Mayor Sam McBride as he lay in state are shown above with a few of the many handsome floral tributes and the solemn procession inside the building.” The Telegram, November 16, 1936.

While the state funeral planned for Jack Layton tomorrow is unique for being the first held for an opposition leader, it won’t be the first time a former councillor lies in state in Toronto’s seat of government. That honour was also bestowed upon two men who rose from council to the mayor’s office but died before the end of their mandate. Old City Hall served as the venue for the public to remember Sam McBride and Donald Summerville in a way that may be similar to that we will see at the new City Hall today.

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The Telegram, November 14, 1936.

Fiery Sam McBride returned to the mayor’s chair in 1936, seven years after his first term ended. Described by the Star as “a two-fisted, red-blooded, go-getter who was ready on a second’s notice to fight for what he believed to be right and to champion the cause of the common citizen,” his second stint was marred by ill health related to a blood infection caused by a teeth-pulling. Though he continued to look after city affairs, his public appearances declined. On November 10, 1936, McBride suffered a stroke and remained unconscious until he died four days later. City council decided the appropriate venue to remember McBride, who was born in the nearby Ward neighbourhood and who had been involved in municipal politics for 30 years, was Old City Hall. Inspired by the funeral held for Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill in 1891, the plan was to have McBride lie in state at the base of the grand staircase of the building for four hours on November 16, followed by a funeral in the lobby at 2:30 p.m.

A long line of mourners stretched along Queen Street to grieve McBride that day. As members of city council took turns attending the casket, around 25,000 people passed through to pay their final respects. City offices were closed for the day, while courts ceased their sessions at 1 p.m. When the funeral began at 2:30 p.m. buses, ferries, and streetcars across the city ground to a halt to observe two minutes of silence. Officials requested that during that quiet time, local motorists should avoid honking their horns. For the overflow crowd in front of Old City Hall, loudspeakers were set up so they could hear the 45-minute service, while the rest of the city tuned into CFRB. The eulogy was given by Reverend W.J. Johnson, who noted that if the mourners could open McBride’s heart, they would see, “written in letters of gold, Toronto.” A procession led by 20 mounted police led McBride to his final resting place in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

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Toronto Star, November 21, 1963.

Almost exactly 27 years after McBride’s passing, the public again converged on Old City Hall to remember a fallen mayor. After 10 months in office, Donald Summerville’s intensive work schedule worried his city council colleagues. Though only 48 years old, Summerville had suffered a heart attack two years earlier. When it was suggested that city hire an official civic greeter to lessen his workload, Summerville, who often put in 16-hour days, insisted that he should make a special effort to be available to community groups who requested a mayoral presence at their functions. On November 19, 1963, the one-time practice goalie for the Maple Leafs donned his pads for a charity game at George Bell Arena to support victims of a flood in Italy (where he was scheduled to fly to the following day).

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The Telegram, November 20, 1963.

He played for five minutes, clowned for the cameras, then complained of fatigue. Summerville went to the dressing room and collapsed from a heart attack, unable to reach his nitroglycerine pills. “Don Summerville died trying to be nice to people,” noted Telegram columnist Frank Tumpane. “As we all must die, it is a good way to go, better, by far, than to meet life’s end wrapped in bitterness or striking a selfish blow.” The Star ran a tasteless headline the following day: “MAYOR SUMMERVILLE SKATES OFF ICE TO DIE.”

Summerville lay in state inside the council chamber close to the mayor’s chair. Despite requests from his family to send donations to Variety Village in lieu of flowers, bouquets were piled high within the room. Before his casket was moved to Old City Hall, a wake was held at former mayor Ralph Day’s funeral home on Danforth Avenue, where mourners included federal opposition leader John Diefenbaker. The length of visitation hours at City Hall were similar to those planned for Jack Layton this Friday and Saturday: 12 hours on November 21, then two hours on November 22 before the funeral was held at St. James Cathedral. A book of sympathy was placed at the entrance to the chamber, but Alderman Allan Lamport had it moved when it slowed the flow of people.

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The Telegram, November 21, 1963.

The Globe and Mail described some of the 30,000 people who paid their final respects to Summerville over those two days:

Women curtsied, old veterans saluted, many crossed themselves. Men and women dropped to their knees before the coffin to pray. Some reached forward to pat the mayor’s hand. A clergyman put a hand on Mr. Summerville’s forehead and murmured a brief prayer. A motorcycle policeman in uniform looked at the body of the chief magistrate, snapped in attention, and saluted

One imagines the mood during Summerville’s funeral became even more sombre after mourners heard the news out of Dallas that afternoon: John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

To date, McBride and Summerville are the only Toronto mayors to have died in office. Unless a respected municipal politician reaches the same level of national prominence as Jack Layton, or there are extraordinary circumstances surrounding the demise of a public figure, we suspect the next person to lie in state within City Hall will be another mayor who is tragically unable to fulfill his or her electoral mandate.

Additional material from the November 16, 1936, and November 22, 1963, editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 14, 1936, November 16, 1936, November 20, 1963, and November 21, 1963, editions of the Toronto Star; and the November 14, 1936, November 16, 1936, November 20, 1963, and November 21, 1963, editions of the Telegram.

UPDATE

In March 2016, Rob Ford lay in state for two days at City Hall, the first time a former mayor received the honour.  City staff rejected several requests from the Ford family, including an open casket and displaying a “Ford Nation” flag.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Globe, November 17, 1936.

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Toronto Star, November 20, 1963.

Inside coverage included a picture of Summerville lying on a stretcher before he was removed from George Bell Arena (which, so far, is not among the Star photos digitized for the Toronto Public Library).

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The Telegram, November 20, 1963.

Zellers: Where the Lowest Price Was the Law

A merger of two Torontoist posts, one written when Target bought a pile of Zellers leases (published January 13, 2011) and one when Target Canada called it quits (published January 23, 2015), along with a few extras tossed in.

Let’s begin with the expectations some people had when Target announced it was coming to Canada…

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

For several years, local lovers of Target (or, as some preferred, Tar-zhay) drooled at periodic rumours that the American discount retailer would set up shop north of the border. Time and time again they were let down by failed courtship attempts between Target and Zellers — until today’s revelation that Target has agreed to take over the leases of most Zellers locations. To those infatuated with the new arrival’s offerings, this may be equivalent to an early Valentine’s Day gift. While it might not be heartbreaking to some when the eighty-year-old Canadian discounter disappears from the local landscape in 2013, we’ll take a moment to look at its hopeful beginnings.

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Toronto Star, November 7, 1931.

Walter Zeller entered the retail business through the stock room of a Woolworth’s in his native Kitchener in 1912. Over the next two decades he rose steadily in the five-and-dime field on both sides of the border, working at store and corporate management levels for the likes of S.S. Kresge and Metropolitan Stores. In 1928 he launched his own small chain with locations in Fort William, London, and St. Catharines. By the end of that year, the original incarnation of Zellers was purchased by American retailer Schulte-United, who rebranded the stores under their banner. Dreams of opening two hundred stores were quashed by the economic crash, which resulted in Schulte-United’s bankruptcy in January 1931. The bankruptcy trustees called in Zeller, who decided after several months of examination to buy the dozen or so stores left in Canada.

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

Zeller sounded optimistic about the chances for the new Zellers Ltd. when he announced its formation in November 1931. “In building our new company,” he told the press, “one important thought has been borne in mind—that the buying public to-day is more discriminating and thrifty than ever before. It knows and demands style merchandise of good quality. It insists on popular prices.” Among the first stores to carry the new banner was the chain’s sole Toronto location at Yonge and Albert streets (now occupied by the Eaton Centre). Prior to its grand opening on November 11, store manager F.C. Lee told the Star both he and the employees that had been retained were confident about the prospects for Zellers, due to the retail experience, managerial skills, and financial backing of the new corporate overlords. “While Zellers is extending a chain of stores throughout Canada,” Lee noted, “nevertheless the business is founded on the principle that the local success depends on catering to local conditions and preferences—and local managers are empowered to operate on this basis.”

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Globe and Mail, March 8, 1950.

Torontonians didn’t bite, as its first location closed within months. That first store was ignored in the PR for Zellers’ return to the city in March 1950. “Even if many Torontonians hear the news at first with indifference,” Globe and Mailbusiness columnist Wellington Jeffers wrote, “I am convinced that later on they will know it is something of an event that Zeller’s Ltd will this year open a Zeller store on Bloor Street.”

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Toronto Star, March 8, 1950.

The branch at 24 Bloor Street West (now the site of the Holt Renfrew Centre) was hailed by City officials as the beachhead for larger stores moving onto Bloor between Yonge and Bay.

Zellers quickly took advantage of the explosive growth in suburban shopping, placing stores in pioneering shopping centres like Golden Mile Plaza and Lawrence Plaza. The stores gradually evolved into modern discount department stores, though unlike its competition (Kresge’s Kmart and Woolworth’s Woolco chains), Zellers didn’t rebrand its larger locations.

Within two years of Walter Zeller’s death in 1957, a majority interest in the company was held by American discounter W.T. Grant. The Hudson’s Bay Company became sole owner in 1978. Later acquisitions included many Toronto locations of K-Mart and Towers.

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Toronto Star, October 15, 1986.

In August 1986 Zellers launched its Club Z customer loyalty program. Initial press reports depicted it as a computerized version of old “green stamp” schemes, complete with gift catalogue promising decent merchandise for a large number of points—a 28-inch colour TV could be yours for only 1.5 million Club Z points. Targeted consumers were women aged 25 to 55 who frequently shopped at Zellers for basic clothing and other staples for their families.

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Toronto Star, February 24, 1987.

The following year, Zeddy debuted. In his early days, Zeddy taught kids to be safe via colouring books, and lent his assistance in finding missing children. Zeddy later upheld the “law of Toyland,” joining the likes of Batman and Robin in crusading for lower prices on kids’ goods. After being dumped in the woods in a humorous ad campaign in 2012, Zeddy became a mascot for Camp Trillium.

The influence of Target hovered over the chain from the 1990s onward, via revamped presentation in some stores, stocking common brands like Cherokee and Massimo, and periodic rumours the American discounter was about to take over. Yet model stores, as Canadian Business discovered at an Ajax location in 1996, could not escape complaints about messiness customers grumbled about for years:

Pieces of children’s clothing are strewn about the floor. The cosmetics counter is in hopeless disarray. A snorkel and mask are lying in the stationery section. A bucket of dirty water sits next to a mountain of tinned ham. Empty cardboard boxes and abandoned shopping carts block the aisles.There are rows of empty shelves in almost every department of the store. Some of the goodies bins around the checkout area sit empty—a cardinal sin in the retailing world, where impulse buying accounts for a significant percentage of sales. A female clerk swears loudly as she sets up a display. Another gives a visitor a sour look when he asks for directions to the washroom. Needless to say, this is not the ultimate shopping environment. And yet Zellers is counting on “model” outlets such as this to save it from oblivion.

Facts of Interest to the People of Canada about Zellers

Maclean’s, June 1, 1944. 

To put it mildly, Target Canada didn’t live up to expectations. Its failure will probably be a case study in business textbooks for years to come. One side effect was a wave of nostalgia for Zellers, which left a void in the marketplace that is still being filled.

When Target announced its decision to pull the plug on its Canadian misadventure, it provoked a wave of nostalgia for the discount chain it supplanted. Memories and laments for Zellers made it a trending topic on social media, and the textbook case study of Target’s mistakes led people to forgive past complaints about the home of Club Z and Zeddy.

“Zellers, for most of its history, was quite simply the major discount store in the country,” retail expert Ed Strapagiel noted when Target purchased Zellers’ leases in Janaury 2011. ”It really was quite phenomenal—it didn’t necessarily offer the most fashionable items, but it had a reputation for good and sturdy clothes.”

Anyone with pangs of nostalgia, or wishing to have a last laugh on Target, can still shop at Zellers in Toronto, though the lone remaining store in the city at Kipling and Queensway is effectively a Hudson’s Bay outlet.

Sources: the September 1996 edition of Canadian Business; the October 21, 1939 edition of the Financial Post; the February 2, 1950 and January 14, 2011 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the November 7, 1931, November 10, 1931. March 9, 1950, and August 10, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

It appears that Zellers will disappear (again) by the beginning of 2020, as its last two locations will be closing. 

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Corner of Balmuto and Bloor, looking north, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 66, Item 21.

From a 1939 Financial Post profile of Walter Zeller:

On the business side of the balance sheet, Mr. Zeller knows as much about the variety store business as any man in the business. On the personal side, he is forthright, hard-hitting and, when asked his opinion, gives it without reserve. What he has accomplished in a relatively short space of time implies a businessman of the “dynamo” type. He is all of that. And to back up his boundless supply of energy, is a knowledge of his own business and capabilities that commands respect.

The profile ended with this odd tidbit: “He has only two hobbies: business and Kiwanis.”

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Globe and Mail, February 2, 1950.

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Canadian Champion, February 9, 1972.

“County Fair” malls and plazas anchored by Zellers dotted the Canadian landscape during the 1970s. I wonder if the one closest to where I grew up (Leamington, now anchored by FreshCo) ever held a “stagnite” like the Georgetown location.

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Minneapolis Journal, May 22, 1903. Click on image for larger version.

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Minneapolis Journal, May 23, 1903.

I considered including a brief history of Target in one of the original articles. These two ads show the birth of Minneapolis-based Dayton’s, out of which Target emerged as its discount division in 1962.

Remembering Boblo

Originally published on Torontoist on November 27, 2012.

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The band from Boblo. Photo by Abhishek Chandra.

***1/2 out of *****

A suggestion while watching Boblo: buy a can of Faygo soda from the theatre’s concession stand, preferably a tooth-rotting flavour like Redpop or Rock & Rye. Keep it handy for swaying when the band plays the nostalgia-laden jingle used in 1970s Faygo TV ads shot on the large Bob-Lo Island ferry boats, which made daily runs along the Detroit River from the Motor City to the island amusement park.

Faygo may be sticky sweet, but Boblo isn’t. Billed as “A Rock-n-Roll Concert, A Final Transmission,” Kitchenband’s live theatrical performance reflects on the fleeting nature of memory within the context of a former theme park. Like radio waves floating across the universe, memories of Bob-Lo Island may be drifting away, but—even 20 years after the last screams from the midway echoed across the water to Amherstburg, Ontario—they continue to surface.

Boblo was an amusement park that operated From 1898 to 1993 on Bois Blanc Island, a small piece of land situated between Amherstberg and Michigan, a little south of Detroit. (Before providing a summer day’s getaway for generations of families in the Detroit-Windsor region, the island saw action during the Rebellions of 1837-1838, and as one of the final stops along the Underground Railway.) Over the years it boasted the typical array of roller coasters, bumper cars, midway games, and fast-food stands, along with attractions like a dance pavilion, an observation tower, and its iconic steam ferries. Since the park’s demise, part of the island has been developed into a private residential community.

The park’s fadeout is well reflected by Boblo‘s ghostly feel. Spectral figures sway in the background behind the plastic wrap circling the stage, while certain touches, like old-fashioned microphones, add to the out-of-time feeling. These elements echo the current state of the island, where the ruins of 19th-century blockhouses and park structures remain. Ghostly memories will also stir among those, like co-creators Erin Brandenburg and Andrew Penner, who visited the park during its century of operation or who, like me, were among the generations of Amherstburg teenagers who worked at the park every summer. I can vouch for the uniforms being as bad as described.

Anchoring Boblo is its music, which mixes originals by Penner and songs, like the Faygo ad, associated with the park during its century of existence. Ranging from melancholy string-heavy songs related to tragic events in the island’s history to energetic dance tunes the audience tapped its toes to, the diverse nature of the score combines with the multimedia stage effects to simulate something like the experience of riding a roller coaster. The acting creates a similar impression, with Sophia Walker demonstrating a chameleon-like versatility, going from a girl mapping out her experiences on the island to a slightly sinister carny whose light-swinging suggests a spinning wheel from which no one will win a prize.

Like any swooping ride, Boblo dips between its peaks. The multimedia nature of the show leads to serious sensory overload, like going on a ride after eating too much. Some background choreography and special effects could have been reduced to allow more focus on the foreground action. The use of crackly radio voices alternately adds to the dream-like atmosphere and grates when the dialogue borders on unintelligible.

A production about a bygone era is appropriate for The Theatre Centre’s final presentation in its home at the Great Hall. Following Boblo, the organization is moving into a “pop-up” location a few doors west, then into its first permanent home at 1115 Queen Street West.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

This may have been the only time I worked my hometown into a Torontoist piece (though articles about Ann Arbor and Detroit came close).

A month after writing this review, I visited Boblo Island for the first time since the park closed down two decades earlier. Here are some pictures from that trip – for the full set, check out this Flickr album.

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One of the first sites when you come off the current ferry is this monument. The following plaque was placed on it in 1948:

DEDICATED TO 134 YEARS OF AMERICAN-CANADIAN FRIENDSHIP

ACROSS FORTY FIVE HUNDRED MILES OF UNFORTIFIED BORDER, PROTECTED ONLY BY THE MUTUAL RESPECT AND UNDERSTANDING ONE NATION HOLDS FOR THE OTHER

COMMEMORATING THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BOB-LO EXCURSION COMPANY AND THE FIFTY YEARS OF CANADIAN-AMERICAN USE OF BOB-LO ISLAND AS AN INTERNATIONAL RECREATIONAL AREA

A second plaque notes the monument was “erected as a tribute to the sailors of the Great Lakes.”

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Opened in 1913, the Dance Pavilion was commissioned by Henry Ford and designed by architect Albert Kahn, whose work shaped the look of Detroit during the automotive boom era.

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Snow covering the former bumper car area. As of December 2012, one could still see traces of this ride, along with the antique cars track and mini golf course.

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The base of the observation tower.

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A ghost of the antique car ride track.

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One of the surviving blockhouses built in 1839 following the Mackenzie rebellions. On the day I visited, restoration work was underway, and I was given a mini-tour.

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The blockhouses and this lighthouse form the Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse and Blockhouse National Historic Site of Canada.

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The old ferry dock. The left side serviced the giant steam ferries from Detroit until the end of the 1991 season. For the amusement park’s last two seasons, visitors had to arrive from Amherstburg or Gibraltar, Michigan (one of Detroit’s far southern suburbs).

The Wimpy Awards

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on March 27, 2012. The number of burger joints, especially those with gourmet aspirations, continues to grow. There’s even a website (Tasty Burgers) dedicated to review the GTA’s purveyors of ground round, or whatever they’re tossing in the burgers these days. Stick around to the end of this post for some of my (as of 2019) favourite burger spots.

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Illustration by Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star, March 16, 1983.

It’s safe to say Toronto is currently hamburger crazy. Whether you prefer going to an old-school burger joint that retains its 1960s-era appearance, testing a highbrow patty made with gourmet ingredients, or joining the never-ending lineups at The Burger’s Priest, Toronto has rediscovered its love for a slab of ground meat loaded with every topping imaginable (though you still can’t get lettuce at Johnny’s in Scarborough).

Back in March of 1983, Toronto Star food writer Jim White felt the local burger scene needed recognition. Noting that there were so many awards for the arts, White jokingly told readers that to correct a “cultural imbalance,” the paper was launching a series of articles to hand out Oscar-style statuettes to worthy local eateries. To honour Toronto’s best burgers, White devised the Wimpy Awards, which honoured Popeye’s gluttonous pal.

White’s criteria for the Wimpys ruled out “anything pre-fab, served by clowns or named after someone like Harvey or Wendy.” Though he intended to focus on the burger alone, White discovered that “the décor, background music, and ambience of a burger joint can be just as important as the product.” As a control measure, a basic burger and fries were ordered at each restaurant in the competition, as “the quality of French fries colours one’s impression of the burger.”

Some winners from the Wimpy Awards, presented with little fanfare on March 16, 1983:

Best Burger for the Buck: the original location of Lick’s in the Beaches, then a narrow eatery with long lines, two tables, and six stools. For only $1.95, Lick’s served large burgers that White described as “superb and perfectly charbroiled.” He noted that “the only thing missing in this setting is John Belushi shouting ‘Cheezeburgah…cheezeburgah.’” No mention as to whether the chain’s singing schtick was already in place.

Most Expensive Burger in Toronto: For $10, patrons of the Courtyard Café at the Windsor Arms Hotel received a loosely packed patty served with a truffle-tinged artichoke, purposely-undercooked chips, and a bland tomato tart.

Best Staging for a Burger: At the Bloor Street Diner, diners enjoyed their meal amid a backdrop of “pink neon, high-gloss black lacquered trim and stainless steel table tops.” The burger itself had a quality most people would appreciate—it wasn’t “sinewy.”

Best Patty: The Hayloft at 37 Front St. E. offered a burger that was lean, juicy, flavourful, and extremely fresh. Unfortunately, White felt it was ruined by lousy condiments, mediocre bun, and fries that had been sitting around for a while. The server accidentally brought White a cheeseburger, which was topped with “a tasteless, carrot-coloured film to peel off as one peels dried rubber cement off the back of one’s hand.”

Best Burger in a Supporting Role: Both Mr. Greenjeans (Eaton Centre and 120 Adelaide St. E.) and Partners (836 Danforth Ave. and 765 Mount Pleasant Rd.) served their burgers in large wicker baskets filled with Buffalo chips and on what White considered the city’s best burger bun, a light egg roll prepared by Central Bakery.

Toronto’s Darkest Burger: The experience of eating at Toby’s Good Eats at 91 Bloor St. W. on even a sunny day was “like sitting in a cellar during a hydro black-out.” When the waitress told him to enjoy his lunch, White replied “we would if we could see it.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

star 1977-07-13 best burgersToronto Star, July 13, 1977. Click on image for larger version.

An earlier roundup of the Metro Toronto’s burgers from the Star. Two of the spots mentioned remain: Johnny’s (notice they don’t mention the lack of lettuce as a topping option) and Apache.

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Toronto Star, March 16, 1983.

One of the articles which accompanied the Wimpy Awards. As of July 2019, none of the winners exist in their 1983 forms. Lick’s expanded into a chain then collapsed in the early 2010s. Only two locations appear to have survived. The Courtyard Cafe at the Windsor Arms has been used as a brunch buffet space in recent years.

That pricey $10 burger? The Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator puts it at $23.76 in 2019 funds, which wouldn’t be out of line at higher-end eateries. Don’t get me started about $100 stunt burgers that periodically provide fuel for clickbait.

Where do I enjoy digging into a burger in Toronto? It depends on my mood. Sometimes you want a high-quality patty with top-notch ingredients. Sometimes you want a char-grilled slab of beef from a place that’s been around forever.

In alphabetical order…

Burger Shack (Eglinton and Oriole Parkway)
Old school homeburgers. Excellent fries. Giant selection of canned sodas. Thick sauteed onions. Swinging seats that remind me of childhood meals at the Woolco cafeteria.

Burger Stomper (Danforth west of Chester)
Fresh-tasting meat, doesn’t go overboard with the portion of fries.

Five Guys (Leaside location, Laird north of Millwood)
Pricey, and a chain, but worth it taste-wise. Beware filling yourself up with free peanuts.

Golden Star (Yonge north of Steeles)
Another old-school homeburger joint, serving condiments out of giant metal bowls just like Harvey’s used to. Decor screams 1970s.

Great Burger Kitchen (Gerrard and Jones)
Only if you’re really, really, really hungry, or plan to share your sides.

Jumbo Burger (Runnymede and Dundas)
Yet another old-school hamburger joint, with delicious thickly-battered onion rings.

No Bull Burgers (Kingston west of Victoria Park)
Recent discovery. Fresh burgers in different sizes, delicious fries and rings, and (for vegetarians) an excellent quinoa-based patty.

Slab Burgers (Charles and Bay)
Handy for a research day at the Toronto Reference Library.

Your Myseum of Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on May 11, 2015. Disclaimer: since this story was written, I have worked on several projects for Myseum. As I re-post this piece, Myseum is in the midst of its annual Myseum Intersections festival, which is full of interesting exhibits and events. 

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Myseum of Toronto executive director Karen Carter introduces the initiative’s concept.

It doesn’t have a dedicated physical space. Its name will irritate spell-checkers. But those behind the Myseum of Toronto initiative hope their efforts to create a non-traditional historical institution will spur community involvement in documenting the evolution of our city.

Unveiled at a press conference this morning, the Myseum states its mission is “a celebration of the evolution of our communities, cultures, and urban and natural spaces. It connects our recollections of the past with our visions of the future through the ideas, art and artifacts we share. Through the Myseum, we aim to bring about a deeper, more personal understanding and appreciation of all that is Toronto.”

In short, it wants to turn the entire city into a living museum exhibit designed by you.

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Promotional image for Myseum, 2015.

Unlike past proposals for an overall civic museum, which have envisioned sites like Old City Hall and the Canada Malting silos for a permanent space, the Myseum will exist as an online presence (including Facebook and Twitter) and through pop-up events. The first, “Myseum on the Move,” will send a bus around the city in late June to collect artifacts and stories from the public to help build its digital collection. This method of gathering material drew comparisons to library bookmobile programs. It also highlights the “my” portion of the initiative’s name, allowing the public to shape the material being presented.

Structurally, the Myseum is a privately-run non-profit, whose board of directors include former City of Toronto mayor David Crombie. The initiative was initially launched as a registered charity with seed money from founder and current board chair Diane Blake. A workshop in June 2014 brought together a cross-section of people involved in local heritage to envision a civic museum, and involved discussions around funding, inclusiveness, and programming. “People just say, ‘this has been on the go for so long, like, just get out there and do something,’” Blake told the Globe and Mail earlier this year. “So that’s what we’re really trying to do.”

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Promotional image for Myseum, 2015.

Myseum executive director Karen Carter, who previously held the same position at Heritage Toronto, repeatedly mentioned at the launch the concept of “co-creation” of exhibits with the public. She views the initiative as an opportunity to foster civic pride through “a greater recognition of this city’s value, increasing our recognition of this city as an essential place for urban narratives.” Regarding the Myseum’s name, which was created in association with brand management firm Interbrand, Carter noted that the organization wanted to respect past attempts to create a “Museum of Toronto,” yet not use that label.

“We don’t love this city as much as we should,” Carter observed. “We are really hard on ourselves. It’s time for a love-in.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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As I mentioned in the disclaimer, I have done some work for Myseum since its establishment, the largest project being contributing much of the text for the interactive screens used for the “Myseum x Sonic Boom” exhibit for the “Music From People City” program which ran from November 2017 to January 2018.

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Bixi Toronto is Here

Originally published on Torontoist on May 4, 2011.

“Today we are celebrating the introduction of an amazing new piece of cycling infrastructure into our city’s portfolio.” With those words, Toronto Cyclists Union director of advocacy and operations Andrea Garcia gave her blessing to the longawaited official launch of Bixi Toronto yesterday morning. Despite the rainy conditions, cyclists and media descended upon Gould Street outside the Ryerson Bookstore to witness the arrival of the first batch of sturdy black bicycles.

Out of the 80 stations and 1,000 bikes that will constitute the first wave of Bixi Toronto, 50 stations and 300 bikes were activated for use yesterday. Some subscribers who might have braved the rain for a day one ride were still waiting for their keys to come, but Public Bike System Company official Gian-Carlo Crivello reassured those attending that 1,200 keys were mailed last Wednesday and will arrive soon. Among other tidbits the audience was told about the bike-share program: local employees of sponsor Desjardins are eligible for a 50 per cent discount off an annual membership; co-sponsor Telus will donate one dollar from each annual membership to the Heart and Stroke Foundation; the bikes will be maintained by Mount Dennis-based Learning Enrichment Foundation; and a smartphone application called Spotcycle will allow users to track bike availability at stations. Concerns about theft were dismissed based on the low rate of missing bikes in Montreal, but it was revealed that the bikes won’t be equipped with tracking devices.

Speaking for the City, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East)—who actually voted against the Bixi program during the last term of council—stressed the ease of use, affordable membership cost, and health benefits Bixi Toronto would bring the city, as well as pointing it out as a fine example of a public/private partnership. “For a guy like me who lives in the suburbs and has to drive downtown, you now have an opportunity to take one of these Bixi bikes to a meeting,” he noted. “You can take it to your lunch appointments—if you’re bicycling from point A to point B, it allows you to order something different on the menu because you know that you’re burning off those calories during the lunch period and afterwards.” We await future studies on the effects of Bixi Toronto on the waistlines of downtown workers.

Since media were allowed to test the bikes, we couldn’t resist trying one. We were shown the light pattern to watch out for after inserting the key into the station (flashing yellow, a pause, then green to go), then mounted the bike. After worrying that the seat was raised too high, and using our feet to break during the first awkward pedals, riding quickly became comfortable. As we did 360s in the middle of the intersection of Gould and Victoria, we noticed the bike’s smooth handling and wished we could have wandered off for a typical half-hour trek.

We also discovered how resilient the bikes are. As the crowd thinned, we wandered by a row of a dozen Bixis that weren’t tethered to a docking bay. Suddenly, there was a crashing sound. One inadvertent swing of our backpack caused the row of bikes to tumble like dominoes. They were quickly propped back up without any signs of damage. If the Bixi bikes can survive a clumsy reporter, they should handle Toronto’s roads just fine.

UPDATE

By 2013, the operators of Bixi Toronto were unable to make payments on the loan they took out from the city. The end result was a takeover by the Toronto Parking Authority. In early 2014, the system was rebranded as Bike Share Toronto. The number of stations has spread across the city, with many close to subway stations.

BEHIND THE SCENES

This was one of the first press conferences I covered, and one of the few I asked a question at: would municipal employees be encouraged to use the system with a discount? Minnan-Wong looked completely puzzled.

Secrets of the Maya

Originally published on Torontoist on November 17, 2011.

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Part of the press preview festivities.

As we approached the seating area for a press conference about the Royal Ontario Museum’s next major exhibit yesterday, we were greeted by a man in blue body paint and a tall headdress wielding a weapon. While he was there to pose for the media (and is pictured above), we couldn’t resist letting our imagination run free to speculate that he was on hand as a ghost of a past civilization warning us of future calamity.

Along with the ROM’s recently reduced admission prices, it probably won’t hurt the museum’s attendance figures that the Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World exhibit that opens to the public this Saturday ties into the hype surrounding the Mayan long-form calendar prophecies—ones that some believe spell either glory or doom for the world next December.

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Funerary mask made of jade, shell, and obsidian, circa 250-600 CE. Royal Ontario Museum.

The exhibition is a collaborative effort between the ROM, the Canadian Museum of Civilization (where it will run later in 2012), and Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (Spanish website). Over 250 artifacts ranging from giant incense burners to rings for ball games have been gathered from the ROM’s collection, various museums in the Yucatan, and institutions from overseas (British Museum) and across the street (Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art). Many items, especially those recently excavated from the ruins of the city of Palenque, are being presented in public for the first time.

Installed in the basement Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall, the exhibit is divided into seven sections covering various aspects of Mayan culture: The Maya World, The City, Cosmology and Ritual, Writing and Timekeeping, The Palace, Death, and Collapse and Survival. We were particularly drawn to the Writing and Timekeeping section, especially the exhibits on the efforts to decipher the glyphs that are the written legacy of the Mayans. Videos and touch-screen panels explain how researchers have determined that the symbols often represent syllables instead of individual letters or whole words. Like the rest of the exhibit, this section includes recreations of objects on display so that the visually impaired or those who enjoy a tactile component as part of their museum experience can touch the items without damaging the originals. This section also addresses the stories around 2012 and the Mayan calendar, including a projected clock on the wall. The ROM is also offering numerous tie-ins to the show, including a lecture series, graphic novels, and a Maya-themed sleepover for kids.

As part of the press conference, we were served samples of Mayan-themed dishes that will appear on the menus of both C5 and the Food Studio Cafe during the exhibit’s run, including some rich hot chocolate. No toasts to the upcoming apocalypse, though.