Scenes of Toronto: Fall 2008

Nature Versus Streetcar Shelter

Originally published on Torontoist on October 23, 2008.

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Once upon a time, the stretch of Lake Shore Boulevard around Park Lawn Road was a stop for tourists and those looking for a quick good time, thanks to nearly thirty motels that lined the strip. All but three (Casa Mendoza, Shore Breeze, and Beach) are gone now, leaving empty lots awaiting their probable transformation into condominiums with romantic views of Lake Ontario and the Mr. Christie cookie plant.

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The lag between the demolition of old motels, such as the Hillcrest and North American, and the arrival of new towers has allowed Mother Nature to take her course in several of the empty lots. The result: a streetcar shelter where riders on the 501 can enjoy the aroma of fresh-baked cookies to take their mind off any fears of someday being crushed by the emerging forest.

The overgrowth is creepier at night, making you feel like a doomed character in a “plants take over the world” story. A strong wind could easily conjure a week’s worth of nightmares.

UPDATE: All three of those surviving motels soon vanished. The Mr. Christie plant closed in 2013, and is being demolished as of fall 2017.

One Wrong Turn

Originally published on Torontoist on October 30, 2008. Possibly my lone attempt to do an Action Line/The Fixer help piece.

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When some people see an erroneous street sign, they call the city to have it fixed. Others will glance for a moment, pop their eyes, and then move along without a second thought. In the case of a faulty curve sign recently erected on Wicksteed Avenue in the industrial section of Leaside, one observer vented their frustration on the sign itself.

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After we called the city’s transportation department, the sign was promptly removed. A bare metal post was all that remained as of last night.

Phone Dosa Dosa, Hey, Hey, Hey

Originally published on Torontoist on December 4, 2008.

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Branches of Pizza Pizza are a common sight around Toronto. Most don’t jump out at the eye, though some outlets deserve marks for making an effort to stand out with artwork and other decorations (we miss the silver spangles that once graced Yonge Street). At the Danforth Avenue and Dawes Road branch it’s the attached eatery with a similar name that draws attention.

The shape of the outdoor sign hints at 2795 Danforth Avenue’s previous incarnation as home to Pizza Pizza’s sister chain Chicken Chicken. Give the pattern of repetitive names, our first thought was that the pizza giant had embraced the ethnic diversity of Toronto and decided to branch out into other forms of cheap, filling food—in this case, crispy, not-too-greasy Indian crepes and a variety of satisfying accompaniments.

Dosa Dosa Interior

When contacted to determine if there was a connection with Dosa Dosa, Pizza Pizza corporate provided a one-word answer: no.

UPDATE: Dosa Dosa was replaced by other eateries. As of October 2017, it houses Double Sushi. The Pizza Pizza next door is still in business.

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Ginger Ale Worth Listening To

Originally published on Torontoist on August 26, 2008.

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Toronto Star, September 2, 1971.

It may not have had the comedic potential of a banana phone, but imagine the looks bypassers may have given to anyone grooving down the street with a pop can nestled next to their ear…or not, given the number of novelty promotional portable radios produced during the pre-Walkman/iPod era. The manufacturer took no responsibility for anyone who mistook the radio for an actual can of locally brewed ginger ale and discovered the lovely fizz of leaking battery acid.

Charles Wilson began bottling ginger ale and other sodas at a plant on Sherbourne Street in 1875. The signature on the company’s bottle belongs to his son Sam, who expanded the business in the early 20th century and introduced a cash deposit bottle return system. Two years after today’s ad appeared, the Wilson family sold the firm to Crush International. The name lingered until low sales and an old-fashioned image resulted in its disappearance from store shelves in 1985.

Just before the fizz went away for good, Toronto Star columnist Joey Slinger described the sensations experienced while drinking Wilson’s:

Wilson’s ginger ale used to have bite, zest, sparkle. It made your whole mouth want to put on its dancing shoes. Taking a swallow of Wilson’s was like getting new batteries in your pacemaker. And it came out in a boldly marked can that seemed to shout, “Ginger ale and proud of it.” At least it did until some genius decided boldness was the wrong approach for ginger ale.

Additional material from the February 21, 1985 edition of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: One of the Great Reasons for Living in Toronto…

Originally published on Torontoist on June 10, 2008.

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Toronto Life, January 1978.

…unless you’re a vegetarian.

Ziggys Fantastic Foods was a chain of gourmet deli/specialty food shops around the GTA, located in stand-alone locations and within Loblaws stores as part of the grocer’s revitalization attempt in the mid-1970s. Their prices were considered high—when complaints of price jumps of up to 89% after the conversion of Loblaws’ Yonge and Yorkville store to Ziggys made the front page of The Toronto Star in November 1975, Loblaws president William Sherman replied that gourmet products and service cost more, and that “people who don’t want to pay Ziggys prices shop at the supermarket.”

By 1978 Loblaws had moved in the opposite price direction, opening its first No Frills store at Victoria Park and St. Clair in July. That fall, company president Dave Nichol announced that Loblaws stores would soon offer a European-style bacon from the Ziggys plant under their new No Name brand, for which customers could pay a special low price (99 cents/pound) as long as they sliced it themselves in-store (statistics are unavailable as to how many fingers were lost during that experiment). The year ended with the opening of a Ziggys in the St. Clair Centre. This would be the last stand-alone location, with the name eventually changing to today’s St. Clair Market.


The orange-and-black Ziggys banner faded away, though the name still adorns the deli section of some Loblaws stores and the brand endures on prepackaged lunch meat and salads.

As for the fine print in today’s ad, it should be read with the smooth tone of a radio announcer. Note the obsession with cereal and fillers.

Ziggys hot dog hasn’t got what it takes to make a common hot dog—like cereal or other fillers (up to 40% in some brands). It’s what Ziggy leaves out that makes his processed meats special.

Some manufacturers get their product down to competitive price by adding more water and cereal, so that the finished product approximates a bland, watery pulp.

Millions have been made selling the hot dog with cereal and other fillers added, but Ziggy (not clever enough to grasp the profit opportunity) clings to the naive idea that a hot dog should contain pure, fresh beef, pork and seasoning.

Ziggy takes the same attitude with his Processed Sliced Meats – all made in his own plant under careful supervision, and to his infuriatingly high standards.

Not one ounce of filler gets into these products, only pure, fresh beef, pork and seasonings (they’re all made to Ziggy’s Old World recipes).
And then there’s Ziggys Bacon – you’ll notice the difference – it starts with the basic pig, and Ziggy selects only the best, known for his (or her) lean flanks.

His Blackforest Ham is notable because it is produced by long, careful curing and smoking, that gives it the unique flavour – a gastronomic sensation beyond expectation.

The Mini-Deli line of sausage chubs offers sliceables in a variety of Continental flavours and even the common Lyoner (Bologna) and Picnic Pork Shoulder reach new heights.

Canada probably could use another cheap, water-cereal line of meat; but Ziggy, consistent as ever, went against the trend and made the best. People are discovering just how much better his processed meats are, and he’s been forced to enlarge his plant to meet demand.

So, in case you haven’t tried them, discover what Ziggys “Less is more” philosophy has done for processed meat. But how does he keep them competitively priced?

We’d love to hear Galen Weston talk about processed meat the way he waxes about reusable bags and naan.

Additional material from the November 7, 1975 and September 18, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: How Dry I Am

Originally published on Torontoist on May 13, 2008.

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Mail and Empire, August 30, 1927.

Mention the name “O’Keefe” in association with Toronto and several things come to mind for those over a certain age. A brewery that was a cornerstone of E.P. Taylor’s business empire, which eventually merged with Molson. A performing arts centre that has undergone several name changes. A downtown laneway whose length has been shortened by developments at Yonge and Dundas.

But soft drinks?

Thanks to prohibition measures that were in effect in Ontario for a decade, today’s smiling pitchman had to fill his glass with a non-intoxicating tipple. Distillers and brewers who stayed in business had to find other means to stay afloat, be it industrial or medicinal alcohol production or, like O’Keefe’s, weaker beverages.

Dry forces who had long fought against alcohol consumption, such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, achieved victory in Ontario in 1916, when Premier William Howard Hearst’s government passed the Ontario Temperance Act, ostensibly as a wartime measure. A referendum revisited the question three years later, with two-thirds of voters rejecting four questions that ranged from a full repeal of prohibition to the sale of light beer in hotels. A second referendum in 1924 saw prohibition continue by a 3% margin (51.5% for, 48.5% against), though Toronto sided with the pro-booze forces. This would be the last provincial referendum until last year’s question on reforming the electoral system.

The weak results encouraged Premier Howard Ferguson to include a repeal of prohibition as part of his re-election campaign in 1926. Ferguson’s victory led to the passage of the Liquor Control Act in 1927, which allowed alcohol to be sold under the auspices of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). The first 86 stores opened that year, though the public would require permits to purchase booze until 1961. Brewers were allowed to create their own agency to regulate retail beer sales, which evolved into Brewers Retail.

Scenes of Toronto: Winter 2008

Part One: After the Nativity Has Gone

Originally published on Torontoist on January 17, 2008.

Nativity in Ruin

The post-holiday cleanup slowly continues across the city. Tree collection winds down this week, decorated lightposts grow patchier, and leftover sugar cookies are available for deep discounts alongside remaining Halloween candy.

Religious displays are not immune from the slow pace of cleaning, though we suspect that this nativity scene at St. Francis of Assisi Church at Grace and Mansfield also depicts an event that the Bible overlooked. Religious scholars debate if burlap, hemp, or Glad bags were the preferred choice of turn-of-the-era stable boys.

Part Two: Long Live Mediocrity!

Originally published on Torontist on January 31, 2008.

Long Live Mediocrity!

Drivers passing through the south end of Leaside on Millwood Road may have noticed commentary added to a Baxter’s Soup billboard. An anonymous critic with a penchant for exclamation marks has unleashed their critique of the petit bourgeoisie of the neighbourhood, chastising them for falling for the flattery of an instant meal that appeals to their yuppie pretensions and expensive jeans.

It might also be the work of a disgruntled diner who thought that the can of butternut squash and red pepper soup they bought on sale last week only rated two-and-a-half stars out of five.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Little Tramp Likes Spaghetti

Originally published on Torontoist on October 2, 2007.

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Source: Toronto Life, September 1972.

If you were a child passing through Toronto since the early 1970s, there’s a good chance you may have eaten at The Old Spaghetti Factory. Kitschy antique decor, the pots of whipped garlic butter that arrived with the loaf of bread and a family-friendly atmosphere have kept the crowds coming for nearly four decades.

The Old Spaghetti Factory opened its first location in Portland, Oregon in 1969, a period when themed sit-down restaurant chains like Shakey’s (pizza and Dixieland jazz) began to pop up across the continent. Expansion came quickly, with the first Canadian location opening a year later in Vancouver. Toronto’s branch set up shop in August 1971, behind the recently-opened St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. At this time, nostalgia seems to have been the drawing card, even if Charlie Chaplin is more representative of the then-current 1920s revival than the Victorian era.

Another growing fad was the salad bar, though it’s debatable whether it led to healthier eating habits, a wider variety of toppings beyond the traditional bowl of iceberg or flat out gluttony. One wonders what qualified as “seasonal fresh makings” back then.

As for Chaplin, 1972 saw his return to the United States for the first time since being denied re-entry to the country twenty years earlier due to McCarthyist fears about his leftist political leanings. Chaplin visited Los Angeles in April to receive a honorary Oscar, resulting in the longest ovation in Academy Awards history. In his scrapbook My Life in Pictures, Chaplin noted that “I was touched by the gesture—but there was a certain irony about it somehow.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Chaplin’s acceptance of his honorary Oscar remains one of the most powerful moments in the history of the Academy Awards. One person who wasn’t happy to see him back in town was former friend and United Artists business partner (and Toronto native) Mary Pickford. According to the Star, Pickford called Chaplin a “stinker” and refused to let him anywhere near her home at Pickfair.

From the book Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield (Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1997):

Pickford sulked. While the rest of the industry engaged in mass repentance, Mary’s streak of compassion had run dry. “He wasn’t grateful for his career,” she complained to a reporter. “It’s disgraceful that he never became a citizen.” Sinking lower: “I think they should ask his wives what they think of him.” (Chaplin married four times; of course, Pickford married almost as often.)

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Review of The Old Spaghetti Factory, Star Week, September 18, 1971. 

A stop at The Old Spaghetti Factory on childhood trips to Toronto was a given. It was the perfect place to take kids: familiar food, the novelty of pots of garlic butter, and all the cool decor. Once in awhile, I’ll eat there out of nostalgia – the food isn’t the best Italian-American you can grab in the city (though old school red sauce cuisine isn’t one of Toronto’s culinary strengths), but it makes no bones about what it is and evokes plenty of happy memories.