Neon Narcissism

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This weekend, I checked out the pop-up neon exhibition in a condo sales centre in The Junction. Entering the space, my eyes should have been drawn to a lit sign rescued from a short-lived restaurant in Chinatown. Instead, the first thing I noticed was a woman sitting on the ground in front of the “Lucky” sign, posing for a long series of pictures. She attempted to cultivate a seductive mood, perhaps hoping that whoever saw the end result would feel as lucky as the neon message behind her.

Elsewhere in the small exhibition space, it was nearly impossible to read the curatorial material. Doing so interfered with the selfie-takers snapping endless pictures of themselves striking poses with little consideration that others might want a few moments to take in the displays.

My temperature rose.

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A moment for myself and others to take a regular photo. 

All I thought of was my honeymoon in Paris two years ago. The day we visited the Louvre, the city was under tight security after a terrorist threat that morning. After a long wait to get into the museum, my irritation grew as other tourists, armed with selfie sticks, blocked exhibits.

And walkways.

And staircases.

Trying to navigate the Louvre felt like an obstacle course, with every path blocked by those more interested in themselves than any of historical or cultural contexts surrounding them. I wanted to re-enact the scene in Airplane! where Robert Stack decks anyone in his way en route to air traffic control.

I felt less danger that day from terrorists than being accidentally knocked in the head or jabbed in the side by a selfie-stick.

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Back in the present I decided to move along. It was a relief when, after leaving the exhibit, someone who appeared to be a condo centre employee directed me into a model living room to check out one more neon installation. While it didn’t convince me to invest in a unit, it placed me far away from the selfie horde, allowing my temperature to lower.

Talking to others who visited the exhibit revealed similar frustrations. The pop-up was a great idea to provide exposure for a future neon museum downtown, but it felt like too many of the people I saw there were only present for narcissistic reasons. I imagined some of them moving on to whatever is this season’s version of Sweet Jesus, buying over-the-top food for a picture then barely eating it before tossing it in the garbage bin.

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POSTSCRIPT: Speaking of garbage, the block of Old Weston Road behind Junction House was full of debris. There was a comforting seat with its own shopping cart…

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…and the answer to “Where do Readers Digest Condensed Books ultimately wind up?”.

“Temperance Bill” Temple Keeps The Junction Dry

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on June 12, 2012.

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The City, November 4, 1979.

As Toronto settles into patio season, pause for a moment if you enjoy a fermented beverage with friends. As late as 2000, enjoying a summer drink in public was impossible in portions of The Junction, a legacy of the dedicated efforts of “Temperance Bill” Temple to keep the neighbourhood dry.

“He doesn’t look like a slayer of giants,” began William Stephenson’s profile of Temple for the Star’s The City supplement in 1979. “Not when he’s cruising the boulevards of the west end in his little red Pontiac. Nor while applying his special English to the balls at the Runnymede Lawn Bowling Club or felling the five-pins at the Plantation Bowlerama. Certainly not when he’s flirting with the nurses at St. Joseph’s Hospital each time he picks up the Meals-on-Wheels for delivery to Swansea’s shut-ins. On such occasions, the 5-foot-7, 130-pounder in the jaunty fedora and sport shirt looks like a successful politician, a Vic Tanny salesman, or perhaps a showbiz personality.”

Yet William Horace Temple slayed a few giants in his lifetime. The largest was Ontario Premier George Drew, who Temple, a faithful member of the CCF/NDP, defeated in the riding of High Park during the 1948 provincial election, despite having a budget one-fiftieth the size. Temple, who had lost by 400 votes in the previous election five years earlier, benefitted from fears about the repercussions of government legislation allowing cocktail lounges. Following Drew’s defeat, the provincial Tories used extreme caution in future attempts to loosen liquor laws.

At the time of The City article, Temple had celebrated his 80th birthday by downing quarts of tea. Though he once admitted to enjoying drinks to celebrate the end of World War I, Temple disdained anyone who imbibed. He believed the media was afraid to combat alcohol due to the power distillers held as advertisers, and claimed that all the negative aspects of American prohibition during the 1920s and 1930s was propaganda spread by liquor interests. “Booze enslaves, corrupts, destroys the moral fibre of a community,” Temple noted. “Battling the booze barons is the only honourable course for a citizen.”

Temple’s disdain for booze stemmed from his father, an abusive alcoholic train conductor. As a pilot in France during World War I, Temple frequently guided tipsy airmen to bed. As an RCAF duty officer during World War II, Temple infuriated his superiors by denying passes to senior officers he felt were too drunk to fly—“I had an uncomfortable war,” he later noted.

Keeping West Toronto alcohol-free was high among his pet projects. Its dry status dated back to 1904, when it was still an independent municipality. One of the conditions imposed when the area was annexed by Toronto in 1909 was that a two-stage vote (one for retail sale, one for restaurants) would be required to approve alcohol. The first major test came in the mid-1960s, when the owners of the Westway Hotel at Dundas and Heintzman organized a petition to allow alcohol sales. Temple, who headed the West Toronto Inter-church Temperance Federation (WTITF), delayed a vote by two years by proving many of the names on the petition were invalid. When the vote came in January 1966, the drys won. Temple’s forces won by an even larger margin in 1972, despite promises from a proposed Bloor Street bar to turns its proceeds over to Variety Village. Yet another vote in 1984 failed to sway the community.

Temple’s last hurrah came shortly after his death in April 1988. Smart money said that the temperance movement would collapse during a plebiscite that autumn without Temple’s determination and energy. “We did it for Bill,” proclaimed Derwyn Foley of WTITF when the drys won again. But it was one of the temperance side’s last victories. Throughout the 1990s, neighbourhoods within the dry area voted to allow alcohol. The last holdout voted 76 per cent in favour of allowing booze to be sold at restaurants in 2000 after dire predictions of increased crime and decay failed to materialize in the newly wet areas. As some proponents of alcohol sales predicted, an influx of businesses and eateries gradually flowed into The Junction.

If there’s an afterlife, it’s easy to imagine Temple’s reaction upon learning West Toronto had finally become wet. They would be the same words he yelled when he disrupted a Hiram Walker shareholders meeting in 1968 to find out if the distiller was funding politicians: “Sheep, nothing but sheep!”

Additional material from the November 4, 1979 edition of The City, the April 11, 1988 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the April 11, 1988 and November 15, 1988 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Apart from the image above, here is the full article on Temple from the November 4, 1979 edition of The City.

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Vintage Toronto Ads: A Two-Wheeled Nest Egg

Originally published on Torontoist on May 27, 2008.

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The Globe, April 8, 1908.

This week marks the official start of Bike Month in Toronto, which provides an opportunity to look at how cycles were marketed a century ago.

For a decade on either side of the turn of the 20th century, bicycle manufacturers maintained an advertising presence in city newspapers similar to current automakers. Pitches ranged from elegant vehicle styling to thrift, as this attack on tossing your money away on money-grubbing public transit systems demonstrates. The tone is familiar to those caught in the argument over renting versus buying a condo/home.

A century later, Mr. Holdup would take his victim’s bicycle and quickly turn it over to a shady dealer in exchange for more cash than a run-of-the-mill stick-up might net. Whether he would show more decorum in flashing the crime weapon is debatable.

Canada Cycle & Motor Company was formed in September 1899 as an amalgamation of several bicycle makers, including a branch of the Massey-Harris manufacturing empire. A glut of bicycles on the market at the time led to the demise of many smaller makers, quickly placing CCM in a dominant position.

By 1905, with the bicycle market still at saturation point, CCM entered into two side businesses. While their foray into the automobile market with the Russell lasted a decade, ice skates would prove far more lucrative.

A new plant for bicycle production was built in Weston in 1912, and remained in operation until the combination of a strike and bankruptcy saw the last model roll off the line 70 years later. The bicycle and hockey lines were split between different buyers from Quebec and all production shifted east.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

A week later (June 3, 2008) this follow-up Vintage Ad post was published.

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Toronto Star, May 13, 1899.

Further proof of the modesty employed in late 19th century advertising. Call this a prequel to last week’s featured ad, as Welland Vale was one of the bicycle manufacturers whose line was amalgamated into CCM later on in the year this was published. Originally a manufacturer of wagon wheels when the company started in the 1860s, Welland Vale also produced hand tools and farm implements. After divesting its bicycle line and the wagon wheel market dried up with the rise of automated transportation, Welland Vale moved into the automotive rubber-coated fabric business, evolving into Cambridge-based Canadian General-Tower Ltd.