Nostalgia, Toronto Style
By Mariellen Ward | @BreatheDreamGo
When my grandmother first moved to Toronto in about 1927 or 28 from a remote town in northern Ontario, she thought the Princes’ Gates was the Statue of Liberty. If you don’t know, the Princes’ Gates marks the rather majestic arched east entrance to the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. The feminine figure of Winged Victory stands aloft the arch, swathed in a flowing gown, arm held high — and in my grandmother’s defense, the statue does look a bit like a smaller, sexier Lady Liberty.
Two of my other grandparents were born in Toronto and even one great-grandparent, making me a fourth-generation Torontonian. In this famously multicultural, new-world city, that makes me a rarity. I very seldom meet other fourth generation Torontonians, and I don’t recall ever meeting a fifth or sixth.
Growing up among long-time Torontonians, many local landmarks have become the stuff of family legend. I can remember my mother telling me that when Fran’s Restaurant starting serving spaghetti dinners, it was considered very racy, an adventure in ethnic cuisine. Back then, Toronto was more mono-cultural than multicultural. Today Fran’s, which dates from 1940, is a Toronto institution. The College Street location is still open 24 hours, so you can sit in a booth and order their famous apple pie any time of the day or night.
But our collective memory goes back a lot further than 1940. At the corner of Queen and Yonge, The Bay store occupies an old Toronto building that was originally Simpson’s. When I was growing up, Simpson’s was the last name in sophistication, home to the Arcadian Court, where I ate fancy sandwiches and drank tea from real silver tea services with my stylish grandmother and other glove-wearing ladies-who-lunch. But going way back, on my father’s less illustrious side of the family, my other grandmother apparently worked at the store, probably in the early 1900s, when it housed stables for the horse-drawn delivery wagons.
An even older family landmark is Osgoode Hall on Queen St. W. My grandfather studied law there, when it was still a school. The building dates back to about 1830, when Toronto was, shall we say, less cosmopolitan. I was told the distinctive wrought iron gates were designed to keep cows off the lawn. Since I have seen similarly designed gates in Delhi, where they continue to keep cows out of public parks, I totally believe it (though I have never actually verified this urban legend).
One distinctive feature of Toronto is the streetcars that ply the main downtown arteries. They’ve been around since at least 1921, but in 1938, President’s Conference Committee streetcars were introduced and dubbed the “red rocket.” They continued to run until 1995 and there are lots of red rocket stories in my family. Apparently, my absent-minded grandfather, the lawyer, was known to drive to work — his office was in the Victory Building at 80 Richmond St. W., a charming deco-esque structure now dwarfed by gleaming modern towers — and forgetting he drove, would take the red rocket home to their High Park neighbourhood.
This same grandfather, Alec Garrison, was actually born Alexander Gurofsky. Turns out, he changed his name because it was better for business back when, you know, Toronto was basically mono-cultural. I always wondered where he got the name Garrison. But then about 20 years ago or so, there was a surge of interest in “the city’s most legendary lost river,” as one writer put it. Garrison Creek ran through the western part of downtown Toronto, but was buried by our city forefathers around 100 years ago. Now you can see commemorative plaques marking the route at several places, including my favourite downtown park, Trinity-Bellwoods on Queen St. W. The creek was buried when my grandfather was a boy growing up in the west end.
I now live in High Park, and on my way to my brother’s place I walk by the house my grandparents lived in when my Mother was born in 1930. Sometimes when I’m in High Park — a glorious 400-acre urban park, replete with forests and trails, that stretches from Bloor Street all the way to Sunnyside, by the lake — I think about my Mom, who died in 1998. She told me that her nanny, Ivy, used to push her in a stroller in that park when she was a child. Now I take my three-year-old niece Penny to High Park. I guess we’re like homing pigeons, coming back to what we know, to streets paved with memories and rich with family history.