Wednesday, March 04, 2015

off the grid: ghost city 471 bloor street west

This installment of my "Ghost City" column for The Grid was originally published on September 18, 2012. More images will be uploaded shortly.

The Hungarian Castle undergoing renovations to transform into BMV, May 4, 2006. Photo by Jamie Bradburn

When it opened in 2006, the Bloor Street branch of BMV represented more than just a giant bookstore. Its bright blue exterior and large street-level windows removed an eyesore known to nearby businesses and residents as the “black hole of the Annex.” After nearly two decades of rot, any new owner or tenant occupying the former Hungarian Castle restaurant would have been greeted with open arms.
Why 471 Bloor St. W. appeared abandoned for so long is subject to rumours and urban legends. Elusive landlord Annie Racz didn’t provide answers during her lifetime. When she died in 2004, she left an estate consisting of millions of dollars worth of real estate centered around Bloor Street and Brunswick Avenue, some of which remains empty under the stewardship of her heir. Despite high interest from potential buyers, Racz threw up barriers that months of negotiation couldn’t breach. Theories on why she hung onto these properties without maintaining them included attempts to prevent higher tax assessments, an inability to trust anyone, and sentimental reminders of her late husband.

Friday, February 27, 2015

off the grid: ghost city the bayview ghost

This installment of my "Ghost City" column for The Grid was originally published on January 8, 2013.

Toronto Star, March 22, 1981.

When East York rejected physician Charles Trow’s offer to sell his 25-acre wooded property south of Leaside to the municipality for use as parkland circa 1950, little did political officials realize the headaches that would ensue over the next half-century.

Instead, the property—which offered a beautiful view of the Don Valley—was sold by Trow’s widow in 1953 to developers Hampton Park Company Ltd. Legal problems arose almost immediately as Hampton Park proprietors Harry Freedman and Harry Frimerman beat a foreclosure attempt when they were slow to pay the mortgage. The site was approved for apartment development in East York’s first official plan in 1957, but the document was scrapped when the township planner was fired for consulting with tower builders on the side.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

off the grid: scarborough transit debate goes back to the future

From 2012 to 2014 I contributed to The Grid. This article was originally published online on July 15, 2013. Given the ongoing debates over public transit in Scarborough, this piece will remain timely for a long time to come. You may also wish to read a piece I wrote for Torontoist several months later on the general history of public transit in Scarborough.

Toronto Star, March 19, 1985. Click on image for larger version.

Torontonians love arguing about the same proposed transit lines ad nauseum. Tuesday’s City Council debate—regarding which form the Scarborough RT‘s replacement will take—feels like a replay of past battles where a streetcar/LRT line was displaced in favour of a pricier, sexier option.

Toronto Star, January 29, 1975.
Among the priority studies recommended in January 1975—by a joint provincial/Metro Toronto task force on the region’s transportation needs for the next quarter-century—was a high-speed transit line linking the recently approved Kennedy subway station to Scarborough Town Centre, Malvern, and Pickering. Scarborough officials saw this line as key to spurring development in a downtown area based around the new civic centre, which would employ 25,000 people.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

off the grid: ghost city - 203 yonge street

This story was originally published online by The Grid on May 21, 2013.

There were few sports John Francis Scholes tackled that he didn’t master. The Irish-born, Toronto-reared athlete racked up championship titles in boxing, rowing, and snowshoeing during the Victorian era. His first trophy, earned during a 220-yard hurdle race in 1869, was proudly displayed in the Yonge Street hotel that eventually bore his family’s name.

Illustration of John Francis Scholes, as it appeared in the March 25, 1871 edition of the Canadian Illustrated News.

Scholes entered the hospitality business around 1880, opening a bar and hotel at 185 Yonge St. He moved his business a few doors north to 203 Yonge St. in the late 1890s, christening it the Athlete Hotel. Scholes used it as a base to mentor local athletes, including his sons John (who inherited his amateur boxing skills) and Lou (a champion rower). Scholes’ tough nature carried him through to his end—when doctors indicated a stomach ailment was terminal, he insisted on dying at the Athlete Hotel, where he entertained friends and former competitors.

Friday, January 16, 2015

off the grid: retro t.o. - the eglinton subway we almost had

This installment of my "Retro T.O." column for The Grid was originally published on March 20, 2012. This article launched the series.


Introducing Retro T.O., a new series where we revisit key moments in recent Toronto history that still reverberate today. In this edition, we go back to the August 1994 ground-breaking ceremony for an Eglinton subway line that never materialized.

Cartoon by Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star, July 21, 1995.
To those assembled at the corner of Black Creek Drive and Eglinton Avenue, August 25, 1994 was a great day for the future of Toronto transit. A group of shovel-wielding dignitaries led by Ontario Premier Bob Rae broke ground on the Eglinton subway, a project that had been discussed for nearly three decades. Rae, whose York South riding would be served by the 4.7-kilometre, five-station line running from Black Creek Drive to Allen Road, touted the thousands of construction jobs required to build the subway before its planned opening in 2001. City of York officials were all smiles, especially Mayor Fergy Brown, who told reporters he was “busting my buttons with pride” that the municipality finally had its own rapid-transit system. If all went well, the future promised an extension from Black Creek to Pearson International Airport.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

off the grid: ghost city - hotel waverl(e)y

From 2012 to 2014 I contributed to The Grid, a weekly magazine/alt-paper which was known as eye for most of its existence. The publication folded in July 2014, leaving its website to slowly decay. Rather than let my contributions wind up in the Internet's equivalent of the afterlife, I will begin posting my pieces in no particular order. As some articles had already vaporized when I began collecting them, some reprints may be based on original drafts. In other cases, I'll toss in bonus material, especially if I learned more about the subject following the original publication.

The following piece, part of my "Ghost City" column, was published on June 18, 2013. I'm using it as the lead-off for this series, as the Silver Dollar Room received a heritage designation this week

College and Spadina, looking northwest, May 13, 1927. The Waverley is in the background (click on photo for larger version). Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 4888.

“If you really want the best, dine at the Waverley,” a person by the name of W.M. Canning advised a friend on the back of a postcard depicting a refined dining room at the Spadina Avenue establishment circa 1908. Hard to believe, but there was a time when the Waverl(e)y was considered a hotel worthy of formal dances, organizational lunches, and tourism offices.

Built by John J. Powell in 1900, the Hotel Waverley replaced a structure that once housed the local YMCA. For the next half-century, the hotel was operated by the Powell family, whose members were active in hospitality-industry associations—Egerton Powell served as president of the Ontario branch of the Greeters’ Association of America during the mid-1920s. That decade also saw the Waverley house the Toronto Convention and Tourist Association’s office and a Canadian Pacific ticket outlet.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

bonus features: new year's eve 1976

This post offers supplementary material for an article I wrote for Torontoist, which you should read before diving into this piece.
Toronto Star, January 1, 1977.
The Star’s initial coverage of New Year’s Eve celebrations put a positive spin on the evening. A full page of its January 1, 1977 edition was devoted to scenes across Metro Toronto, from revellers downtown to skating clowns in Scarborough. Those who ventured out endured temperatures which dropped to -13°C.

On Yonge Street, the new year swept over the strip “like a new disco melody.” Among those mildly disappointed by the scene along Yonge that night was Chuck Ross, a 22-year old marketing analyst from North York. “Most of our friends have girlfriends now, so we figured we’d see if we could find some girls tonight by ourselves,” he observed. “I guess we haven’t tried very hard.” Spurned by the ladies, Ross and a friend wound up dining at an unidentified burger joint, staring at the mirror lining the counter.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

warehouse cocktail bar department: new year's eve suggestions, 1970s style

Saturday Night, December 1976.
With tonight being New Year's Eve, the time seems right to post a pile of booze ads with drink suggestions which were tucked away in a mid-1970s edition of Saturday Night magazine.

Don't fret if you don't have a magnifying glass, as you can click on any of the images for a larger version. Feel free to substitute your favourite brand, which may be unavoidable for long-gone labels.

Monday, December 22, 2014

bear-ing it all

Saturday Night, November 1977.
Sometimes, while looking for material around the home office for upcoming articles, I stumble upon items I forgot I had which would have been useful at a particular time. Such was the case last night as I was prepping for this week’s installment of my "Vintage Toronto Ads" column for Torontoist. Flipping through a stack of 1970s Saturday Night magazines next to my desk, I discovered the cover shown above.

Friday, December 05, 2014

au revoir, world's biggest bookstore building

It’s not so much that the former World’s Biggest Bookstore is being knocked down that bugs me. Nor that the site may become a parking lot (Toronto’s favourite temporary solution to demolitions during the 1960s/70s) while the property’s owner abandons plans for a “restaurant row” in favour of a rezoning application.

No, it’s the fact that Indigo didn’t remove the store’s shelving before the wrecking ball made its first punch. 

Monday, December 01, 2014

warehouse video department: murdoch mysteries

This summer, I had the opportunity to be interviewed for an online bonus feature for Murdoch Mysteries. After quickly slipping back in time to tour the show’s sets, the camera rolled. Here’s the result – I show up around the 1:55 mark to discuss the state of automobiles in Toronto during the early Edwardian era.

Between this, giving a talk to a local historical society a few weeks ago, and leading a heritage walking tour this summer, my confidence in my public speaking ability has skyrocketed. It’s a sideline worthy of further exploration as a sideline to my freelance activities. Fingers crossed that I can tap into more opportunities like these. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

less-than-great moments in toronto municipal election history department: anne mcbride, 1980

Toronto Sun, November 3, 1980.
After a nine-month slog, the 2014 municipalelection campaign draws to a close today. Amid its stranger-than-fiction twists and turns, a sad truth has emerged: there is a segment of Torontonians who have discovered they can get away with boldly displaying small-minded attitudes we like to sweep under the carpet. As Ward 2 candidate Andray Domise observed in atweet this morning referring to a gawdawful Andy Donato cartoon of Olivia Chow published in the Sun, one of the campaign's big problems is "that we've given racists, sexists, xenophobes a platform of legitimacy in TO politics." From attacks on Chow's ethnicity to the mutilation of signs for Islamic candidates, it hasn't been pretty.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

vote brillinger (the druggist)

The Telegram, December 28, 1923.
Does being the first name atop a ballot help one's political career? Likely not; otherwise, Said Aly would be among the critical contenders in this year's Toronto mayoral race (though thankfully his name sits just ahead of our city's perennial racist candidate).

It didn't aid Magnus Austin Brillinger (1882-1939) in the 1924 race for the two trustee positions up for grabs in Ward 6. When the votes were tallied on New Year's Day, he finished third behind future TTC chair W.C. McBrien and veteran board member Dr. John Hunter.

Better luck next year for the St. Clair Avenue West pharmacist, right?

Friday, October 17, 2014

election night score sheet, get yer election night score sheet

Toronto Star, December 5, 1960. Click on image for larger version
I suspect there are devoted municipal election junkies, especially among Twitterati, who'd love a sheet like this at their fingertips on October 27. Adjustments would be required for the present day: five minute increments on the chart would suit the rapid pace of the internet age (or two-and-a-half if your handwriting is as small as mine is). The suburban mayoral races of 1960 would be replaced with either key council battles or, for the truly dedicated, all 44 wards.

Monday, October 13, 2014

bonus features: william dennison

This post offers supplementary material for an article I wrote for Torontoist, which you should read before diving into this piece.

Source: The Telegram, Dec 6, 1966.
While researching this piece, I was struck at several parallels between Dennison and Rob Ford, namely what we'd now call "retail politics" and campaigning on being mindful of taxpayer dollars. (There were major differences: Dennison was a teetotaller, displayed leftist tendencies during his early political career, and didn't make a public spectacle of himself). Several months before the 1966 municipal election, Toronto Star city hall columnist Ron Haggart looked at Dennison's chances, using language that could have been adapted by his successors in 2010:
But Dennison can by no means be written off. He has helped literally thousands of ordinary persons during his years as an alderman and controller at City Hall. He efficiently keeps in touch at election time with those whose problems have crossed his desk. He has an independence from, even a coolness toward, the City Hall Establishment which has earned him a reputation as a man who fights City Hall at City Hall.