Monday, June 10, 2013

past pieces of toronto: 811 gerrard street and the messages of morris silver

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on April 29, 2012.
Morris Silver protesting the Bank of Nova Scotia. The Toronto Star, July 22, 1976.
Morris Silver loved attention. The retired dry cleaner was a passionate, opinionated man who let everyone know what he thought about matters that deeply concerned him, especially political issues and people who knocked back a drink before jumping behind the wheel. The storefront that once housed his Handy Andy’s cleaning business at 811 Gerrard St. E. near Logan Avenue was illustrated with amusing hand painted messages such as “DRUNK DRIVERS ARE…LOUSY LOVERS SOBER DRIVERS PUCK MUCH BETTER” and “WELCOME TO METRO SURVIVORS FROM QUEBEC. IN ONTARIO, WE SPEAK, LAUGH, ADVERTISE, SING, DANCE, PLAY, DO HANKY PANKY AND PROPOGATE FREELY IN 156 LANGUAGES.”

Silver sharpened his artistic skills after World War II as a sign painter for the Royal Alex. He might have picked up a flair for the dramatic from his work at the theatre, given his penchant for eye-catching protests from the 1970s onwards. Whether attempting to stop the Bank of Nova Scotia branch at Broadview and Gerrard from blocking the sun from the window of a neighbouring apartment he owned or making his anger toward plans for a Grand Prix race known to city council, Silver clad himself with colourful t-shirts or sandwich boards illustrated with his distinctive handwriting.

Drunk drivers topped Silver’s list of pet peeves. The catalyst was an incident in front of Handy Andy’s where a young woman was killed by a drunk driver. The incident deeply affected Silver—he later explained that his signs were a way of “protecting himself and his family.” During the final vote by Metro Toronto Council on allowing beer sales at Exhibition Stadium in July 1982, Silver showed up with a handful of pink flowers and wore a t-shirt bearing the message “FREE FLOWERS FOR THE VICTIMS OF DRUNK DRIVERS.” The councillors voted overwhelmingly in favour of letting Blue Jays fans enjoy some suds.
Morris Silver protesting a Metro Council proposal to allow beer sales at Exhibition Stadium. The Toronto Star, July 17, 1982.
Around the same time, messages referring to drunk drivers and dead children appeared on the front of 811 Gerrard East. After retiring, he retained the storefront, increased the number of hand-painted commentaries, and added bloodied mannequins, stuffed animals, and a stumpy ventriloquist’s dummy to the window display to reinforce his messages. In a 1999 interview with the National Post, Silver noted that “the Ontario government has abandoned anti-drunk-driving advertising. I have this property and I have the capability to make these signs, so I do.”

In that same interview, Silver was asked if paying over $6,000 a year in property taxes on 811 Gerrard St. E. and a vacant house he owned at 13 Simpson Ave. was worth it to express his opinions. “Ha! I’m getting readership,” he insisted. “I’m trying to build awareness of the dangers of drunk driving. Young people, 12 and 16 years old, tell me they appreciate it.” While the storefront would be confined to messages, Silver envisioned turning the house into a re-education centre for drunk drivers.

That plan probably would have pleased neighbours more than what Silver actually did to 13 Simpson. After he bought the home in 1988, he transformed the property over several years into a display that could be compared to Detroit’s Heidelberg Project. The Victorian-era home was covered with trademark messages like “CHILDREN KILLED BY DRUNK DRIVERS CAN’T HUG PANDAS,” a wrecked car sat in the front, and bric-a-brac painted in Day-Glo colours was strewn around the property. Neighbours were not amused by the passion behind his messages or the playful humour on display, going as far as to term the property a “vengeance house” against their complaints. Silver refused to talk to the media about why he fought the NIMBYism he faced by simply adding more items, such as teddy bears, to the property after each attempt to remove what Toronto Life snidely termed “a slightly creepy piece of installation art gone wrong.” Damage from an arson-related fire in 1992 failed to stop Silver. A succession of city councillors tried to mediate, but Silver rejected suggestions from neighbours to convert the property into an AIDS hospice or a Ronald McDonald House, even if the bore his name. One wonders if taking his alcohol issues centre seriously might have mended fences.
Photo of 811 Gerrard Street East, June 2007, by Tanja Tiziana.
Fresh messages ceased after Silver passed away around 2001. His wife Edith held on to both properties for a time, though her deteriorating health meant that the final batch of slogans slowly decayed. When 13 Simpson was sold in 2005, the new owners were treated as local heroes for renovating the home. Fading notes about drunk drivers, the Globe and Mail and Quebecers continued to attract glances toward 811 Gerrard East for a few more years before the remains of a creative eccentric were cleared away.

Additional material from Urban Decoder: Secrets from the Dark Underbelly of the Mega-City! (Toronto: Macmillan, 1998), the July 13, 1999, January 15, 2005, and July 9, 2005 editions of the National Post, and the July 17, 1982 edition of the Toronto Star.

1 comment:

gj.davidson said...

Mr Silver was my landlord when I was a youngster and lived above the cleaners at 811a, he treated my family well.a perfect gent.