Marking time
Do you ever feel like nothing really ever happened in Toronto? There’s a reason

Stand in the middle of Christie Pits on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll get no indication at all of its ignomious place in Toronto history. Amid the 12 hectares of grass and mature trees, you’ll hear the sounds of children splashing in the pool echoing off the hill. Neighbourhood teenagers play keep-up with a soccer ball and steal glances at the exposed skin of the assorted sunbathers. On the baseball diamond in the corner, the local, almost-pro-baseball Toronto Maple Leafs hit home runs before a crowd of a hundred or so lazy onlookers.

You’d never guess that, on August 16, 1933, Christie Pits was the site of Canada’s worst-ever race riot. On that day, following a baseball game featuring a visiting team made up mostly of Jewish players from the Harbord playground, a gang of Nazi sympathizers made up of the remnants of the Swastika Club and a gang of “Jewish boys” (as the press then called them) fought each other through the evening and into the night, armed with clubs and broken broom handles and lengths of pipe.

Standing in the bucolic serenity of today’s Christie Pits and remembering the riot could make for a very powerful experience. But it’s an experience most visitors to the park won’t have — there’s nothing to commemorate the incident.

Toronto is full of sites like this: places of significant historical importance that go unmarked and unremarked. While there is a historical marker on the Toronto islands marking the site of Babe Ruth’s first professional home run (just a few metres away from the beefcake monument immortalizing the manly feats of Ned Hanlan), you could wander around the U of T bookstore at College and St. George for hours and never find any indication that the Beaux Arts building was the site of Toronto’s first reference library, built in 1909 with money supplied by American robber-baron-cum-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The site of Montgomery’s Tavern (now a post office) just north of Yonge and Eglinton bears a plaque detailing how the collaborators in the 1837 Toronto Rebellion met to plan their uprising, yet, as National Post columnist Robert Fulford tells eye, there’s still no plaque at Gallows Hill, “at the top of the Yonge Street hill … where it comes up towards St. Clair and suddenly, after a long hill, it turns into a flat area. There was a gallows there in 1837 where they hanged a couple of the people involved in the 1837 rebellions and who are now buried in the cemetery on Parliament Street.”

Speaking of Parliament, even the site of Upper Canada’s first House of Parliament at Front and Parliament Streets (burned down by American troops in 1812) currently goes unmarked.

While the Canadian Walk of Fame on King West does a fine job of memorializing Canadian stars, rocker-turned-author Dave Bidini would like to mark another important musical site. “Varsity Stadium, for sure. John Lennon’s first solo appearance: Yoko in a bag. People still talk about that one, the unofficial end of The Beatles,” Bidini says.

A plaque does mark the site of Ernest Hemingway’s one-time Toronto home at 1599 Bathurst (north of St. Clair, around the corner of Heathdale), but there’s nothing to indicate the site of influential anarchist Emma Goldman’s home on Spadina Avenue.

“Emma Goldman’s wake was held in Toronto, she had an apartment on Spadina because she wasn’t allowed to travel to the United States, so this was her base of operations for a while in the ’20s,” says local history enthusiast Shawn Micallef. “The site of her wake was at the corner of St. Andrew and Spadina in that Bright Pearl restaurant, that big, yellow restaurant — that used to be the Labour Lyceum. All kinds of labour meetings happened there. And she gave a few talks there.” But Toronto’s place in the international anarchist movement goes unremarked. As do so many sites of civic history.

“I think there’s not enough narratives or stories attached to buildings in Toronto. You walk by a lot of non-descriptness everywhere in the city. You kind of have the feeling that stuff happened here, but there’s nothing to tell you either way,” Micallef says.

The lack of official historical markings was part of what inspired Micallef and two friends to start the [murmur] project ( Begun last year in Kensington Market, [murmur] consists of posting phone numbers on signs around a neighbourhood. Those who call the number from a cellphone can hear an anecdotal history of the site recorded and archived by someone who knows its history. The success of the project in Kensington has led to a Toronto Arts Council grant for the project to expand to the Annex. [murmur] is currently researching and recording stories and expects to have its first signs up in the Annex in a few weeks.

As Micallef says, there’s something important and moving about site-specific history, something you can’t get in books.

“I think a huge part of the [murmur] experience is the physical experience of being there. Of being able to stick your finger in the bullet holes or sit on the bench that someone’s talking about. You get this kind of 360-degree, five-senses view of it. So the narrative is just one small part of it, the information that’s being passed over to you is a small part of it. There’s something about that physical location that’s useful.”

The Missing Plaque Project is another example of DIY historical markings. Run by Tim Groves, who’s been posting 10 x 16-inch posters at historical sites he thinks have been neglected by more official sources. His first poster, in Christie Pits, commemorated the race riot. Since then he’s posted markers noting the borders of Toronto’s original Chinatown near Nathan Phillips Square.

Prior to amalgamation, the Toronto Historical Board was responsible for plaquing historical sites in the city. That group went dormant following amalgamation, with everyone waiting to see who would be responsible for such a program.

“You’re catching us at a bad time. We’ve just with our last budget been given the the option of doing plaques in the city, or the job of doing plaques in the city,” says Karen Czaniecki of Heritage Toronto. “So we’re in the process of developing a policy.”

Czaniecki says the policy should be ready in August, and then the marking of historical sites should begin again. In the meantime, she was unable to even say how many plaques exist in the city. In fact, the list of existing plaques, as it is, seems to be haphazardly maintained. “I just have a photocopy of it … it’s about 30 pages. But I don’t really have approval to provide you with a copy of it.”

The city’s preservation department finally dug up an old, difficult-to-read Excel spreadsheet showing 153 historical plaques in the city. It’s a simple inventory, useless as a walking-tour guide.

Councillor Brian Ashton (Scarborough Southwest), chair of the Economic Development and Parks Committee (responsible for Toronto’s Heritage programs), says the city has “lost track” of its cultural and historical programs, and vows to light a fire under the stagnant plaque program.

“I think we need a champion, we need to look at both historic plaques and other ways of encouraging tourism and our own residents to reflect upon our heritage,” Ashton says. “We don’t promote our own history. We don’t think we have a history in Toronto.”

He says grassroots projects like Groves’ are no replacement for an official program. “I think it’s excellent he’s doing that,” Ashton says, “but the city really has to take up the challenge. There are locations that should have a plaque, or a plaque could be in the sidewalk itself: ‘this is where such and such happened.’ It makes the city more livable. It gives us something to be proud of and it’s great for tourists.”

Micallef agrees. “You’ve got all these little disparate projects, like our project, trying, with the good of the city at heart. We think this is a great place and the stories need to be told,” he says. “And we think it’d be a better place if more of us got to hear these stories. It just seems really logical that the city would want this to happen. Post-SARS, all this talk of the tourists going away … and what does this mean? Well if The Producers doesn’t bring people into the city, maybe walking down the street and having all these multi-layers come at you — all these multi-narrative layers — might make you remember Toronto more than just the CN Tower or a tour on the Hippo bus.”

Originally published July 1, 2004 in Eye Weekly