the diary thing 
Hh - hatI CAN'T GET ENOUGH AIR WHEN I LEAVE THE HOUSE. It's spring, or almost spring, and the air and light outside has already made that subtle transformation. I'm greedy for it -- I walk to the bus stop gulping huge lungfuls as I walk. I find myself bounding, not trudging, to the store. I grin unaccountably, stifling huge, gleeful smiles so as not to alarm passersby. This happens every year, and every year I'm surprised by this eruption of idiot glee. Life -- my life -- will be much the worse the year I notice that it isn't happening anymore.

I'VE SPENT THE LAST COUPLE of weeks in the archives at the half-abandoned City of York municipal centre, the onetime municipal heart of the area where I grew up, before city amalgamation rendered it superfluous. The archive, and the museum in which it sits, are doubtless scheduled to be absorbed by the city archive sooner or later, but as Nancy, the archivist in charge of the room, explained to me, city budget crises and bureaucratic arthritis have delayed the inevitable, perhaps for years.

In the meantime, the museum, with its hodgepodge of artifacts, and files of photos and paper ephemera, opens every day from 1pm to 3pm, visited more often than not by unruly children waiting for a turn in the municipal pool. I've been going through back issues of the Mount Dennis News Weekly, a community paper that ran from 1931 to 1965, as part of my research for the feature-that-never-ends. 

The truth is that I love this kind of work. It's time-consuming, sure, and only rarely directly relevant to the finished work, but there's something about excavating through the strata of the past, rooting amongst the layers of detritus that have survived -- often through mere serendipity -- to try to piece together a picture of the past. It's a strange sort of past that emerges, built up from blurry box-camera snapshots and official portraits, land surveys and newspapers and the tattered programs from ribbon-cuttings, graduations and remembrance ceremonies. 

Occasionally, you come across a typed transcript of an oral history, submitted by some long-dead old-timer, and a real gem is sifted out, but the whole process requires a good deal of imagination and intuition, like piecing together the identity of a murder victim from a tooth, a scrap of shirt, a bus transfer and a belt buckle. 

THE NEWS WEEKLY IS, as far as I'm concerned, great reading. It helps that, every now and then, I find some mention of a relative of mine in the social notices or wedding announcements. Practically every month in the early to mid-1930s, I find news of another award or medal being won by young Bill Livings, a violin prodigy. A decade or so later, little Billy married my cousin Terry -- by then, he was a hip young musician, playing bass in swing combos. He was, alas, too much of a musician for my cousin, and she left him a few years later. I find my Aunt Helen's wedding notice, and notice that my dad wasn't there -- he was off in RCAF training at the time. 

It's hardly earth-shattering stuff, but there's something quaint about a newspaper that, in its May 21, 1931 issue, feels obliged to inform its readers that:

"We are pleased to report that Earl Mackell's dog is safe home again after its wanderings."

...and in the Aug .31 issue of the same year that:

"Mr. H. Barnes, with Mrs. Barnes and their son, of Rockcliffe Blvd., left on Sunday for a trip to the old country."

In a neighbourhood that I always remember as being crammed with modest houses on tiny lots, its interesting to read, in the Oct. 1, 1931 issue, that:

"Another dwelling being erected on Guestville Ave. leaves but one vacant lot on this thoroughfare between York and Dennis Avenues. There were only three houses on this section a few months ago."

My grandfather was one of the small builders filling in these lots all over the neighbourhood, but by 1931 he'd lost his business to the banks.

Ten years later, in the early years of the war, the paper celebrates its tenth anniversary with a special issue boosting the area.

"Mount Dennis, in the Township of York, offers you:


There something so strange in boasting about "adequate fire protection". It's like nobody had ever heard of hyperbole.

With the war only two years old, it's amazing to see that the sense of carnage and tragedy hasn't made itself felt at home, at least not yet. In this context, there's something heartbreaking about the moral outrage of this little item:

"The person on Guestville Ave. who is taking such a delight in poisoning defenseless cats will be pleased to know that in three days last week they were successful in taking the lives of two cats and a kitten, all of them children's pets. This week's count isn't in yet."

On February 27th, 1942, the Weston Theatre is featuring Judy Garland and George Murphy in Little Nelly Kelly, and William Tracy in Tanks a Million. Has anyone ever seen these films?

In further entertainment news, the Kodak String Orchestra will play at Pearen Memorial United Church the week of April 21, 1942.

That summer, a nice big ad informs readers that they can: 

Ride for Health at the
(Situated at the foot of Hospital Rd.)
Fred Williams, Mgr. 
Shorty McLeod, Cowboy.

A dude ranch, in what is now the heart of Toronto. You can only imagine what it might have been like.

In late summer of '42, the paper suddenly drops in size, from a big broadsheet to a modest tabloid, "...back to original size...after 11 years of progress." Although they claim it has nothing to do with war shortages, the paper doesn't return to broadsheet size for almost four years.

In the summer of '44, notices of "Killed in Action" or "Missing in Action" start appearing, at a rate of five or six a week. Previous to that, they were rare, usually notices of accidents at air base training camps. Too often, the death notices mention a wife and children -- these weren't just boys, but men, and for some reason the loss becomes even more poignant. I imagine moving day on Chryessa or Lambton, a woman with her little boy and girl and a few neighbours emptying a rented house into an old truck, leaving the neighbourhood to live with her parents in Swansea or Silverthorn or Parkdale, the house vacant for barely a day before a new family moves in, happy to find a place during the housing shortage. Another young woman and her kids, perhaps, hopeful that it'll all be over soon and Jack will be back from Italy. Like I said, it takes a bit of imagination.

Somewhere in the midst if this, a wedding announcement includes the detail that a mortgage burning occured as part of the festivities. 

In March of '45, a house fire on Greendale kills two children. The community raises $2000 for the bereaved parents.

On April 27, 1945, barely two weeks before V.E. Day, Inch's Drugs on Weston runs an ad:

"We Salute HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS The Baby in Your Home."

And the Baby Boom officially begins, lurching from the gate a hair ahead of the starting bell.

On June 8th of that summer, Elliott Perry publishes a "Notice of Divorce", stating that he has received custody of the children:

"This notice is published for the benefit of neighbours who took Madeleine Perry in without knowing the true facts of the case."

The true facts, whatever they were, remain unknown except, perhaps, in the vague memories of children now well past retirement age. It's a tantalizing shred of scandal, though, even today.

The year ends, the war over, with gleefully trivial news:

"A large white owl was perched on the peak of the roof of Dr. Davis' residence at the corner of Dennis Ave."

"The stupid speak of the past, the wise of the present, fools of the future."
- Napoleon Bonaparte

Part one of two -- a little trip through history, thanks to a long-defunct community newspaper.

THE WAR ENDS and the men come home and the paper expands to twelve pages, much of it syndicated radio and movie news and the latest on the big new obsession: softball. Ten years earlier, church news dominated the inside pages; in 1946, it's the latest on the teams sponsored by Levy's and Kodak and the Mount Dennis Businessmen's Association, culminating in national championships that send teams to the places like Phoenix, Arizona to compete against the best the Yanks have to offer. Gibson Park -- where the Irving Paper plant is today -- is the summertime hub of the area. A generation of men, as healthy as they'll ever be after military service, hungry for camaraderie and competition, make team sports from softball to hockey to lacrosse to bowling their major leisure pursuit. It lasts a few years; by the mid-Fifties, softball news has vanished and Gibson Park disappears under new factories.

A petition is raised in the area in the winter of '46:

"We the residents of Mount Dennis...do strongly protest the proposed erection of the CrossTown Hotel at the corner of Jane and Trethewey Dr.

"We believe that there is no need for such an hotel - that through its beverage room would be a moral menace to the whole community; and that it is contrary to the general welfare of its citizens."

In the spring of '46 the paper tries out syndicated columns like "Hints on Fashions" and "Household Hints by Mrs. Mary Morton". B. Barrow Radio on Weston Road advertises: "RADIOS AT LAST...We Have Something to Offer." S.W. Gillies Stationery announces: 

The Book You've been Waiting for!! 

"Modernistic Art displayed at Rose and Peony Show", runs the headline in the June 21, 1946 issue. 

"This follows the trend toward modernism in things we see around us in our daily life...This exhibit is solely for educational purposes..."

In September of that year, the paper announces that: 

"Phillippe Herain, French underground fighter, opens musical box factory at back of home at 217 Lambton...Toys that were once made only in Germany and Japan are now being produced in Mount Dennis."

In the summer of '47, the paper begins running a new syndicated feature: "Advice to the Lovelorn by Philomena Phixit". The unlikely and alliterative Mrs. Phixit enjoys better luck than Mrs. Mary Morton, whose column disappeared after one appearance. Philomena enjoys a run of several years, her matronly cartoon portrait, all white hair and lace collar and knowing glance, occasionally making its way to the front page. The lovelorn submit suspiciously vaudevillian missives on the order of:

"I am a man with a very attractive wife...Last month I came home from work to find her flirting with the iceman, so I fired him and bought an electric Frig.  Two week's later I find her making eyes at the milkman so I let him go and bought a cow..."

Another alliteratively-named columnist run by the News Weekly is Anne Allan, a "Hydro Home Economist" whose "Mixing Bowl" column runs well into the Fifties. On August 8th, 1947, her debut column includes recipes for Pear Chow Chow and Spiced Gooseberries.

That same month, the Gray Avenue Friendship Society holds a Street Dance: "Dancing will commence at 8:30 pm to the modern and old-tyme music of Harold Ferrier and his band." After a year of anticipation, J.K. Crang Co. Ltd. opens a department store in their new, custom-built deco moderne building on Weston at Rogers Rd. A year of contests and full-page ads fill the News Weekly, but within two years I can't find a single mention of the store anywhere. Today, it's a Danier Leather warehouse outlet, the wall of street display windows long since bricked-up, the ocean-liner silhouette still visible despite the general squalor of the strip.

In September, the paper runs an editorial, written by one Lewis Milligan, under the headline "A message to our new immigrants":

Mr. Milligan relates the story of his own hard times after coming to Canada, moving constantly, searching for work, living with "packing crate furniture", the strain wearing on himself and his family: "Many a time did I find my wife silently weeping." Now apparently a pillar of the community, he has one thing to say to those following in his footsteps:

"These new immigrants should not expect to be pampered or provided with comfortable homes and nice jobs. For those thing they must work and work hard. Canada has no place for idlers or malcontents."

And thus a small failure of empathy evolves into a growing meanness. Some things don't really change.

(more to come)

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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