the diary thing 
I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR when I trawl through old newspapers and magazines and other hunks of raw historical detritus. There's nostalgia, of course, and that used to be enough, but I became suspicious of nostalgia a few years ago. There's seems too much dangerous sentimentality in it, and a tendency to ignore inconvenient and unpleasant reality in the search for an ideal little world, somehow considered faintly attainable by virtue of having once existed.

And so I try to shun nostalgia, unsuccessfully most of the time, since some part of me will always find the clothes nicer, the cars better designed, the architecture on a more human scale, the manners slightly better, the vocabulary broader, the idealism still untainted with irony or hindsight. I suppose I'm also looking for those moments when, carefully scanning an old photo or making your way through a newspaper article, you recognize a common thread, the look in someone's face, the stance of a bystander, a statement transcribed in a way that retains some character or conflicted viewpoint, that reminds you how people weren't terribly different then than now.

As I read through thirty-five years of the Mount Dennis News Weekly, I had the odd sensation of finding the neighbourood today, even the neighbourhood that I grew up in years ago, somehow less real, even ghostly compared to the place I was reading about in the old papers. It certainly seemed more vital and vivid, even when most of the people I was reading about were long-dead. Nostalgia, once again, forcing its way between me and the truth of the past.

IN THE LATE SUMMER OF 1947, between four and six thousand people packed Gibson Park to watch the qualifying game that would send the Mount Dennis Men's softball team to the championships in Phoenix. The Mount Dennis News Weekly was running to twelve pages, and Ken Drage, the editor, began running regular editorials, mostly on local politics, occasionally on some vague moral issue of the day or the impact of world events on the area.

On November 14th, the front page ran a banner headline, beginning coverage of what would probably be its single greatest story:

"Local Cab Driver Brutally Murdered Early on Tuesday"

In the last year of the war, and for a few years to come, small taxi companies began springing up around communities like Mount Dennis. The car was becoming a necessity, but it would be a few years before they became essential. Little companies like Beck's and Ardee's and Mount Dennis Taxi sprang up, little operations of maybe one or two cars and a dispatcher working out of a spare room in a house. Beck's is still around today, one of the city's biggest operators, but the rest disappeared as the postwar boom drove ahead.

Ralph Margeson lived on Guestville Ave. and drove hack for Ardee's. On the night of the 11th, he picked up a fare heading out to Port Credit. Early the next morning, his cab was found on the side of the Queen Elizabeth Way, Margeson shot dead in the front seat. The killer or killers were, as far as I can tell, never found. He leaves behind a pregnant wife and five children.

Within a few weeks, the community had raised nearly $15,000. By January of the next year, the fund was up to $23,000, administered by a group of local businessmen in trust for Mrs. Margeson and her kids. Financial statements were printed in the News Weekly, noting that the widow had been advanced $1000 for emergency expenses. Two weeks before Christmas of '47, the paper ran this passage from the Montreal Star:

"We never heard of Mount Dennis before, and we don't know where it is. But we know it must be a pretty good place to live and the people of Mount Dennis pretty good people to live among."

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AFTER Margeson's murder, the News Weekly runs an editorial on a new trade tarriff bill meant to protect Canadian industry:

"How does this affect Mount Dennis? In our locality we have many industries, by having American suppliers cut off, our local firms must expand, as indeed the majority have, to supply Canada and our foreign markets. Thus our small ball starts to roll and not only in Mount Dennis but in every industrial town across the country."

It was a policy without legs. Free trade became economic orthodoxy, and almost all of the companies that employed Mount Dennis -- CCM, Pepsi, Cooper, Willys Overland, Moore Business Forms, Hilroy's, English and Mould, Heintzman and more -- are gone now, closed or moved, and only Kodak is left, at a fraction of its peak employment, almost none of whom live in Mount Dennis. The death knell for Weston Road's retail businesses came, everyone says, in the 80s when the Kodak union agreed to cut lunches from an hour to half an hour. Diners, barbers and clothing shops; drug stores like Inch's that had been there for decades -- all gone in a couple of years.

THE JANUARY 23RD, 1948 ISSUE of the News Weekly unaccountably printed studio portraits of "Paramount stars" Bing Crosby, Barbara Stanwyck and Billy DeWolfe on the cover. Paramount star portraits would appear, sprinkled through the paper, unconnected to any story, for the next year or two -- an advertising initiative that seems inexplicable today, but which makes sense if you remember that the movie industry was about to get creamed by t.v. 

In the same issue, a headline reports a "Stormy Session at Monday's Council Meeting", as threats were "hurled across tables" and charges made that lights had been left on in township parks.

In June, Richardson's Furniture runs an ad: "Picture DAD in one of these! He can stretch out in any position in a Super Loafer." On the sports pages, Joe Louis' Punchers, an American all-negro softball team, were scheduled to play the Mount Dennis All-Stars at Gibson Park that summer. Two huge pictures of Louis, signing autographs for tykes and posing heroically in the dugout with his players, run on the front page. Louis, it's rumoured, will be playing first base with the team.

The game comes and goes without Louis, but another match is scheduled against the Levy's Auto Parts team in August. Louis is a no-show again, but he sends a pair of boxing gloves as prizes.

In September, an editorial runs proclaiming the need for a community hall in the neighbourhood: "The need for such a building was never more evident than last Monday night when over 800 teenagers and not so 'teenish' enjoyed dancing on a paved street to recordings."

In October, local businessmen appear in drag, as Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Garbo, Deitrich, Mae West, Gypsy Rose Lee and other "Glamour Girls", as part of a benefit theatrical, "Fun For You". The same issue of the paper reports "Angry Ratepayers Meeting Ends in A Noisy Bedlam". That autumn, the "Chic and Charming" fashion column begins its run.

Nineteen Forty-Eight ends with thick issues, full of full-page ads for household goods and appliances.

"The present is never our goal: the past and present are our means: the future alone is our goal. Thus, we never live but we hope to live; and always hoping to be happy, it is inevitable that we will never be so."
- Blaise Pascal

A trip through the past, courtesy of a long-defunct community newspaper -- part two.

And here's a book review I wrote -- a war memoir that I rather liked. (Go halfway down the page.)

NINETEEN FORTY-NINE has barely begun when one of the area's venerable citizens, Charlie Marshall, dies at 71. His family, a branch of the Browns who opened a brickworks and pottery on Weston Road in the previous century, were fixtures in Mount Dennis. The Marshall skating rink at Lambton and Guestville was the social hot spot for my mother's generation, and a widowed Mrs. Marshall still lives in the family home on Arnold Avenue today.

While I'm leafing through the tall volume of papers, a group of boys enters the museum office, and makes their way noisily through the exhibits. At the desk where I sit, one of them stops and leans over my shoulder to see what I'm reading. 

"1949! Ho-leeee!" he exclaims, before Dorothy, a museum volunteer, shoos him away.

Joe Noseworthy, the CCF candidate, is re-elected in 1949, after losing to Cockeram, the Tory, in '45. Noseworthy, a high school teacher, defeated Arthur Meighen, a former Prime Minister, in the famous 1942 by-election. The area would become a safe, labour-oriented CCF -- later NDP -- riding federally until the Seventies, provincially until the Nineties. Party leaders like Donald MacDonald, David Lewis and Bob Rae made the riding their headquarters. My grandfather was local CCF treasurer for Noseworthy's campaigns before returning to the Liberals in the last decade of his life.

In December of 1950, I finally find a colour comics supplement bound into the papers. Its appearance has been promised in issues for two years, but this is the first time I find it, still crisp and garish. The titles are all third-rate syndicated comics, with names like Scorchy Smith, Dickie Dare, Oaky Doakes, Neighbourly Neighbours, Patsy in Hollywood, Yipee, Homer Hoopee and Modest Maidens. The jokes creak like the bones of old burlesque performers, and alliteration rules unmolested.

I'M RUNNING OUT OF TIME, so I skim through the Fifties issues. Somehow, there's something depressing about the decade. Church news has almost disappeared, migrating from the editorial pages into tiny "card-size" ads. Local social notes begin to disappear as well, as onetime softball stars and the crowds that watched them stay home more often, the better to enjoy the creature comforts of the postwar boom, and watch television. The local movie theatres struggle to survive, and township politics starts taking on a grim aspect, hints of corruption appearing between the lines of terse reporting, intimations that developers are gaining unprecedented power.

The March 7th, 1963 of the News Weekly carries a headline: "Plans for Revitalizing Weston Rd. Shopping Area Are Studied". The decline had begun, imperceptibly, in the previous decade, and the first of a series of desperate efforts have begun. This time, a much-needed parking lot just off the main drag is proposed, and built a year later. 

Two months later, I read my grandfather's death notice. "The death occurred at his home, 41 Gray Ave, on May 9 of Martin Murphy, aged 92. A resident of this community for 45 years."

A year later, I'm born, and a week after that, the News Weekly runs an editorial -- "Toronto, Metro, and the Tax Burden".

"Life was a lot more simple when the municipality financed its own operations without outside help, when school boards were not wildly extravagant...The day is rapidly approaching when the people won't pay or can't pay."

Thirty-six years later, the city is verging on bankruptcy, another baby boom is putting strain on the school boards, and the mayor and council are in a power struggle with the provincial government over budgets and the purse strings of the city. We've been threatened with a property tax increase of shocking magnitude, after the tax freeze that got our chimp of a mayor elected and re-elected has, apparently, drained the coffers while the province unloaded costs onto the city. In the meantime, the mayor and his cabal of city boosters are trying to get the 2008 Olympics, with the astronomical costs that would entail. I can't imagine what they were complaining about back in 1964.

A YEAR LATER, the News Weekly announces its last issue, on September 16th, 1965. The Hales, a couple who bought the paper seven years earlier, are calling it quits, selling their house on Lambton Ave. and retiring to rural Ontario. A front page editorial explains:

"As it stands today the Township of York faces a strong probability that it will, under the Goldenberg Plan, be absorbed by the City of Toronto. That would remove what the French would term 'raison d'etre' for this newspaper...Thirdly the multiplicity of shopping plazas and so-called discount stores has made more difficult the situation of the independant retailer who for so long had been the staunch supporter of the local community and its various enterprises and interests."

Nearly four decades later, it seems like nothing has changed at all. What's fascinating is that this process -- assumed at the time, like at all other times, to be inexorably nearing its awful conclusion -- has merely run in a circle, ever more "small" businesses being swallowed or crushed by "new thing" conglomerates, while communities and other vocal minorities raise the alarm that they're being swamped in wave after wave of bland amalgamation. I don't know if that means that there's still hope, or that there never was.

MY DEADLINE FOR THIS PIECE has already passed, and I'd best get back to it. I hoped that going back to my old neighbourhood, as a journalist, would give me enough distance to find something good about it again. At this point, I'm not so sure. I'm hoping that as I squeeze out the next three or four thousand words, I'll find some positive, hopeful spin, since I'm not sure that the magazine, or the couple of dozen people I've interviewed, will appreciate a piece constructed from sheer, unredeemed pessimism.

One thing's for sure -- you really can't go home again. Another dreary cliche proven true.

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
...the past
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