Puncy's Cabbagetown

In 1958 we moved out of our decaying old house and into a brand new 14 storey apartment building that had been built just the other side side of our backyard fence. This move was quite a step up in the world for us due to the fact that we now had a refrigerator (as opposed to an icebox), heat coming from a radiator (instead of shovelling coal) and really cool elevators to ride up and down in (instead of, you guessed it, stairs). But the biggest thrill of all was the great big shiny new bathtub which we, along with about 90% of the other Cabbagetown residents, had never owned before. Prior to this, taking a bath meant a trip over to the Public Bathhouse on Sackville St. and paying 5 cents for the pleasure of cleaning up. Unfortunately for me I fit into a large galvanized steel tub (made by General Steelwares which was right around the corner at River and Gerrard) so I didn't get to go there very often, and that was a shame, because that place was a hoot for kids. After all, what normal red blooded kid doesn't love splashing around in water, even if it meant having to fork over a nickel that could have bought a ton of candy, and then actually having take a bath?

I went to Park School, except for a horrible two year stint at Regent Park (Grades 5 and 6). Regent Park school was brand new at the time and had imported their teachers from "Nice Neighbourhood Schools" that had never dealt with kids that were quite as wild as we were. Most of these teachers had absolutely no sense of humor, so some of us spent half the school year in the Principal's office. All of my friends went to Park, St. Pauls, Regent Park, Lord Dufferin, Sackville, and a couple of the other schools within the district. Anyone remember Dumb Jarvis?

For entertainment the kids went to movies at theatres like "The Parliament" (Parliament and Carlton), "The Empire" (Queen and Parliament), "The Bluebelle" later renamed "The Gay" (Parliament and Dundas), "The Regent" (Queen and Sherbourne) or "The Eclipse" (Parliament and Gerrard). We had no shortage of local movie houses in the area and there were many more that lined the downtown core which was about a twenty minute walk from my house.

The Bluebelle or Gay, (forget the wisecracks, I've heard them all), was the closest theatre to my home, so I usually went there. This was probably the only show in Toronto to actually have a bouncer for the Saturday afternoon matinee kiddies show. Cause too much trouble and out you went by the scruff of your neck and the seat of your pants. This was the place that started my love affair with movies, especially those cornball old Sci-fi B movies.

Another popular activity was roller skating at Mutual Arena on Mutual Street. This was the original home of the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club before Maple Leaf Gardens was finished in 1932. It was later renovated and renamed The Terrace, but has since been torn down to put in another of the never ending townhouse and condo developments that are sprouting up all over Toronto. Rumor has it that way down below these new homes there is a roller rink all roughed in just waiting for somebody to come up with the cash to finish it.

We also kept ourselves occupied by exploring the areas abandoned houses and factories before they met up with the wreckers ball. These empty buildings were great places to play our favorite games in, like hide-and-seek or tag. They also gave us a steady supply of goodies to furnish and outfit our forts, clubhouses and hideouts. Like a bunch of marauding pack rats, we'd descend on these places scooping up somebody's elses discarded treasures. Broken tables and chairs would be the basic furnishings with glassless framed pictures and outdated girly calendars completing the decor.

Our clubhouses were just simply the underneath of one of the kids backyard porches where we'd nail up cardboard walls that would actually last for a few rainfalls or until a rival group of kids raided it. Ths was a local ritual, if the kids left the fort unguarded, it was fair game for a raid. A raid consisted o f anything from minor thievery to full and total destruction. We could usually determine who was involved by their handiwork. Retaliation was swift and sure and we always left our trademark. We would then move over to another backyard and hope the fort would not be found.

Back then the Don River was an undeveloped area with only the occasional steam train chugging along the railroad tracks. It was also our chance to do the Huckleberry Finn thing, especially when the big kids floated the small rafts up the river from the dry docks down at the Cherry beach area. There always seemed to be a raft tied up under the Dundas St. bridge and we'd float it back down again pretending we were pirates on some exciting adventure. There were baseball diamonds and Riverdale Park a little bit north of the Gerrard St. bridge and just around the corner was Sandy Hill, a great place to play hide-and-seek. Further on up the river was a sandy outcropping in the river called Bare Ass Beach. It was so named because as the trains passed by the passengers would see the kids swimming bare-ass, although in my time we usually had some form of clothing on, not that we didn't moon the passenger trains occaisionally. This place was full of wildlife such as turtles, raccoons, rabbits, foxes, gophers and the even the odd sewer rat. Now there are two roads and a bike path running through there, taming it forever. Not that everything was fun and games in the fifties. The fear of The Bomb and Communism instilled into us by the American and, to a lesser extent, Canadian governments, was enough to drive anybody crazy, especially impressionable young kids. It was easy to get scared back then, after all, World War II and the Korean War were just barely behind us. Pictures of the aftermath and rebuilding of Europe were always on the TV. Just about everybody knew at least a few people that had been in on the action or, in a few rare cases, someone that didn't even make it back. My Brother was on a Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper during the last year of the war.

Living in Toronto gave us the opportunity to pick up the three Buffalo, New York television stations as well as our two or three local Toronto stations, for a grand total of five or six. American TV constantly had Civil Defence test patterns with a nauseating audio tone for a minute or two with a warning at the end that went something like this: "This has just been a test of the Civil Defence Network, had this been a real emergency you would have received instructions from this station" If it was a real emergency it might go something like this: "We are under nuclear attack, please go into your bomb shelter and tune your battery operated radio to a Civil Defence station for further instructions". Or probably better still: "Sorry folks, but the atom bombs are on the way, your instructions are to sit down calmly and place your head firmly but gently between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye."

The propaganda came hot and heavy. There were always shows on TV about how to build your own bomb shelter and what items to stock it with. For the kids there were instructions on what to do if you were in school when the bombs hit. As soon as you see the bright flash, get down on the floor, cover your head with your arms and hide under your desk. Yeah, sure, we'll just all jump down on the floor, after all, everyone knows that it's better to have the flesh burned off your bones while you're on the floor, that way you don't have to fall as far when you croak. I remember being terrorized more than a few times while lying in bed late at night, just about to drift off to sleep as a plane flew overhead, my eyes would pop open with my heart racing, wondering if this was the plane that was going to drop "The Bomb" right on our house. Not only that but air raid sirens being tested at any time of the day or night in Toronto certainly didn't help much, was it real or just a test? We were never given a warning about these tests. Canada was not quite as paranoid as The States, we allowed the Communist Party to run in elections, even though the poor buggers didn't stand a chance of ever getting voted in. I remember standing on Gerrard Street, looking into a storefront window that housed a local Communist Party member who was trying to get in as an alderman in our ward. Someone inside turned around and waved at me as I peered in, this caused me to take off on the run, fearing I may be captured and tortured or worse. A direct reaction to the crap that was being spewed out at the time. I mean, these guys were Canadian Commies and probably would not have tortured me, well, maybe just a bit. Another scary thing back then was a lot the frightning diseases that the kids now-a-days don't have to worry about were still around. Some of my friends caught Polio and Tuberculosis. I was lucky, I didn't get either of those, but I did suffer through Mumps and Chicken Pox and a few other nasty things that kids were susceptible to. Cabbagetown was not just a geographic area, but a state of mind. I know that sounds like a corny old cliche, but it really applies here as anyone from the area back then can tell you. It was a community of people that were poor, some were dirt poor, but everybody knew each other and tended to stick together, mostly because there was a snobbish Us Against Them attitude in Toronto in the fifties and sixties. If you lived in Cabbagetown, you were scum. Not to say that Cabbagetown was the only place that was looked down upon by Toronto's very proper and stuffy population back then. I was actually refused a job just because I lived in Cabbagetown. One of my mothers favorite stories was of how once while she was returning home on a streetcar and as it entered Cabbagetown, the woman in the seat ahead of her leaned over to her friend and said "You know, none of the people living here can read or write." How's that for a snobbish attitude? Hey lady, just because we're broke doesn't mean we're stupd like you. Actually, Cabbagetown was more like a small town plopped right in the middle of Toronto. A place where "Respectable People" wouldn't be caught dead, unless they had "Dirty Business" to do. After all, the Red Light area was just along Dundas Street between Sherbourne and Jarvis. Restaurants like Spot One, Norm's Open Kitchen and The New Service Tea Room were infamous as pickup joints throughout the city, if not the entire country. This wonderful area stood directly between us and Yonge Street, so naturally we'd make sure we passed through it on our way downtown. Always making faces in the windows and giggling, sometimes trying to get close enough to actually listen in on the business transactions before someone chased us away. Cabbagetown was known as the slums, and most of it was. The houses were run down with leaky roofs and paint peeling from the exteriors. All the front steps and porches were slanted and most of the fences had a boards missing. The Slumlords sure as hell were not going to sink any money into their properties since everything was being torn down. But the interiors were kept spic and span with the pride that anyone else would have shown towards their home. A lot of the kids wore hand-me-down or used clothes, but they were always clean. We lived our lives the same way as the rest of the people in Toronto did, we just did it with less. The cars parked in front of the houses were old clunkers as were the few scattered television sets around.

Most things moved a bit slower back then, it seems that just about everything was delivered by horse and wagon including, bread, milk, ice, coal, potatoes and a few other things. Occaisionally a delivery man might toss the kids a freebie or one might come our way if we were cruising by Canada Dry or Wilsons Ginger Ale, both of which were on Sherbourne St., that is if the dock workers were feeling generous that day. Then there was always Orange Crush on Ontario St. and the Ice Cream Factory on Berkley St. Or maybe we'd get a free scoff at one of the many area bakeries. For those families that were really hard-up, food could be obtained at The House Of Providence on Power St., which was a Church run food bank long before the term became so well known in Toronto.

Things changed rapidly around the area as the 50's and 60's rolled into the 70's. The renovators set their sights on the cheap houses north of Gerrard Street and scooped up every property they could get their hands on. Most of the older houses that were still standing were totally redone and the Yuppie Set moved in. They scooped up the Cabbagetown name, well, sort of, the area was renamed Old Cabbagetown and became respectable, trendy and very expensive. The driveways and laneways where those rusting old clunkers one sat were now sporting shiny new BMW's and Volvo stationwagons.

We got married and left the area in the 70's, but we didn't move too far away, just to the other side of the Don River, as did most of the other Cabbagetowners. I still run into old Cabbagetowner's in and around Toronto and we pretty much talk about the old neighborhood, have you seen so-and-so lately and so on. One thing is for sure though, none of the old gang lives there and ain't that a shame? Like they say: "You can never go home again".

So there you have it. That's what it was like in the real Cabbagetown when I was a kid. We may not have lived exactly like the Cleavers on Leave It To Beaver, but for the most part, it was a good life. Yeah, I'm sure there were better places to grow up in and I know we did a lot of dangerous and stupid things, but I wouldn't trade in my Cabbagetown childhood for anything. Phew, I'm glad I got that off my chest....