A Cabbagetown resident for 77 years.
From the roar of the Riverdale zoo’s lions to the moo-ing of the Farm’s cows, Maureen Penno has heard and seen it all. For 77 years she has been watching and experiencing the comings and goings, the ups and downs, of a neighbourhood alive with transitions. And as an observer she has walked the streets, lanes and parks with a succession of loyal canine companions – eight to date - in true Cabbagetown fashion. It’s a good way to meet and greet your neighbours for the dog loving set.
At the age of five, Maureen’s family moved to 276 Carlton Street where she has remained ever since. In the 30s Depression the family rented the house for $35 a month. In 1965 her 78-year old mother persuaded Maureen to buy it. At the time many of Maureen’s friends were moving out, as the area was reaching one of its low points. “You don’t live on the street, you live in the house,” was her mother’s observation. That sealed the deal and that year Maureen took out a bank loan and the house she loved so dearly became hers.
It’s known as one of the Painted Ladies of Carlton Street. It sits on the north side of Carlton Street, the middle one of three Terrace houses built in 1890. Little has changed to the exterior since that time, as Maureen scrupulously maintains the outside and interior as close to it’s original state as possible. “A lot of people say my house is cluttered,” she comments “but it is home and I love it and my neighbours. And I love history. My mother taught me to appreciate good things.” The house is fascinating. There is an original skylight from the 1890s, rich crimson glass doors, a large fan shaped stained glass window in the front room, antique lighting fixtures, original wallpaper, detailed cornices and baseboards - and a multitude of memorabilia. One has the feeling of stepping into another era until Maureen’s state-of the-art computer comes into view along with an electronic keyboard she got for her 70th birthday. Many of the surrounding homes hold special childhood memories. Maureen has clear and fascinating memories of residents past and present, and even a ghost or two. “Every good neighbourhood has a ghost and Cabbagetown is no exception. There’s one in the front room at 308 Carlton Street in a mirror in the front room and every so often it comes out.”
At 282 Carlton Street, long before the Weirs moved in, there lived a Maestro Carboni. He was a strange little figure with a waxed moustache. He walked with a hollow cane filled with alcohol and his beloved Chihuahua tucked under his arm. One day Maureen and her friends peaked in the window. “We saw the Chihuahua seated on a chair at the dining room table being treated to a birthday party!” 288 Carlton Street had a beautiful side verandah, which was replaced with a garage by the current owners. The home was originally owned by the Angell family and was a well-run boarding house. “My friends and I used to use the verandah as a stage where we would put on plays, dance and sing. We had a captive, built-in audience as all the residents would come down to watch us.”
The back lanes of Cabbagetown were very different from the lanes of today. They were the children’s playgrounds full of the sounds of laughter and chatter, the clatter of the horse and carriages on delivery, the heavy sighs of the horses kept in what are garages today, and the smells of pickles or smoked fish from the various neighbourhood factories. Here Maureen played Hide and Seek, Cowboys and Indians – she played a cowboy, as she had real cowboy boots; and she was always the teacher when they played “school” as she was the proud owner of a blackboard. It was a Christmas present. She only got one present a year. Another year she got a Shirley Temple doll. “We had nothing to entertain us so we entertained ourselves. It was a wonderful time and a simpler time. You didn’t have to worry about the distractions of drugs or alcohol. I think today people practice oneness – watching TV, or on their computers. We practiced togetherness. We grew together as a community.”
Maureen had wanted to be a teacher since the age of 10. She attended Winchester Public School and Jarvis Collegiate, and then went to Victoria College at U of T. She taught at Lord Dufferin School and at Spruce Court and her pupils became her life. “I never married but I had many children. They left me at 5 years old, they left me at 12 years old, but I’ve been very happy.” Many still keep in touch. There will be a knock on the door and standing there will be a former pupil or colleague. Her warm nature, no-nonsense attitude, and love of language and tradition make her a popular friend. She still refers to former principals as ‘Mr.’ “I can’t bring myself to call them by their first name, even now. There was a certain decorum one followed back then.”
Cabbagetown was not a sought after address in the 1960s despite the many fine hard-working people that lived in the area. It looked as if the developers that had spawned St. Jamestown had their eyes to the east dreaming of yet more highrises. In 1967 the Don Vale Property Owners’ was established and Maureen was part of that group, which successfully won the battle to keep the highrises out. “Norm Macdonald of 54 Spruce Street was the first to realize the importance of district historic designation. I served as a Director and President of the Association.” Today she continues to be actively involved in the Don Vale Cabbagetown Residents’ Association and is vocal about her opinions. “My main interest in life has been walking my dogs. My wish is to be able to walk safety (day or night) without fear, as I did in my younger years. Now I would never leave my door unlocked as I did in the 50s.” Another concern is property value. “Assessment values bother me. People say, ‘aren’t you thrilled at the value of your house today?’ but I don’t care about the value. They don’t consider the people who have lived here for years and who want to stay.”
Constantly learning new things and meeting new people, Maureen never slows down. From piano lessons to theatre outings around Ontario, she embraces life. During the interview she said, “If I drop dead this day I love my surroundings, I love my home, my life – and I couldn’t ask for more.” What a wonderful tribute to her spirit.