Thursday, October 28, 2010

And We Think Rob Ford's An Asshole; Meet Peter Russell

Peter Russell, asshole
Here's how they tell his story: In 1796, Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe, the man who had founded Toronto just three years earlier, was sick. So sick, in fact, that he headed back home to England with his family, never to return. In his absence, he left Peter Russell in charge, one of the city's most illustrious douchebags.

Russell had been born in Ireland, moved to England, and went to school at Cambridge for all of six months before he'd lost so much money playing poker that he was forced to drop out and join the army. In the army, he kept gambling; his next twenty years or so were mostly spent traveling around the world: sometimes fighting wars and sometimes running away from the people he owed money to. When they finally did catch up with him, he even spent a little time in prison. But none of that seems to have kept him from making a good impression on John Graves Simcoe. They had both fought for the British during the American Revolution and when Simcoe became the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, he invited the desperate, debt-ridden Russell to help run the brand new town of York.

In return, he got a crapload of free land. His first house, Russell Abbey, was built on a spot in town overlooking the lake (near Front and Princess where Abbey Lane is now). His second home was at his farm, Petersfield, a long strip of land running north from Queen to Bloor just west of the Grange. And on top of that, he had hundreds of acres on the hill above Davenport Road around the area where the not-so-coincidentally-named Russell Hill Road runs today.

And he'd get more. Once Simcoe was gone, Russell found new ways to take advantage. He discovered a law that allowed him to seize land from foreigners who hadn't lived in town for at least seven years and he used it.  He appointed himself as a judge, despite the fact that he had no legal experience, so that he could collect the salary. And when it came time to make civic improvements, he was a cheap bastard; on at least one occasion he just plain refused to pay, shocked that in a tiny, isolated town in the middle of a thick forest, with barely any people in it, the cost of labour was rather high.

It seems that even the improvements he did make, he made with a prickish flair. Russell was the one who built the city's first jail, a log hut on King Street where the King Edward Hotel is now, but he didn't bother to include any beds or blankets or stoves to keep it warm during the winter. He extended the town westward out to Peter Street, but couldn't resist naming the street after himself. And when he hired Asa Danforth to spend months in the woods building Kingston Road out toward, um, Kingston, Russell figured he was the hero. "I expect the Gratitude of the People will erect a Statue to my memory for it," he declared.

But all of that is nothing compared to the real reason he stands apart from most of the other corrupt, pompous, self-serving, political assholes this city has seen: this asshole owned slaves.

Simcoe had wanted to abolish slavery right from the very beginning, but slave owners in the legislature—including, it seems, Russell—fought against it, forcing a compromise: they could keep the slaves they already had in town, but it would be illegal to bring in any more, and the children would be freed when they turned 25. They say it was the first legislation to actively limit slavery in the history of the British Empire.

From what I've read, there were 15 slaves in York (though there were ten more just outside of town), and the majority were owned by Russell and his fellow jerkface, William Jarvis. They had six each. Russell enslaved Mr. Pompadour, his wife Peggy and their four children. And he wasn't happy with them. His sister called them "insolent" and "pilfering". And after Peggy tried to run away yet again, Russell decided to split the family up. He placed this ad in the Upper Canada Gazette:

 

The ad didn't turn up any buyers or win Russell many fans in the anti-slavery crowd. And those folks weren't his only enemies. There was even a new saying in town, poking fun at his corruption: "I, Peter Russell, convey to you, Peter Russell." So when Simcoe officially resigned, Russell was passed over for the promotion and lost most of his power. Once he'd been overlooked for a second time, he was pissed off enough to announce that he intended to move back to England. But by that point, he owned 75,000 acres of Upper Canada and he couldn't find anyone to buy it. He was stuck here. And in 1808, he had a stroke. The cure—a mustard plaster and a quart of wine laced with crushed deer antler—didn't work. He died.

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After Russell's death, the Pompadours were passed down to his sister, Elizabeth, who gave away one of the daughters as a gift. After that, people aren't sure what happened to them. There's a photo of Peggy and some more info about the family here

One of the foreigners Russell screwed over was William Berczy, who built Yonge Street, will get his own blogpost eventually, and was also hired to build Russell Abbey. You can see a drawing of the house here. It eventually ended up being owned by another one of the city's most blogpost-worthy citizens, Robert Baldwin, who helped bring responsible government to Canada.

Oh and there's also Russell Creek, one of our buried underground streams, named after him. And Bedford Road is called Bedford Road because he wanted to honour the Duke of Bedford, a man his father dubiously claimed they were related to. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Two Awesome Moustaches Vs. The President Of The United States

Charles G.D. Roberts and his moustache
Once upon a time (by which I mean the late 1800s and early 1900s) stories about intelligent, anthropomorphized animals were all the rage. The trend had been sparked by Darwinism and then took off with the publication of Black Beauty. After that, the classics came quick: The Jungle Book, The Wind In The Willows, White Fang and The Call of the Wild, Beatrix Potter books and the tales of br'er rabbit. And though we don't remember them as well, two of the most famous authors of "animal fiction" were Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton. Both were Canadian. Both were incredibly popular writers. And both had awesome fucking moustaches.

Roberts was from New Brunswick and wrote such proudly nationalistic, nature-loving verses that he was hailed as The Father Of Canadian Poetry and known—along with three of his cousins—as one of the four Confederation Poets. Later, he would move to New York, start writing prose, and eventually end up living in Toronto, which is where he spent the last years of his life.

Seton, meanwhile, grew up here, where he developed his passion for nature as a child by exploring the wilderness of the Don Valley back in the days when it really was a wilderness, filled with deer and foxes and salmon. He too would eventually end up in the States, which is where he co-founded the Boy Scouts of America, wrote the first edition of The Boy Scout Handbook and joined Roberts among the ranks of the famous animal authors thanks to books like Lobo, Rag and Vixen and Wild Animals I Have Known.

Ernest Thompson Seton and his moustache
 But not everyone loved those stories. Like, say, John Burroughs. Or the President of the United States. Burroughs was a famous naturalist, the "Grand Old Man of Nature", armed with a beard so awesome it nearly rivaled the Canadians' own facial hair. He attacked Roberts and Seton (along with a couple of other writers who, boringly, had nothing to do with Toronto at all) in an Atlantic Monthly article called "Real and Sham Natural History". Offended by the lack of hard science behind their stories, he accused them of misleading the world's children with tales of clever and compassionate beasts, dubbing the authors, in his old-timey spelling, as "nature fakirs" and denouncing them as "yellow journalists of the woods". 

The piece kicked off a fierce battle. Some of the writers fought back. There were newspaper articles. Magazine features. Book prefaces. A full-page editorial in the New York Times. The "Nature Fakers Controversy" raged on for years, only coming to an end once Burroughs convinced Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States himself, to wade in on his side. Though Roosevelt knew Seton, admired Roberts' writing, and admitted it wasn't a good idea for the President to get involved, he wrote two essays condemning the authors' lovable animal stories as "an outrage", "a genuine crime" and "an object of derision to every scientist worthy of the name, to every real lover of the wilderness, to every faunal naturalist, to every true hunter or nature lover."

And that was that. The controversy died down, Burroughs and Roosevelt had won, and the official wisdom declared that animal stories were bad for society. Case closed.

No one ever read The Jungle Book or Black Beauty or The Call of the Wild ever again.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Quote: A Couple Of Great Paragraphs From In The Skin Of A Lion

Construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct, 1917

Turns out I'm not the first one to come up with the idea of giving  Toronto's historical figures fictionalized dreams. (Which is what the whole postcard part of this project is all about.) Last month, I read Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin Of A Lion. It was mostly pretty disappointing, but still worth it thanks to all the Toronto history he plays around with: the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct and the majestic water treatment plant on Queen East; the mysterious disappearance of millionaire Ambrose Small; the unheralded contribution of immigrant construction workers. And then there was the dream, recounted in a speech in the last few pages. It's Rowland Harris speaking, the Commissioner of Public Works who oversaw the construction of the viaduct and the water plant:

"One night, I had a dream. I got off the bus at College—it was when we were moving College Street so it would hook up to Carlton—and I came to this area I had never been to. I saw fountains where there used to be an intersection. What was strange was that I knew my way around. I knew that soon I should turn and see a garden and more fountains. When I woke from the dream the sense of familiarity kept tugging me all day. In my dream the next night I was walking in a mysterious park off Spadina Avenue. The following day I was lunching with the architect John Lyle. I told him of these landscapes and he began to laugh. 'These are real,' he said. 'Where?' I asked.  'In Toronto.' It turned out I was dreaming about projects for the city that had been rejected over the years. Wonderful things that were said to be too vulgar or expensive, too this too that. And I was walking through these places, beside the traffic circle at Yonge and Bloor, down the proposed Federal Avenue to Union Station. Lyle was right. These were all real places. They could have existed. I mean the Bloor Street Viaduct and [the water treatment plant] are just a hint of what could been done here.

"You must realize you are like these places [...] You're as much of the fabric as the aldermen and the millionaires. But you're among the dwarfs of enterprise who never get accepted or acknowledged. Mongrel company. You're a lost heir. So you stay in the woods. You reject power. And this is how the bland fools—the politicians and press and mayors and their advisers—become the spokesmen for the age. You must realize the trick is to be as serious when you are old  as when you are young."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Photo: Broadview Streetcar in 1896

Broadview Streetcar, 1896

That's the Broadview streetcar, at Broadview and Danforth, in 1896. I found the photo through Google, but as it turns out, Torontoist posted it with an article about Victorian transit riders and drivers bitching about each other. My favourite complaint: "Ladies who wish to attract the attention of the conductor are not expected to punch him in the ribs with their umbrellas." The piece is from their kickass "Historicist" series, which gets published every Saturday. And you can read it here.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Freezing To Death In Antarctica

Taylor and Wright and the Terra Nova
One of the guys in this photo, I'm pretty sure it's the one on the right, is Sir Charles Seymour Wright. He was born in Toronto in the late-1800s, grew up in Rosedale, went to Upper Canada College, studied physics at U of T and then headed off to England on a scholarship to study cosmic rays at Cambridge.  But while he was there, he met a man who had just returned from Antarctica,  where he had spent two and a half years climbing mountains and glaciers and nearly freezing to death on an expedition with one of Britain's most famous explorers, Sir Ernest Shackleton. They hadn't made it all the way to the South Pole, like they'd hoped to, but they'd gone farther than anyone else ever had before. And soon, there would be a new attempt, led by Sir Robert Falcon Scott, another one of the Empire's great Antarctic heroes.

Wright was determined to be part of Scott's expedition. He applied and when his application was initially rejected, he walked into London to make his case in person. From Cambridge. A hundred kilometers away. This time, he was accepted; when Scott's team sailed south from New Zealand in 1910, Wright was on board as part of the scientific contingent.

But things got off to a rough start. Before their ship, the Terra Nova, had even made it to Antarctica, they ran into storms and got stuck in the ice for twenty days. One of their sled dogs drowned, the pack ponies they'd brought along were weak and dying and not cut out for the cold. When they did finally arrive and started unloading their equipment, some of it sank into the water. And, worst of all, they'd learned that Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who had been the first to make it through the Northwest Passage, was already there, camped closer to the Pole, planning to beat them to it.

For the next year and a half, Wright and the other men lived out of an insulated hut in some of the coldest, harshest conditions on Earth, preparing for the months-long journey from their camp to the South Pole. Occasionally, some of them would set out across the ice for weeks and months at a time, studying geology and wildlife or laying down supplies along the route they planned to take south. Each trip was an ordeal. There were blizzards and there were dangerous accidents. More dogs and ponies drowned. Some froze to death or keeled over from exhaustion. Back at camp during the winter, the men would try to keep from going crazy in the darkness, giving lectures and playing football in the faint light outside the hut.

Finally, in November of 1911, Scott lead 16 men, including Wright, out onto the ice and headed for the South Pole. His plan was to send men back in teams the closer they got, taking sled dogs and ponies and motorized sledges part of the way. The sledges died within the first 80 kilometers and after running into a blizzard, all the ponies had to be shot. But the men soldiered on, across the ice shelf, up one of the biggest glaciers in the world and onto the Antarctic plateau, which stretched for hundreds of kilometers between them and their goal. Wright and most of the other men, along with the dogs, headed back to replenish the supply drops, while Scott and four others set off on foot to become the first people to have ever stood on the planet's most southern point.

On January 17, 1912, two weeks later and two and a half months after they'd left camp, having traveled 1300 kilometers in that time, the five men made it to the Pole. Amundsen's flag was already there. The Norwegian had beat them by five weeks. They'd lost.

And the return trip would be an even worse disaster. They spent a month trudging back over the plateau and down the glacier, starving, exhausted and severely frostbitten. Toes turned black. Fingernails were lost to the cold. They kept falling. Getting lost. When they reached the bottom of the glacier, one of them collapsed and died.  And after a few more weeks suffering through some of the worst weather ever recorded in that part of the continent, another simply walked out of the tent to die. "I am just going outside," he said, "and may be some time."

Scott and his last two surviving men struggled on for a few more days, but ran into another blizzard just a few kilometers from their supplies. They couldn't go any further. "We shall stick it out to the end," Scott wrote in the last entry in his diary, "but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. For God's sake look after our people."

It would be Charles Wright, as part of a search party months later, who be the first to spot the tent. Inside, their frozen bodies lay beside their letters, photos and journals. The  survivors buried them in snow, erected a cross and headed back home, to civilization, for the first time in years.

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The hut that Wright and the others lived in is still there, full of supplies, nearly a hundred years later. The Scott Polar Research Institute has tons of incredible photos from the expedition, including many of Wright, and some he took himself, here. There's one he took of some pengiuns. And some he took of the other men, surrounded by snow and snow and more snow. Here's what Wright looked like with frostbite. And here's what he looked like standing beside one of the ponies. There's a map of their route to the Pole here. And here's their ship, stuck in the ice. Here are Scott and his men at the South Pole, standing beside Amundsen's tent and flag. A couple of weeks ago, a collection of Wright's photos and other artifacts from the voyage were sold at auction for a crapload of money, which is how I first learned about him. You can read about that, in the Star, here.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Video: TTC Commercials From The '80s



YouTube is full of these TTC commercials from the '80s, and each one is better, cheesier and more fluorescent than the last. The one I've embedded is from 1985, and there are two more jingle-based ones from a couple of years later here and here. There's one with a bunch of big name celebrities like "Soap Opera Broadcaster" Vic Cummings and "Consumer Advocate" Lynne Gordon here. And in 1988, they did a whole series highlighting all the fun things you can't do on the TTC, like watch a movie or a hockey game or eat dinner. Then, in 1990, someone was clearly fired; they suddenly went in a completely different, much more poetic direction.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Most Hard-Rocking City Of Its Time

Bobbi Lee Justice and the Scepters
It all started in the '50s with the Beatniks. Their scene was centered around Yonge and Gerrard, but they also headed north, across Bloor and into Yorkville, where old Victorian homes were converted into smoke-filled coffee houses and poetry clubs. Then, as the '50s gave way to the '60s, the Beats gave way to the folkies and a new generation took over the Beats' clubs and added their own. Before long, there were dozens of venues all within a few short blocks. You could head south to watch poets like Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwen reading at the Bohemian Embassy, walk a few blocks north across Bloor to the Riverboat and catch a Gordon Lightfoot set, then head down the street to the Penny Farthing where Joni Mitchell worked as a waitress when she wasn't playing upstairs.

But there was more than just folk music and poetry. Those were also the years when early rock 'n' roll and soul were taking over the airwaves. And in many of those same Yorkville clubs—along with a string of venues stretching down Yonge Street all the way to King—there were countless bands playing raw, British Invasion- and soul-inspired R&B. They were loud and electric, armed with Hammond organs and New Orleans-style drumming, shrieking and moaning through sets peppered with Motown-ish choreography and matching, three-button suits.

The rock scene had apparently started around the time when Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks moved here from the States in 1958. They were from Arkansas originally, but when Hawkins toured Canada he realized that no one else was playing their brand of music here yet, so they came north. And as one Hawk after another eventually headed home to the US, he hired new, Canadian musicians to replace them. The Hawks—particularly their new guitarist, Robbie Robertson—helped not only to inspire Toronto's teenagers to pick up their own instruments and head downtown, but to establish the city as a mecca for other aspiring musicians from across the continent. Within a few years, there would be so many that people started referring to "The Toronto Sound". Bruce Palmer, who played here before helping to found Buffalo Springfield, called it "the most hard-rocking city of its time".

The Ugly Ducklings. The Paupers. Jackie Shane. Bobbi Lee and the Specters. John and Lee and Checkmates. Dianne Brooks. Grant Smith and the Power. Jack London and the Sparrows. They had legions of fans, lots of groupies, and more than enough drugs to, well, fuel a counterculture. One Toronto band after another climbed its way to the top of the CHUM charts. The "Toronto Sound Show" filled Maple Leaf Gardens for 14 straight hours. And the world's biggest labels and managers showed up, trolling clubs like the Mynah Bird (next door to the Penny Farthing, at 114 Yorkville Ave.) and Friar's Tavern (at Yonge and Dundas, in the building that now houses the Hard Rock Cafe) looking for bands to sign.

And they liked what they found. The Mynah Birds (the house band for the club of the same name) signed to Motown Records. The Ugly Ducklings opened for the Rolling Stones. Later they would land a spot on the legendary Nuggets compilation. The Paupers played the Monterey Pop festival and got picked up by the same manager as Bob Dylan. In fact, you could argue the Yorkville scene was too successful for its own good. One after the other, most of the biggest names in Toronto headed to the States, where they would go on to become some of the most famous musicians in the world. The Hawks started playing with Bob Dylan and became The Band. The Mynah Birds broke up and two of them, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, headed out to California to start Buffalo Springfield. Their singer, Rick James, ended up in L.A., launching his solo career and recording "Super Freak". Jack London and the Sparrows went to New York and changed their name to Steppenwolf. David Clayton Thomas headed there too, and started Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Meanwhile, back home, the evolution of Yorkville was mirroring the gradual decline of hippie culture in general. The Toronto Sound was evolving from R&B and soul into folk-rock and funk, and the authorities were actively trying to—in their words—"eradicate" the culture. It seems that the scene peaked in the summer of '67 and started going downhill from there. The drugs got harder and biker gangs showed up. Syl Apps, a former Maple Leaf turned hippie-hating Conservative MPP, called Yorkville "a festering sore on the face of the city". The police parked a paddywagon at the corner of Yorkville Avenue and Hazelton every weekend. And they enforced a 10pm curfew for anyone under the age of 18. Then, when a few cases of hepatitis cropped up, the public panicked. Residents fled the neighbourhood, police refused to walk their beats and the Star started throwing around words like "epidemic". There were only ever 32 cases, almost all of them in people who shared needles. But it didn't matter. Developers were brought in to demolish the clubs and build upscale apartment buildings in their place. Protests ended in beatings and arrests. And when the scene was driven out of Yorkville and down Bloor into Rochdale College, the authorities followed them, shutting the school down, and then literally dragging the last few stubborn hippies out the building, welding the door shut behind them.

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I'm going to have to write more posts about some other Yorkville stories soon. Like about when Joni Mitchell gave her daughter up for adoption. Or how Neil Young and Rick James started the Mynah Birds. Or how Bob Dylan discovered the Band. And I've already written a post about Rochdale College, which you can read here.

The Star has a bunch of good photos of Yorkville in the '60s here. And there's a great one of the Penny Farthing (where Joni Mitchell worked and played) here. Plus a couple of John and Lee and the Checkmates here and here. Spacing's got a nice write up on the death of Yorkville here. You can read about how the Paupers eventually fell apart here. The CBC has got a cool video about all those hippies here and there's an NFB video here.

Below, I'll post a video of John and Lee and the Checkmates playing their version of the Jr. Walker and the All-Stars' hit, "Shotgun", at Friar's Tavern. But there are a whole slew of songs on YouTube that, if you like early R&B and soul at all, you should definitely check out, so I've made a playlist of some of my favourites, which you can listen to here.


Update: In the comments section, Dacks has posted a link to a fascinating Radio 2 doc bout Jackie Shane. It's an hour-long and you can listen to it here, which you should, not just because it fills in some of the history of the clubs on Yonge, but because Shane—who was a cross-dressing soul singer who came up here from the States in the '60s—has a pretty amazing story.