Toronto has a lot of streets with their own particular flavour, I’ve mentioned Yonge St and Queen St many times, as their cultural significance and wonky charisma warrant, but you can’t even begin to understand Toronto at all without considering the character of Spadina. Not so much the Spadina Road part, north of Bloor, though this does includes a grand view from a lovely hilltop castle, several very nice (and pricey) residential neighbourhoods, and even a tiny tucked-away Spadina ‘village’, but the Spadina Avenue stretch, south of Bloor St – running toward (and more recently, all the way down to) the lakefront.
Spadina Avenue has hosted immigrants from many cultures, and includes a big piece of the University of Toronto – a sports complex and a range of residences all the way from the venerable to the modernist-grotesque. The once glorious concentration of weird bookstores on Harbord started from Spadina Ave, too (still a few lonely holdouts).
The Daniels Building – originally (1875) Knox college – (Top Photo – click it, to see whole set in hi-res)
Spadina crescent splits the wide road around the lovely Daniels building – now part of the U of T faculty of architecture – but originally built to house fast-growing Knox college in 1875, a decade before it became part of the nifty multi-perspective (very Canadian compromise) union of colleges (and faiths) which set the historically progressive tone of the university as a whole. Around this crescent we also had a Waldorf school, The Scott Mission and the much missed Silver Dollar Room – and opposite, we still have the brutalist mental health complex formerly known too cutely as ARF, now renamed and blended with the lingeringly creepy Clarke institute.
South of College St, things really get going – with a big chunk of old Chinatown, a gateway also to the (amazingly) still bohemian – Kensington Market, a run of Queen W at it’s musical coolest (the Rivoli and the Horseshoe tavern, with the Cameron House, only a block away – all still active and vital) and in the old days, more musical fun down at King with The Cabana Room at the Spadina hotel – which survives as a building, but makes anyone who remembers what it once was, terribly sad.
Gwartzman’s is the definition of an organic business. Opened in that exact spot in 1945 by Mr G, it was originally a fabric store. By the 1960s, the College and Spadina area was so full of artists who would stop in to ask him for canvas that he began to stock more and more, until it took over the back of his store. Then they started asking him for brushes, and then paints – and before too long the place had become Toronto’s finest discount art supply store.
The place feels like an old lighthouse to me. The commune in which I was raised included a huge number of artists – and I can remember tagging along with painters when I was a very young kid. It wasn’t all fancy and full of plastic point of sale displays from manufacturers (like Curry’s, even then). They had plain wooden shelving – but it was stuffed with so many different kinds of affordable art materials that you’d get a new idea for a project, every time you turned your head. Mister G scared me when I was little – always scowling – but every painter I knew swore by the place. Even back then, artists had to watch their expenses, if they wanted to be able to pay the rent and buy more materials.
When I got older and started shopping there myself, I found myself gradually convinced that he was actually representing a very important philosophical principle. No doubt wise enough that he did not expect it to be frequently understood, but still confident, I hope, that where it was, it would count.
He didn’t want to hear about your project, didn’t care about your theme, new technique or powerful inspiration. He simply was not ever going to give you a smile or an encouraging word – but he was going to help you in a very practical way, by making the completion of your project affordable – and wasn’t that a whole lot more important than an insincere pat on the back from a salesman, anyhow?
Old man Gwartzman has passed on – I picture him in heavenly robes, scowling as Leonardo sketches – but the store remains, run now by his kids and theirs, and it remains an essential stop for students and working creators. An enabling and inspiring Spadina art-force for seventy years.
I must first mention a tidbit I gleaned from Historic Toronto (thank you, Doug). We really never notice it when we get inside, but if you look closely from outside, you do see the shape of a genuine architectural curiosity – one of only three original houses which remain on Spadina, from the early days when this lower part was also largely residential. That Mansard roof says fancy in any year (definitely premium stuff in 1884) The house was originally built for doctor John Ferguson, M.D. then traded between a number of doctors and also used as a private residence, right up until Grossman’s cafeteria opened, in 1952.
In 1957, Louis Grossman finally won a (very hard to get) liquor license – and Grossman’s Tavern has been thriving as a low-key unpretentious place to get inexpensively soused and hear live music, ever since.
It was sold by Grossman to the Louie family, (who still run it) back in the 1970s – and we owe them a lot for their determination to keep the place musical, instead of cashing-in on trends, or selling-out altogether for yet another glass tower.
I’ve heard many friends play it’s stage, and there is something sublime about its lack of fanciness. They are quite deliberately fighting any hint of gentrification – because they always want students and young people to be able to afford to come and enjoy the music – they know that developing the live music habit in youth is the only way to keep the scene itself vital – and I think they are not only absolutely right, but also real cultural contributors, for acting on their belief so steadfastly, all these years.
Lower Spadina’s early history was all bound up with the garment trade – which used to be a major industry for Toronto. I’ve been to dance-clubs, salons and art-studios which were wonderful, primarily because they were built originally to be hellish(ly productive) sweat shops. Large open spaces with hardwood floors and high (tin-tile!) ceilings, to allow room for suspended and outsize equipment.
Just a few blocks north of the old sweatshop behemoths (most of which have been renovated to modern standard, and some of which are quite lovely, architecturally) is a long run of mixed retail with two-floors of walk-up apartments above. Cool brickwork, great big windows and hot-water radiator heating. Several of my friends have lived here in years past, right in the middle of things, ideal for non-drivers – and many waves of newcomers have found a home here, and then added a business or ten to the big chaotic mix.
I was surprised to come across a nifty historical plaque in front of this building (and it’s more garishly lit, and thus much less photogenic, twin). It seems that one of my all-time greatest heroes – Emma Goldman – who lived in Toronto several times, lived here through the winter of 1926-27.
She’s an important person for us all to remember for many reasons – but to me the main one is that she was branded a no-good radical by many – and yet she fought and organized for (and helped win) things like universal public education, the five-day work week, worker safety legislation, child labour laws and many other things which we now take for granted as basics of modern civilization (albeit, under threat once again, by unhinged and ultimately self-destructive corporatism).
Better still, she was an ANARCHIST. Determined to win more and more freedom for intelligent people to spontaneously create the social forms they thought best. Socialists too often rush to take full credit for labour organizing, and improvements in conditions for those at the bottom, without remembering their early, extremely energetic allies.
The fact that Goldman also published an incredible Anarchist magazine for many years (“Mother Earth” – well worth pursuing in reprint and anthology form) and also wrote a superb and exciting autobiography, (rather than let an idiot misunderstand and mangle her messages) means we can still imbibe full-strength draughts of this early genius of feminism, anarchy, workers rights and truly universal liberty. I’ll have a look for some Toronto specific writing from her (she’s always a great read). Be nice to better link her keen insights to our readings of early Toronto history.
It might seem crazy to include this place in a piece about under-known and historic Spadina, but history is what these folks are all about, and if you have ever in your life enjoyed a video game, you’ll have a hard time not being charmed by this most unusual store.
In the downtown core, the last of the independent game stores have all closed down – rents on Yonge St are just too high now. Nothing but corporate chains left, and even those are struggling – bringing in more and more toys and branded merchandise, to try to keep revenues up.
Of course downloading of games has never been easier (and with current speeds and bandwidths, practical, also), but their other big problem was the constant-novelty trap. The newest console was always the most profitable – but this meant they shed loyal (but tech-lagging) customers every few years, as formats changed.
A & C does the thing that those stores never dared – they do have some new stuff, but they also have examples of all of the gems you remember fondly, from a particular long ago phase of your life – and this will surprise some non-gamers, but the fact is, these can have an enormous emotional impact. Key literature sometimes, helping us navigate a tricky reality, with an alternate in parallel. And this on top of their simple nostalgic time-capsule associations.
You can go all the way back to Atari 800 cartridge games here (though that is mostly for the novelty, certainly not for playability or emotive depth). Best of all, younger players can investigate where the current rich gaming ecosystem came from – the whole of console evolution is laid out before them in one giant cornucopia-room. The giant steps in gaming innovation are not only fairly well-known, but genuinely revealing also about how we think, and what really entertains us best (far better stuff than the scoffers allow, by a long-shot).
I’ll never get over the first game that yelled at me for killing all the bad guys, cursed me for a bloodthirsty damned idiot, and made me feel ashamed of what I was sure only moments before, was a smashing victory! (Deus Ex is just one early example of genuine literature in gaming form – the later-game argument about philosophical theories of the novel as a form, that you have with an Algerian freedom fighter, deep in the ancient catacombs underneath Paris, completely blew my freakin’ mind)
Spadina has long hosted some of the best Chinese restaurants and markets in the city. Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Japanese and many other stores and restaurants also flourish here, helped greatly by the constant flow of foot-traffic.
I am reminded of these markets especially when we talk about plastic packaging and its environmental effects, in strident terms.
Yes, manufacturers really should (be made to) use less plastic packaging – but until they do – if we really mean it when we say we care, we should all be shopping in Chinatown and other similar markets, where you can consume no plastic over-packaging at all, for almost all of your groceries.
(And don’t even get me started about the superiority of proper loose tea).