Fiction

THE STATELY STREET OF SIN

GRATTAN GRAY February 15 1950
Fiction

THE STATELY STREET OF SIN

GRATTAN GRAY February 15 1950

IN TORONTO they tell the story of a deaf old man who got on a streetcar and asked repeatedly to be let off at Jarvis Street. Finally the conductor shouted: “You won’t miss Jarvis Street. There’ll be two cops on one corner. There’ll be a police cruiser on the opposite corner. There’ll be a motorcycle on the third corner. And on the fourth corner there’ll be a paddy wagon.”

In due time the car stopped at the corner of Jarvis and Dundas Streets. The doors opened. But the old man couldn’t get off. The paddy wagon was in the way.

It is perhaps unfair that the 14 city blocks which make up Jarvis Street should have won the reputation of being the wickedest in Canada. Yet from coast to coast Jarvis is certainly spoken of as the Wicked Street. Did it not nurture Mickey McDonald, Canada’s Public Enemy No. 1? Wasn’t it the headquarters of the notorious Polka Dot gang (who wore spotted masks)? Isn’t it true that Toronto’s No. 2 police station handles 70% of the city’s crime—half of it from the Jarvis district?

It is. Yet it is equally true that the flamboyant Dr. T. T. Shields’ solid brownstone Baptist church stands on Jarvis Street. From this pinnacled edifice a drunk and his mother were once hurled by police who arrived in response to frantic calls from radio listeners who caught the disturbance during the church’s Sunday broadcast. The CCF’s provincial headquarters is on Jarvis Street and so are the key studios of the CBC’s two national networks, housed in a rambling brick structure which was once the prim and proper Havergal girl’s school.

The most expensive flophouse in town (BUNKS—$1 per night) where you hang your clothes on the floor and sleep nine men to a room, is on lower Jarvis. But so is the Canadian Audubon Society, an organization devoted to the examination of birds—queer and otherwise—of which the street has many varieties.

Mixed drinking is legal in all Ontario taverns serving beer—except on Jarvis Street where men may not enter the “ladies’ ” section. For the street has long been known as the home of the prostitute and the procurer. But it is also known as the headquarters of the YWCA, the South African War Veterans, the Canadian Red Cross, a United Church women’s residence, and the Red Spot Nut Co., Ltd.

Fist Fights are the Fashion

FOR JARVIS STREET is a 14-block paradox. Its austere elm-fronted Georgian mansions, with cupolas and towers, stand almost shoulder to shoulder with its leprous yellow warrens of tenements.

From the north end the street with its Romanesque doorways and wrought-iron railings looks solid, quiet, bland, genteel and bourgeois. From the south end, with its beehive-busy market and its liver-brick factory buildings (floor waxes, soda straws, cured meats, nuts), it has a bustling mercantile look. Between these two extremes lie the cheek-by-jowl rooming houses and the big neon-rimmed hotels where beer flows like water and fist fights are the fashion on Friday nights. In one of these hotels police recently arrested the kingpin of a bogus $10 counterfeit gang.

It is this central area that has given the street its reputation. From these two blocks jovial 'Detective Harry Sutton’s plain-clothes squad made upward of 150 arrests last year—bookmaking, prostitution, bootlegging, and drugs.

The story of Jarvis Street with its stern old houses and crumbling tenements, its old ladies in lace chokers and its young men in peg-cuff strides, is really the story of an expanding industrial town grown too big for its breeches.

In its day Jarvis was Toronto’s swankiest street, the home of the Mulocks and the Masseys. Then, as industrial growth pushed and shoved its way toward the outskirts, the residential areas moved north and west and the “best” people moved with them. Today Jarvis is to Toronto what Washington Heights is to New York or the West End is to Vancouver. The stately mansions of half a century ago are the office buildings and tenements of today.

Jarvis is one of Toronto’s oldest streets. It was the first in the city to be paved. Its de luxe grey sandstone sidewalks, the most expensive available, were laid in 1890 and are still there. For 50 years the street was considered the best residential area in town.

It was named after the Jarvis family at the end of the street when it was a cart track with stumps. Old William Jarvis, a husky, six-foot, wealthy slaveholder, was secretary to three lieutenant-governors of Upper Canada. His son, Col. Samuel Peters Jarvis, took over as secretary when his father died.

As a teen-ager Sam killed his best friend in a duel and was acquitted. (His father was foreman of a jury which acquitted another duelist years earlier.) He built a home of solid brick with black walnut fittings at the point where Jarvis and Shuter Streets now intersect in the core of Detective Sutton’s plain-clothes beat.

In those days it was pastoral country. In the immediate area there was a swamp for snipe shooting, a stream for trout and a forest for deer. The house was torn down in 1848 when Jarvis Street was extended north to its present length.

In those days Jarvis was the hub of the city. Toronto’s City Hall stood at its lower end. (Said one writer of the day: “It stands upon ground said to be permeated with poisonous matter and some of its rooms and offices are a menace to life.”) Its front entrance is today part of the St. Lawrence Market.

At Jarvis and Queen “Wholesale retail Pete Macdoug,” a town character renowned for his canniness, ran his emporium. His reputation for marking up his stock was widespread. Burglars once broke into his store. They left a note behind explaining why they hadn’t stolen certain articles—“they were marked too high.”

The White Swan tavern stood at the foot of the street facing Market Square. Its built-in national history museum contained stuffed birds and the wax figures of General Jackson and other notables. Wags broke into the museum one night and hung the figures on a tree overlooking the harbor.

Across the way the great corniced St. Lawrence Market did double duty as a public meeting place. Here, in 1834, the wooden galleries were crowded with townspeople listening to Col. Jarvis attack the mayor for increasing the municipal tax. The audience stamped its collective feet in applause and the gallery gave way, impaling many of the applauders on the sharp, upcurved iron hooks of the butchers’ stalls.

Several died in agony and dozens were injured, including 14-year-old George Gooderham, of the famous distilling family, whose imposing three-story home was on North Jarvis. Gooderham’s son, yachtsman and whisky baron George Horace Gooderham, lived in the home until he died in 1919. Now the turreted mansion is headquarters for the Big Brother Movement.

Young Toronto’s most solid citizens lived in the present slum area between Queen and Dundas. The city directory of 1882 lists such bourgeois families as Capt. Charles Perry, insurance agent, R. G. Trotter, dentist, and D. M. McDonald, barrister. The once proud mansion of the French Vice-Consul Charles Rochereau de la Sabliere is now one of the most dilapidated houses on the street—a tenement run by the City Welfare Department.

Farther north lived some of Canada’s oldest families, the Kents, Lamports, McColls, Gooderhams and Ryans. Hart Alnerrin Massey, founder of Massey Hall, lived at the corner of Jarvis and Wellesley. He left an estate of $1,700,000.

A few doors away from the Gooderhams Sir William Mulock lived. Others moved away but Sir William stayed stubbornly on until he died in 1944, the last reminder of a gilded age. Today his home with its big Gothic window and square tower is occupied by the Salvation Army.

Now once again, as Toronto enters a new stage, the character of Jarvis Street is changing. It is fast becoming one of the city’s main traffic outlets. The pavement has been widened since the war. A $7 million improvement is under way at its north end to whisk traffic into the mushrooming suburbs. Building along its upper length has been restricted to hotels and dwelling houses but property owners are plumping for a by-law revision so that shops and business blocks may replace the brave old rambling homes.

The Robert Simpson Company has bought up 12 lots on central Jarvis Street (pushing out the little Gothic Unitarian Church where Julia Ward Howe once preached) and is planning a new building.

With these signs of new respectability there’s optimistic talk on Jarvis about the street becoming Toronto’s Park Avenue and a petition is going the rounds to change the name to Mulock Boulevard.

A Slippery Ladder Through Time

BUT IT IS the Jarvis Street of today that people mean when they shake their heads at the mention of its name. Not long ago a Toronto schoolboy got a newspaper route on Jarvis. His horrified mother yanked him off it when she found he had to deliver to the beer parlors which crowd its central section.

A trip from north to south along the street’s gentle gradient is like climbing a slippery ladder through time and through the gamut of the social scene. The only way to judge Jarvis Street is to see it in all its moods along its length from 100 years ago to 12 o’clock last night.

At the southern end of the street at a quarter to 6 in the morning the early sunshine forces its way through the soot-scarred windows of the thrice-built St. Lawrence Market and lights up the activities of Mrs. Sam Fretz, a Mennonite farmer’s wife from Stouffville, Ont., who is unloading her husband’s truck and arranging the produce in serried rows upon her counter. The market stands on the site of older markets and encompasses the old city hall. Here Jenny Lind once sang beneath the high, girdered ceilings. Now you can buy rugs, shirts, sequined bows, cactus or “fresh grined coffee” from the kerchiefed, sweatered women at its stalls.

At a little before 8 o’clock Fred Allison, a young man badly crippled with arthritis, makes his way on crutches toward the Society for Crippled Civilians’ factory where he works as a clerk.

A few minutes later Margaret Wilson and Constance Hummell hurry by to beat the time clock at the Bell Features printing plant (comic books: Law Breakers, Tex Taylor, Love Romance, and Li’l Willie).

And at the corner of Jarvis and Front, leaning against the wall of the Graymar Hotel, three old men point with their canes and old gnarled fingers at the hurrying traffic.

Farther north at the comer of Toronto’s skid row, Queen Street, stands the grimy brownstone building of the Fred Victor Mission, built by Hart Massey years ago. Here many an out-of-work has found a meal and a flop on the floor and here, after a heavy Saturday night invasion, the Sunday morning congregation has been noticed to scratch lustily at some of the smaller transients of the night before. On weekday mornings nameless, ageless men with raw bloated faces and plastered-down hair squat on the front steps waiting for the wine shops to open at 10.30.

Now the tenement section begins. Warrenlike houses with crumbling foundations, missing steps, rotting fences, trash-littered yards stand where Capt. Charles Perry, insurance agent, once made his home.

“W’s” for the English

Jutting out like a bandaged thumb is the white brick front of Dr. I. E. Miller’s office and surgery. Dr. Miller’s practice embraces one of the poorest and most sordid districts in Canada with one of the highest T.B. rates in Ontario, but he says, “It’s always interesting. There’s something new every minute.”

Francis Savoy, a 16-year-old girl who lives a few doors farther north, is less intrigued. She and her mother and four other children are crowded into two back first-floor rooms of a house whose 12 rooms and single toilet accommodate 27 people.

“I hate Jarvis Street,” Francis Savoy says bluntly. “I can’t walk as far as the corner without men trying to pick me up."

At Jarvis and Dundas stands the shiny blue-glass-block entrance of the Warwick Hotel’s bar (“a home away from home”). This is the former Royal Cecil. It was owned at one time by James Franceschini, an Italian laborer who became a millionaire contractor and was interned briefly during the war. When Mickey McDonald broke Kingston pen the words “Mickey’s out!” were scrawled triumphantly on the wall of Royal Cecil’s men’s washroom.

Seven of Jarvis Street’s 12 hotels serving liquor crowd into the block above Dundas. These include the Walsingham, largest piece of colonial architecture in Toronto, the Windermere, Westmoreland and Westminster. In the old days these hotels catered to English visitors and the prevalence of “W’s” reflects the unconscious attempt on the part of the managers to make their hostelries as English-sounding as possible.

The block is deceptive for it doesn’t look sinful. It is a wide avenue flanked by the big hotels and apartment houses—a busy traffic artery by day which awakens slowly at night into a brawling, bawling, bawdy boulevard, the Champs Elysées of the transient rooming-house district of which it is the centre.

In the midst of all this stands the Westminster Hotel, bristling with bay windows and catering to highly respectable women (including Sir Charles Tupper’s two daughters). Some of the regulars have been there as long as 29 years.

Many people rate the Westminster as Toronto’s third hotel. It is a huge baronial castle with a front that resembles an upended Hoover. English railway cars still carry advertising cards, circa 1915-20, extolling it. The manager, Thomas Smith, who advertises his hotel as being located “on a wide residential street,” says he personally wouldn’t build a hotel on Jarvis. And because some of his women guests have been accosted on streetcars he makes a practice of sending them out the hotel’s back entrance onto a quieter street.

The Westminster stands on the fringe of the Simpson’s property which has doomed the Unitarian church and the old Windermere, a great yellow brick Victorian pile whose dirt and disrepair contrast sharply with the new boarding on the entrances and windows.

Aileen Johnson, one of Simpson’s employees who walks to work along Jarvis Street, has become inured to the daily encounters which are part of her life. Old men get in her way or bump into her. Young men circle back in their cars and shout at her. One day a laborer fell in step with her and said, “Where are we going?”

At the corner of Jarvis and Dundas recently she watched a burly redhead drunkenly beating his plump girl friend, who pleaded with him to come home, careless of the quickly forming audience.

This area was the hangout of “Mother Machree,” a patriotic harridan who on the day war broke out instantly started knitting socks for the troops. She was still turning the first heel after Hiroshima but she used her needles to good advantage in several skirmishes with her sisters-at-arms.

The people who nightly invade this section of the street are no more representative of Jarvis than Coney Islanders are of Flatbush. They are working transients, young laborers from small towns in stiff, dark suits and an overabundance of pins and badges in their lapels; prostitutes from Windsor, Montreal and Sudbury; chronic drunks; and small, frightened businessmen from the suburbs.

The Cops Walk in Pairs

The women’s taverns are crowded with rooming-house landladies gossiping in voices as cacophonous as chalk scratching on blackboard.

On the street the police often pick up drug “pushers” who carry heroin capsules tied in rubber containers in their mouths.

The policemen walk their beat in pairs of an evening; the hustlers, trying to look like working women, stroll into the cocktail lounges; the working girls, trying to look like kept women, head across the Dundas intersection to the roller rink; a young man sidles up with a parcel under his arm: “Hey, Buddy, you in the market for an electric razor or a tuxedo, just your size!”

Bohemia shuns the street. Once a muralist was commissioned to decorate a Jarvis bar. He went to work with gusto but soon spent more time on the bar stool than on his stepladder. By the time he was finished he owed the hotel money and his mural had become a postimpressionist what-is-it whose figures sported three eyes and two noses. This only strengthened Jarvis Street’s distrust of artists.

Dr. Shields’ church, described as the “first ecclesiastical, amphitheatrical construction in Canada,” stands squarely on the borderline between the upper and lower ends of the street, its steeple pointing skyward like a warning finger. North of the church the whole atmosphere of the street begins to change.

A block north it is lined with the offices and apartments of a social class that has nothing in common with its southern neighbors but the accident of a post-office address. It contains a speech-correcting school, a reducing studio, a private hospital, an art gallery and a concern called the Hypressure Jenny Sales and Service Ltd.

Here there is still some of the atmosphere reported in a newspaper story of 25 years ago which said that “stepping from Bloor into Jarvis is like passing from a crowded subway into the hushed serenity of a cloistered cathedral.” The street seems almost haunted. Here are eerie mansions rising into narrow four-sided tower rooms crowned with iron railings and bristling with fire escapes, and in the Salvation Army’s front yard, where once Sir William Mulock lazed, there stands a blasted tree.

Tall chestnuts, elms and maples shade the old flagstones and throw shadows on lawns that remember more stately days when the only noise was the clop-clop of an occasional prancing hackney or the imperceptible sound of clashing croquet balls.

In one of these homes, No. 610, a Mrs. Taylor runs a tourist home, points proudly at the solid paneling and gilt-framed mirror on the stairs and tells you that this was once the domicile of William F. McLean, M.P., and later of F. Morrison, K.C., one-time mayor of Hamilton.

“I tried to lease the Mulock place when Sir William died,” she’ll say, “but the Salvation Army beat me to it.”

And this is the end of the short, raucous, wicked little street with its misery and its tinsel-glamour, its mellowed and weathered red brick, its genteel lady boarders, gnarled old men, lacquered women and brooding ghosts.

This is Jarvis Street.

No matter how you say it, whether with the hatred of Francis Savoy, who loathes giving it as her address, or with the clinical curiosity of Dr. Miller, or the quiet pride of Mrs. Taylor in her venerable tourist home, you’ve got to say it out loud.

You’ve got to shout it like the unknown drunk, who, after first being rolled of his wallet, then arrested for causing a disturbance, hung to the bars of the black maria and shouted for all the world to hear, “Jarvis Street is a hell of a street!”

It sure is.