BENNY’S HAPPY FAMILY
With fourteen hundred children in four hundred apartments you’d think life at Benny Farm would be bedlam. But these gregarious Montrealers have learned how to live under each other’s feet without getting in each other’s hair
NEARLY four hundred veterans and their wives, fourteen hundred children, two hundred cats and dogs, scores of goldfish, dozens of budgereegahs and canaries, several parrots and a monkey live so felicitously at Benny Farm, a huge apartment development in Montreal’s suburb of Notre Dame de Grace, that they lay claim to the title of Canada’s cheeriest community.
Pecksniffs, remarking on the swarming aspect of Benny Farm, have called it “just another tenement.” Prudes, deploring its many spontaneous parties, have described it as Bohemia. Wits, in allusion to the almost daily addition of new babies, have dubbed it Bunny Farm. Many families, unsuited to the zestful gregarious life, have fled, whimpering for privacy.
Ninety percent of the occupants belong to the Benny Farm Tenants’ Association whose highly organized playgrounds, sports leagues, bridge clubs, sewing circles, ballet classes, drama groups and gardening contests, library and dances have made the housing development as much a wav of life as a place to live.
The tenants make money from an annual carnival which last year attracted twenty-five thousand people and spend it on their children. Thev give about ten thousand other Montrealers a free fireworks display every Mav 24. Their annual ski race round the buildings alwavs hits the front page of Montreal newspapers.
In the buildings the stairs are steep and scarred with the scribblings of many toddlers. The rooms are so small that parties frequently overflow into adjoining homes. The walls are thin and domestic spats, through constant reduction to the dashing eye and muted hiss, have been stided almost to the point of extinction.
When practical jokers last year reshuffled the
snowboots and rubbers left on the landings redistribution took fourteen days. Benny is so big and busy that nonresidents have stolen the wheels otf cars parked outside, robbed the coin-operated washing machines and even held up one resident housewife at pistol point without exciting undue attention. But to a true Benny Farmer, the proximity of humans has far more rewards than
penalties. Many former tenants still subscribe with nostalgia to the Benny Farmer, a four-page weekly paper owned and edited by the inhabitants. Even perfect strangers with no intention of living there have expressed interest.
Two years ago Dr. Ian Dickson, chairman of the Marriage Guidance Council, in Norwich, Eng., and a well-known housing authority, wrote the Tenants’ Association asking respectfully for details. His letter was typical of scores received during the development's five years from psychiatrists, pediatricians, social scientists, recreation directors, architects, builders and aldermen who want to know if it’s true what they say about Benny.
With the usual allowances for local pride and hyperbole, it is.
As an example of contented, democratic, communal life Benny Farm has few equals. Its spirit rises from a close community of interests. The heads of all the families saw service during World War Two in the armed forces. Each couple has an average of three children. The great majority of the adults are between thirty and forty-five years old. Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jew, English and French-speaking Canadians and a heavy sprinkling of European war brides and Imperial veterans are proving it is possible for reasonable, tolerant people to live under each other’s feet without getting in each other's hair.
Opened in 1947 Benny Farm occupies the site of, and is named after, a thirty-acre estate which had resisted the surrounding bricks and mortar of the city for more than a hundred years. It belongs to the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a crown company. The two, three and four-bedroom apartments rent at sixty-eight, seventy-eight and eighty-eight dollars monthly, figures which, on average, represent twenty percent of the tenant’s
income. The apartments are reserved almost exclusively for veterans with children. The only veterans without children who may qualify are amputees, paraplegics or others who have been seriously disabled. Benny Farm has a small community of these. Special ramps have been built to take their wheelchairs into the buildings.
There is always a long waiting list. The turnover in tenants in the past five years has exceeded fifty percent but the high-voltage spirit of the development has remained unimpaired.
The men call themselves Farmers and the women Farmerettes. None is exactly famous but the community boasts the family of Lieut.-Col. Gaston Vallée, former CO of the “Van Doos” in Korea, and sixteen-year-old Jean Dunkeld sister of a Scottish war bride who had never seen a shuttlecock till she came to this country four years ago but today, after learning the game at Benny Farm, is junior singles badminton champion of Canada.
The breadwinners once held rank ranging from commander, colonel and group captain to ordinary seaman, private and aircraftman. About twentyfive of them are still in the permanent forces. The rest are now salesmen, engineers, architects, clerks,
insurance agents, lawyers, civil servants, newspapermen, advertising men, air-line pilots, shopkeepers and garage proprietors. There is one mortician.
They all knew what it was like to be fed, clad and billeted by the government. After the war they looked forward to an independent civilian life. But many were disillusioned by housing conditions which imposed on them the miseries of shared bathrooms and kitchens. Others discovered that the transition from the collectivism of army life to the self-sufficiency of civilian life could be a little frightening. When Benny Farm was opened for their benefit they found a measure of privacy in the self-contained homes plus those elements of fellowship which they had missed since leaving the service. Benny humor, company and clan spirit, most of them decided, helped to smooth the changeover.
Most of them have decided that the government is a very good landlord. They organized themselves into a tenants’ association as a means of selfprotection. But the Benny Farm Tenants’ Association co-operates with rather than fights the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
George Powell, an ex-army officer and an executive of Sheraton Hotels of Canada, is one of many former Benny Farmers who have now bought houses but who retain strong ties with the community. In the Benny Farm vernacular, which is still heavily laced with military terms, he says: “I would describe Benny Farm as a sort of holding unit, a rehabilitation centre, a place where the troops mark time before settling down to a route march in homes of their own.”
Out of three hundred and eighty-four families only sixteen have remained aloof from the Tenants’ Association. Colin Bowie, a former RCAF navigation officer and this year’s president of the BFTA, says: “Without these dissidents we wouldn’t be i proper cross section. We regard their disinterest or hostility as a spur and call them Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.”
The degree of intimacy which the multifarious activities of the BFTA has induced among the tenants varies from block to block. In some buildings the women leave their front doors open al' day long and call to one another across the landing« In others the front doors are kept closed but the wives generally gather Continued on page 58
Continued on page 58
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for morning coffee in one of the kitchens.
Most of the women are perpetually engaged in BFTA projects. There are cakes to bake for the cookeryschool contest: costumes to be made for the annual children's ice carnival: library books to be covered from plastic vegetable bags: car pool« to be arranged to take the children to ballet and drama classes: monitors to be appointed for supervision of the playgrounds: news items to be collected for the Gallery Gleanings gossip column of the Benny Farmer: and outside charity efforts like blood donations. Red Cross collections and Christmas hampers for needy families.
The men are kept equally busybuilding or repairing slides, seesaws, swings and sandboxes, laying the ice rinks and sweeping them clear of snow: making Christmas decoration« and organizing the big annual event«. Nearly evervone is on first-name terms. Even those traditional enemies, the landlord and the young fry. live in something close to a state of truce at Benny. It is true that last year «ome of the Bennychildren climbed up snow banks onto the garage roots and knocked holes in them. The year before thev ferreted around the basements, removed fuses, threw whole buildings into darkness and risked electrocution. More than one Benny Farmer has felt the sting of an airgun pellet fired by some pint-sized Roy Rogers and several have come down to their mailboxes to find the contents reduced to ashes by infant pyromania cs.
But the children, affected by their parents' ardor for organization, fight
their baser instincts with grim and systematic zeal. They are regimented into squads and under such banners as the B-Bloek Busy Bees, the K-Block Kleen-Up Kids and the M-Block Mighty Midgets, whirl into litter and dirt with brooms, mops and detergents every week under elected leaders. Each w-eek the children with the cleanest block win a party out of BFTA funds plus free movies, candy and ice cream. When it was inaugurated last year the enterprise was received with mixed feelings by one Benny Farm poet who lamented the loss of chalky literature from the walls in a stanza which ended:
Clean-up contests? Bring them on.
They’re right down my alley.
But now how will we ever find out
If Jimmy Brown loves Sally?
The BFTA appoints directors to each block and these, like the orderly officers of old. go around saying "Any complaints?" Frivolous complaints are spumed—the BFTA. for example, will not back its members in hassles against paying for burst radiators or demands for redecorations at the landlord's expense. The radiator problem, said the Benny Farmer, in an admonishing column, is due solely to opening the windows with the steam turned off and redecorations, quite reasonably, are done by the landlord only every four years.
The only occasion on which the BFTA and the CMHC drew swords was over the garages. When these buildings were erected Farmers rushed to lease them. But the rent, at twelve dollars a month, sent most of them reeling back.
Cried the Benny Farmer: "Let nobody take one until we've negotiated. Anybody who does so is a scab." For weeks the garages stood empty while the CMHC demanded twelve dollars
,ind the BFTA stubbornly offered seven-fifty. The CMHC rame down to ten dollars but lhe BFTA held out. Finally the landlord capitulated and seven-fifty it was.
Benny Farmers have long been capitalizing on their corporate st rength. They haggled with two auto-wash outfits and members get their cars laundered for seventy-five cents instead of the regular dollar and a quarter. The Benny Farmer prints coupons entitling holders to cheap rides at the Belmont Park Amusement Ground. Attracted by the publicity potential of the Benny activities Montreal firms give household gadgets for prizes, holiday resorts offer free week ends, night clubs free nights out and theatres fr«e tickets.
President Colin Bowie says: “We play no favorites. We mooch from everyone.”
A spectacular demonstration of the team spirit was given by the Benny Farmers one Friday night last June. At seven p.m . when the two-night and one-day carnival was due to open, a deluge of rain broke. Scores of Farmers poured from their homes, crossed to a nearby vacant lot, and began to rescue prizes from the Crown and Anchor. Chocolate Wheel and other booths. In five minutes the carnival ground was a quagmire and dozens of men and women struggling to hold up tents against the wind were drenched to the skin. By nine p.m., however, the weather cleared and the carnival began. Next morning, touched by newspaper pictures of the battle with the elements, thousands of outsiders flocked to the show.
They enjoyed st’eet dancing, a leg contest bv the women tenants, pony rides, guessing games and other events until far into Saturday night and they left the Benny Farmers with two thousand dollars’ profit to spend on swings, library books and sports equipment for their children.
On May 2-1 the Benny Farmers spend three hundred dollars on fireworks. It is such a good show that ten thousand outsiders turned up last year.
Every winter they hire two hundred baby sitters, some of whom look after two or three homes, pool their cars and head out in cavalcade for a hall in the nearby Town of Mount Royal where they hold their annual dance the Bunny Hop. Montreal City Policesend special squads to guard their homes during the dance Several would-be burglars, attracted by the publicity or the jubilant exodus, are arrested each
On the morning after the dance Benny Farmers run their ski race. They call it the Longloaf, a derisive corruption of the Norwegian Lanzelauf. Competitors begin by swallowing a slug of Cariboo, a Canadien drink compound! d of alcohol, red wine and
maple syrup. The course is marked out by plywood pink elephants and somewhere on the way competitors must grab balloons, get their faces daubed, lose one ski and dance a highland fling to the satisfaction of the Benny piper. Bob Mackenzie. The first prize, for man and wife making the best joint time, is a free week end at a Laurentian
But most of the amenities of life on the big farm in the city are designed for the children.
Most Benny mothers devote as much time to other people’s offspring as they do their own. Sheila Lunan. the English war bride of Stewart Lunan. organizer of the carnival, is notorious for getting up before dawn to do her washing. She explains this by saying that sometimes a line-up forms by the machines and she “had enough queueing in England.” Farmers know’, however, that what with presiding over the playground committee, making Red Cross collections, running a girl-guide troop and playing for the Ice Mice the only way she can get through her day, and look after her own two children, is by rising before sun-up.
There are many like her. Pretty Toby Shore from Moose Jaw, Sask., wife of Len Shore, an advertising executive, looks after her own three children, organizes a baby-sitting service for others, helps plan the Bunny Hops, runs the cooking school and plays in goal for the Ice Mice, sometimes wearing high-heel shoes.
One of the belles of Bennv Farm is Adele Macdonald, an Anglo-Canadienne, whose husband, hailing Fom the Hebrides, acts as treasurer to the BFTA. Adele looks after the library and reads stories to the toddlers. The library was actually the inspiration of Fran New ton. from Kitchener. Ont., and W'ife of one of Benny Farm’s several amputees. She is a trained nurse and at all hours of the day and night is called out to sick or injured children. Mrs. Newton also fills the role of community veterinary surgeon. Pets are not officially permitted at Benny Farm, but the CMHC officials winked their eyes so many times at the lesser fauna they’ve developed a nervous twitch.
Elvira Gomez Allport, a Farmerette who studied under Michael Fokine and later danced professionally in New York, runs the ballet school. In addition to dancing lessons the children are taught music appreciation, shown special films and taken to see visiting companies. The drama group works with Farmerette Jean Low and already has unearthed much talent.
The tenants are allowed the use of plots on an adjacent lot owned by the city for horticulture. They have made such a good job of it that when the city turns the lot into a park the gardens will be incorporated and the Farmers permitted to continue cultivating them.
If it takes a heap of living in a house to make it home. Bennv Farm, in spite of its five years, is already one of the oldest and happiest dwellings in Canada. ★