The market that won’t sell out to Progress

BARBARA MOON June 18 1960

The market that won’t sell out to Progress

BARBARA MOON June 18 1960

The market that won’t sell out to Progress



IN THE METROPOLITAN TORONTO of today, where an upstart second growth of steel and concrete has long since obliterated yesterday, one dingy parochial landmark survives and flourishes surprisingly. It's

the shrill, sprawling, jumbled, draughty, crowded old St. Lawrence Market, and on a Saturday it still draws as many as fifty thousand people.

Mink-coated dowagers, trailed by liveried chauffeurs, come here to lind plum-sized hothouse strawberries in midwinter; shawl-wrapped immigrant women fresh from Europe seek out eels and anise root; solt-cheeked housewives. who take an old-fashioned pride in their table, buy fresh-laid eggs from the descendants of farmers who supplied their grandparents. Here's where you come if you’ve a fancy for suckling pig or wild jack rabbit or a delicate grey-pink octopus; for peppercress or three branches of bittersweet; for homemade bread or home-cured bacon or home-brew maple syrup; or simply for shopping where you can still prod, taste, heft, still smell the dim musk of bin and barn and root cellar and the crowded past.

The market site is a century and a half old. and for nearly a hundred years it was the fulcrum and forum of the town. Five generations have not only bought and sold on these two narrow city blocks; they have also come to legislate, barbecue a civic ox and listen to speeches. They have been pilloried and horsewhipped and jailed here. They have danced and scratched and slept, been born, got drunk and been killed here. Eight spectators at a political rally were once impaled on butchers' hooks when a gallery in the market collapsed.

But now. in midweek, the market's two vast, ugly red-brick buildings look dark and deserted except for the accident of a war-surplus shop huddled into twenty-five feet of the King Street frontage near the main doors.

Inside the cavernous north building, only a sporadic thump and a spatter of voices disturb the weekday silence. Upstairs, over the entrance, ballerinas rehearse in a hall where Jenny Lind once sang and human derelicts later slept. In the cellar, the town's first public well still bubbles secretly, decked over and forgotten.

The south building is busier. The market is headquarters to a dozen wholesale butchers and produce merchants who supply half the hotels, clubs, restaurants and institutions in Toronto and beyond it from Oshawa to Oakville and north to Barrie. So on weekdays the sightless windows and closed portals hide a purposeful bustle — arrival of carloads of fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry and fish, ringing of phones, haggling of


"Just as they have for 150 years, farmers line their stalls with fresh newspaper and set out thei

roduce. Here a sho~~er can still prod, taste, heft, still smell the dim musk of bin and barn and root cellar-and the crowded past' *

continued from page 21

There are no union hours here. “What you need most,” says one clerk, “is a willing heart”

canny chefs and stewards anil dietitians come in person to choose their supplies, stream of trucks from the loading ramps with barons of beef for tire lord Simcoe Hotel, tomatoes for I oronto Western Hospital, heads of lettuce lor the salad

plate at the Canadian Hank of Commerce cafeteria. Down under the ramp, on the west side, the huge wholesale St. Lawrence Fish Market keeps seven direct telephone lines anil ten trucks busy supplying halibut to the fish-anil-ehips shops.

lobster and Dover sole to the Royal York, “wet” fish to most of the retail stores in Toronto.

Hut only on Saturday does the whole market come to life in the old way. This is the day the farmers, as they have for

a hundred and fifty years, converge on the north building to line their stalls w'ith fresh newspaper and set out their fruit, vegetables, eggs, chickens, crocheted doilies, box plants and preserves. T his is the day the wholesalers in the south building become retailers to take advantage of the crowds and unload, at bargain prices, the bananas, oranges, hamburger. lettuce, chicken giblets and tomatoes they don't want to hold over the week end. And. while seventy percent of Canadians shop in supermarkets, and on Friday nights to boot, this is the day that tens of thousands of hold-out Torontonians go marketing hand in hand with a homelier past.

Some of the farmers, having arisen at 3 a.m.. are there by five. Fifty years ago parents of the present stallholders started out on Friday night with teams and wagons to get to market on time. A hundred years ago. when the water front was just outside the back door, farmers from Quinte or Hurlington even brought their produce in by sail. Now the lake shore is half a mile away and the stallholders come by truck, driving through the gaping sitie doors right onto the market floor. It's still dark outside, and under the lonely dangling lights their shadows swoop like hawks as they unload the baskets anil crates.

No psychology — or green stamps

The produce displays make no cosmetic pretense. The rows of naked chickens still have their scaly, dark-yellow legs and their toenails. Chicken hearts are tumbled in open trays, pink heaps with the yellow fat clinging like curds of scrambled egg.

In the rowdier, slicker south market the pyramids of oranges are ready too. Garth Hurt, a big. curly-haired young man in a grubby coverall, pauses to explain why he left a chain store to work here for the fourth generation of Fightfoots. fruit dealers. “All you have to do in a supermarket is work eight hours, have a union card, anil wear a clean apron every day.” he says. “ The important thing here is two hands and a willing heart.”

Farther along, a grocer fastens price tickets above his vegetables with clothespins. A pig's head, set out on a butcher's counter, has the thick, sightless vacancy of a pink-putty model; some passing wag jams an apple in its mouth. At the back, in Sid Perkins Fish Store—If It Swims We Sell It — the live lobsters quest through thickets of evil oily seaweed.

At 7 a.m. the barn-red doors of the north market are opened to the public, and almost all the 170 stallholders are ready.

The first customers trail in from King Street through an arcade hung with a florist's display of artificial funeral wreaths. This is no supermarket and the clientiele is not coddled. No psychology, no chrome buggies, no peekaboo packaging, no green stamps.

Shoppers tote their own purchases. Those who wheel buggies have brought them from home, with babies in them. Almost everyone else comes armed with string bags, duffel bags, burlap sacks, wooden boxes or a limp clutch of used shopping bags. One small boy turned up recently with a wheelbarrow.

The early shoppers are the serious cooks and the gastronomes who make their own court bouillon, chop their own vegetables and scorn kitchen shortcuts. They move around, chatting with the farmers, buying eggs, hand-picking baby yellow beans. When they cross Front Street to the south market they are seeking not bargains but Belgian endive, crisp celery from California, fresh Mexican pod peas and perhaps a pound of raw shrimp from the fish counter.

They are joined by the old-fashioned housewives who come to market for their staples because their parents and grandparents shopped here. "I've bought my apples from Mrs. Watson for twenty years now." says one. brushing at her sealskin coat where it is bruised from leaning across a counter. She knows the farmers she patronizes by name, asks after their children and shares their clucking disapproval of "the foreigners."

For. with the spate of postwar immigration. New Canadians have become a notable new ingredient of market day. Indeed, stallowners estimate that they now make up fifty percent of the customers. This, after all. is the kind of market they knew in Genoa or Bonn or Baris or Budapest, and their influx is making changes in the market. In the north building one or two newcomers from central Europe have taken stalls and bring in their homemade cream cheese, cottage cheese and spiced sausage. Over near one wall, a Dutch couple in wooden shoes clatter up and down the cobblestones behind their display of fresh pork. In the south market, the butchers now stock unprecedented quantities of Bolish and garlic sausage: the Bamford brothers pile one counter with exotic herbage such as dandelion greens. Italian parsley, rapiño, and finocchio; the fish shop imports squid from California, octopus from Bortugal and all sorts of salt herring.

Around noon, when the foot traffic across Front Street is at its heaviest, a man crosses between the two buildings, carrying something inside his topcoat. It's a tiny, pudgy, black-and-white spaniel puppy. Inside the south building he starts cornering people and showing the dog. still inside his coat. He's furtively seeking a buyer. There used to be a pet shop in the market. It even carried a Rhesus monkey, which rebelled one night, let itself out of its cage, and freed all the other livestock, including chickens, bantam roosters, rabbits and white mice. The next day it considerably startled a downtown stenographer by soaring through the open window of her office

and landing on her typewriter. Not long afterwards the medical - health officer closed the pet shop, and now the only livestock to be found in the market are the baby chicks, ducks and rabbits that delight youngsters at Easter.

The market is still crowded by midafternoon. but a new group is noticeable. These are the ardent cosmopolitans, snobbish in their unique knowledge of the city's quaint byways, contemptuous of the rites of suburbia. Girls in black stockings and suede greatcoats stop by the flower stall to pick up three dozen

carnations going for two dollars. The flowers are rumpled, but they will make a good show in the dim light of a Saturday night party. Bairs of young men in touring caps and expensive parkas cam off bundles of greens for salads and "that wonderful smoky bacon. At the German stall. Too marvelous." A jockey. Emil Roy. with expensive haberdashery and a weary face, stops at a counter in the south market to buy carrots for a horse.

Already in the north market some of the farmers have sold everything and are

packing up for home. In the south market the merchants who buy job lots of produce specifically for market day are beginning to cut their prices. They get right out in the aisles with trays of specials and accost the passers-by with impudent directness: "Bananas cheap, lady,” they bawl. “Who wants some Iamb chops here? Seventy-five cents," and "Anyone for a bargain on chicken? You, lady?"

The late-da> customers are bargainhunters. hoping to pick up a basket of windfalls or over-ripe tomatoes for a quarter to eke out the old-age pension

or unemployment insurance. One little sparrow-woman, with a hectic flush and bright nervous eyes, hops behind a counter to scavenge a severed chicken head.

At 6 p.m. the market is closed for another week, restored to its privateoccasions. For the next six days it will exist only as a forlorn anachronism—a community centre foi a community whose real centre is already fifty-four blocks away and still shifting north.

Only a few people care that it is also a recapitulation of the civic past. The site itself is the original one set aside for an open marketplace in 1803. when Toronto was still York, the town of swamp mud, shanties and stoneboats.

Two earlier buildings preceded the north market and in the second of them Toronto’s first city council held its first meeting under the leadership of Toronto's first mayor, William I yon Macken zie, reformer and hothead. I his building was gutted by the great fire of 1849.

Meanwhile part of the lakefront had been reclaimed and in 185 1 the two massive edifices were unveiled that are now respectively the front end of the north market and the front end of the south market.

The south building, on reclaimed land, was the old City Hall. Vacated before the turn of the century, it has suffered many indignities, not the least of which was the red-brick caboose that was promptly tacked on to form the present south market.

The north building, with its own epic caboose still to be added, was St. Lawrence Hall, the major centre of culture and entertainment in Victorian Toronto.

The Family Compact held soirées in the elegant auditorium on the third floor. Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti gave concerts there. There were evenings of clo-

ution. lectures, conversaziones, chorales and minstrel shows. “General'’ Tom Thumb, the twenty-eight-inch midget, exhibited himself in the hall. There were tightrope walkers and glass blowers and Swiss bell ringers and panoramas.

Then, as the city got too big for any single focus to civic pride, the hall began its long decline. It was chaperoned by three generations of the Riddell family, who not only served as caretakers but for many years lived in apartments on the floor below the great auditorium.

Refuge for derelicts

The youngest member, now Mrs. John Songhurst, was born there, in 1901. and married from there, in 1937. In between — since little girls couldn't run loose in that neighborhood—she rollerskated in the great vacant hall where Jenny Lind had once sung, slid down the elegant banisters all the way from the third (loor to the ground, and took her turn at climbing up into the belfry four times a day to ring the huge bell by which people downtown used to set their watches. “You can understand," Mrs. Songhurst said recently. “We're very fond of the old building."

It's a minority taste. In the Twenties an altruistic local lady. Miss Ivy Mason, borrowed it and ran a soup kitchen for a while. After World War II the I-'red Victor Mission used it every winter as a sleeping annex. Having regard to the hall's genteel past the mission officials ruled that all derelicts had to be deloused. frisked for liquor and rinsed down before they could bunk in the hall. Then, in May of 1951, Celia Franca, in the midst of founding the National Ballet Company, discovered the hall and got

the city to disinfect it and let her use it for the summer for a nominal sum. Though the mission transferred its winter dormitory elsewhere last year and Miss Franca now has the hall fulltime, it still smells of Lysol when it's warm. It's seldom very warm in the winter, though, and many of the little ballerinas pull woolen hockey stockings over their leotards when they're in class. The hall now has low-slung battens of fluorescent lights, a bank of tarnished mirrors leaning against the stage and rows of portable practise bars pushed against the walls. Above the Plimsoll line of new canoegreen paint the dirty old cream plaster is flaking into ugly scabs. But high overhead the time-gnawed garlands and lyres that decorate the ceiling still glint with the last traces of gold leaf. "At home in England we re used to working in a dismal, dungeony place," Miss Tranca says. "It's just the sort of place I wanted."

She. too, is a minority voice, and ballet rehearsals arc a minority use of a city - owned property that covers two valuable downtown city blocks. In the same way. the handful of farmers who still choose to retail their produce at a weekly public market are a minority group and so. in a city of a million and a half people, are the thousands who scorn the supermarkets and come here to shop.

From time to time, therefore, there is talk of pulling the old market down and using the land in some more "realistic" way. Since there are both museums and supermarkets in other parts of the city, the market is replaceable.

Or is it quite irreplaceable?

It depends. It depends on whether you love the hall, and history, like Mrs. Songhurst, or need a big. cheap, well-sprung

floor for ballet classes, like Celia Franca. It depends on how lately you've come from Europe to an alien newland, or how long you've farmed in the old way, in the same place, in Ontario.

In a way, it depends on how you feel about someone like Sam Rakofif.

Rakofl. general jobber, doesn't even sell produce. He sets up two counters every Saturday in the southwest corner of the south market, and heaps them with gimeraeks and novelties — enamel jugs, plaster Madonnas, egg timers, paper flowers, china pigs with painted eyelashes. key chains, tin cookware, icecream scoops, glass ash trays. "Business would be ten times better out in the main corridor." says Rakofl'. There is no room for him in the main aisle, but he has had this backwater to himself for thirty-two years now. His merchandise may be brummagem, but he is an authentic. operatic old brigand, with a villainous mustache and twinkling eyes. He is Russian-born, and an ex-merchant seaman. an ex-policeman, an ex-miner, an ex-dancing teacher.

He is seventy-four, has eight grandchildren and eats garlic, which he claims once inoculated him against a typhus epidemic. He roars at the youngsters who can't keep from handling his gaudy wares, then gives them trinkets free. "How long I been here in this market," he says. "1 always was here." He looks up and chuckles richly. "I know 'em well. I treat 'em well, I sell 'em cheap, and I speak ten languages."

So, when you come right down to it. how you feel about St. Lawrence Market depends on whether you think a big. modern, bustling progressive city like Toronto has room in some backwater for a place that has room for Sam Rakofl. ★