Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da ...
I don’t know of another more-or-less intact Victorian neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, and we have lived there almost forever, it seems – and the miracle is, it’s still here.
It was 1975: my husband, David, and our two youngsters, had a two-bedroom apartment in the nearby Annex. I was working part time at the Toy Shop on Cumberland Avenue in Yorkville. Patsy Aldona was part time in the children's book department there and getting into publishing (she later married novelist Matt Cohen) and lived on Sussex Avenue in a Taddle Creek Co-op house where we had tried to find a place.
Patsy told me about the University of Toronto’s new waiting list: Huron-Sussex had various sizes of apartments and houses, and the university allocated them by family size. It had purchased them under threat of expropriation in the 1960s for future expansion and rented them out at first very cheaply to anyone, as it didn’t expect them to stand for long. Some young entrepreneurs sublet places to people who would re-sublet again, with everyone making a profit. Hence the waiting list.
On 1 December 1975, we moved into 43 Sussex Avenue. This semi-detached Edwardian had four bedrooms; a finished below-ground floor housed the kitchen, furnace room, and a front room with aboveground windows. The British stonecutter who put it up also built the ‘birdcage house’ at 671 Spadina.
Within two weeks of our moving to Sussex Avenue, a newsletter from the Huron-Sussex Residents Organization (HSRO) informed us about a Christmas party across the road — we could meet our new neighbours. Joe Medjuck was a popular film studies professor at Innis College who later became Ivan Reitman's executive producer, and Bob Bossin was lead singer/songwriter of folk band Stringband. They and their group had become political to save Huron-Sussex from the wrecker's ball: the university had tired of being a landlord and apparently decided to turn it into a parking lot. Most residents were university students and had a vested interest in preserving the houses.
Sometime in the 1980s, a deal that Mayor John Sewell, along with the HSRO residents, made with the university gave us a reprieve, and so far we're still here. Bless you, John Sewell.
I suspect that few residential neighbourhoods in Toronto could boast so much printer’s ink as Huron-Sussex. Dreadnaught Press operated in the basement of 24 Sussex, at Huron; Stan Bevington and Coach House Press became fixtures on the same block; and Dennis Lee and David Godfrey set up the House of Anansi just behind us, at 671 Spadina Avenue.
Our children hung out with the kids from Dreadnaught Press and the funeral home at 665 Spadina, and they played around the old British Motor Sport service bay near Coach House, where the mechanics would put their bikes on the building’s low roofs. On the lawn of Robarts Library, they could watch mock battles — knights from the Society for Creative Anachronism jousting as their ladies looked on in solidarity. That vast lawn once sported a large spaceship — friend or foe, I can't recall — but a B-movie to be sure, and very exciting for the young boys in the neighbourhood.
Our son made friends with some French-Canadian boys who moved into one of the few non-university homes on Huron. They would scour the underside of the many vending machines in Robarts Library for loose change — a veritable gold mine. Next stop was Raj and Pat’s variety store, 673 Spadina at Sussex.
One year the field across from nearby Hart House hosted a medieval style Easter pageant, re-enacting the death of Christ with scruffy soldiers from ancient times. This left a lasting impression on many a young mind. It was marvellous to see history come alive on a spring day on the sedate campus lawn.
Our shallow lot at 43 Sussex backed onto Williams Funeral Chapel, later Wing On Funeral Chapel, at 667 Spadina. One night, out our back window, I spotted two men peering in the place’s windows and trying to open the hearse. I called the police, who reassured me: their colleagues were the intruders. When I started working in film and television in the late 1980s, I could rent morbid paraphernalia from the facility, once nearly walking in on preparation of a body.
We moved to 7 Washington avenue in 1981 to the second and third floors. No. 7 had been the first Toronto home of architect Ron Thom and his young family in the1960s, while he worked on Massey College. They renovated it with many of his signature design elements — horizontal cedar planks along the wall and ceiling, leading to the diningand livingrooms, which he opened up. Narrow interior ‘windows’ ran from the kitchen to the dining-room. A third-floor Japanese dry pond had six-foot solid cedar fencing on two sides for privacy, and long, narrow benches on two levels bridged two sides of the deck in an L-shape and also provided some seating. Massive backyard trees created a treehouse effect.
I worked in the 1980s at the Chelsea Shop (antiques) — 386 Huron at Sussex — where our dog Sandy would seek me out even when I wasn’t there. Owners Don and Jim would gently tell her that ‘Mommy’ wasn’t there (I was probably in Linda Poulos’s back yard having a gin and tonic).
The shop featured in a few films. One starred Henry Fonda. I tagged along when Don and Jim showed Shirley Fonda around their home upstairs. Another time I stayed inside to watch Richard Burton. He came up to the door, yawned, wished me a good morning, and found his mark on the other side of the window from me. Before the director could call ‘Action,’ an assistant director politely asked me to move out of his star’s eye line.
Washington Avenue hosted a street scene in the late 1980s. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was making the miniseries Glory Enough for All, about Fred Banting and Charley Best’s discovery of insulin, which began nearby at the university in the sweltering summer of 1921 and won the Nobel Prize. I woke up one morning to the scratching sounds of rakes as my fellow set dressers on Glory Enough spread peat moss all over the road, preparing it for horses, wagons, and vintage cars. Banting’s only child, Bill, lived on Washington at no. 2 and later at Spadina, where an enormous Buddha that the CBC had made for a film about Dr Norman Bethune filled the back yard.
Our family has enjoyed the eclectic and bohemian elements of life in Huron-Sussex for 36 years, and the diverse ages and backgrounds of the residents have enriched ours and our children's lives and now our grandson’s. ‘Live and let live’ is our mantra; we're not a house-proud group — we’re all tenants — and it’s about the sense of community that comes when you mix it up with so many types.We have residents of frat houses and student co-ops, professors, artists, film and radio people, seniors, writers, the handicapped, stayat-home moms, families, musicians, people from other cultures, and some folks on public assistance. These elements create an environment that is hard to find elsewhere in Toronto — we are the community that almost wasn't.