Historicist: Boyhood, Summers, and the City
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Historicist: Boyhood, Summers, and the City

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Children playing in canoe, Sunnyside Beach, 1907. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 222.

As boys traded in their winter breeches for shorts at the end of the school term, the city became an enormous, open-air playground. Freed from the observant eye of parents and teachers, boyhood summers in the early twentieth century offered opportunities for exploring neighbourhoods until the streetlights came on. Streets, alleyways, and parks hosted games of marbles, hide-and-seek, and baseball. Summer days were anything but idle, and perusing a couple autobiographies offers insight into the many ways boys filled their times.
Humourist Robert Thomas Allen, who grew up on a lane north of Danforth Avenue—then on the city’s fringes—recalled in When Toronto was for Kids (McClelland and Stewart, 1961), how “the country came right into the city.” With fences posing no barriers for excitable kids, the ravines criss-crossing the city and the abundance of empty lots made natural playgrounds for Allen and his friends. Old rail lines and country roads doubled as hiking trails. The midway rides and amusements of Kew Beach or the Toronto Islands, however, seemed as distant as “another land.” Crossing to the Islands aboard the Trillium, with its distinct smell “of fresh starch and cucumber sandwiches,” was as exciting as an ocean voyage. Allen remembered his pride at being deemed mature and responsible enough to venture into these unexplored frontiers without parental accompaniment. For he and his friends, each summer day offered a new adventure in the wider city beyond the usual, constraining geography of home and schools.

Playing baseball in Riverdale Park, August 8, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Subseries 52, Item 408.

Kids like George A. Fierheller, who enjoyed a middle class childhood—described in Talk of Toronto (2009) [PDF]—on Woodlawn Avenue and Moore Park possessed the latest toys such as roller-skates, a red wagon, and an electric train set. But, like the vast majority of boys without these luxuries, he too demonstrated creativity in the pursuit of summer recreation. They invented their own games to play on the hot asphalt of streets and alleyways and devised elaborate rules to govern them. In one such game Fierheller remembered called “Knockers,” boys tied a string to a ripe chestnut then each took turns trying to knock the other’s off its string. The games might’ve appeared irrelevant to parents or teachers, but Fierheller and others gained what Neil Sutherland called “the secret knowledge of childhood” in Growing Up (UTP, 1997), learning the lessons of loyalty, friendship, fair play, and other codes of conduct reflecting the values of civil society.
There was also certainly no shortage of hijinks or opportunities for boys to assert their burgeoning masculinity and toughness. Allen, for one, deliberately antagonized a surly neighbour by taking shortcuts across his lawn for no better reason than “that he was so spectacular when he got mad.” Fierheller recalled skirmishes between his group of friends and “the somewhat rougher gang down the street,” as well as an incident involving him, his slingshot, and an elderly neighbour. She called the police and Fierheller “became something of a local hero for being the first on the block to have a run-in with the cops.”

Boys reading the rules at Willowvale Park (Christie Pits), ca. 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2557.

Such incidents were much rarer than they had been in the late nineteenth century when children playing stick ball in the street were frequently harassed by police threatening a trip to police court, as discussed in a journal article by Bryan Hogeveen. In those days, the Commissioner of Parks even employed the police to restrict miscreants from mussing the horticultural elegance of public parks by having the audicity to use the parks for play.
Still fearing that unorganized play could lead to juvenile delinquency—especially among the rapidly increasing immigrant population living in congested downtown districts—well-meaning reformers pressured for the establishment of parks and organized recreational activities to offer a safer play alternative than the streets. Between 1900 and 1930, the city’s annual parks budget ballooned from $60,000 to $3.5 million as the network of parks grew and tennis courts, picnic facilities, and baseball diamonds were constructed across the city. Thousands of children took park in organized sports, as well as the cultural programming available at the public library or Art Gallery of Ontario. Others, like Fierheller, earned Boer Badges as a member of the Wolf Cubs—although he admitted to bristling at overly organized activities. Youth, it seems, tolerated adult intervention in their summer diversions, so long as they could still enjoy their own ideas of fun. Unfortunately, no matter what the season, Sundays presented a problem for Toronto boys. In the summer, there were no organized programs held that day, and swing sets were actually padlocked.

Boys returning from fishing in the Don Valley, 1916. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1193.

Such barriers never posed a problem for childhood imaginations, however, and Allen wiled the hours dreaming himself to be a sports star:

I could run like Tom Longboat and frequently did, along Danforth Avenue on the way to the Riverdale Library, passing people like posts, until I was down in Riverdale Flats where I became Lionel Conacher or Red Grange or a combination of both, swivel-hipping my way up the football field to the roar of fifty thousand fans.

Seeing the heroic possibilities in each day took other forms as well. Fuelled by the exploits of favourite radio shows like the CBC’s Happy Gang, the Lone Ranger, and Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy, Fierheller and his friends would use their imaginations to play out scenarios from their favourite programs. Allen would sometimes venture to the old Dufferin Street airfield and climb into an abandoned Curtiss Robin:

I’d sit there in the cockpit amid the smell of hot leather and oil, operating the controls and turning into Captain Billy Bishop, my neck like an owl’s, scanning the sky for enemy fighters, notably Richthofen who, of course, was looking for me. With an inscrutable face and a slight smile I’d go into an Immelman turn, get between my foe and the sun, then coldly, relentlessly, get him in my sights.

But such idle dreaming wasn’t an option for all. For many, summer meant toiling just as hard as the other three seasons. Documentary filmmaker Harold Rasky grew up in the Great Depression along St. Clair Avenue, where his Russian Jewish immigrant family operated “a ramshackle store.” As soon as Rasky and his siblings were old enough, they were expected to pull a wagon, making deliveries to local customers. Far from quaint recollections, Rasky recounted these childhood labours with slight horror. “I still have agonising dreams about that bicycle route,” he wrote in The Three Harrys (Mosaic Press, 1999). “We were, like those trudging horses which pulled the bread and milk wagons, beasts of burden. My legs still ache. Momma I am so tired. It hurts. But where was the choice? Escape.”
He’d make deliveries to the “milkboxes of the middle-class on nearby Lauder Avenue and Glenholme to the more affluent…and beyond and beyond to the hushed luxury of Forest Hill Village where the Jews who had made it lived.” Just as Allen had spent his childhood mapping the expansive frontiers of Toronto ravines and country roads, so too did Rasky map his Toronto. And in his ventures it became clear that in WASP-ish Toronto, there were limits to where he could travel. To Rasky, Rosedale remained as much of an unexplored mystery as Kensington Market was for Protestants.

Waiting for the Free Bathing Cars at Sunnyside, July 14, 1924. City of Toronto Archives, Series 71, Item 3272H.

For Rasky and other Torontonians who couldn’t afford to get out of town in the July and August heat, the “breeze from Lake Ontario [was] the immigrants’ air conditioning!” Rasky cherished the TTC’s “magnificent, crowded, noisy” Free Bathing Car. The streetcar service, established by the TTC’s predecessor in 1916, regularly took kids from under-privileged districts to Sunnyside for a day of swimming in the lake or the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Even here, however, Rasky encountered the city’s casual prejudice as there were a limited number of Jews allowed in the pool at any given time—even though, as he put it, once they paid their dime and “were inside the turnstile gates, all were equal, more or less.” With the opportunity to strut poolside to show off their muscles or to lie on their torn towels next to a young girl and strike up a conversation, Rasky remembered his ritual summer excursions facilitated his transition into adolescence.
For Peter Gzowski, growing up in the 1930s seemed to parallel the city’s own coming of age. In a contribution to William Kilbourn’s The Toronto Book (Macmillan, 1976), Gzowski lamented the numerous physical changes Toronto underwent during his life time:

Even within the two-mile radius where I’ve lived almost all my life, there is scarcely a corner I can turn and see the city as I knew as a child. New buildings, new stores, new parks. Old streets closed off; new throughways slashed through the ravines. Old houses stripped and gutted and rebuilt into ‘town’ houses (as if someone had moved them), high-rise apartments soaring everywhere.

For Rasky, the construction of “concrete highways” seemed to cut the Torontonians off from their lifelong relationship with the water. The physical changes to the city seemed to emphasize the irretrievability of their youth outside of autobiographical anecdotes. Some memoirs, like Allen’s, were overly, wistfully nostalgic. Others, like Robert Fulford’s chapter in The Toronto Book, looked back on the Toronto of their childhood with little fondness. Each of these autobiographies was subjectively self-fashioning and subject to the vagaries of memory. But, as a whole, they offer a very personal view of how boyhood summers were spent and how the experiences differed according to economic and cultural factors.