Historicist: "The House He's Earned"

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Historicist: “The House He’s Earned”

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

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Group photograph dinner for the Italian Red Cross Society, Toronto, c. 1915. Library and Archives Canada (PA-091122).

Even more than a tired man, Vito is a sad man,
all Sunday afternoon finds him rocking
in the brighton rocker, in the backyard
of the house he’s earned, under the sky he’s created
of green fiberglass, jutting from the roof.
There is only one heaven, the heaven of the home.
There was only one paradise, the garden
that kept them little children even as adults,
until one angel, Lucia, his luckless offspring
fell, refusing to share in his light.

The opening lines to Mary Di Michele’s Mimosa and other poems (Mosaic Press/Valley Editions, 1983) perfectly encapsulate the multifaceted role the house played in the lives of Toronto’s Italian immigrants. Many of them, newly arrived from a peasant society where wealth and status were affirmed by the ownership of property, placed great emphasis on buying a house. Men endured long hours at risky jobs, and families frugally made sacrifices to scrimp and save for their own home. By and large, they were successful. According to statistics cited by Franca Iacovetta in Such Hardworking People (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992), 77% of Italians in Canada (and 83% in Toronto) owned their own home by 1971, compared to the 55% national average.
In addition to a sense of economic and emotional security for the family, home ownership was a tangible sign of the husband’s success in providing for his family. With time and renovations—like the expansion of verandahs and the addition of Romanesque decoration—the house became an overt symbol to the wider community of the family’s ethnic origins. The house was an incubator for passing the parents’ culture and values onto their children, but also the scene of intergenerational conflict and even—as Di Michele notes above—family disintegration.


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Italian-speaking priest talking with wives and children on their way to join husbands on Canada, September 15, 1951. Library and Archives Canada.


Before and immediately after the Second World War, Italian men—typically young and single, or recently married—were among the largest groups of immigrants to Toronto. After the early 1950s, it became more common for wives (and even children) to accompany the husband on the journey to the New World. In 1950, about 5,000 Italians arrived in Toronto, Kenneth Bagnell notes in Canadese (Macmillan of Canada, 1989).
By the mid-1950s, the annual influx had grown to about 20,000. Over that period of rapid growth, Italian men comprised 8% of the workforce in Metro Toronto. They worked unskilled or semi-skilled jobs as construction workers or general labourers, digging sewers. With long hours in abysmal working conditions, it was gruelling work at the kinds of jobs that, one Italian man told Iacovetta, “they give only to the immigrants.”
Some newcomers benefited from a network of kinfolk and paesani, and could board with earlier immigrants from their family or village. Some employers, like small construction companies, placed employees in company-owned shared accommodation. Other men lodged with other male newcomers in boarding houses run by Italian families or enterprising newcomers. In any of these shared accommodations, quarters might be tight, with several men to a room. The idea of large groups of foreigners living together also drew the attention of well-meaning outsiders who suggested that the Italians were being exploited as much in housing arrangements as in their work conditions. It occurred to few experts that, as Robert F. Harney in an essay in the anthology, The Canadian City (Carleton University Press, 1984), Italian “sojourners might prefer such a boarding system was lost in a haze of moral outrage.”
Almost always, boarders were from the same region of Italy as their hosts—Calabrese boarded with Calabrese, Abruzzese with Abruzzese—so these housing arrangements also provided the comfort of cultural camaraderie. “It was better being with your own,” one interviewee recalled to Iacovetta. “You had somebody to talk with at night. We talked about Italy, and about the jobs—what else?” The boarding house cuisine also reflected familiarity of home and the common ethnicity of the residents. (As a cost-saving measure, pasta-heavy diets were only occasionally supplemented with meat.)
“Familial priorities loomed large in the lives of Italian men,” Iacovetta writes. And the frugal housing situation allowed the male workers—who took pride in being their family’s bread-winner—to stretch their meagre wages. Maximizing savings, they could send money to their families in Italy or save for a down payment on a house. “It’s common for sixteen people to live in one well-kept eight-room house,” Robert Thomas Allen noted in Maclean’s (March 21, 1964). “When the newcomer does land a job, he makes every nickel count. Italians are so frugal that they kid themselves about it.”
The composition of shared Italian immigrant housing was highly variable and could change at a moment’s notice—as occurs when one evening, a character in Maria Ardizzi’s Made in Italy (Toma Publishing, 1982) simply announces to the others “that he had decided to buy a house.”
Often, several men who’d been saving would pool their resources to buy a house to share, then rent out the remaining space to offset expenses. “Men who put their money down on houses,” Iacovetta writes, “were invariably preparing for the eventual arrival of their wives and children, fiancées, or parents.” Upon their arrival, some boarders might be let go to make room while the reunited family continued to share with the other co-owners and their families. The ousted boarders could usually find similar lodging nearby, without even having to leave the neighbourhood.
A family that owned its house outright might still, for the first few years, take in boarders as a source of income. Oral histories recorded by Iacovetta, Bagnell, and Harney attest that, despite the obvious sense of comfort from common culture, taking in boarders was treated as an economic enterprise with meals, laundry, and sleeping and financial arrangements formally defined.

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Mrs. Josephine Ciccone makes tomato paste in her back yard, ca. 1936. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8144.


Through unpaid and paid work, Italian women played an indispensable role in settling their families in postwar Toronto. As Franc Sturino argues in “Women and the Italian Immigrant Family,” Polyphony (Volume 8, Number 1-2), the women made significant contributions to their family’s economic needs while maintaining the era’s traditional gender roles and cultural mores. Within the household, many women were the financial managers and oversaw the cooking, cleaning, and other arrangements for the house’s boarders. They stretched their family’s budget by tending gardens for cooking or preserving. To supplement the family’s income, they worked from home for the city’s garment industry and the city’s food processing plants, or they worked in predominantly female work environments in the clothing, leather, textiles and knitting industries, dry-cleaning shops, and in the service sector.
In the 1960s, Italian workers received a good deal of sympathetic attention from the press due to their exploitation in the workplace. Questions were also raised about possibly unhealthy living conditions. One paternalistic government report in 1955 assumed the “willingness of these immigrants to accept lower standards across the board on the basis that they are still better than Italy.” In a 1962 study of immigrants living in Toronto’s west end, social worker Edith Ferguson noted, “One family with seven children and an eighth expected, live in two, dark and crowded upper rooms at the top of a long dirty staircase and share the bath with 13 other people.”

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Southside of College, looking west from Grace, August 26, 1936. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1409.

Some Torontonians, however, resented the media depiction of Italians as vulnerable and used that community’s high levels of home ownership as fodder. In a letter to the editor quoted by Iacovetta, one critic said “he ‘was highly amused’ to read that ‘slave wages were being paid to New Canadians,’ since it appeared to him that Italians were better off than most working-class people.”
Another tension with the city as a whole resulted from the Italian community’s geographic clustering. Distinct neighbourhoods developed around College and Grace, then Dupont and Old Weston Road, then St. Clair West and Dufferin, and further north to Keele and Jane and beyond, in a north-westerly trajectory. In these districts, the concentration of Italian households provided the density necessary to support and foster the establishment of religious and cultural institutions, as well as commercial enterprises catering to Italian-Canadian patrons.
Walking along College Street, Robert Thomas Allen observed “pizza parlors, pointed shoes, short jackets, Sicilian shawls,” and grocery stores carrying specialized, imported goods. He noted that in Toronto’s postwar Italian neighbourhoods, even non-Italian stores hired Italian speakers. In the mid-1960s, however, some in Toronto’s staid, Protestant mainstream saw menace in the Italian community’s propensity to boisterously congregate on sidewalks outside stores and cafes—and other social activities they’d imported from abroad. The close bonds of kin and creation of ethnic neighbourhoods, some Torontonians felt, inhibited the immigrants’ integration into Canadian society.
Furthermore, some feared that ethnic clustering was the first step in a neighbourhood’s inevitable decline into a slum. However Metro Toronto Chairman Frederick Gardiner—who had a reputation for seeking to remake the city in his image—vigorously rejected calls to raze supposedly dilapidated housing stock in the downtown neighbourhoods favoured by immigrants. He’d been raised in a modest house on Euclid Avenue, and his elderly mother remained there for the duration of his life. So he’d seen first-hand as the neighbourhood was renewed house-by-house, as the area was transformed into Little Italy. On January 8, 1960, he suggested to the Star that a hundred or more immigrant families be encouraged to settle in one area threatened with destruction because “they would clean it up in two years and you would have white picket fences and flower beds all over the place.”

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305 1/2 Clinton Street, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 802.


Other Torontonians wrote to newspapers to defend their Italian neighbours. One woman’s 1961 letter to the Telegram was detailed in Such Hardworking People:

‘About five years ago,’ she said, ‘when Italians and other immigrants began arriving in my neighbourhood a lot of people moved away [and] said these foreigners were dirty, noisy, etc., and would depress the district.’ Noting that ‘the two noisiest families’ on her street happened to be Canadians, she praised the Italians for their sense of house pride, saying ‘the Italians may have more people living in one house but they keep the house spotless and they improve the appearance. I can take you to streets…that had become completely rundown and show you how the Italian has improved it with alterations, paint, gardens, etc.’

Italian houses were updated and adapted to their needs as economic resources allowed. Once an unfinished basement was renovated to add a second kitchen, dining area or rec room, the “family would then ‘move downstairs,'” as Lara Pascali writes in the December 2006 issue of Gender, Place and Culture.
“Due to its limited visibility,” Pascali adds, “the basement is a space in which [women especially had] the freedom to go about one’s daily activities without having to worry about maintaining appearances or having to negotiate one’s culture.” With the primary living area downstairs, the main floor was a showroom, carefully decorated and furnished with fine, high-quality furniture. The upstairs kitchen was kept pristine, used only for more formal occasions. The main floor, Pascali writes, became “one of the prime symbols of the achievement of middle-class status.”
As Torontonians became more multicultural and more tolerant of newcomers leaving their mark on the city, Italian homeowners turned their attention from the interior of their homes to the streetside exterior. Beginning in the 1960s, a distinct, Italian architectural style emerged, Ann Cameron argues in the journal Italian Canadian (Volume 4, 1988). The ostentatious style was reminiscent of Roman architecture, with formal brick arches, wrought-iron ornamentation, decorative religious iconography, balconies above, and statues or fountains in the front garden. Verandas were made larger to suit the social habits of the new owners—who wanted to see and socialize with neighbours rather than secluding themselves in a private backyard. It was not just that homeowners reverted to familiar stylistic forms from home, Cameron argues. “They intend that their house front be a symbolic statement of ethnic identity.”

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Dufferin Street south from College Street, March 15, 1949. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1875a.


More than a social and status symbol, the house was also intended to demonstrate the central importance the uprooted immigrant placed on the immediate family. It was an incubator of Italian culture and values in the New World, a venue where Italian was spoken, traditional cuisine consumed, and gatherings of extended family helped transfer parental values to the children.
But the house could also be the venue of generational conflict and rebellion as youth took for granted advantages—modern conveniences like vacuum cleaners, colour televisions, and university education—their parents could only dream of back in their Italian village.
The struggle—where youth “must deal with the duality of their life experience in an Italian home and the necessity of functioning in an English society”—was particularly apparent in Italian-Canadian literature, as Joseph Pivato argues in an essay in his Contrasts: Comparative Essays on Italian Canadian Writing (Guernica Editions, 1985).
For example, in Frank Paci’s The Italians (Oberon Press, 1978), one son seeks to escape the cultural pressures of the household through a distinctly mainstream Canadian activity: “He felt somewhat alien in a house filled with Italians. He was more at home on an ice surface. There his rhythm of freedom was unquestionable…It seemed to make him less Italian.”
Social scientists, too, questioned the emotional and cultural costs of the determined drive to buy a house. Franca Carella, Director of Social Services at Villa Colombo, lamented, “They came here in the fifties with a vision—making money and owning a house. They got the house. It became a castle. Then they gave their children everything they never had—clothes, cars, trips. But too many forgot that while we wear five-hundred-dollar boots on our feet, our heads and hearts can be empty.”
Nevertheless, this newer generation of Italian-Canadian authors certainly recognized and valued the hardships overcome by the older generation. In The Italians, one character reflects lovingly that his father’s singular efforts didn’t end with homeownership, but that the house continued to be a source of pride and identity. The father continuously sought to rebuild his house as he built a life for his family in the New World. Paci writes:

The house they were in now, Bill couldn’t help reflecting, had been literally falling apart with age and neglect ten years back. His father had immediately hired a sub-contractor and together they had built a basement. A basement, with its bare cement walls and its humidity, provided an atmosphere like the stucco dwellings that he knew were native to the old country. His mother had spent a large part of her time in the basement. Then, bit by bit, alone or with his help, his father renovated the house, re-plastering the ceilings, installing a new kitchen and bathroom, re-shingling the roof and adding new siding to the exterior. When the main jobs were done there were still the little odd jobs, like installing new eaves or replacing window frames, that occupied his time. He had never stopped trying to improve the house. After having moved them from rented flat to rented flat during their first years in the new country his father never tired of working to make the house a more secure investment.

Other sources consulted include: Giuliana Colalillo, “The Italian Immigrant Family,” Polyphony (Volume 7, Number 2); Timothy J. Colton, Big Daddy (University of Toronto Press, 1980); Marq De Villiers, “Farewell to Little Italy” in William Kilbourn, ed., Toronto Remembered (Stoddart, 1984).

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