Toronto’s Old Ruins Live in the Guild Park & Gardens

The Greek Theatre at Guild Park & Gardens, built from remnants of the old Bank of Toronto Building, demolished in 1966

By the time I came to Toronto in 1968, there had already been a significant demolition of late-19th and early-20th century architecture, especially in the downtown area. From the late-1950s and into the 1960s, the inevitable growth of the city and the desire for new development which continues to this day, came at the cost of erasing much of Toronto’s first century as an incorporated city.

Although I was too late to see many of the grand buildings that once graced this city I call home, I can still visit remnants of Toronto’s old architecture scattered like puzzle pieces throughout the landscape of the Guild Park and Gardens, and imagine what it might have been like to walk the streets of Toronto when theses stones belonged to magnificent buildings.

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Retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee

Sunrise, Abbey of the Genesee

My island of São Miguel, like the other eight islands that form the Azorean archipelago, is deeply rooted in its spiritual heritage. It is home to convents, chapels, hermitages, Impérios do Divino Espírito Santo, and churches in every town and village.

I grew up, not only with these architectural signs of the holy, but with a living faith practiced in the ordinariness of daily life by those around me. So, it makes sense that I continue to be enthralled by religious sites, and especially convents and monasteries where modern-day monks and nuns still live. Although most convents are no longer functioning on the island that instilled this fascination, it’s a marvel to me that they exist here in North America. That I can find Roman Catholic Monasticism in both Canada and the United States is a modern miracle; especially in this age when many people mistrust and reject Christian institutions and spirituality.

But if you are so inclined to follow your heart’s desire for the intangible, for the spiritual; or even if all you are searching for is a place to rest for awhile, away from your connectivity to social media, and everything that goes with filling your mind and soul with countless unnecessary distractions, you can retreat to a monastery or convent for a few days and disconnect from your everyday life in order to connect with your deepest self.

Every once in a while, I journey to such places in order to find rest of body, a renewal of the soul, and an injection of joy and peace which hopefully sustains me until, depleted once again by daily living, I return to the sanctuary of a monastery.

Recently I was in just such a place, in upstate New York, near the Genesee River Valley: The Abbey of the Genesee, where American Cistercian Monks continue to live out an ancient way of life going back centuries to its European roots.

I stayed at the abbey’s Bethlehem Retreat House, sharing the space with fellow retreatants in total silence, including meal times. The house is surrounded by wide open spaces for long walks in nature. And the Abbey, where everyone is welcome to join the monks in their daily cycle of prayer, is only a short distance away.

On this retreat, I couldn’t get up for Vigils (Night Office) at 3:30 am but I made it for Lauds (the prayer at dawn) at 6:30 am, still dark outside on these still cold March days, followed by Mass at 7:00 am, Sext (Noon) prayer, Vespers (Sunset) at 5:30 pm, and ending with Compline (Evening prayer), at 7:30 pm. It’s an ancient, daily rhythm that brings monks into their Choir to chant the Psalms of the Divine Office. It defies human understanding to live like this, and to what purpose, we will ask. But there is no logical answer except to say that, against all reason, there are men and women who still dedicate their lives to the unknown mystery of existence through prayer and silence, not as a rejection of the world, but as a reminder that the sacred and the unspoken has value beyond human logic.

Despite their heavy daily prayer schedule, the monks also work. Monks’ Bread is famous throughout the region and this is how the Genesee monks mostly earn their living. Monks live in community and take care of each other. It’s not all high-spiritual lofty stuff but the concreteness of ordinary life. I witnessed a monk leaving choir during the chanting of Lauds only to return a few minutes later with the pair of glasses the old frail monk with trembling hands in a wheelchair next to him had forgotten. This, for me, was the sign of authentic incarnational love and kindness (charity) that gives human meaning to their understanding of the Gospel mandate to “love one another.”

After several days of living surrounded by chant and walks in nature, all my life’s worries and anxieties seemed to quieten down. I say “seemed” because they are still there, only resting for a while, until later, when I return home, and as soon as I get off the train and face the overcrowded platforms of Union Station in Toronto, I start to wake up to the realities of life in a big city again.

But the monks, as much as they are devoted to their monastic life, would argue that you don’t have to live in a monastery to find peace, calm, joy. These virtues are just as accessible and present in the world, in the busyness and clutter of life. It’s ultimately, a matter of the heart, and it’s possible to find solitude and peace everywhere we are.

However, I am still grateful for the existence of these special places where I can go every-once-in-a-while for a high dosage of spiritual life.

The Abbey of the Genesee

Stained glass doors leading to the Abbey church and stained glass windows

 

The Monks’ cemetery

Bethlehem Retreat House

The barn and a bench to sit under the tree and contemplate nature

The barn and path leading to Mary

The barn with the goats Adelaide and Bernice (Addie and Bernie) posing on the side

A hint of Spring colour but the pond behind the tree is still frozen

A forest nearby still in Winter nakedness

Our Lady of the Genesee

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The 424 Wellington House

As I walked down Spadina Avenue, and turned onto Wellington Street West, I came upon a massive construction site with new condominiums going up on the south side of the street. But I should not have been surprised to see yet another gentrification project that is making the Toronto I know, unrecognizable to me.

It’s not that I’m against change. I only object to the demolition of older architecture to make way for new and sadly predictable, characterless, unimaginative buildings. For this reason, despite having my camera on me, I didn’t feel inspired to take any photographs of yet another long stretch of razed land, giant cranes and steel frames of new buildings in the making.

But as I looked at the other side of the street, what I saw made me gasp and I reached automatically for my camera to take photographs of a beautiful boarded up house. I wanted to preserve its memory, before it was gone. But I didn’t need to fear its removal. A billboard sign assured me that the house’s architectural skeleton will be incorporated into a new condo project.

The house, even in its sad state of impending decay, still showed beauty and dignity, guarded by two very sad looking plaster lions who knew they had failed to protect it from the developers. I took my time looking at the house’s exterior, trying to feel its spirit and history in its elaborate rooflines, its variety of windows, its warm red bricks and wonderful decorative terra cotta.

In an attempt to preserve old architecture, it has become quite popular to incorporate facades into new buildings. And as much as this is perhaps better than total extinction, I question why we need to impose something new and massive over something old and small. Is this the only way to justify the continued existence of the 424 Wellington House and its rightful place in the history of the city?

And I wonder what will happen to those two faithful lions?

According to the sign, the Wellington House condo project should have been completed by spring of 2017, but I took these photos in December of 2018. The delay might be related to an attempt to preserve 424 Wellington Street West under the Ontario Heritage Act.

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Malvões

I didn’t know malvões were called geraniums until I came to Canada. And even when I was growing up in the Azores, I didn’t know that gerânios was the proper Portuguese word for geraniums. In Ponta Delgada, the city where I lived, we called them malvões (malvão in the singular), and in my father’s village of Achada they called them capitães.

Our quintal was always full of red, white, pink, and matizado (spotted) geraniums in pots lined up against the walls. In Canada, my parents continued the tradition of having malvões in their backyard. I keep geraniums in my own backyard from spring until the end of summer, when they are then composted, because they can’t survive the Canadian winter outdoors.

This year, I decided to save my potted geraniums by bringing them inside the house with the hope that the plants would survive this winter indoors, and then flower again when spring comes. I read up on how to take care of geraniums during a Canadian winter, and even though I have followed the instructions, many have withered away, while some, now flowerless, maintain their green leaves.

I have never gotten used to the word geraniums, and to this day, I called them malvões. Every time I say or think the word, I am back, for a fleeting moment, to my childhood quintal, my fingers caressing a malvão’s green leaf, feeling its silky-smooth surface, as my grandmother’s voice beckons me in for lunch. “Vem almoçar,” I can hear her saying just as clearly as I hear the word malvões, conjuring up the world of my childhood.

Malvão matizado

Pastel pencil drawings and photographs by Emanuel Melo.

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Ice Sculpture by Nature

As beautiful as a Group of Seven painting or a modern stained glass window. Does Nature inspire artists or do artists inspire Nature?

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Ice Sculptures at Toronto’s Icefest 2019

Each February for the past 14 years, for one weekend only, Cumberland Street in Toronto’s Yorkville Neighbourhood comes alive with awe-inspiring ice sculptures attracting thousands of people who jostle, politely but firmly, to have a moment to capture a selfie with each sculpture.

It was a challenge for me to photograph these remarkable works of ephemeral translucent beauty without anyone standing in front of them, but with patience, I managed to get a few pictures.

Toronto’s CN Tower, so ethereal in ice

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Tudo que é bom vai acabando

“Everything that is good, eventually comes to an end.” These are my mother’s words of lament over the recent closure of the Dundas Portuguese Bakery in one of the several Little Portugals scattered throughout Toronto. The area “já está irreconhecível,” she adds, to acknowledge that the neighbourhood we lived in during the 1970’s and 1980’s is no longer recognizable from the time when she and my father used to deliver two weekly Portuguese newspapers*, Nove Ilhas (now defunct) and O Milénio, to Portuguese businesses all over Toronto.

My mother now observes the changes during her Sunday trips to Mass at St. Helen’s Church, located in this neighbourhood, once so heavily populated by the Portuguese. “A minha querida Santa Helena,” she says with a glint in her eye, in defence of travelling so far each Sunday morning, because all her memories of family baptisms, weddings, funerals, and her 25th and 50th wedding anniversary celebrations are all preserved inside this beautiful church. But like many other Portuguese families, my parents eventually moved away, and although my mother now lives close to another Portuguese church, she still prefers to attend Mass at St. Helen’s.

The closure of the Dundas Portuguese Bakery hit me hard. I don’t want to walk by now and see the ‘For Sale’ sign, the doors closed and the shelves empty. Over the years, I had visited this bakery infrequently, and only when I started to feel that predictable saudade which is now become so clichéd that to claim it as a feeling of any special significance at all is ingenuous on my part. But, nevertheless, it is true that this bakery is an essential piece of my memory’s mosaic, going back to the time when I lived nearby and, so, I did return to it, every-once-in-a-while to buy bolos levedos, those delicious “manna from heaven” round buns made with enriched white flour, water, sugar, eggs, margarine, yeast, salt, lemon (so claims the recipe printed on the clear plastic bag package of 2 bolos).

Years earlier, my father would go there several times a week to buy papo secos, malassadas, bolos levedos, suspiros, biscoitos. These were the treats always available at home. The bakery never opened on Sundays and my parents admired the baker for respecting this homage to traditional values. So, on Sundays, my father would go to Padaria Brasil on the next block and buy a biscoito de massa or a biscoito de pão for us to eat at home with butter and coffee after church.

Last year, I had already heard a rumour that the bakery might be closing but when I asked the owner if this was true, he wasn’t sure. He did admit that after decades of getting up at four in the morning, it was time for him to retire soon. Besides, he said, so many of his customers had moved away, that he wondered about the future of the bakery. Only the most faithful customers kept coming back to buy the bolos and the malassadas that are essential treats, mainly before Lent, but really at any other time of the year, too! Too bad, he said, or perhaps it was me who wished he had said it, that the new residents to the area can’t be convinced to taste the pleasures of bolos levedos.

I am not sure if any other Portuguese bakery in Toronto makes bolos levedos, so I may not get to taste them again for a long time, unless I go back to São Miguel where the bolo levedo is native to the famous town of Furnas. There, you can buy them daily, warm off the oven and enjoy them with fresh goats’ cheese or butter (or both). That’s what my parents did when they went back to visit once, and where they had enjoyed staying in a relative’s house in that wondrous geothermal town. Every morning they would walk to the bakery near the house to get their day’s ration. “Queridos tempos,” says my mother now with a bittersweet smile of memory and I can almost see her savouring the taste.

But it’s not just the Dundas Portuguese Bakery that is gone. Other businesses in the area have also closed. I remember that next to Padaria Brasil (officially Brazilian Bakery & Pastry Ltd), there used to be a small supermarket called A Ribeirinha, which I visited once in a while, especially when I felt nostalgic for inhames from São Miguel. In recent years, it was replaced by Bairrada Churrasqueira – a local chain of Portuguese restaurants.

And just a few doors down, there was a barber shop where I used to go, as did my father. I kept going back for many years after I moved away, until it became too hard to make the effort to go so far for a haircut. But it felt comforting to me, then, to sit in the barber’s chair and listen to the barber and his other clients talk in Portuguese while the TV was on and the sounds of Portuguese soccer or a Brazilian telenovela filled the air. I can’t remember the name of this barber shop now. I guess I never paid attention to it. A year ago, while walking by, I saw that it was now called The Pantyhose Barber. I could not resist but go inside and see how the place had changed. The young woman who barbers there was glad to tell me that she bought the business from her uncle and so the old barber shop has been reinvented for a new generation.

Just a few meters west, there was a small supermarket, Mercearia Vitória, owned by a couple from São Miguel. My parents, who lived just around the corner, faziam as compras, did their grocery shopping there. Walter was the name of the delivery boy who brought the boxes of groceries to our house. One time my mother tripped and fell at the store, and he helped by going to get my father to drive her home. 

This personal care and attentiveness came to an end when customers’ loyalty waned and they started to shop at the big supermarket chains instead. One of my mother’s friends had told her how much cheaper it was to do groceries at Knob Hill Farms (until it closed and was replaces with a No Frills), so temptingly close by at Landsdowne and where the price difference was “uma diferença doida.” Today, Vitória Supermarket, is a hipster bicycle shop.

Then there was Bentos Car garage at the corner of Sheridan and Dundas. My father went there for the last time to buy pnéus, tires on sale, when he was already sick with cancer but still cared about the maintenance of his car. This site is now a low-rise condominium.

Another place recently closed is M&M Supermarket. “Era uma loja que vendia comida feita,” my mother reminds me when I tell her of this closure. I used to go there for take-out Portuguese food, self-served from a long buffet line right between grocery shelves that stocked detergents and other chemically smelling house-cleaning product that competed with the scent of hot delicious Portuguese food.

And so, the list of closings keeps growing like a ‘Litany of Loss.’

Although from another neighbourhood, I must include on my list of losses, Alcoa Bakery, because it was they who catered my father’s post-funeral reception at my parent’s home. “Acabou a Alcoa, faziam uma coisa linda,” is how my mother describes their pasteis de bacalhau and rissois de camerão.

As I write these meandering memories, another one surfaces to mind, after having been forgotten for decades: a Portuguese bookstore on Dundas Street West that went out of business back in the 1980’s when the owner got sick and died. I still have the beautiful hardcopy of Victor Hugo’s Nossa Senhora de Paris I bought at the going-out-of-business sale, and I remember how sad I felt as I browsed through shelves of books brought over from Portugal but that very few Portuguese in Toronto cared to buy. I wish I had bought more books, but I was too young then and did not have enough money to save a dying legacy.

But it’s not just the Portuguese neighbourhoods that are changing. Many of Toronto’s other neighbourhoods are continuously changing, too; sometimes I don’t notice the changes; other times, I am painfully aware of witnessing a world that has already changed beyond recognition, with buildings that made my city so homey, no longer existing; and bookstores, especially bookstores, I used to browse with pleasure, that have now vanished to make way for new condos.

The Dundas Portuguese Bakery will be torn down, as will the Ryan & Odette Funeral Home next to it, where my maternal grandmother and my father had their viewings; and all memory of this quiet, unassuming store front which has served the Portuguese community for decades will vanish from memory as will the funeral home that often became the last place you could go to pay your respects for many of the people who had walked the neighbourhood and gave it life. These buildings will be replaced with condos which will surely superimpose their bland, uninspired architecture over the memory of the vanishing old neighbourhood.

I will miss my sporadic visits to the Dundas Portuguese Bakery, a place I smugly thought would always be there whenever I felt like satisfying my craving for bolos levedos. Now I have to rely on conjuring up its taste in my mind. Could this be saudade, after all?

Dundas Portuguese Bakery

 

The old barber shop reinvented for the next generation

Bikes on Wheels where Vitória Supermarket used to be

Location of where Bento’s Garage used to be, now a condo

Still there!

This new shop might have shocked many of the Portuguese old women who are now gone

I wish Le Baratin French restaurant had been here back when I lived around the corner!

Mural outside the Lula Lounge where you can hear Word Music

Vintage framing Design in a neighbourhood gone modern

I just had to include this photo in homage to Alcoa Bakery

And finally, great old Toronto architecture that has survived the decades, with or without the Portuguese!

*You can read my account of the newspaper delivery story in, “My Life as a Portuguese Newspaper Delivery Guy” in Twas Review (Toronto World Arts Scene), Volume 8, issue One, January/February, 2004.

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