CULTURES One Street; Many Stories: Queen


The avenue wandered on this side tour runs north from an intersection marking the far west end of Queen Street (& King), also once the west limit of the Village, then Town, of Parkdale. Named by real estate speculators, chided by downtown scribes as a place of "very aristocratic pretensions," it has since seen hard time. Its early history is covered in another piece, not on preview here, titled "The floral suburb."

Roncesvalles streetscape




Spanish name, Polish downtown;
one avenue, many stories


Queen and Roncesvalles

If here at Queen, its south end (& Queen's west), Pawlowski's Boustead at its north.

" 'Ronsi,' announces the driver, as the streetcar halts at the first stop on Roncesvalles, just past Boustead. Several people are waiting at the tram stop -- Poles, Serbians, Iranians."

-- Andrew Pawlowski: "Ronsi -- In other words a TTC romance,"
in The Saga of Roncesvalles, 1993

Accounts of immigrant experience, I have found (even in recounting my own), can have certain themes in common. Oppressions escaped; travails endured; triumphs achieved -- no surprise, any of it. If never the whole story.

Mark Starowicz, child of Polish immigrants, executive producer of the CBC's Canada: A People's History, has called all Canadians "children of the debris of history." Our "founding peoples," habitant, Loyalist, First, were all conquered people -- displaced, defeated, abandoned by imperial masters -- joined by people fleeing war, famine, poverty, or persecution. We are, as I've put it, "Losers -- who sometimes win." If some winning more than others.

What we win, when we do, is sometimes simply the chance of a better life, maybe one more just and humane; maybe the chance to pass on our chances to posterity. Modest triumphs, really -- unless, perhaps, seen in the light of the world's wider and less lucky history.

From all of that, we make our stories -- often careful, partial, partisan. In Canada sometimes officially partisan: more than one immigrant history I've found lining library shelves has been helped into being by Heritage Canada, often led off by a supportive letter from the local (usually Liberal) Member of Parliament. I suspect any source meant to stand as "the official story," the single authorized biography of an entire people. There is always more than one story.

A late acquiantance, art critic and curator Peter Day, raised in South Africa, was once asked why writers in his native land, then still in the grip of apartheid, had produced so much powerful literature. He said: "They have a subject."

Tad K

"Hero of two worlds"
Thaddeus Kosciuszko, here in his heroic American role, painted by a Pole: Kosciuszko at West Point by Boleslaw Jan Czedekowski (1885 - 1969). Joining American revolutionaries from 1776, made a brigadier general & US citizen in 1789; twice leading Poles against the Russians, their prisoner until 1796. Later friends with Jefferson (the great man's slaves benefactors of his will), he died in 1817, buried in the cathedral at Krakow.

The Polish people most certainly have a subject. A distinct national culture for more than 1,000 years, they have often been seen less as a nation than as "The Polish Question."

Since the rise of abstract logic as the authorized mechanism for apprehending the world, many of us have been seen as a Problem -- requiring a Solution. Varied lives are cast as one, made neatly singular by the definite article: "The [fill in the blank] Question." (That blank is reserved for minor if irritating departments of reality. For instance: "Woman.")

Poland rose, like most nations, as a convergence of local tribes, the Polanie chief among them. Their first recorded ruler, Mieszko I, accepted Christianity in 966. Later rulers were often beholden to the Holy Roman (in fact German) Emperor, the kings of Hungary or Bohemia, or were set upon by Teutonic Knights. From 1333 Casimir the Great extended his realm, won international respect and, in 1364, founded a university at Krakow. *

Marriage linked the Polish crown to Lithuania; in time this dual Commonwealth (usually just called Poland) was one of Europe's largest states, encompassing Poles and peoples beyond, among them the biggest Jewish communities in all of Christendom. They often gave their rulers a rough ride: parliamentary traditions go back to the first Sejm of 1493, its two houses reflecting what the English called Lords and Commons. High culture flourished, the gentry (if not the peasantry) prospered; the 16th century was Poland's golden age.

It was not to last. Stephen Batory, a Transylvanian prince made king in 1576, had to fend off Ivan the Terrible. His successor faced the Swedes, who saw the Baltic as their private lake. Polish rule spread southeast into Ukraine, beyond Kiev. Farther south sat the Ottoman Empire: war with the Turks came in 1620, the Poles standing their ground.

They would lose it later, back up north: in 1655 the Polish Commonwealth ceded control to the Swedish Crown. In the dynastic dance of the Seven Years War, Russian and Austrian troops moved freely through. So did counterfeit currency floated by Prussia's Frederick the Great. Poland had become "a wayside inn" for massive imperial armies.

Six years after that war's end, their sovereigns decided to keep them there: in 1772 the First Partition saw a third of Poland's land and people swallowed up by its neighbouring empires. The reduced Polish state survived -- in surprisingly good health. The Great Sjem of 1788 launched sweeping reforms: by 1791 Poland had Europe's first modern, written constitution.

It was too much for autocrats east and west: Catherine the Great and Frederick (Great too). In 1793 they annexed more of Poland to Russia and Prussia; three years later, with Austria, they'd take the rest. The Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and Romanovs did not (as was the custom) tack the conquered turf onto their royal titles. Even in name, Poland disappeared.

The Polish Question's
Final Solution

Adolf Hitler's Table Talk

When Germany occupied Poland in 1939, heavily German areas were annexed to the Reich. More than a million Poles & 300,000 Jews from annexed lands were herded with the rest into what was left: the "Government- General," run by trusted Nazi Hans Frank.

In Oct 1940 Frank got his orders from the Führer -- delivered, as they often were, in "conversation" over dinner (of course carefully vegetarian).

"The Poles, in direct contrast to our German workmen, are especially born for hard labour. ...the Polish landlords must cease to exist, however cruel this may sound, they must be exterminated wherever they are.... The Government- General should be used by us merely as a source of unskilled labour.

"There should be one master only for the Poles -- the Germans. Two masters, side by side, cannot and must not exist. Therefore all representatives of the Polish intelligentsia are to be exterminated. This, too, sounds cruel, but such is the law of life.

"It will be proper for the Poles to remain Roman Catholics; Polish priests will receive food from us and will, for that very reason, direct their little sheep along the path we favour."

The SS, under Heinrich Himmler, were Hitler's chosen instrument of the Final Solution to "The Jewish Question." Frank saw to the Poles. As Alan Bullock wrote: "Poland, in fact, became the working model of the Nazi New Order based on the elimination of the Jews [the first death camp was at Oswiecim, Poland: Auschwitz] and the complete subjugation of inferior races, like the Slavs, to the Aryan master race represented by the S.S."

But for the Duchy of Warsaw (a minor fief created by Napoleon, passing on his defeat to Tsar Alexander of Russia), it would take 123 years for Poland to reappear on the map -- put there, with not a few other Eastern European states, by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

Hitler would soon see to all of them: Austria first, then Czechoslovakia, Poland invaded on September 1, 1939. Sixteen days later the Red Army rolled in from the east; by the 28th Poland was gone again, divvied up between them. When Hitler and Stalin fell out in 1941 it became a battlefield between them, no mere "wayside inn" this time.

In 1945 Poland was back on the map, if shifted west: Stalin's new allies let him keep his half, giving the Poles what had been far eastern Germany -- much of it, historically, Prussia. Many Germans would long insist it still was. Those allies also tacitly recognized a Russian "sphere of influence" including Poland, power politics trumping its historic links to the West. By 1948 it was total control, if by puppet governments.

Control sometimes slipped, reasserted by force, most famously in 1970, again in 1980, in the Lenin shipyards at Gdansk. The rise of Solidarnosc would not be squelched, in time helping fuel popular uprisings across Eastern Europe and the "velvet revolutions" of 1989.

Poles since, and their neighbours too, have faced modern consumer capitalism's shock therapy (less a shock to those left employed, still able to consume), the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank their potential rulers. But the Polish people, again and at last, have a chance to make Poland their own.

Poles, hugely, have a subject. And its stories. Thaddeus Kosciuszko battling Catherine the Great in 1792, leading the lost Insurrection of 1794. Risings in 1806, 1830, 1846, 1848 -- two of those dates marking democratic upheavals across much of Europe.

The January Uprising of 1863; revolution in 1905, when Russia rose too. The Warsaw Uprising of October 1944, doomed when the Russians checked their advance on the city, freeing Germans troops to crush the Poles: 210,000 were killed, all but 10,000 civilians. (The 1943 rising of the Warsaw Ghetto is seen, by some, as another people's story.)

Handed losses by history, people quite often prevail by means more subtle than force of arms. Polish literature has long been rich with elaborate allegory, sly allusions, veiled meanings; much of its theatre tends to satire; its films are often deeply layered with darkness and light (traits shared by their neighbours under totalitarian rule, most notably to Western eyes the Czechs). Art and literature have been the lifelines of Polish nationhood, especially when there was no Polish state -- a fact not lost on Hitler, Bismarck before him, or the Russians later.

Poles made Prussian by partition ever faced German Kulturkamf; Hans Frank took orders from Hitler to wipe out the Polish intelligentsia; Communist bureaucrats happily funded quaint "folk culture" while forcing the Russification of daily life (a tactic some Poles would see, more subtly applied, as "New Canadians"). Only in Galicia, held by the (necessarily) "multicultural" Austro- Hungarian Empire, were Poles finally left alone to be Poles.

For many the key Polish bastion has been the Roman Catholic Church. Not all Poles are Catholic; for a long time many were not. But the Holocaust and the expulsion of Germans west, Ukrainians east, after World War Two made the historic Polish mosaic nearly all of a piece in ethnicity, language, and religion. In many minds, to be Polish is to be Catholic.

Polish nationalism could be liberal, international in outlook, most notably among social democrats. But even they (like later national liberation fronts) could tap nativist sentiments. Marshall Jozef Pilsudski, guiding light of Poland reborn in 1919, began as a democratic socialist; by military coup in 1926 he became a virtual dictator. Wladyslaw Gomulka, leading an "international" Communist government, did not blanch in 1968 at blaming its troubles on Jews, few as they were by then.

With their patron saint Mary, Mother of God, the Vicar of Christ since 1978 Karol Wojtyla, once archbishop of Krakow, many can share "a Messianic vision of the Polish nation," a mystical "Christ of nations, redeeming all oppressed peoples through its suffering and transcendence." Talk about a story.

It's hard to close the book on that one. Even if titled with a touch of irony, as at least one historian has tried. His major chronicle of Poland: God's Playground.

Casimir's spike


Monumental Poles
Resolute railway builder Sir Casimir Gzowski remembered on the lake; Nils von Schoultz on Bond: dissolute Rebel?

Rebel Nils

Immigrant narratives, like the tales of any tribe unsure of its social standing, tend to the Great Man (or, if rarely, Great Woman) School of History: "one of us" who -- by dint of true grit, noble character, hard work -- made good.

Poles in Toronto can point to a monument standing by the lake west of Parkdale, marking a park named for Sir Casimir Gzowski. His great grandson Peter is now more famous: journalist, broadcaster, via CBC Radio's Morningside everyone's favourite avuncular smoothie. His (very public) loss to lung cancer in early 2002 led to tributes much fitting "one of our own" -- "we" being Canadians Polish or not, if especially "we" of the nice Canadian media.

But Casimir in his day was equally famous, master of the 19th century's most powerful medium: railways. Among his was the Grand Trunk. In the endless contention of rail magnates and the City over whether the lake shore would be for people or trains, Gzowski once threatened to run his line right down the middle of Queen Street. A colonel in the militia, he was named aide de camp to Queen Victoria in 1879 -- hence Sir Casimir.

It is sometimes wise to be wary of monuments. Gzowski's is backed by others, the Grand Trunk aside: six harbours on the lakes; famed bridges; the Burlington Bay Canal. He built them (or rather, had others build them) in his earlier career as Superintendent of Public Works for what was, from 1841 to 1867, the united Province of Canada.

On another, behind William Lyon Mackenzie's house on Bond Street, we find names of the heroes of the Rebellion of 1837, among them (apparently misspelled) Nils Sczoltevski von Schoultz. He and two fellow Poles are also honoured on one near Prescott, Ontario, unveiled in 1938 by the Polish consul general for Canada: "To the Immortal Memory of Polish Patriots Who Fought in The Battle of the Windmill, 12 - 16 November 1838."

That battle had been the Rebellion's last gasp. Defeated in both Lower and Upper Canada, its leaders had fled to the USA -- where they'd kept the flame alive. Some 300 Rebels (most American) crossed the St Lawrence that November, declaring a point of land, marked by that windmill, The Republic of Canada.

They had expected popular support. They got the loyal local militia, British Army regulars, and the Royal Navy. After 130 were dead, on both sides, the Republic surrendered. That skirmish has been called the "Alamo of the North" -- by those who, like so many Canadians, find our experiences real only when backed by American referents.

Among them: a historian who, writing of this battle in 2001, called Mackenzie "an arrogant little puff- toad of a man," those tardy Rebels a band of "the lazy and crazy," and Nils von Schoultz -- their accidental commander, others having fled the field -- a deadbeat dad and inveterate liar, "nothing more than a well- bred confidence trickster."

Nils was among the 11 Rebels hanged. Then: others had been before, still others transported to penal colonies in Australia. That's history for you.

Mother tongue: Polish

Mother tongue: Ukrainian

Still neighbours
Polish (top) & Ukrainian in Toronto's west end (Roncesvalles in red, the gap to its west High Park): one dot for each 15 speakers of the language. Both Poles & Ukrainians live in smaller numbers elsewhere but, like many European migrants in this town, their moves have been mostly northwest. From the City of Toronto's Mother Tongue Atlas, 1991.

Ronc and Howard Park

Almost Boustead
And another streetcar route: Howard Park Ave, north on Roncesvalles, taking the College car to John Howard's High Park. Boustead is the first stop on the way south from the Dundas West subway station for cars heading down to cross Queen & become the King car.

But for having fled Poland in turmoil (both were rebels in the Uprising of 1831, though Gzowski had once been in the Russian army), Nils and Casimir were anomalous immigrants. They arrived alone, or nearly, not in the company of a larger influx. And like most migrants of the time they were men, married or not often leaving families behind. For a time. Or maybe for good: many hoped, once they'd made good, to go home.

The first cohesive community of Poles in Canada had left Prussian occupation in 1858, settling in Renfrew, Ontario. Many others set out for the West, often to set up near Ukrainians -- neighbours before and, like them, familiar with tilling the land. Few came to Toronto until the 1870s, most still men, peasants turned urban labourers.

Some rented rooms, in time houses to hold families, from another people they "knew rather well": Jews, in The Ward and along Queen West nearby. Many -- like Jewish immigrants before and most newcomers since -- were eager to buy a house and did, European immigrants usually west of crowded downtown.

By the late 19th century signs of Polish settlement were visible along Queen, west from Spadina to Dufferin, likely destination for those newly arrived in the early decades of the 20th. Many more would come after World War Two, more again during the Polish upheavals of the 1970s and '80s. Not a few come still.

With each wave since 1945 came fewer who thought themselves peasants, more people urban, educated, technically skilled, professionally trained (if with credentials often not honoured in Canada). Fewer headed out West, more settled in cities. For many, as one of the 1980s told historian William Makowski, "all roads seem to lead to Toronto the Good."

Most headed for turf where the western spread of Polish community crystallized. It did not stop there (as you can see in a map of mother tongues at the left). But there they established institutions that survive even as many Poles have moved on.

It is a pattern characteristic of urban migrations: people making spaces their own, meeting their needs, reflecting and reinforcing community. Even for those who don't live there anymore, such places remain very much "downtown."

Ukrainians took much the same route (if leaving fewer signs along the way, some still on Queen and elsewhere). But the non- official language most spoken in this neighbourhood now, after Polish, is Chinese. Like all good downtowns, Polish downtown is shared. Roncesvalles Avenue, along with its town, is home to ever shifting stories.

Which brings us back, at last, to "Ronci."

Andrew Pawlowski, born in Warsaw, came to Canada in 1973. A doctor, his practice around Roncesvalles, he also sculpts. And writes: "many articles on art and artists in the Polish Canadian press, and five books."

The Saga of Roncesvalles he also published, in 1993. It is led off by the familiar parliamentary letterhead: Jesse Flis, MP for Parkdale High Park, here backing application for a 1991 grant to cover translation, photography, and printing:

"I feel his book will be invaluable, not only to the people that live in the area, but also those who come here to shop, dine in the fine restaurants, attend services at the five churches, and enjoy the unique atmosphere of Roncesvalles Avenue."

Mavens of heritage ever love what they call "cultural tourism." MPs, it seems, do the spiel nearly as well as its current reigning masters: condo realtors.

Still, I am glad Dr Pawlowski (apparently) got his grant. His saga has less to say about "fine restaurants" than what came before them, his "unique atmosphere" the air of real life, present and past. He has a fine eye not just for what is, but what was, for how neighbourhoods evolve. He is no tourist, nor a tour guide, but a citizen alive to his locale, savouring its many stories.

My favourite marks a distinct moment, on March 23, 1988: "I noticed a fat man sitting on a post at the corner of Wright Avenue and removing a street sign.... After a short exchange, during which my interlocutor put up a new red and white sign (not to be confused with white and red, which would be in keeping with the Polish ethnic character of the area), we came to an understanding." Andrew got the old sign, a shot of it on the cover of his Saga. I got to find out when the City decided to mark Roncesvalles a "Village."

Pawlowski's "TTC romance" was set on a streetcar coming south. We'll head north from Queen, noting some of his stories along the way -- after a few tales marking the place where Polish downtown begins.

Roncesvalles, Pawlowski reminds us, is a name borrowed from a gorge in the Pyrennes -- Spanish site of an Irish soldier's British adventures against the forces of Napoleon. The avenue's intersection with Queen opens to Lake Ontario, a pedestrian bridge on the south sweeping over rail lines and highways to its (at last) unimpeded shore.

Just west of the approach to that bridge stands a chunk of pink granite, inscribed in Polish. It has a plaque attached, mostly in English. In a grove of trees beyond a dark monolith rises, its back to the traffic, two flags flying beside, Canadian and Polish. Walk up along King and you'll see its face, fractured and blank. Across its base, often obscured by wreathes white and red, is a single word: KATYN.

Zwiezek detail

"Lest we forget"
"May the tragic death of tens of thousands of Polish citizens in Soviet forced- labour camps, political prisons & execution sites, always remind the world that freedom is bought with great sacrifice."

Katyn  monument

"In remembrance of fifteen thousand Polish prisoners of war who vanished in 1940 from the camps in USSR at Kozelsk / Ostashkov / Starobelsk. Of these over four thousand were later discovered in mass graves at KATYN near Smolensk murdered by the Soviet State Security Police."

Katyn Polish text

Zwiazek monument

Copernicus Lodge



Deli kids


"Ethnic" fare; English lessons
Solarski's, delis; below Polish pop CDs & "Wonder Wheels" (of words: dial up irregular verbs) at Novum Multum, a music store at 129.

Novum Multum

The smaller of the two monuments was put up in 1980 by the Alliance of Polish Eastern Provinces in Toronto. Its plaque goes on to say why:
"Dedicated to the memory of over one million seven hundred thousand Polish soldiers and civilians arrested in eastern Poland by the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) in 1940 - 1941, for the only reason that they were Polish citizens and were deported to the far reaches of the Soviet Union (Siberia), where many were executed or died of hunger, cold, disease and exhaustion during World War Two."

A small plaque near the Katyn memorial, giving in English what appears in both Polish and English on the monolith's narrow sides, is dated 2000. Successive Soviet governments denied the massacre, blaming the Germans who found those graves in 1943. In 1992, the new Russian government confessed.

Those 4,000 were but a fraction of the 1,715,000 lives recalled at this one corner. All this in the east -- without the Nazis: one can ponder here the choices we make among horrors. But what I most ponder are bustling pedestrians, chancing upon this mute presence set amidst the urban buzz -- simply stopped.

Maybe long enough to discover these stories, to many of us unfamiliar; perhaps finding themselves caught, if maybe just for a moment, in the grip of the ineffable. Logic, reason, words: they all fail here. And they should.

Ah well: it was all long ago, far away; other times, other places. Other people. With that, it is time to see Roncesvalles.

Up past the Edgewater (successor to the Ocean House Hotel long at this crossroad, now a Days Inn), past a tracked lane curving into to the TTC's vast Roncesvalles Yards (where 157 streetcars spend the night: Pawlowski toured it), then a Goodwill store, we find another pair of flags.

Copernicus Lodge, a Polish senior citizens' home opened in 1979, was built as a community project, largely funded by local donations. Across from it, but for an older apartment block spawned by streetcars, small shops tucked into structures of just two or three stories hug the sidewalk along the east side.

They run nearly unbroken, but for side streets lined with big houses, all the way up to the avenue's merge with Dundas West (there running north -- confounding downtowners' sense of direction). Few point more than 20 feet to the sidewalk, the scene shifting with every few steps: hardware, gifts, groceries, bakeries -- and, famously, Polish delis.

The most lasting attachment of immigrants' later generations, ethnologists tell us, is to "ethnic" cuisine; wait long enough and it might be trendy. "On Saturdays the scent of pasties and sausage fills the streetcars," Dr Pawlowski wrote, if adding (to the likely chagrin of tourism's touters): "On Sundays, however, the fragrance of eau de cologne barely overpowers the smell of beer and high proof alcohol."

As on any urban stretch of aging structures, low rents, fine grain and changing rhythms, spaces here have seen shifting use. The old Brighton Theatre (at the top of this page, still with its tall sign) now holds a variety store.

Pawlowski used city records from 1913 to 1993 to track the fate of 19 addresses on the avenue. Garczynski Travel has been at 163 since 1989; in 1928 it housed a butcher, in 1939 a beauty salon still there in 1950, in 1971 High Park Children's Fashion. Solarski's Pharmacy has been at 149 since at least 1950, its space once Taylor's Cleaners, the McDonald Grocery and, in 1913, a real estate agency.

That agent of 1913 clearly knew the realtors' mantra: "location, location, location." The west side of Roncesvalles had long been empty but for cows: a dairy stood at 381 until 1948. Locals made their living selling milk and vegetables -- if soon finding more profit in land.

In 1913, a plot of just 50 by 124 feet could fetch $1,400 -- a price then rivalling Rosedale real estate. Parkdale was still "the floral suburb," soon full of fine houses. Many still stand facing the small shops on Roncesvalles's east from the more sedate west, evidence of a building boom lasting just 10 years -- creating a neighbourhood not quite Parkdale.

Garden Ave Floral still
Or leafy at least

Garden Ave (here in a temporary water pipe's playful spray), leading west from Roncesvalles to Indian Road & the vast green of High Park. Annexed to the City in 1888 -- making the avenue its boundary with the Town of Parkdale, independent until 1889 -- this area remains distinct. Developed in the same period as Rosedale, it shares the look: sloping streets (one sinuous: Indian Road follows a native trail), lots of trees, & substantial houses.

Similar streets run east off the avenue, Parkdale more prosperous north of Queen than south. If not so flush as Roncesvalles: incomes rise as one moves north & west; so does the number of residents apt to say (some with historical backing) that they live not in Parkdale but "near High Park."

At Garden Avenue, houses give way for a stretch of institutions common to most downtowns: churches, a library, a bank, and (across the street) a newspaper. St Casimir's, its cornerstone dated 1952, is the bastion of Polish Catholicism on Roncesvalles. But it was not Toronto's first Polish Catholic Church.

In 1911, after sharing space with the Irish and a chapel at St Michael's Cathedral, Polish congregants created their own parish, St Stanislaus of Kostka, in a former Presbyterian church on Denison Avenue near Bathurst and Queen. By 1915 Our Lady of Czestochowa rose near Davenport Road west of The Junction -- a railway crossroad marked by industry and the many immigrants it employed, Poles not alone among them. St Stanislaus sat just north of Niagara, another enclave of industrial workers mostly not Anglo or Scot.

Gran and St Cas

St Casimir's neighbourhood
Polish parish, above right, seen past Granowska's pastry patio. Below: St Vincent de Paul; Gazeta's office at 215, reflecting Emanuel Howard Park United across the way.

St Vincent de Paul


Kongres Polinii

House of Congress
Kongres Polonii Kanadyjskiej, 288 Roncesvalles.


Old Poland,
new Roncesvalles

Staropolska, at 299; just north: fine home furnishings at renaissant; Alternative Grounds' globally conscious "fair trade" coffee, & elegant dining at Domani.


Domani, etc

Those early churches no longer mark neighbourhoods visibly Polish. St Casimir's still does. Just north, in sweeping white '70s modern stands that bank, once in its basement and distinctly Polish: the St Stanislaus St Casimir Credit Union -- the biggest financial institution born of a church in all of North America.

Credit unions were among the many cooperative means of mutual support created by Poles under Prussian occupation, fending off German Kulturkamf. The roots of resistance in Polish faith are, here, proudly marked.

Karol St Casimir sign

Pope of Roncesvalles
(& well beyond)

John Paul II blesses the street outside the credit union, here since his Papal tour of Sept 1984. He'd been to Canada before as Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, visiting many Polish communities, coming again in July 2002. In this likeness (funded by local donors, among them the Toronto & Ontario governments), he has a special twinkle: look into his eyes & you'll find pupils carved as tiny hearts.

There was a Polish Lutheran church in Toronto by 1954, if not nearby; there are (as MP Jesse Flis noted) other churches along Roncesvalles. The United makes its stand at Emanuel Howard Park, right next to the Toronto Public Library's High Park branch, twin to one far east, there marked "Beaches."

St Vincent de Paul looms not far north, there by 1915 if long since left by most Polish Catholics for their own parish, despite Our Lady of Czestochowa painted in one of its portals. From 1985, Pawlowski tells us, it has ministered to "native Indians, emigrants from South America, and to all hungry and poor people."

The neighbourhood, like many in Toronto, has long had local papers. How well they served shifting communities may be suggested by a West Toronto Weekly headline of October 19, 1939, recorded by Pawlowski: "Circus will go on despite war problems" -- Shriners bigger news than Nazis, even with Poland gone just three weeks before. He notes 390 Roncesvalles as home to the newspaper Glos Polski in 1989 and 1993. The address now houses a nice restaurant.

Gazeta, at 215, had been publishing for 14 years, three times a week when he wrote, now five. Their office has a bookstore offering "valuable selections on the arts and language and many recent translations from English published in Poland."

Newspapers and churches were not the first institutions founded by Poles in Canada. Like most immigrants, their first source of mutual support was, simply, each other -- coming together largely without formal credentials, official permission, or material resources beyong their own skills and desires.

An Association of Polish Citizens formed in the 1870s didn't last. Some likely left for the USA: Canada was seen by many immigrants as a way station on the road to fabled America. The Sons of Poland, granted a charter in 1908, soon gave birth to the first major Slavic organization in Canada, the Polish Alliance Association.

Like many such groups, its aim was "the economic and moral betterment" of its members, to make them good citizens in Canada. At the same time it hoped to "celebrate important anniversaries of historical events in Poland" and "uphold the Catholic religion." In time, "Catholic" was dropped for "Christian," a bid for "tolerance, brotherhood and enlightenment" among all (well, most) Poles.

In 1934 the Alliance refused to swear loyalty to the Polish government, then right wing; it would later keep its distance from governments of the left, rousing the ire of Polish Communists in Canada. The Polish National Union, born in 1937 of a veterans' mutual aid society, was more vocally nationalist, conservative, and anti- Communist. The biggest Polish cultural centre in Toronto is not on Roncesvalles but far east on Beverley Street: The Polish Combatants Hall.

History has eased some (if not all) of these tensions. The Canadian Polish Congress, its headquarters at 288 Roncesvalles, represents more than 160 groups across the country, their members hardly homogeneous in politics if not forgetful of their common roots.

Poles are not alone in having a history worthy of memory -- even as all of us are urged to leave our messy histories behind for cheery fests of "ethnic heritage." They share with other migrant communities a sense of meaningful connection with communities elsewhere in the world, even as they make a world here.

It made sense to raise Polish Canadian regiments to fight the Nazis. It's no big surprise that among the candidates in Poland's 1990 presidential campaign was a Polish émigré from Canada (if even less surprising that businessman Stanislaw Tyminski lost to Lech Walesa). No more than it's odd to find Poles sitting in the Parliament of Canada or on Toronto City Council. It means simply that they are citizens; that, to them, the world matters.

Locations called "charming" by real estate agents often risk being turned into parodies of themselves. The place becomes a "place," its "charm" and "character" made marketable commodities.

Roncesvalles shows signs of creeping gentrification: restaurants aiming at chic; shops verging on twee; an elegant storefront backed by "fine home furnishings," a place for the politically aware to buy coffee beans not ripped off from their growers (a great idea, for those who can afford it), even a place catering to that cherished acquisition of the upscale childless couple: the pampered pooch.

It is in the nature of urban neighbourhoods to change: buildings put to new uses can pay their way, derelicts are doomed to fall. Streets need people living, as well as shopping, on them. And "nice" does look better than seedy. Few of us notice the shifting mix of people behind the façades of rising prosperity, higher rents, and "quality" goods a bit more expensive -- unless we're merchants, real estate agents, a single parent earning minimum wage, or an artist looking for a big cheap loft.

Near the top of Roncesvalles we get the ultimate sign of this shift: a new condo complex. Its units are, for cachet, called "lofts." Few are big, none cheap.

Loft site High Park Lofts

High Park Lofts: Church & former parish hall turned market, left, set to fall for condos starting at $189,000, two bedroom units $299,900. Penthouse suites go for $399,900 & up.

"And now for something completely different," its promo says. Not entirely -- but as condos go this is an inventive project. The key force behind it, "Condo King" Harry Stinson, ever is. His downtown 5 King West, stacking 51 floors on a tiny lot next to a grand bank of 1913, is now 1 King West: it consumed the bank, if saving some interiors as well as its skin -- façadomy more graceful than most.

Here the old church and hall were to be saved in part, wrapped in a new structure. Now they're to go entirely, for the "completely different" imitating some of their details -- offering "the best of both worlds: the architectural character and internal charm of a loft conversion, though the building is totally new and thus covered by the Ontario New Home Warranty Program." Inventive indeed.

So are the units. And those prices aren't bad: the average selling price of a house in the area is $269,000 (likely getting you three or four bedrooms -- but lofts aren't much meant for kids). Harry's promo does of course tout "location" -- if without resorting to "charm," even with some wit: it notes not only "a traditional hardware store with real live staff who actually know where to find things," but the nabe's more recent "obligatory brand-name coffee shops."

But other selling points may be telling: "Parkside Drive provides quick access to the Gardiner [Expressway]. A streetcar goes from the front door directly to King & Bay." In the Toronto Life Real Estate Guide "driving distance to King & Bay," Toronto's financial heart, is among the criteria used to rank the desirability of neighbourhoods. A nice place to live maybe -- but you work in the real world.

Ah well: the congregants of Igreja do Reino de Deu / Iglesia del Reino de Dios had long decamped, and the site will be nicely repopulated. If likely not by the sort of people it long knew. Still, Roncesvalles may put up roadblocks to rampant gentrification. Not barricades on the street, certainly, but bulwarks of the spirit.

"Polishness" is not ripe for chic parody (if too familiar with ruder sorts). Its cuisine is too high in fat for the latest trends. Its culture, also rich, is rarely promoted as "glamorous" or "titillating." Its character is too resistant (Poles have had lots of practice), its history too fraught. "God's Playground," even in local franchise, is likely more than mere tourists might have bargained for.


For a very long time, all I knew of Roncesvalles was the Revue Cinema. In the early '70s with friends living along Spadina, I'd take the College car west, get off just before Howard Park Avenue and head for a flick. The Revue featured repertory, not Hollywood first runs. It still does.

I don't recall ever heading down the avenue, but maybe for a peek into the Café May just next door. We were downtown boys, still loosely Sixties in style, and gay. Roncesvalles was Terra Incognita: "Here Be Dragons." Poles anyway; we didn't anticipate a warm welcome. Nor that, in time, Poles would host regular fests in Toronto's best known gay bar.

Ethnologists speak of immigrants' "mental maps," their working plan of "home." Lands far off are finely detailed, local streets too and key sites beyond: church, work, meeting places, safe hangouts. But neighbourhoods just a few blocks away might, on that map, be blank.

We all have such maps. At some time, in some places, each of us is new in town. Even from familiar streets we may spot a looming presence -- an apartment block, a factory, a church steeple marking a place we've never had occasion to go -- and see it as if across the Berlin Wall: another place. A strange place. Not quite here.

"There are no architectural landmarks on Roncesvalles," Andrew Pawlowski wrote, "significant enough to find their way into an international tourist guide." None of its "fine restaurants" is truly famous; it has no hot night clubs; it is rarely noted in Toronto's insistent self promotion. On the mental maps of many in this town, it is a place not here.

It was not until the late winter of 2000, visiting one of those Spadina friends who'd opened a gallery in Parkdale, that I took a walk up Roncesvalles. Just a whim: I knew it would take me to the College car, and home.

It was on that walk, and that streetcar ride, that I first thought to carefully ponder streets. Good urban streets: varied, human in scale, rhythmic with life. I have made Queen Street my focus, for its length, its history, and its many stories. But for my inspiration, I have to thanks Roncesvalles.

It felt right. And it still feels real.

* Note: My browser program can create some of the diacritical marks required for proper Polish orthography (eg: Kraków), but not all of them. So I have, regretfully, left them all out.

See more on:
Canadians as "children of the debris of history," in Losers -- Who sometimes win.

The Rebels' Monument at Mackenzie House, in Streets of faith, a Downtown side tour.

A neighbourhood too ripe for parody -- as a gay theme park -- in the chapter of Promiscuous Affections called Citizenship: In the city and on the street. Look for "Rainbow country!"

Sources (& images) for this page: Alan Bullock: Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Penguin, 1952. Pierre Ayçoberry: The Nazi Question: An Essay on the Interpretations of National Socialism (1922 - 1975), Pantheon Books, 1981. William Makowski: The Polish People in Canada: A Visual History, Tundra Books, 1987. Lubomyr Luciuk & Stella Hrynuik (eds): Canada's Ukrainians: Negotiating an Identity, University of Toronto Press (with the Ukrainian Canadian Centennial Committee), 1991. Andrew Pawlowski: The Saga of Roncesvalles (translated from Polish by Anna Porczynski), self- published, 1993. James S Pula: Thaddeus Kosciuszko: The Purest Son of Liberty, Hippocrene Books, 1999 ("Kosciuszko at West Point"). Chris Wattie: "Historian trains sights on 'Alamo of the North'" (review of Guns Across the River: The Battle of the Windmill, 1838 by Donald E Graves), The Globe & Mail, Aug 11, 2001. Jerzy Kondracki, Andrew Hutchinson Dawson, & Norman Davies (author of God's Playground: A History of Poland): "Poland: Cultural Life"; Piotr S Wandycz & Kryzstof Jasiewicz: "Poland: History," in Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002. Gazeta (by phone, April 2002).

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April 2002 / Last revised: November 13, 2002
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