I love walking down St. Joseph Street in downtown Toronto. The street consists mostly of 1940s-era Art Deco and/or brownstone apartments. Much of the original architecture is still in place and, thankfully, the street has not been totally overrun with towering condos. Yes, there are some condos on this street, but they have been kept low (not counting FIVE St. Joseph near the corner of Yonge Street) and styled to match the existing architecture of the original buildings. I always feel like I’m stepping back in time when I walk through this small street, which really only stretches from Queen’s Park Crescent to Yonge Street; it’s a small street with big character, and there’s a lot of gay history here as well.
A Dark Past
The street is quite idyllic until you come upon an apartment building at 16 St. Joseph. Whenever I pass by this building I always think of that atrocious murder of gay bar owner Sandy LeBlanc in September 1978, and I wonder who committed this violent murder and for what reason. This murder is famous in the annals of Toronto’s gay history, and remains unsolved to this day.
There has been a lot written on this particular murder so I won’t go into great detail here, nor am I qualified to – just Google it if you want to learn more. Basically, friends of Sandy LeBlanc became worried when they didn’t hear from him after a day or two. The friends went to the apartment building and kicked Sandy’s door in – they found LeBlanc’s bloody body on the floor. He had been stabbed over 100 times – the police called it “overkill” and I can certainly see why. Police at the time found bloody footprints leading from the carpet in the bedroom to a window overlooking the alley. Reports said the carpet was so thick with blood it squished when officers walked on it. A bloody handkerchief was also found on the front lawn of the property.
Anyway, back to the street…
And… that’s about it. If you’re interested in the history of Toronto’s gay clubs from the 60s, 70s and 80s, check out the site Then & Now. There’s an abundance of detail there regarding Toronto’s gay past and it makes for fascinating reading, especially if you were in the scene at the time.
It was a beautiful day today, so naturally I went for a photowalk with my trusty camera. I wandered down to the Esplanade then back, capturing the city on a Saturday afternoon. Here’s a few shots from earlier today:
Well, here we are. One year later and still no physical Pride events, here or elsewhere for that matter, thanks to COVID-19 and the state of the world these days <boo, hiss….>.
Regardless, I’ve been thinking about how I could mark this year’s non-event. I could pout and rage (which I feel like doing), but it would be more productive and positive to put together some little tribute to Pride and celebrate in my own way. (By the way, if you’d like to see my Pride retrospective from last year, you can check it out here.)
Rainbow Flag Raising at City Hall
On June 1st this year, the City of Toronto proclaimed Pride Month and raised the Rainbow and Transgender flags at City Hall. Due to current COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s ceremony was pre-recorded and held virtually. In the video below, Mayor John Tory is joined by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Toronto Centre), Grant Gonzales and Yuri Hernandez from Pride Toronto’s Board of Directors, and Pride Toronto Executive Director Sherwin Modeste. They share messages of solidarity and reflect on milestones being marked this year by Toronto’s 2SLGBTQ+ community, including the 40th anniversary of Pride Toronto and the 30th anniversary of the City proclaiming Pride Day.
YouTube Livestream Virtual Parade
On Sunday, June 27, 2021 from 2:00-3:00PM, there will a live “Virtual Pride Parade”. Personally, I can’t imagine it, but if interested, it can be found here. Myself, I’m waiting for the real thing next year.
Toronto Pride: Looking Back Once More
So after touching on a couple of things from our current, grotesquely hobbled Pride (and no, I won’t go off on my usual rant), I’ll go back in time as I’m wont to do, to Toronto Pride weekends of the past. Specifically, I thought I’d reminisce a bit about those wonderful GCDC (Gay Community Dance Committee) dances at The Masonic Temple, aka The Concert Hall, at 888 Yonge Street (corner of Yonge and Davenport).
Those dances were great. From roughly 1981 until 1992, they went from 9:00 PM to 5:00AM; there weren’t that many after-hours gay clubs at the time, so it felt slightly radical to be able to dance almost until dawn. There was a major GCDC dance event (and they truly were Events with a capital E) at least a couple of times a year, and the Toronto Pride GCDC dances, especially, were the highlight of the year. The GCDC dances eventually attracted up to 2,000 party-minded people, raking in up to $10,000 each time. As I understand it, the money was split among community groups who gave back to the gay community.
Gay Liberation on the Dance Floor
Our gay community was quite different at the time; it wasn’t the diverse cultural melting pot we see on Church Street today. Even so, the dances were incredible as they brought together so many segments of our community at the same time. Those dance parties were galvanizing, unifying and liberating: they consisted of gay men and lesbians who simply wanted – and loved – to come together to dance.
The dances were apolitical and simply all about fun, dancing and good times, yet they also helped shape Toronto’s gay and lesbian community into what we enjoy today. At the Masonic Hall/Temple, men had the main floor of the Hall, which was massive (I well remember the towering speakers, pulsing lights and lasers), and the lesbians had their own DJs, bar and party in the lower level. There was, and still is, a second floor balcony where you could climb up to get out of the mass of people, and just observe the goings-on on the dance floor below:
The music at those GCDC dances was great. Personally I’ll never forget sweating to Jimmy Somerville’s cover of Never Can Say Goodbye at more than a couple of the events. Here’s a sound sampler on Mixcloud from the November 1, 1986 GCDC Dance at the Masonic Temple, themedI Never Touched The Witch:
As an aside, Mixcloud is a great site if you want to hear what was actually being played in Toronto’s gay clubs at the time. On the Mixcloud page above, there’s two October 14, 1995 sets by DJ Allan Kaufman at Club Colby’s (formerly Katrina’s), and a June 1983 set by DJ Greg Howlett at Club Mystique (after-hours club behind the Manatee on Phipps Street). Oh, I do remember dancing in those clubs back in the day <heaves heavy sigh>… but I digress…
I still remember so well, sadly, when the GCDC dances came to an end once and for all. Appropriately themed The Last Dance, the Masonic Hall played host one last time to the very last GCDC dance at Pride, June 1992. And, of course, I shouldn’t have to tell you what the very last song on the setlist was that night: queue Miss Donna and Last Dance:
I’ll never forget walking back home at 4:30 in the morning after The Last Dance, up Park Road to our place on Huntley Street, my mind and body still electrified and energized by 6 hours of 130 beats per minute. I remember having a bittersweet mixture of afterglow from the great party combined with the knowledge that a GCDC dance would never happen again.
This weekend I have again proudly hung my Rainbow Flags on the balcony, and will try to get in to the spirit of things. I can’t help looking ahead to next year, though, when things should get back to relative normality. If that’s the case, we’ll have a Pride unlike any other… it will be a hell of a party. Until then, I remain waiting in anticipation… 🙂
As part of my stay-cation this week I took a day trip across the lake to the Toronto Islands – Wards Island to be exact. For some time I’ve wanted to photograph the quirky little cottages in all their splendor. When I arrived I was not disappointed; there was plenty to work with. Here are a few of today’s shots:
On Thursday, August 14, 2003 at 4:11 PM, everything stopped.
In my memory, two big events occurred in Toronto that summer of 2003: one was SARStock and the other was the power blackout that affected all of Ontario and parts of Northeastern and Midwestern United States. It was the world’s second most widespread power blackout in history, with 50 million people affected by the outage. For some, the blackout lasted a couple of days, for others it was as long as 14 days, depending on where you lived.
Ontario originally caught the blame for the gigantic outage, but over time the source would be traced to a stretch of road in suburban Ohio. Weak areas in the electricity grid of U.S. and Canada further exacerbated the situation.
For a high-level technical explanation of the situation, I’ve borrowed some text from blogTO.com.
August 2003 had been a scorcher. Hot weather and heavy demand for electricity had put the local grid in Ohio under unusual strain, causing power lines to sag into overgrown trees and short out. When the Eastlake coal-fired station near Cleveland went offline it was like knocking over the first in a line of 50 million dominoes.
One by one, power stations across the northeast U.S. became overloaded then automatically powered down as they tried to compensate for other downed stations in neighbouring areas. The blackout rolled northeast from Ohio, round Lake Erie into Ontario, knocking out power to cities and towns as it went.
Systematic faults meant tools used to track and monitor blackouts either failed or didn’t work as intended. Ontario was left 8,000 megawatts short – 500 megawatts usually spells trouble – as nuclear plants in Bruce, Pickering, and Darlington became hopelessly hobbled. When the blackout finally stabilized, 50 million people were left without power in the United States and Canada.
Maybe now they’ll learn to shut the lights off up there…
An American woman on a local newscast, trying to blame the outage on Canada’s power consumption
My memories of the 2003 blackout in Toronto
At that time in my life I was still working at Canada Life Assurance in the downtown core of Toronto, at Queen Street and University Avenue. I remember the outage hitting just at the start of everyone’s commute home from work. It foiled a lot of attempts to get home that Thursday afternoon – the GO trains weren’t running, there was no subway, the downtown core was so clogged with cars that no one could move. Out of our team of about a dozen people at work, I was the only one who lived downtown so guess where everyone came for food, rest and some strategic planning to get home.
It was Vince’s day off that day so he was at home. He had put on a huge slow cooker of stew early in the day, which luckily was now ready. I had been unable to reach him to let him know that there would be a dozen of us descending on the house but the phone lines were all overloaded and jammed so it was impossible to get through. It was a big surprise for him when a dozen people showed up on our doorstep for dinner! Over the course of the next 4-5 hours we all ate stew, had lots to drink and watched the Jarvis Street pedestrian parade and revelry from our balcony – oh, the sound from the streets! It was one really big party out there – the streets were jammed with people, cars and party fiends who were simply making the most of the unusual event.
Cell phones did not work, as cell towers are powered by electricity, during the blackout, so there were only land lines available (imagine no cell phones for a day!) Using my one wired phone on a land line, one by one my guests for the evening took turns using it to call home to arrange a pickup or to give a status update.
When you have a dozen guests who are eating and drinking for any length of time, there is an inevitable need to use the bathroom. When you live in a high-rise, one of the downsides of a power failure is the lack of water (the water is electrically pumped up to the units), so guess what – the toilets can’t flush. The bathroom turned into a communal toilet during the course of the evening (was I ever glad when the water came back on!). It was all good though, as by the end of the evening everyone found their way home, be it by cab, shared ride or pick up by a family member (no Uber or Lyft in those days).
For about three days, the hustle and bustle of Toronto came to a stop. People slowed down, became friendlier, and just seemed to enjoy life a little more during this unusual time. I have memories of Vince and I sitting in the food court in College Park, just killing time along with so many others. These were calm, happy, patient people – something you rarely find in downtown Toronto. Our part of the world, or so it seemed, had stopped all its rushing about and bustle.
Meanwhile, In New York City…
Chaos reigned supreme:
It was an amazing and unique time no matter where you lived in the blackout region. I’ll never forget that hot summer of 2003 when the lights went out.
It’s that time again: Fall – my favourite season! The weather is cooler and the evenings are crisp. It’s also the most colourful season with the trees displaying those gorgeous shades of red, yellow and orange.
I made a few photo expeditions around the city this Fall to capture some of the changing leaves; here’s a small sampling of what I found:
As we all know, COVID-19 has squatted over Toronto Pride this summer of 2020 and taken a huge dump. When it was announced that all large events – or any event for that matter – in the City of Toronto would be cancelled this year, including my beloved Pride, I was crushed beyond measure. Toronto Pride will be celebrated this year with “Virtual Pride” which, to me anyway, defies logic. Virtual Pride?? How exactly does one do a Virtual Pride, for God’s sake? No thanks… I want the real thing.
Pride week in Toronto has always meant so much to me and, as a gay man, is an essential experience in my life. In my world, Pride is more important than Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. No other event brings such happiness, energy, enthusiasm, celebration, vitality and warmth than those few days in late June every year. Even though time and tide have scaled back my activities considerably from Pride weekends past, I still celebrate the occasion and feel joy in my own way on that special weekend.
I believe my first “Pride Day” (as it was then called) was 1985. I have wonderful memories of those early Pride events when they were just a half-day long (always on a Sunday afternoon) and held in Cawthra Park (now the Barbara Hall Park, which has become a haven for junkies, crackheads, crime, muggings and harassment from street trash who have overtaken the place… but I digress…).
Those days, Pride was held within the boundaries of Cawthra Park, if you can imagine. In the late 80s/very early 90s the event spilled into a small section of Church Street above Wellesley, with the epicentre being the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Across from the 519 was the only stage, set up in the parking lot of The Beer Store. At about 9:00 PM that night (at the latest), the police would reopen Church Street to traffic, and cars would resume their usual pace down Church Street as if nothing had happened that day.
I remember those Pride Days as being pretty much a white, male, middle-class event, long before global inclusion and the alphabet soup that now describes our community (LGBTIQA+ or whatever the hell it currently is). From those early Pride Days, I have memories of local gay hero Harold Desmarais singing a personally-penned protest song to Art Eggleton, the then-mayor of Toronto who had refused to proclaim, or even acknowledge, Pride Day (as it was then called). Harold served as the Master of Ceremonies for Pride Day festivities from 1986 through 1989. I also have memories of Jack Layton acting as auctioneer, auctioning local goods and services from a little makeshift stage behind the 519.
As for some of the Pride Day music I remember, local alternative band The Nancy Sinatras played a set for a couple of years at Pride, where they belted out some wonderfully tacky, kitschy and downright rude songs from the stage set up for the day in the Church Street Beer Store parking lot. The Nancy Sinatras were about as “Queen Street West” as you could get in the late ’80s; they were awesome.
In those days, the AIDS Memorial behind the 519 Church Street Community Centre did not exist. I remember the temporary AIDS memorial that would go up for Pride Day each year before the permanent one became a reality. This was a terrible time in our gay history, with AIDS claiming so many men in those early days.
For this post I had desperately hoped to find some photos I had taken of those early Pride events that took place on Church Street and in Cawthra Park. I slowly perused my carefully curated photo albums (physical pictures… remember those?), but alas could not find any shots of Toronto Pride street scenes from the 1980s, at least none that were of any interest. I do, though, have extensive shots of almost every Pride Parade from 1986 to 2006.
Sooooooo, as to not totally lose the Pride spirit this year, in lieu of a physical Toronto Pride 2020, I offer some good bits from years past to put us in the mood and lift our spirits.
I now present to you Toronto Pride, warts and all. Let’s go back…
On Church Street…
I Love A Parade…
Ah, the memories…
This year I’ll skip “Virtual Pride” but will still proudly fly my rainbow flags from the balcony, trying my best to resurrect the spirit of Pride.
I’d like to end this post with a positive, feel-good message from our Ward 13 City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam; I couldn’t have said it better myself:
When the pandemic is behind us, we will come together again. We will fill the streets, the restaurants, the bars, the civic spaces, the dance floors. And when we do it will be the loudest, most colourful, most fabulous Pride celebration in this city’s history. I look forward to joining you on that day.
It had been a busy and hectic day at work last Friday. Walking home I suddenly spotted something unusual coming toward me in the distance. At first I thought I was seeing things courtesy of my fatigued state, but as it drew closer I see it was…
Pikachu to the rescue!!
Thank you, Pikachu! It was great to have a smile and laugh during our troubled COVID times.
In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, the City of Toronto launched a public art project called My City, My Six. From May to August that year, the public were invited to submit something about themselves and Toronto, consisting of only 6 words. The best submissions were judged, then posted in the Civic Centres of Toronto. I was working at the East York Civic Centre at the time, and these were the submissions that made the cut:
We’d been wanting to do a ghost walk of Toronto’s Distillery District for some time so we bought our tickets for the night of July 6th. One figures with a historic place like the Distillery District there’s bound to be some hauntings and a few lost souls lingering about.
The company hosting the walk was The Haunted Walk. They also have offices in Ottawa and Kingston and we have taken their tours while visiting each of these cities. The tours from this company were fun and enjoyable so we thought we’d try out one of the tours a little closer to home.
The Distillery District walk was called Ghosts and Spirits of the Distillery. Our guide was fantastic – very personable and his voice was loud and clear. The stories he wove of the creepy happenings in the Distillery District were fascinating – but – the downside to the walk was the torrential rain pelting down on us just as the tour started. Here’s how it went down (literally):
The rain did finally let up and we were able to finish the tour, albeit feeling quite soggy. Post-tour we took refuge and sustenance at CACAO 70 Eatery – nothing like great chocolate to soothe the soul!
It turned into a nice evening just as we were leaving (of course). Here’s a parting shot:
I’d like to do this tour again sometime to get the full spirit of the thing. Hopefully next time the weather gods will have some mercy on us!