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From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

The Melmac Years

My peculiar resin d’être

A Place with Pizzazz

How an ethnic enclave morphed into a trend-setting neighbourhood

Kenneth Bagnell

College Street, Little Italy: Toronto’s Renaissance Strip

Edited by Denis De Klerck and Corrado Paina

Mansfield Press

155 pages, softcover

Almost all of Canada’s major cities have neighbourhoods called Little Italy, sometimes more than one. These old settlements came about in a natural way, a result of what is called chain migration—sisters and brothers, nephews and cousins, choosing to follow relatives, establishing themselves where the relatives settled years, even decades, before.

Most other immigrant groups did likewise, creating Chinatowns, Koreatowns, Greektowns and others. But the Little Italies may be more colourfully drawn on the map of our immigration imaginations, perhaps because so many Italians came, about a half-million, to Toronto alone in the 20th century. Or perhaps the Italian influence has to do with Canada being charmed by the enduring optimism and general goodwill of Italian-Canadian culture.

In recent years, the most frequently examined Little Italy in Canada has been a neighbourhood in Toronto south of Bloor Street and west of Yonge, regarded as the heart of Toronto’s Italian-Canadian community. College Street is its northern boundary, Dundas its southern, Grace its western and Euclid its eastern. Its boundaries have always been a bit flexible, but College Street, its thoroughfare with a colourful strip of shops, pool halls and restaurants, has a fixed place in immigration history. Even though now supplanted in size by other Little Italies in the sprawling Greater Toronto Area, College Street’s Little Italy remains the most celebrated. Moreover, while its people have been mostly Italian immigrants, it also had early Jewish and recent Portuguese settlement.

Its earliest beginnings were, it is said, in the 1890s, but it was the post-war immigration of the last century that defined it as an enduring place in public memory. As Gabriele Scardellato says in an essay in College Street, Little Italy: Toronto’s Renaissance Strip, edited by Denis De Klerck and Corrado Paina: “Toronto’s Italian-origin population has grown to become one of the largest and most significant outside of Italy, and the role of the city’s College Street Little Italy proved crucial in that development.”

Even allowing for its special composition, its impact has been extraordinary. Cultural events, parades, processions and concerts taking place on its streets are usually given national TV coverage simply because they take place in what the media invariably defines as Toronto’s Little Italy. Many who were born and raised there—notably Johnny Lombardi, the late and charming media entrepreneur often called its “mayor”—became national personalities. (Lombardi grew up, lived all his life and established his businesses there.)

By the 1980s countless numbers of Little Italy’s young people were already graduates of the University of Toronto and York University, on their way into prominence in business, medicine, law, politics and academe. This took place, moreover, despite the prediction of some experts of the 1960s, that children of Italian immigrants, given their parents’ lack of formal education, were unlikely to become part of Canada’s leadership class.

The influence of College Street’s Little Italy flourished in the middle 1980s, when it began to emerge as a fashionable area, thereby a choice of young writers, performers, musicians and artists as the place to live. Within a few years it was transformed. As the book’s editors, Denis De Klerck and Corrado Paina, put it: “By the mid-’90s, it seemed that every restaurant employee on the street was an aspiring actor and every second table held someone who was working up a screenplay or a novel.” Moreover, for many Torontonians who did not live or work in Little Italy, the village’s atmosphere, with its small bars and authentic restaurants, made it a chic place to pass an evening.

College Street was by then no longer an enclave of “others” but a place for everyone. Suddenly its cafés were renowned. One was Giovanna Trattoria, created by Giovanna Luongo Manni. She arrived as a small child in the 1950s. Her father, coming ahead in 1952, opening Vesuvio, famous for bringing to Toronto that most common of all neapolitan dishes—the pizza. There was also the landmark Café Diplomatico, whose proprietors, the Mastrangelo family, introduced outdoor patios and sun umbrellas to Toronto’s barren sidewalks of the late 1960s.

To some early settlers, the inexorable changes that made their neighbourhood a trend setter must have been bittersweet. There was the pull of nostalgia: the days of the 1950s, when the post-war immigrants could wake to the rooster next door, were ending by the 1980s. Many original families had by then moved north to large homes on the outer edge of the city. Moreover, the changed Little Italy may have brought another, perhaps deeper, disappointment to some newcomers of the 1950s, a disappointment having to do with religious practice and belief.

For example, back in 1962, Calabrians in the neighbourhood began a Good Friday procession that was to become North America’s largest, an event of phenomenal proportion. In time more than 60 organizations from far and near, including from Italy—all carrying Good Friday symbols—took part as thousands lined the streets. But, at the same time, other forces were at work. The country (and most specifically Toronto) was becoming what it now manifestly is: a secular society. Little Italy was influenced by an influx of newcomers who were not imbued with religious tradition. So an attitude of acceptance prevailed, for example, toward alternative lifestyles. Thus, when a dance club opened with a weekend drag show for gays and lesbians, it was largely accepted.

De Klerck and Paina don’t mourn this evolution. “The street today,” they reason, “has become the mirror and the emblem of today’s Toronto—the city of coexistence, of live and let live … The procession on Good Friday is a classic example of this syncretic existence, when seniors and their families who remained in the area join new settlers in a rite that is religiously solemn and socially festive.” Little Italy’s Good Friday procession, I expect, is now as much cultural as religious.

The book’s editors faced an obligation that became an obstacle. The neighbourhood, Little Italy, also had an early and very notable Jewish settlement and, in more recent years, a significant Portuguese population. So, with noble intention, they have included essays by respected academics on the latter groups—including a monograph co-authored by Harold Troper, a scholar of admirable credentials, having been co-author with Irving Abella of the 1982 landmark book of Canadian Jewish history, None Is Too Many. My only reservation about College Street, Little Italy is that its later essays make it slightly disjointed. To give clear focus to the story while including all groups requires a unifying narrative. Such would have had to begin with a calm look at the physical neighbourhood in, say, the 1890s. It would then move us though the decades to observe, in their own time, the various peoples—Jewish, Italian, Portuguese—who came, lived and made this place unique. We would then have a narrative that, as Morley Callaghan once said to me of good prose, “ripples right along.”

This criticism aside, the current work, with its inclusion of fine archival photographs, is a highly worthwhile effort at preserving a truly historic neighbourhood, one that is part of the often unappreciated experience of life in the complex, vibrant city called Toronto.

Kenneth Bagnell is a Toronto writer whose books include The Little Immigrants: The Orphans Who Came to Canada (Macmillan, 1980) and Canadese: A Portrait of the Italian Canadians (Macmillan, 1989). He is completing his first work of fiction.