Baldwin Street 1986

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The following is a transcript of an article by Gloria Hickey in Azure newspaper dated September 1986. The article describes Baldwin Street in September 1986 just as the Ragnarokr Leather Shop was moving to Queen Street.

Take, For Example, Baldwin Street….

“Baldwin Street owes its name to Doctor William Baldwin, an Irish physician who came to Canada in the early 1800’s. He studied law and quickly became a prominent member of the bar of, what was then known as, York. Toronto’s tour guides speak of Baldwin as the man responsible for the grand 132-foot width of Spadina Avenue because he fashioned this ample avenue leading to his house to the north.

What distinguished Baldwin from his wealthy and influential contemporaries was his appetite for social reform. In fact, Baldwin is considered the author of “responsible government” – a novel and terrifying notion to the colonial governors.

So it seems particularly appropriate that Baldwin Street has been a “people street” for over a hundred years. During the 1880’s and 1890’s, Canada began to receive immigrants of other than British stock. Waves of people arrived from Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. They included Jewish immigrants and, by 1900, the area surrounding The Grange formed a solid Jewish community.

Today the traces of this Jewish ancestry are still present on Baldwin Street. Nissembaum’s Shoes, Silverstein Bakery and Mandel’s Dairy continue to do brisk business with few concessions to modernity.

Mandel’s Dairy storefront is modest and its hours are 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. But however unassuming an image Mandel’s has, its extraordinary cheese guarantees loyal customers. The cream cheese, in particular, has won consistent, lavish praise from many. Joanne Kates of the Globe & Mail describes it as “soft and wickedly rich…the essence of cream on the tongue”. No doubt those Mercedes will continue to stop, every morning, to pick up their cream cheese fix.

Also on the south side of the street, Ragnarokr is a reminder of the more recent past. Ragnarokr, which in Old Norse is roughly equivalent to apocalypse, has been on Baldwin for 17 years. The late sixties and the early seventies were a time when Baldwin was populated by Toronto’s counter culture and Americans, disillusioned and fleeing the draft necessitated by the war in Vietnam.

Ragnarokr is a leather shop, where you can find leather pouches in all sizes, hand stitched sandals and tasteful but nonconformist briefcases. Crabs and crocodiles crafted from leather and leather care goods are among the smaller items. Word of mouth advertising has for year brought customers looking for a leather shop with the patience and skill to do commission leather work.

However times and property owners are changing and Ragnarokr is moving. Leather studio and store will be located at 758 Queen West.

Baldwin is one of the very few Toronto streets where you will not feel self conscious sitting on the curb. Chances are the benches in front of Yung Sing Pastry Shop are already full and you’ll have affable company enjoying hot and cold, sweet and savory snacks. It is a pleasant way to mull over your next stop on this street rich with options.

You might consider 13 O’Clock, Baldwin’s Street’s newest addition. It sells iridescent marbles, original art and most importantly T shirts. Owner Daniela Muhling, through a unique computer process, custom prints T shirts. Distinctive designs such as the original advertisement for Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and excerpts from Russian language newspapers are examples of Muhling’s imaginative approach to the standard T.

Colorbox, another Baldwin clothing shop, focuses on 100% cottons in parakeet bright colours. It also offers costume jewelry and leather accessories. Colorbox stands out because its clothes, by many Toronto designers, are practical, confident and relaxing. Speaking of both the designers and her customers, manager Sue Cauchay says that Colorbox allow her “to give creative people a practical outlet.”

A more formal approach to dressing might lead you across the street to Bianco International. Bianco, with its sophisticated clothes from New York and Italy, is indicative of the recent upswing of Baldwin Street. It is polished, still cozy in scale and possesses a certain fashionable appeal.

Paula and Michael Letki, who have recently renovated their own fine jewelry shop Letki Designs, are quick to point out that this new sophisticated image of Baldwin has not sacrificed its characteristic intimacy. Michael suggests the change is simply part of Toronto’s maturation as a city and Paula adds that Baldwin will probably never become another slick Yorkville. In her opinion, Baldwin is still a vibrant part of the community that acted together to derail Ontario Hydro’s plans to build a transformer station nearby. In 1973 the block bounded by Beverly, Baldwin, Henry and Cecil was almost entirely boarded up. Luckily it was taken over by the Ontario Housing Corporation who slated it for re-development.

In contrast to the transformer station, the apartment buildings were welcomed by the Baldwin community. This domestic addition to the neighborhood later helped balance the commercial and fashion conscious influence of the multi-million dollar Village By the Grange. This means that stores like Around Again, a second hand record shop, will hopefully be around for another dozen years for grateful students and other music lovers on a budget.

For those who take food and eating seriously, Baldwin Street is not to be overlooked. The concentrated variety of snack bars, cafes and top notch restaurants means that tired feet never have to go further than two blocks, regardless of taste or pocketbook preferences.

If time or money is at a minimum, you might pick up a robust muffin and a red Mexican banana at Baldwin Natural Foods – Toronto’s best source for organic vegetables and fruits. Or you might sit down to a steaming bowl of minestrone and a slice of highly recommended pizza at the Italian Caffe. A more developed appetite might be satiated by Yofi’s Café’s stuffed green peppers. And the Rickshaw is a lunch time haven where you can get piquant Singaporean lunches for only four dollars.

On the south west corner of Baldwin are three restaurants that remind you of the growing presence of Chinatown, Eating Garden, Wah Sing and Baldwin Garden compete for customers and the recent benefit is a $14.95 buy-one-get-one-free deal on whole lobster meals at the Eating Garden. The fourth member of the small restaurant complex, The Guru, is for those with spicier cravings.

Those fans of Chinese food who have given it up because of the ubiquitous msg brings on fierce headaches, will find delicious relief at the OHH Kitchen. Located on the southeast corner, this restaurant specializes in msg-free Chinese dishes.

Special occasions merit the best in food and ambiance. For generations dedicated gastronomes have insisted this means a good French restaurant. On Baldwin you will have to choose between La Bodega and across from it Le Petit Gaston. Of course the only fair thing to do is to sample both! Shortly a new French restaurant and lounge will open on Baldwin’s south side.

Playing tour guide for visiting relatives, hunting for a gift, or just plain relaxing, Baldwin Street holds some of Toronto’s most satisfying solutions.”

Author’s note: The article is accompanied by two photos by Sergio Petrelli. The top photo shows people seated on the sidewalk outside of John’s Italian Caffe under a sign advertising pizza by the slice to go, noon- 2:30. The bottom photo shows the east-facing window of the Ragnarokr storefront showing a display of portrait photographs of people living on Baldwin Street. (The photos are the pictures taken by John Phillips earlier that year and which can be found elsewhere on this website.)

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