A Requiem for Skid Row
by Amy Lavender Harris

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Credit: Sally Hunter

As the last of Toronto’s degenerate watering holes disappear behind construction hoarding, destined to be reborn as condominiums and boutique hotels, a sigh of nostalgia wells up like the wheeze of a ruined accordion. At the moment of destruction (and shortly before their names—Warwick, Waverly, Broadview, Filmores—are immortalized as eighteen-dollar cocktails), the blackened bricks of old flophouses and the seedy upholstery of peeler bars regain a kind of grandeur, or at least an imagined authenticity. In gentrifying Toronto, where no heritage building seems too precious to be torn down, no decaying structure too far gone to be fought over, the last remnants of skid row suddenly seem like something worth preserving. But what, exactly, is to be retained? What skid row story do we want to remember—or invent?

A “skid row” is a district of run-down rooming houses and fleabag hotels renting rooms by the week—or hour—inhabited by people whose lives have ground to a halt. The term is a vivid linguistic metaphor derived from “skid road,” which once referenced the crude logging roads used to haul lumber out of the bush in the Pacific northwest but which has come to designate the ramshackle regions of frontier, port, and industrial cities inhabited by a slowly revolving population of transients and addicts. Sociologists Laura Huey and Thomas Kemple distinguish skid row from slums and ghettoes, writing that, unlike slums and ghettoes, where there is some prospect of social mobility,

…individuals within these spaces move from one skid row to the next, permanently locked into cultural and spatial exclusion by virtue of their supposed “moral” failing. […] [R]esidents of these districts are not just temporarily locked out but eventually striving; rather, they are permanently disenfranchised by virtue of the fact that their (ethical) degeneracy—as distinct from their (ethnic) otherness or (economic) impoverishment—cannot be assimilated into the social body.

Even while understandings of structural causes have come to characterize accounts of poverty and social exclusion, addiction now being recognized as a disease connected to trauma, and homelessness is known to cause or exacerbate mental illness, skid row’s denizens continue to be seen as somewhat beyond help. Social outreach tends to be limited to harm reduction and stabilization, informed by assumptions that, for the chronically indigent, there is no real solution or possibility of meaningful recovery. Tied to this is a sense that whatever happens on skid row is somehow inevitable, and possibly deserved.

Toronto’s skid row—located somewhat amorphously in the district bounded by Yonge, River, Gerrard, and Queen streets just east of downtown, bookended by Allan Gardens and Moss Park—exists in truncated and vanishing form, its rooming houses, barrooms, strip clubs, and shelters pushed out by the relentless and homogenizing forces of land assembly and gentrification. Even the social-housing high-rises, green space, and Armoury that comprise Moss Park have increasingly been supplanted by massive condo projects and artisanal retailers catering to newer, wealthier, and often whiter residents. The popular CBC comedy series Kim’s Convenience—set in a fictionalized corner store near Queen and Sherbourne—occupies a middle ground between the district’s stigmatized history and its gentrified future. But there are signs that skid row won’t disappear quietly: a supervised injection site established in 2017 on the Moss Park grounds (it has since relocated to a nearby building) and a homeless encampment that swelled during the COVID-19 pandemic together suggest that a chronically underserved street-involved population is likely to jar the sensitivities of latter-day “Whitepainters”—a term originally describing those gentrifiers who, in the 1970s, bought older homes and painted them white—for years to come.

For decades, Toronto’s most prominent chronicler of skid row was Hugh Garner, in some ways a native son of its noisome alleyways, barrooms, and sleazy hotels. Garner is best known for his novel Cabbagetown, set in the adjacent east-end community he described as “the largest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America.” In 1950, Garner published Waste No Tears, a work of pulp fiction that is essentially a biography of Toronto’s skid row. Described on the cover as “the novel about the abortion racket,” Waste No Tears appeared under the pseudonym Jarvis Warwick, a reference to the rundown Warwick Hotel located at the corner of skid row’s epicentre: Jarvis and Dundas streets. A kind of Pilgrim’s Progress in reverse, the novel traces its narrator’s twenty-year descent from ambitious young man to skid-row bum and felon on the run. In keeping with the era’s parameters for pulp publishing, the novel is replete with sex, violence, and scandal: Tom commits statutory rape, takes as a lover a nymphomaniac who turns out to be a lesbian, and impregnates the wife of a serviceman who’s off fighting the war. They decide she will obtain an abortion, an illegal act in 1940s Toronto, and Tom returns to the run-down streets of his youth:

The district was even worse than I remembered it, with everything diminished in size, as things are when they are seen again through adult eyes. […] The smells were also the familiar ones of my childhood, but now I recognized them for what they were, the smell of rotten woodwork and buggy houses, of filthy mattresses and garbage-strewn hallways.

Seeking a connection to the city’s “abortion ring,” he visits Nora Ranning, the landlady who had seduced him as a teen. He finds her drunk and sitting in her own filth, but clearheaded enough to demand five-hundred dollars to arrange an abortion. The abortion is botched, Tom’s young lover dies, her body later discovered in a ditch where it was dumped by the abortionists. Tom’s long-ago landlady—who, it turns out, is closely connected with an organized crime syndicate—blackmails him. After this Tom’s descent is rapid: he ceaselessly drinks himself into near-stupors, is fired from his job, and gets beaten up by Nora’s thugs, who force him to sign over all his remaining assets before they drug him into submission for days. He eventually ends up driving for the abortion ring, ferrying vulnerable women to salvation or injury. In the end, Tom is reduced to a cautionary tale about the hazards of skid row:

You’ve probably seen me sometimes standing in front of the wine store on the corner, huddled up in an old army coat, shivering with the cold and D.T.s, waiting for somebody I knew to come along and buy a bottle. Last winter was the toughest one of my life, and I used to curse myself for throwing away the job Nora Ranning had given me. […] The cops picked me up twice, once for panhandling and the other time for stealing money out of milk bottles. I got ten days on the first charge and thirty days on the second. Instead of jail straightening me up now, it was just torment waiting for the day I could get out and beg another drink.

In coherent moments—and in keeping with moralistic accounts of how people end up on skid row—Tom acknowledges contributing to his own downfall, lamenting his choice of women and his vulnerability to drink. But he also hints at broader social problems. His father was an alcoholic, too. One of the women he ferries to the abortionist has been sexually abused by an uncle. And uneven urban development has, in his estimation, destroyed the working-class neighbourhood of his youth, turning Waltham Avenue into “an industrial street, with the soap factory and the planning mill and the fish wholesaler’s where there had formerly been rows of little houses like ours.”

Garner revisits skid row in The Sin Sniper, a 1970 detective thriller about a serial killer targeting sex workers. The Sin Sniper’s protagonist is middle-aged Detective Inspector Walter McDumont, who (like Garner) grew up a few blocks away in Cabbagetown. Having achieved middle-class respectability (measured by ownership of a tidy bungalow in Scarborough and membership in a community bowling league), McDumont’s daily commutes to downtown crime scenes feel like a descent:

He drove across Sherbourne Street into the tenderloin district, Shuter Street along here being lined along its north side by wood and brick row houses that had been shabby slums when he was a boy. Some of them now sported rooms-to-let signs, and a couple of the bigger ones had been turned into six-bit flophouses for the male derelicts who inhabited the neighbourhood.

One morning the scene is particularly stark, even for skid row: in the night a young prostitute has been shot to death, her frozen body left lying in a dirty snowbank at the corner of Jarvis and Shuter. At first, the police assume the murder is “a run-of-the-mill Moss Park killing, probably by a dissatisfied customer of the girl’s,” likely a fellow skid-row resident, “who liked to stroke cats the wrong way, and kept a loaded old army surplus .303 rifle under his bed.” They are thus surprised when another killing takes place, then another, and another. In total, five women are shot, four of whom die. The unknown killer is quickly dubbed “the Sin Sniper,” even though one of his victims was a married middle-aged Cabbagetown housewife simply walking through skid row on the way home from a family visit. She is nevertheless assigned blame: for being a woman, and for walking alone in an unsavoury part of town.

In the course of their investigation, the police interview a broad swathe of skid-row characters, among them hustlers, pimps, lock-pickers, alcoholics, and ex-cons whose daily movements reveal a claustrophobic choreography: within the confines of skid row’s ten square blocks, they circulate from one flophouse to the next, and between cafés, barrooms, and street corners in slow but ceaseless orbit. When police finally identify the Sin Sniper, he turns out to be a local degenerate who has hidden his hatred of women behind a guise of social concern. On skid row, it seems, you can’t even trust your friends.

Tensions between moralistic empathy and casual brutality characterize other accounts of skid row. In Juan Butler’s 1970 novel Cabbagetown Diary: A Documentary (the book is actually set in and around Allan Gardens), the narrative runs toward the brutal. An Allan Gardens habitué named Michael records observations of skid row in a diary he maintains out of boredom and an almost anthropological sense of superiority. The book is replete with misogyny, violence, racism (particularly against skid row’s Indigenous denizens), and fatalism. Michael’s acquaintance George, a Marxist, urges him to join a terrorist cell hoping to foment a revolution in skid row, “since it is the most underprivileged area in Toronto, and its inhabitants the most exploited and humiliated.” But after learning of George’s plans to assassinate municipal politicians and then firebomb the district indiscriminately, Michael responds with frustration:

Look George, what the hell am I going to get out of this? Is it politics that’s going to feed me? Is it politics that’s going to keep me in spending money? What the hell do I care if there’s poor people in Cabbagetown? There always has been and there always will be. […] Politics is for the birds! Who gives a shit what the politicians say? Look at the Salvation Army. They’re playing politics every time they come down to Allan Gardens with their drums and bugles, and promise all the winos there’s a better life if they cut off the booze. But the thing is, they don’t really want the winos to stop being winos cause if they did, there’d be nothing for the Sally Anns to do after, and they’d be out of a job.

Although he is willing to read George’s revolutionary tracts, and even joins a protest march at Queen’s Park, Michael turns his attention to more immediate and rewarding pursuits—especially women and booze—only dimly aware that the winos he kicks at in passing represent his own future. One day, perhaps, he will become like the narrator in Richard Scrimger’s Crosstown, a confused homeless man who returns repeatedly to the one place he can still recognize—a shelter—only to be sent away by one of its managers, who shouts “Haven’t you been listening? […] Don’t you realize that you can’t come back to St. Peter’s tonight, or any other night. Look around you. They’re tearing the mission down.”

The more things change in skid row, the more they remain the same, despite the encroaching forces of gentrification. In Ted Plantos’ The Universe Ends at Sherbourne and Queen, the narrator encounters a bank teller who refuses to cash a cheque, noting, “Mr. Jessop believes that this neighbourhood is a cesspool of junkies, illiterates, drunks, cheque artists, hoodlums, hookers, child molesters, social workers, wife beaters, thieves, welfare bums.” It is a predictable litany of moral charges against a population more likely to be victims of violence than its perpetrators—a point Austin Clarke drives home (as if with the toe of a combat boot) in his long poem “Where the Sun Shines Best,” which interrogates the notorious and horrifying 2005 murder of Moss Park community member Paul Croutch by three reservist soldiers attached to the Moss Park Armoury. Clarke’s narrator—perhaps the poet himself—is helpless to do anything but bear witness:

I stand in this silence; in these shadows
thrown from the Armouries
and the cannon sweating in the silent dew, coming alive
in the purr of this soldier’s anger and fantasy; this cold
morning with the sun breaking in a soft cool kiss, a mist,
a cloud, weak enough to raise an aura from the dew on iron.
I hear the language that bathes his quarry clean,
words flung at the man without a home,
to wake him from his cold, wet blanket; I sit;
try to stand, and count the number of times
the pendulum of the boot takes aim and lands in the stomach
of the sleeping man

Clarke returns to Moss Park in his novel More, which emphasizes the increasingly racialized character of its poverty and violence. In it, a Barbadian-born woman who works in the kitchen at the University of Toronto’s venerable Trinity College contrasts the university’s lofty atmosphere—the tree-lined Philosopher’s Walk, the academic gowns worn by dons at dinner—with her corner of Moss Park, where police cars and ambulances are as numerous as squirrels, and the cathedral bells ring out like gunshots. Idora fantasizes that her swaggering, do-rag-wearing son BJ is a university student, basking vicariously in his imagined accomplishment, the next-generation fulfillment of her immigrant’s ambition. But then one afternoon, as she walks home past the Armouries, past a building “advertising GEORGIAN TOWN HOUSES, that has been boarded up against the invasion of homeless men, and rats, and intruders, for six years,” she encounters a slew of ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars clustered near the entrance to her basement apartment. On the ground is the body of her dead son, lying in a pool of blood. Stunned, Idora shoves aside her overwhelming grief to declare that his funeral will be a public event:

It will be a large funeral, leaving from the basement and coming up these front steps and leading up to Yonge Street, along Shuter, down Dundas, past Dundas Square, past Sherbourne Street, going through the neighbourhood where he lived, like a funeral procession back home … But I want this one to look like a demonstration … that we used to have in Allan Gardens, the park just north of here … against racial discrimination … and I want them to play music. The music will be “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.” And then “Poverty is Hell.”

Poverty is hell, but even hell isn’t hot enough for branding experts eager to obliterate skid row’s boarded-up buildings and shuttered shelters in favour of a shiny new downtown east side fabricated of glass and steel—and just enough exposed brick to mount a mural-sized photo of Filmores Hotel in its vanished heyday.

—From CNQ 109: The Crime Issue (Spring/Summer 2021)

Amy Lavender Harris is the author of Imagining Toronto, which won the 2011 Heritage Toronto Award of Merit. She teaches in the Department of Geography at York University.


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