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The Four Corners of Dufferin and King

by Elizabeth Cam

Manitoba Pageant, Volume 18, Number 1, Autumn 1972

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Jewish Post as “And the Slums Came Tumbling down.”

A few years ago, I walked through a considerable portion of Lord Selkirk Park, an urban renewal area in Winnipeg. This is a ten-acre site whose pivotal point is Dufferin Avenue and King Street, where I lived throughout my public school, high school, and university years. The throb of progress hummed in my ears; demolition crews wrecked every type of edifice, including houses, blocks, hotels, stores, tradesmen’s shops. Decrepit wooden shacks and elderly brick-walled structures were felled in what was once a colorful pioneer neighbourhood.One block west of Main Street, on the north side of Dufferin Avenue, the outside frames of several identical housing units now formed a regular skyline. The first of a 328-unit public housing development, I found them de-personalized in their barrack-like uniformity. But they were new and, in the beginning, they would be clean.Being a sentimental creature, I browsed for a while in the neighbour-hood where my formative years had been spent. Both the homes we had lived in, each on a different corner of Dufferin and King, were razed to the ground. On one site a new housing unit was rising rapidly, and on the other the building that was to become a modern Autopac. As I looked at the scene, I felt surging within me a swift rush of memories.

The Northeast Corner

My mother and father, immigrants from Russia, escapees from pogroms, were married in Winnipeg early in 1907. They lived on Selkirk Avenue in a wooden house painted white which is still there. My mother cooked and laundered for boarders, “landsmen” who were greenhorns in Canada, while my father labored at Swift’s. It was during these years that my brother and I were born. My parents saved their pennies so that they could become independent and in business for themselves. This they achieved before the first world war. For a couple of hundred dollars, they bought a little grocery business at 465 King Street, in rented premises on the north-east corner of Dufferin.The store was primitive, consisting of a small, bare room whose walls were lined on two sides with a few crude shelves to hold merchandise. Behind this room were the living quarters which contained a kitchen and two other rooms, both of which were used as bedrooms. We ate in the kitchen, where the wood stove kept us warm. When any relatives or friends came to visit, this was where they sat. There was always tea with a piece of honey cake or sponge cake. When the landlord, already an old-timer in the young community, came for the rent, he often brought his wife, an elegant little lady who invariably wore a flowered hat. My mother usually brewed tea for them and she served it to them in glasses at a small table in the store.In the house, the tiny bathroom consisted only of a toilet bowl which was set into the bare earth. In this cubby-hole there was no covering on the floor, although the floors in the rest of the premises had boards, some with oilcloth. Obviously, the structure had no basement. We used to wash ourselves at the kitchen sink, and my mother bathed my brother and me in turn in a washtub by the kitchen stove. She and my father went to the Dufferin Avenue steam bath on ladies’ day and gents’ day respectively.The rooms in which we lived were always scrupulously scrubbed, but they were dank and dark, and in the winter my mother hung thick blankets on the walls to keep out the damp and the cold. Nevertheless, the wind and snow sometimes penetrated through cracks between the shingled walls. In the summer, the appearance of the place was enhanced by long, narrow strips of a special sticky paper hung by a nail from the ceiling to catch flies. In addition, flat, rectangular sheets of moistened porous paper were placed in strategic places like window-sills to poison the pesky insects.At the rear of this dwelling and business combination a large horseshoe-shaped yard faced onto King Street. In this clearance there was a farmers’ market. Farmers came here by horse and buggy, their wagons full of unwashed vegetables to sell. Here also horse dealers traded; there were stalls for horses and there was also a blacksmith’s forge. The yard was a fascinating whirlpool of activity, if somewhat noisy and smelly. I do not recall precisely when the market moved a block or so further west to Dufferin Avenue and Derby Street, and later to Main Street between Stella Avenue and Flora Avenue, then eventually to its present site.I remember that my parents used to call the district “Mitzraim,” which means Egypt. “Why, papa, why do you call it Mitzraim?” I asked. “Because we work like slaves,” my father answered without bitterness, “and in Egypt the Jews were slaves.” Then he added, “Thank God, here in Canada no one bothers us; here we are free to work; we can come to a ‘taclis’ (goal); we have here the privilege to educate our children, they should become ‘mentschen’.”

The Southeast Corner

During the first world war, my brothers Sam and Sol were born; with this increase in the family, my parents decided that they wanted better and roomier living quarters. So they toiled from dawn till late; every spare penny went into the bank, in order to buy a house at 230 Dufferin Avenue, at King Street, on the south-east corner.The house had two stories, downstairs a front room, a dining room, and a kitchen, and upstairs three bedrooms and a real bathroom with a bathtub. There was also a real cellar, with a stairway leading to it from a door in the wall, not just a trap-door in the floor. In front, there was a lovely verandah, and a nice yard, with an iron railing all around. My mother bought our first dining-room set and began to employ a farm girl to help tidy the house and look after the younger children. My father continued to make grocery deliveries with a little wagon that he pulled by hand. and my mother continued to make pickles and chopped herring for special customers who came to the market from Fort Rouge; one even came in an automobile driven by a uniformed chauffeur.Shortly after we moved into the new house, my parents purchased a piano. and every month my father gave me the money to make the payment to McLean’s music store, which used to be on Portage avenue, so that I should know, he said, “When you buy something, you must pay for it- The piano teacher also lived nearby on Dufferin, in a rickety terrace that stretched woodenly in its peeling green paint between Schultz Street and Charles Street. On the lower floor of the corner domicile, contained in the two-storey multiple family structure, was situated a bakery from which sweet smells wafted. Every week I walked by on the way to my piano lesson. Although I never became much of a pianist, I did learn to love music.My days were very full, for I practised piano before breakfast and during lunch hour, was at English school all day, and after four ran to Hebrew school at the Talmud Torah, then located on Flora Avenue and Charles Street.More than half a century has passed since then, and sometimes I still hum in my heart the first Hebrew song that I learned from my first teacher — apple-cheeked, black-haired, laughing Rose Bodanis, may she rest in peace. The song lilted, “Shalom, shalom, shalom, la’morah; sichaknu v’sichaknu kal hasha’ah,” (shalom, peace, farewell to the teacher; we have played and we have played the whole hour through).Somehow as I tramped through the old neighborhood, I remembered a great deal of play and many playmates. During summer holidays we played in the park across from the Talmud Torah, or we crossed Main Street and walked eastwards to the Norquay School playgrounds on Lusted Street. On a really hot day we went to the Pritchard Avenue swimming pool to splash and swim. Very often we walked to the William Avenue library and borrowed books to read. And then, of course, there were the old-fashioned family picnics.Just as saliva-inducing as the recollection of the smell of gefilte fish cooking on Friday, is the remembered fragrance of chicken frying early on many a summer Sunday morning. Loaded with bundles, we would board a street-car and ride out to Assiniboine Park, where we would be joined by my mother’s parents and our aunts and uncles and cousins. We would have supper at the picnic tables, and we would play ball and linger in our walk through the zoo. And at sunset, when the sky was bathed in changing hues of gold and rose and mauve, we would tiredly and happily go home.Well, it was not ordained that we should live in our house just as it was for very long. Towards the end of the first world war, the landlord of the hovel across the street that housed my parents’ grocery business decided to raise the rent to two hundred dollars a month. “Bloodsucker,” exploded my father angrily. My mother calmed him down with a placating “Hab im in arble,” (have him in your sleeve); “mir velln zich gibn an aitzeh,” (we will give ourselves an advice). So what to do? They talked it over, and came up with the idea of building their own store. The site they chose was handy, namely, the yard in front of the house in which we lived!When papa found that he could get a mortgage from the old Clements firm on Main Street, near City Hall, he commissioned a real architect, the late Max Blankstein, to draw up plans. “Because,” papa said, “if we’re building it, let’s build it solid.” So it was built of brick, and it was solid. It was a bigger store, a general store; in it was carried a wide range of merchandise that included dry goods, boots, work pants, and so forth. From 1919 to 1946 it operated as Malkin’s General Store. So that it should not be necessary to go through the business to enter the house, a private entrance and porch were built leading into it on the King Street side.It was in this dwelling that my three youngest brothers were born. As was then quite a common custom, all of us were born at home. The family doctor usually delivered the baby, and thus almost invariably became a family friend.I recalled the cold November night when my father’s gentle shaking of my shoulder woke me out of my deep slumber at about ten o’clock. As my eyes opened I was aware that he said, “Run, little daughter, run and get your bobbe.” I was only twelve years old, but I was the oldest. So responsibility was inculcated. Hurriedly I dressed unquestioningly and ran down the stairs into the darkness and snow. With a sense of urgency because of my father’s bewildered tone, I jumped on the street-car that ran on Dufferin Avenue and on Arlington Street. My father had said he had phoned the doctor, but my grandparents had no telephone.It did not take long to reach Aberdeen Avenue, where my grandparents lived just west of Arlington. The cottage in which they lived still stands. In those days it was practically a rural area. In front of the house was a vegetable garden and in the back was a stable and in the stable was a cow. Generally there were a couple of clucking chickens held captive in a crate. Occasionally they were liberated to strut freely in the yard. “Thank God we have what to eat,” my bobbe and zeide (grandfather) used to say. In this yard as well, my grandfather built a “sukkah,” (tabernacle) and here we drank tea from my grandmother’s samovar that she had brought from the Old Country.I knocked on the door, which opened to the ever-present unforgettable smell of freshly baked bread. When my darling grandmother saw me, she wrung her hands, cracked her knuckles, and said, “Oi.” “Papa said you should come right away,” I announced as I came into the house. While she donned her coat I heared her tell my brown-eyed, gentle, studious grandfather, “I am going to Golda. Mendel said that I should come right away.” I did not hear his reply; then I heard her say, “But when I was there today, she said the baby will come in January.”On the street again, I almost ran, but my speedy vivacious little grand-mother kept up until we caught the street-car. When we arrived home, my father greeted us as we came into the porch. “The doctor is here already, and he phoned for a nurse, and he phoned to the druggist, and the druggist opened the drug-store, and brought for mama some chloroform.” Then he went upstairs and paced the hall, while my grandmother and I sat helplessly in the kitchen looking fearfully at each other. Finally we heard a cry ... and then there was silence ... and soon there was another cry ... Then my tender-hearted, usually joking and articulate father came into the kitchen, tears rolling down his face, groping for words. “Golda ... mama ... had twin boys ...” My grandmother answered him: “Mendel, what do you say? Not my bobbe, and not my bobbe’s bobbe had twins.” Looking at my father’s tears, I also wept.Five and half years after Charlie and Alex’s birth, my youngest brother Aaron was born in the same room. Three years later, in 1929, my parents moved to a two-storey family home in a pleasant residential neighborhood. My mother kept on helping in the store. My father made the daily trip by street-car at seven in the morning; my mother followed a few hours later. carrying with her in a shopping bag the hot meal she had prepared for the husband she adored, and generally taking with her her three-year old baby boy.The living quarters behind the store were rented out until, in 1937, my brother Sam was married and he and his wife Sue move in to make it their first home. Sam worked in the business until his departure with his family to Vancouver in 1946, when the business was sold.

The Southwest Corner

As did my parents and my brother, most of the people with businesses in the neighborhood catered mainly to farmers, predominantly Slavic, who came to the market to sell their produce. Before leaving town for home, they made the rounds to purchase their own supplies. And we in turn bought supplies from them, like live chickens that we then took to the mild-mannered and scholarly neighborhood “shohet” for slaughtering. Afterwards, mother plucked the chickens herself. Butchers, bakers, and barbers abounded in the teeming district. Clothing, hardware, flour and feed stores were plentiful. Vegetable and fruit and grocery wholesales flourished. There was even a kosher restaurant on Derby Street near Stella that was run by Mrs. Levin, who through the years that she served Winnipegers and out-of-towners, was never excelled in kindness and excellence.As for the third part of Dufferin and King, the southwest corner, I now recalled this as the place where there was a police phone. Quite often the friendly cop on the beat would scoop up an armful of drunks when they staggered out of the hotel down the street. He would bring them to the corner, where he phoned for the paddy wagon to come and drive them to the police station. Intriguing, too, was the two-storey wooden structure across the road from us on King Street. It had a store down below, and a separate entrance to an upstairs suite which the female occupants had apparently turned into a brothel. During many a summer evening when we sat on our side porch, we would see gentlemen callers come and knock, then catch a key that would come tumbling out of an upper window when the cop was not around.

The Northwest Corner

Now ploughed under with all the rest is the Dufferin Avenue drugstore which was located on the fourth corner of Dufferin and King, the first Jewish pharmacist to graduate from the university of Manitoba. The drugstore occupied the lower floor of a brick block that had suites up above. When we were children, there was a photographer in the block and mother used to march her little darlings there fairly frequently.This drug-store was unique in Winnipeg. Many of the farmers who had come from eastern Europe were rather primitive and preferred old world remedies. In this store, they were able to select herbs out of the many varieties that the druggist kept in separate shining glass jars. Different herbs had different action—one might be good for a stomach ailment, another for a heart ailment, and so forth. The purchaser mixed the herb with alcohol, and let it stand until the herb’s medicinal ingredient was extracted by the alcohol. Then he would drink it.Probably we were primitive too. For I distinctly remember that during the influenza epidemic after the first world war, mother sewed little sacks and put garlic into them and all of us wore one of these sacks on a string around the neck. We were not alone in the use of this precaution against disease—many of my schoolmates wore similar sacks tucked under the collars of their dresses.At the drugstore many a farmer also bought live leeches which were placed on the body to draw out blood ... this they genuinely believed to be a cure for assorted ailments. And another item one could buy here was saffron, which resembled brown straw and which was used for holiday baking, especially at Easter. Of course, the store carried all modern items as well, including postage stamps. It was here that I met the druggist’s nephew Leon, whom I married.Absorbed in thought, I strolled along the new-old streets, until I reached the spot where our synagogue had stood, on Schultz street between Dufferin Avenue and Jarvis Avenue. Where once had been the stately Beth Jacob synagogue, there was now a weed infested empty space. I was thankful that the night before Israeli planes flew into the dawn to defend the state of Israel, I had attended the service when the synagogue’s scrolls were turned over to the Matheson avenue Talmud Torah synagogue at the dedication ceremonies marking the inauguration of the Talmud Torah-Beth Jacob synagogue on Sunday evening, 4 June 967. That night, as this day, I remembered vividly the fenced-in circular plat-form in the centre of the synagogue downstairs. Here was the pulpit from which the Torah was read, and here the “haftorah” was read. Until his death in 1940, my father each year read the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, for this was his special “maftir.”It has remained a tradition in our family. When the time came that Sol read this same “haftorah” from this same pulpit, his children and some of the other grandchildren sat on the bench inside the enclosed plat-form and listened closely, while mother and the rest of the women in the family watched and listened fondly from the balcony.Suddenly it seemed to me that I was a child and I remembered when I too had sat with my father. I was the happiest of little girls because I was permitted to sit beside him with my little brother. When I glanced smilingly at my mother in the balcony, her love shone down on us as she held a finger to her lips to remind me I had promised to be quiet. It was Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Red-bearded Reverend Baruch Moishe Javoish, for many years the city’s only “mohel”, raised his head aloft, placed the “shofar” (ram’s horn) between his lips, and blew a piercing “teruyah” ... and I felt that I would surely ascend directly to heaven. The late Chief Rabbi Israel Kahanovitch, swaying slightly, delivered a scholarly “drashah” (sermon). The late Cantor Jacob sang to God from his heart in rich, sweet tones of worship. And my memory brought back to me the everlastingly haunting beauty of that day.I had just learned to read Hebrew, and as I tried to follow the singing, my father’s forefinger guided me from word to word. A child is full of questions. I stopped reading, I recall, and turned to my father and asked him. “Papa, where is God?” The learned men who sat in the pew close by also turned to my father to hear how he would answer. My father, wise, perceptive, sensitive man that he was, said quietly, reverently, “God is in your heart, my child.”When the service ended, my brother and I left the synagogue with our hands held securely by our parents, Golda and Mendel, the two most beautiful people I have ever known, may they rest in peace.I shook myself back to the present, and rapidly walked towards Main Street. The hope pounded within me that whoever might live within these urban units in the future should know the happiness of work with freedom, growth with respect, and responsibility with love.

Page revised: 4 December 2010

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