The neighbourhood was the centre of the universe for us in the 1950s
In light of strong reader-response to Irwin Block’s memoir of summertime pleasures in the Laurentian hamlet Préfontaine (November issue), we asked him to reflect on life for a young Montrealer in the late 1940s and 1950s.
In the days before the two-car family and the metro, your neighbourhood was your world – and mine from 1943 to 1957 was based on Querbes Ave. between Lajoie and Van Horne.
We lived in a third-floor apartment. Children played on the street and in alleyways, dodging cars. Our games were simple: street hockey with a tennis ball or a game called Stand-O, which involved tossing a tennis ball against a windowless wall. We dug holes and tossed our house keys toward them in a game we called Kingdom. We made forts with tunnels in the mounds of snow that piled up beside the curbs. They used horses back then, to pull scrapers over the sidewalk and to deliver milk. The junkman came by with an old horse and cart, collecting scrap like a character from Fiddler on the Roof or Lies My Father Told Me.
But this was Montreal in the 1940s. Everything you needed was in the neighbourhood, mostly on Bernard Ave. where there was a busy Steinberg’s store. There was a shoe repairman and Bonder’s bookstore, and a soda shop in between.
Winters meant skating on the municipal rink just behind Steinberg’s store, which curled around the centre where a chalet was located. You just left your boots there; nobody seemed worried about them disappearing. The challenge for a young, shy lad nearing puberty was to ask a girl to hold your hand and skate with you around the rink, to the sounds of a recorded Vienna waltz. Then, after you changed, you could reward yourself with an ice-cream soda. The more brazen among us asked girls to join us there. I was not one of them.
On our block, almost all the children were Jewish, but I and my sisters were the only ones who attended what were then called Jewish parochial schools. I took the streetcar, from the age of 6 or 7, to the Talmud Torah school, then on St. Joseph. My sisters, Lillian and Rona, attended the Jewish People’s School on Waverley. There were French Canadians – the term Québécois had yet to be created and popularized – in the neighbourhood, but to us they were “the other.” I recall hearing a woman call for her son to come home, shouting “Rabbaye!” and marveled that a Catholic neighbour was called “Rabbi.” Only later did I realize his name was “Robert” pronounced joual-style. Their school buildings seemed dark, mysterious, even threatening. The English-speaking Jewish children and French-speaking Catholic kids rarely spoke.
Owning a car was a big deal. We didn’t have one, nor did many of the families on the street. Some worked in the rag trade, as cutters, shippers or employers. Some of their children talked about following in their footsteps, in what was then a prosperous and growing industry. Otherwise, nobody talked about what their parents did.
During the Jewish High Holidays, the hood closed down. I attended the local synagogue, Beth Moishe, then at the corner of Lajoie and Durocher. But we also attended the Beth David on St. Joseph, and Beth Jacob on Fairmount, where seats were more affordable.
Kids were not allowed to attend regular cinemas, because of a fire earlier in the century when dozens were trampled to death. But there were opportunities, such as the Saturday afternoon showings of films at the old Fairmount School. For 25 cents, we could sit on the floor of the gym to watch. The shows began with serials – my favourite was Nyoka the Jungle Girl.
I learned to swim at the YM-YWHA on Mount Royal, where the walls were covered with group photos of the great Jewish athletes, in particular the YMHA Blues basketball team. There was also a powerful water polo team, trained by Frank Medic. They had heroic status, as did the lunch counter, where you could always cancel your exercise gains by wolfing down a hot dog with fries. Even worse, you could go next door to Dunn’s Delicatessen and munch on a karnatzle with rye bread, smothered with mustard.
The Jewish Public Library was just down the street, near Esplanade, but I borrowed books from the Fraser-Hickson, which was in a musty old building downtown. We rarely went to restaurants in those days. Some men had their morning coffee and toast at Victor’s, the soda shop and stationery store on Bernard near Querbes. I recall one morning two hockey fans talking about the Montreal debut of Jean Beliveau, who had come up from the Quebec City Aces.
“That Beliveau is quite the player,” one of them observed.
The exceptions were Sunday nights, when on behalf of the family I would be sent to Lester’s Delicatessen on Bernard to get half a pound of smoked meat and a loaf of rye bread. We did go out on New Year’s Day: One year it was steaks at the Park Plaza, at Bernard and Park. Another year we celebrated at Lindy’s, on St. Joseph and Park.
We got our first TV in 1953, a fancy Dumont, in time to watch the June coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. What a spectacle! Before that, I would walk over to our uncle’s house on Bloomfield to watch wrestling, La Soirée du lutte, sponsored by Dow Breweries.
We were so excited in 1956 when the brand new Outremont High opened its doors on Bernard, near Stuart. The old Strathcona Academy on Côte St. Catherine was just not big enough to accommodate the baby-boom adolescents. It was strange to be in “Protestant” school, where most of the students were Jewish. There was no problem skipping school on the Jewish high holidays.
By 1957, we had moved to Barclay near de Vimy, a 15-minute walk from Outremont High.
The scene had shifted to a new neighbourhood as the old one was taken over by new arrivals from Greece and the ultra-Orthodox. Our neighbours were moving to Snowdon, St. Laurent, Côte St. Luc and Chomédey.
There were no more horses on the streets of lower Outremont.