Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff


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You have to have a good reason for writing a Blog.  You need a hook! Mine, I imagined, was quite interesting. Why not compare where I am now and to where I was? I.E. – after living and working in big cities all my life – what was it like to take up residence in a small, simple, quiet, little town? The contrast between the two, I hoped, would make good copy. Their similarities would, I believed, be miles apart. I was wrong.

I found something that bridged my two worlds in a way that made me frown and smile at the same time.

I grew up Italian in a city that was built by Italians – Toronto. One need only look at the turn of the century influx of immigrants from Italy to T.O. to see how they lived in ‘The Ward” in managed squalor.

Award winning novelist Nino Ricci points out that…”it is almost inconceivable that the city of Toronto could have been so transformed from dirt streets and ramshackle boarding houses of the 1880s…to the present day city…without Italian workers.”

Josie DiSciascio-Andrews in her book How the Italians Created Canada says Italians…”literally paved the way for the cosmopolitan sophisticated city that Toronto is today. From their early presence…the Italians of the 1800s began to play a consistently visible role in the evolution of Toronto’s history.”

When the economic boom of 1910 hit Toronto a new infrastructure was needed – roads – buildings – water mains – streetcar tracks and sewer systems. Before sewers were built, Toronto’s waste was collected in cesspools. Work on these projects fell to men from Sicily, Calabria and Abruzzi. With bare hands, strong backs and the sweat of their brow…they worked long hard hours digging ditches.

“Italians brought the know-how for updating this archaic state of affairs, by installing modern sewer pipes…which were already operational in Italy,” writes DiSciascio-Andrews.

Yes, my countrymen were ditch diggers before they became anything else. And they dug themselves deep into my old hometown.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered, while involved in some local heritage research, that Port Elgin (just down the road from where I now live) had a lot in common with Toronto and Italian immigrants.

In 1906 – a by-law was voted in, which allowed for the installation of a waterworks system in Port Elgin. The town engineer, a Mr. Chipman and the contractor a Mr. McLean hired 16 Italians to dig the ditches by hand. Obviously my countrymen’s reputation and skills were know beyond Toronto’s city limits.

There you go. A palpable connection with the history of the Italian Immigrant in Ontario…where I was, compared to where I am now…in spades…so to speak.

Funzionando con il selezionamonto e la pala.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

October 31, 2008 at 1:51 AM

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