Central Neighbourhood House marks 100 years of helping

Kidz Klub is one of a host of programs offered at Central Neighbourhood House. Photo by Jim Rankin of The Toronto Star.

Women practise tai chi in the gym at Central Neighbourhood House.

An afternoon autumn sun filters through the windows of a room at Central Neighbourhood House. The room is the size of double classroom, and the sunlight illuminates a group of women who have gathered to talk of the difficulties of calling a new place home. To an outsider, it appears to be complete chaos.

To one side sits a group of Tamil women. On the other, women from East Africa. Another group is from Bengal. Staff simultaneously translate the English words of a guest speaker into Somali, Swahili, Tamil and Bengali. The topic is conflict management and at the moment the sample source of conflict are the teenage sons and daughters of these women. The problem? Teenagers being teenagers and how to keep them in line.

“They will start, ‘Mom, I am sorry, I am sorry,’” says Fatuma Hied, a staff coordinator, waving her arms in the air and drawing knowing smiles from the women. “When we are sitting in a group, we are always talking about our teenagers.” Yes, a cacophony of languages, but chaos? No.

In a downtown pocket where there are many challenges, Central Neighbourhood House, funded in part by United Way, serves as a hub, offering a host of programs for families and people of all ages.

Its programs include the aforementioned women’s club, daycare and after school programs, a stroke survivors program, in-home services, assistance for people over the age of 55 who are homeless or at risk of becoming so, support for homeless who have found homes, and a tutoring program that pairs volunteers with students. Central Neighbourhood’s home on Ontario Street, between Gerrard and Dundas Streets East, is a place of support and learning, where common ground is found, and friendships forged.

As of last month, it has been that way for 100 years.

It had its beginnings in another lively yet challenged neighbourhood which, for the most part, is now long gone. Central Neighbourhood House opened September 18, 1911 at 84 Gerrard Street West at a time when poverty looked different, in an area of Toronto known as The Ward, a slum west of Yonge Street, between Gerrard and Queen Streets in the downtown core.

It’s an area that today bears no resemblance to what it was a century ago. Where once stood decrepit dwellings, office towers, hospitals and condos now gleam. It’s where wave after wave of new immigrants made a home. There was no social medicine. Mothers would bring their newborns in to Central Neighbourhood to see a public health nurse, have their babies weighed and pick up healthy food. Living conditions were the tightest in the city, with life played out in rooming houses and tiny cottages and along alleyways. Some said the conditions were deplorable, but they were a far cry from the ghettos of other North American urban centres.

Still, it was tough.

“They were lucky if they had running water in some of the eras we were working in,” says CNH’s executive director Liz Forestell, who has been in the position for three years. In preparation for the 100th anniversary, she has learned much about the house’s past.

“Sometimes we would be able to give them eggs or milk to give them extra protein and calcium for their kids, and free medical help. But it was very bare bones.” The house saw to it that children enjoyed their summers, sending them to the Toronto Islands and north to Lake Simcoe, where Walter C. Laidlaw, a longtime board member, owned land and a house and had set up tent cabins. The children and their mothers were transported to and from the property, known as The Gables.

“Four hundred families would go up there in the summer, for a week or two at the time,” says Forestell. “For a lot of those kids, it was the only time they got out of the city.”

Laidlaw, concerned about the health of the people the house served, would direct his chauffeur to drive fresh produce down to the city. He served on the board from 1911 to 1961.

The house provided more than support and comfort. It advocated for the poor and the people it served and made their voices heard. The children marched through the streets of Toronto to bring attention to inequities. Conditions in the Ward worsened as property owners, rather than maintaining their rental dwellings, saw more worth in future land use.

During the war years, women gathered at the house to roll bandages. Archival photos show groups of women around a table covered with rolled up gauze. The house was the brainchild, in part, of a crusading Irish-born journalist named John J. Kelso, who as a police reporter at the Globe had witnessed the condition some children were living in. He’d also taken to heart the condition many animals were kept in. That prompted him to create both the Toronto Children’s Aid Society and the Toronto Humane Society.

He also started the Santa Claus Fund and the Fresh Air Fund, which then Toronto Star publisher Joseph Atkinson took on as the paper’s own missions.

Along with George Bryce and Arthur Burnett, and led by Elizabeth Neufeld, they set up Central Neighbourhood House. The reason? The conditions in the Ward. The house served immigrants from China, Eastern Europe, Germany, Italy and, not so foreign but considered newcomers nonetheless, the Maritimes.

Over time, the Ward became commercialized and industrialized and the poor moved east — and so did the house. It moved to an empty school on Pembroke Street in 1928. Today, after a move in 1970 to its current home on Ontario St, Central Neighbourhood House continues to serve a vibrant community that includes St. Jamestown, Moss Park and Regent Park.

“The issues are the same, you know,” says Forestell. “Poverty, lack of housing, racialization, unemployment, violence against women, food security. People are still living with rats and bugs and living in unsafe and inadequate housing. We try to make sure that we remain an attractive place to come to so that people who walk through our doors don’t feel like they are going to their last resort, and they feel like they deserve to be treated well and to be in a place that is well kept and respects them.”

“We try to keep it alive and keep changing as our community changes. That’s been our history. We’ve always been innovators, trying to respond to what’s going on in the community. We try not to decide what’s best for people. We listen to them.” What has changed? A focus on seniors. “That is the piece that’s changing because our seniors population has grown so much.” Senior support is, in fact, the house’s biggest program.

The house provides “friendly visiting,” where volunteers will pay clients regular visits. “That’s strictly socialization, to prevent isolation,” says Philip Unrau, director of community programs. “It’s mentally stimulating for the clients as well.” To commemorate 100 years, CNH has held public events to break down a “natural tension” between the people it serves and wealthier people living in the community, which includes gentrified Cabbagetown.

“I think it just gave people a chance to see each other’s faces and sometimes that’s what you really need,” says Forestell. “It’s always more fun to meet people at a party than a fire.”

With the sun dipping lower, elementary school students amble in the front door. Where the women’s club had convened, Kidz Klub rules. Game boards are set up and then promptly upset and kids flop around on the floor.

To an outsider, it appears to be complete chaos, which seems just about right.

Story by Jim Rankin, Staff Reporter. Published October 14, 2011; courtesy of The Toronto Star.

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