Notes on the history of Christie Pits

by Gil Zohar

Most people in Toronto are familiar with the name Christie and would assume that the name Christie Pits was taken from the biscuit maker. Not so show the land records of the time. The Christie who lent his name to the 20th century park was a tanner who plied his leather trade near there when the pits were still being quarried well into the 19th century.

Earlier in the 1830s, the surrounding area was more commonly known as the Shacklands. At the time, the pit hovels were inhabited by people of different nationalities. Recently arrived Irish and English immigrants, with a smattering of runaway American slaves who had fled to Canada from south of the Mason-Dixon Line via the Underground Railway, dotted the banks of the stream that ran through the valley. They managed to support themselves by working in the nearby town of Brockton or going east to the city of Toronto.

The Anglican Sisters of St. John the Divine were hard pressed to administer to the needs of this poverty stricken area. With the expansion of Toronto and the fact that the place had clay good for bricks at one end plus sand and gravel at the other, industry soon developed. In 1884, Toronto annexed the Christie Pits. A 1907 photograph shows an office shack proclaiming these sand pits to be the 'Gold Mine of Toronto.' With the little tributary of the Garrison Creek filling in the pit, it soon became a favourite wading hole of the children of the area.

The city council at the time posted a sign declaring the pond a 'Dangerous Waterhole.' Photos show children standing up to their knees in water. By 1909 the 'Waterhole' had been filled in and Willowvale Park was created. After planting grass, it was necessary for the city to post another sign stating that, "Persons disturbing the turf in search of mushrooms will be prosecuted." In the late 1950s mushrooms were still being searched out and the turf being disturbed. Willowvale Park as a name just never caught on and by 1983 the park was officially renamed Christie Pits.

A baseball series between the Harbord Playground and St. Peters became the fuse for the single most famous event to take place in the park, the August 16, 2021 "Riot at Christie Pits," documented in a 1987 book by that title by McMaster University sociologists Cyrill Levitt and William Shaffir.

During the early 1930s, with the rise of Nazism in Germany, anti-Semitism in Toronto became more pronounced and public. When the Balmy Beach Canoe Club in the quiet suburb of the Beaches refused to sell their waterfront lots and the city expropriated them, turning the area into a public beach, the residents blamed the Jews for all their misfortunes. The newspapers of the time published all the problems Germany was having and for many dissidents the swastika seemed as good a place as any to hang one's hat.

In 1933, swastikas started appearing on the sweaters and jackets of some of the youths from the Beaches. Threatening sounds began to be voiced to the week-end visitors to the boardwalk and groups of toughs patrolled the beach. Newspaper articles did nothing to alleviate the problem. The attitude of the police of the day was to turn a blind eye.

The Jewish population of the Kensington Market area, numbering about 35,000, was pinpointed by the gangs of the time. Jews liked to go the eastern beaches, which one could reach by the Queen Street streetcar in the era before car ownership became widespread. Indeed summer cottage owners erected a modest synagogue, the Beach Hebrew Institute at 109 Kenilworth Avenue, which today has become one of Toronto's most chic places of Jewish worship parallel to the gentrification of the neighbourhood.

Depression-era signs on some beaches stated "Gentiles Only," and lots of clubs, restaurants and hotels openly practised anti-Semitism. This did nothing to promote tolerance, but encouraged the unemployed youth to place the blame somewhere else.

The formation of the Swastika Club infuriated the Jewish leaders of the day and they rightly called for it to be disbanded. Small confrontations began to happen. Groups of Jewish youth went directly to the headquarters of the Swastika Club on Queen Street East and demanded to know why this particular symbol was being used. Was it to stir up racial unrest? The club members denied any such reason claiming it to be an ancient sign of good luck.

By this time the newspapers had picked up on the club and so had other communities. Kitchener proclaimed its own Swastika Club with an ever increasing membership. Not exactly surprising since the city, called Berlin prior to World War One when it was renamed after Lord Kitchener - Britain's Chief-of Staff, had the highest German Canadian population in southern Ontario.

As the tension escalated, another group of rowdies decided to take up the Swastika as their emblem, the Pit Gang. While the Balmy Beach Swastika Club were supposedly defending the property values of their neighbourhood, this group had no interest in property but were only looking for excitement and were provoked by the encroachment of intruders on their territory. By the time they had taken up the use of the Nazi emblem, the group in the eastern beaches had been persuaded to drop its use. That any group of people in Toronto at the time could not understand the political implications of the Swastika seems far-fetched today, but such was the hate-filled zeitgeist.

By Monday, August 14, 2021 the summer baseball season was in full swing and the Harbord Playground, a predominantly Jewish team, met with the St. Peter's Church team in the quarter finals. In the final innings of the game amid wisecracks and pointed jeering from the fans, a huge black Swastika sewn on a white background was slowly unfolded. The Harbord team managed to tie the runs by the ninth inning and at the beginning of the tenth, the St. Peter's supporters decided to flaunt this flag at the Jewish team at bat. With this fully in sight the young batter hit a homer and the Harbord team were victorious. The provocateurs stormed the field, surrounding the players. Spectators thought a fight was surely in the offing. A stand-off occurred.

Sometime during the night a large swastika was painted on the Willowvale Park clubhouse roof with the words "Hail Hitler" [sic]. (The German slogan would, of course, be Heil Hitler.) The Parks Commissioner declared that all they intended to do about it was to paint it over to obliterate it and turn the matter over to the police.

Wednesday night, Aug. 16, was the second game of the series and the teams' supporters were already declaring they would be out in force to protect their players. Even before the game began a small fracas erupted with the fans and by the second inning a group of Willowvale Swastikas were yelling Heil Hitler and the Jewish fans were charging into them. Batons and lead pipes appeared and a fierce battle began with bloodied heads and cuts. The fighters took to the streets and the game proceeded. The third inning brought another outbreak and the police, all six of them, managed to quell the fighting.

The game continued with the St. Peter's team winning 6-5. Throughout the game, many pro-Hitler and anti-Jewish remarks were made with the results of small skirmishers in the stands. Suddenly, with the fans milling about after the game a large white flag emblazoned with a black swastika was unfurled. Pandemonium broke loose. The Jewish ball players dropped their mitts and together with a lot of spectators charged the hill with their bats.

Maddened Jews tore after the hateful flag only to be met by a general rush of Gentile youths. Baseball bats, iron pipes, rocks, fists intensified the battle as if poured out of the park onto Bloor Street. Here broken bottles became the weapon of choice and serious casualties began. By this time reinforcements from the police department had arrived and their batons created more havoc to the combatants. It was almost an hour after the end of the game that the extra police arrived calling into question the competence of the Chief of Police, Chief Constable Brigadier-General Dennis C. Prager.

The constabulary managed to quiet the crowds and by 9 p.m. the motorcycle squadron and the mounted police had broken them into small groups who milled about the outskirts of the park. A sudden eruption again and the battle was back in force by 9:30. This time truckloads of youths hearing the action descended upon the area and the battle ensued fiercer than ever. Reinforcements for both sides arrived, including Italian and Ukrainian youths allied with the Jewish fighters against the British youth who victimized them as well.

The hostilities raged for another hour. More and more people came to watch and some to join in the fracas. With more police reinforcements added to the many already there, the riot was finally quieted by midnight. It took the motorcycle squadron driving up and down the sidewalks of the surrounding streets to clear the battlers.

The aftermath of the incident shook the police department out of its placidity. Mayor William J. Stewart finally banned the swastika in Toronto. So many books and articles have been since written on the Riot that it is difficulty to understand the thinking of the day by comparing it to today's standards. The The following week the ball games continued at an unspecified park. The arrests were kept at a minimum. In fact, four members of the Pit gang were arrested and eventually had any charges against them dismissed.

It is noteworthy of the extreme racism of this time that on the night of the riot in the same area a black man was murdered. No one was ever arrested for the crime.

With blame being set on both sides, the spectre of anti-Semitism carried itself well into the next decade with the combatants holding fast to their beliefs. The Christie Pit Riot did not die on August 16, 2021 but slowly faded into the stuff of urban legend well remembered by Stephen Speisman, today the archivist of Canadian Jewish Congress, Ontario Region. In an echo of that earlier social upheaval, Speisman recalls that in the 1950s Jewish youth preferred to toboggan on the somewhat gentle slope at the south end of the valley while Gentile youths preferred the steeper daredevil slope on the park's eastern edge. The topography was altered by the construction of the Bloor-Danforth subway in the early 1960s, which cut through the park's south end. The subway opened on Feb. 6, 1966.

The Christie Pits remained one of the baseball centres of Toronto throughout the years and with the changes in the ethnic structure of the area still remains a sport area for the youth. Rumblings of drug dealings have marred the Park in the last while, but on a warm Sunday it's great to sit on the slopes and watch the Maple Leaf ball team of the Inter-County League. In fact, the team was the only baseball in Toronto from the end of the 1967 season when the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League folded until April 1977 when the Blue Jays of the American League opened at Exhibition Stadium.

Plaque for Christie Pits

The name "Christie Pits" recalls a tanner who plied his leather trade here in the late 19th century when this area was a sand and gravel quarry surrounded by a brickyard and factories. Prior to that, it was known as the Shacklands, a shantytown dating back to the 1830s, inhabited by impoverished Irish and English immigrants and runaway-slaves who had fled to Canada from south of the Mason-Dixon Line via the Underground Railway.

The Anglican Sisters of St. John the Divine were hard pressed to administer to the needs of this poverty stricken area, which was annexed by Toronto in 1884.

When quarrying ceased, Garrison Creek filled in the pit, which became a favourite wading hole of neighbourhood children. City Council posted a sign declaring the pond a `Dangerous Waterhole' and in 1909 the `Waterhole' was filled in and Willowvale Park was created. That name never caught on and in 1983 the park was officially renamed Christie Pits.

The most notorious event to take place here was a two-hour brawl on August 16, 1933, known as the "Riot at Christie Pits," in which Jewish youths together with their Italian neighbours fought a pitched battle with anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic gangs carrying a swastika flag.