If anyone ever quizzes her on the history of Gerrard/Ashdale Library, Ruth Henry has a surefire cheat.
She saw it from the start.
Born in the fall of 1923, Henry remembers winters when she curled up under the arched wood ceilings of the second-floor children’s area.
“I came every Saturday morning because there was a lady that told stories,” Henry said.
“We would get around that fireplace, and the fire would be blazing.”
Henry was among dozens of library fans, retired staff, and the Roden school choir who rang in Gerrard/Ashdale’s 90th anniversary on May 15.
Listening to a talk by local historian Joanne Doucette, she sat in front of that same inviting fireplace. A tapestry from Gujarat, India, now sparkles on the wall above it – a gift from a former librarian who helped bring Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and Chinese books to the shelves.
In her talk, Doucette said the neighbourhood was growing quickly when the Gerrard Library was built in 1924.
Back then, some classes at the neighbouring Roden elementary school had 60 students. Although it was built just three years before, the Main Street Library (then called Eastern Branch), was said to have just six fiction books left at one point.
Besides the need to serve young families, Doucette said the Roden Neighbourhood Association and others called for a library because they felt they deserved one.
The residents had made terrible sacrifices in the First World War. About one in three households along Ashdale Avenue and Woodfield, Hiawatha, and Craven Roads had a family member killed by the war.
The residents got the library, parks, and schools, but Doucette said many other families didn’t get what they wanted – a chance to move in. For many years, racist immigration and mortgage policies kept people of colour out of the largely English, Scottish, and Irish neighbourhood.
“We’re not talking about perfection here,” Doucette said. “People like to talk about the good old days, but there were no good old days.”
By the 1950s, beginning with the arrival of Italian and Greek families, the neighbourhood began to look more like the Toronto of today.
A key moment came in 1974, when Gian Chan Naz bought the old Eastwood Theatre next to the library and reopened it as the Naaz, the first Toronto theatre to screen Bollywood films. Soon after, the stretch of Gerrard near the theatre grew into the commercial strip known as Little India.
Cynthia Toniolo, the area manager for the Toronto Public Library, said despite questions about their relevance in a post-Internet, post-ebook age, brick-and-mortar libraries are as important for bringing in people to meet each other face to face as they are great spaces to curl up with a book or WiFi.
“It’s a place where you can connect, together,” she said.