Long before Toronto became a city of condominiums, there was another kind of building boom taking place. It was the construction of residential apartment buildings – which in the 1950s and ’60s was something quite novel.

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Here’s something else you probably didn’t know. Many of the builders were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who had escaped the Holocaust and came to Canada after the Second World War in search of a better life.

Their story and that of the development of the city is told in a new documentary called Shelter. Directed by award-winning Toronto filmmaker Ron Chapman, it had its world premiere at the 29th edition of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival in June.

According to the film, Jewish builders were responsible for the construction of about a half-million rental apartment units in Toronto between 1952 and 1975.

Why did so many of them gravitate to the real estate industry? First, there was a shortage of housing at the same time the population was growing, and they thought they could fill a need. Also there were fewer barriers to entering the industry, as David Green (son of Al Green, Greenwin Group and Greenrock Property Management) explains in the film: “You didn’t have a guild, you didn’t have a union, you didn’t have to have an education, you didn’t have to contend with an anti-Semitic establishment, they could just do it.”

And who exactly were they? The names and the companies should be familiar to those in the industry: the Diamonds/Daniels (Cadillac-Fairview Corp.), the Tenenbaums (The Tenen Group), Sam Brown’s The Brown Group, the aforementioned Greens and characters like deal-maker Eddy Cogan, who connected them all.

But before that success was a time of great hardship. The film begins with the story of their early lives and incredible escapes. In one concentration camp, Sam Brown explains in the film, “over 600 people went in and in three weeks time it was down to six and I was one of them.” Shelter makes good use of archival footage, photos and dramatic recreations.

When the persecuted immigrants finally arrived in Toronto, they encountered both opportunity and discrimination (the city once had laws banning Jews on Yonge Street). The film incorporates the memories of several of the builders and their children.

As Allan Weinbaum, son of Anne and Jack Weinbaum (W. J. Realty & Gonte Construction, now the Preston Group), recalls: “One of the great opportunities for everyone in that era if you wanted to get started in business was real estate.

“My parents and their friends would…put together a pool of money, they would buy up a property, a house or farm and they would flip it,” he says. “They had a good intuitive feel for value and where the market was going. They just kept going and going and Toronto was a good place to do that in the ’50s.”

Soon Toronto saw apartment buildings like the Village Green on Alexander Street and clusters of residential buildings at Yonge and Davisville, Yonge and Eglinton, and the High Park neighbourhood. Apartments became the first abode for many new immigrants.

As a result of the boom, Toronto has more older apartment buildings than any city in North America, says Graeme Stewart, founding director for the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal.

“We think of ourselves as a city of houses, but we’re really not. We’re a city of apartments. It’s been the core of rental housing and affordable housing for decades,” he says, adding that more than a million people lived in apartments during that era, including the elderly, couples and factory workers.

“Even today, these apartments make up 85 per cent of the rental housing in our city. So it is a core housing infrastructure. It was so crucial in forming the city we are today.”

Ron Chapman
Ron Chapman

Director Chapman was impressed by this little known chapter in Toronto’s real estate history. He first heard about the Jewish builders from an “Irish Protestant immigrant” – Mark Kenney, who had learned the industry from some of these builders, was impressed with their contribution to the city and thought their story should be told.

“While they may be known now as successful and wealthy builders, it’s where they came from and how they got there that makes their story so astounding and compelling,” Chapman told REM.

Whether any of the builders or their families ever made a home in one of their own apartments, the film doesn’t say. Although one thing is certain. During that 23-year building boom (1952-75), the city grew from one million to two million people and has become one of the most successful examples of urban multiculturalism.

The film is screening on OMNI at these times (re-runs to follow):

TV version

  • OMNI BC/Pacific – Sunday, June 13 at 9 p.m. PT
  • OMNI ALB/Prairies – Sunday, June 13 at 9 p.m. MT
  • OMNI 1 – Tuesday, June 15 at 10 p.m. ET

Feature film version

  • OMNI BC/Pacific – Wednesday, June 16 at 2 p.m. PT
  • OMNI ALB/Prairies – Wednesday, June 16 at 1 p.m. MT

Watch the trailer for Shelter.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Lord Sifton in Winnipeg sponsored immigrants in the 1950s following World War Two. I only know about Portage and Main because my ex-husband (d) of thirty years was among them in 1953, actually living on the Sifton estate. There may be another storyline for you. But I don’t know if Jews were among those Sir Clifford Sifton sponsored in Winnipeg. He would never talk about the experience of arriving in Canada, sponsored by Lord Sifton.

    Re the “being blocked on Yonge St” the Jews simply moved over to Spadina, took commercial real estate area ownership and created clothing manufacturer empires. Then took real estate ownership of E.P. Taylor’s cloistered Don Mills; from there inundating Thornhill (as the Chinese inundated contiguous Markham Unionville).

    In later years the influx of Indian and Pakistan immigrants adopted Brampton en masse as their new real estate acquisition, creating a city within a city. We are a land of immigrants; some assimilate others not, creating cities within cities.

    Canadian history is full to running over with wonderful immigration stories. People in general don’t much talk about it. And don’t teach their children and in some education circles talking about it is verboten or at best frowned upon.

    Carolyne L 🍁

    • There’s really no place to post this comment but the message is worth rescuing.

      This title ought to be mandatory reading for those new to the real estate field or those considering joining the unique business world. I accidentally came upon it while checking out another title.

      I discover an oxymoron curiously within the title that the writer should have been told not to use: the use of the very demeaning word “tricks.” A pure example of what not to say… yet the book is chock full of treasures and truisms that are useful for those who travel or work internationally as for those who work at home (in all fields). Stop giggling… if you are a woman who wants to be taken seriously in the business world. Choose your clients with a purpose. And learn how business is conducted in other countries because those people may be doing business here.

      Not to be avoided, the learning curves are likely to improve your bottom line. Some of us were fortunate to have been taught many of these suggestions growing up, but there’s always something new to learn.

      Do you take just a second when disembarking a plane to say thank you to the captain standing at the exit for getting us here safely?

      I had reason to fly abroad a couple of years ago and discovered the captain standing at the deplane door was a senior middle-age woman. I offered a brief generous thank you for a safe trip, moving right along; and her face lit up like a Christmas tree. I was the only one to do so. I always wait to deplane until nearly empty so as to avoid the pushing and shoving mass exodus.

      Of course my shoulder lapel had my delicate “Carolyne” script logo pin mounted along with my City old Chamber of Commerce gold pin city ID. You just never know who knows whom where.

      One of the stewards on the six hour flight was actually from Brampton and recognized my city pin. I think I got a little extra service. He hung my winter coat in the staff cabin closet and retrieved it when ready to disembark.

      ===
      “How to Talk to Anyone 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships” Audiobook By Leil Lowndes – YouTube

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgS_59rYrEg

      Carolyne L 🍁

  2. Very interesting. There were also many Jewish families who fled Europe and came to Canada and became builders of apts..Winnipeg is one of them as Is Ottawa and Montreal but nothing like Toronto. Thanks for sharing the video.

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