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A historic walk with Bruce Bell along vanished Borgia Street (with lots of photos)

Sudbury.com’s virtual historical tour guide, Bruce Bell, is back and this time he’s taking you on a tour of a place that no longer exists

We all have collective memories, but somehow we remember them differently.

The first memory I have is being three years old in 1957 and being taken by my father to Melanson's Fish Market in the Borgia Street neighbourhood.

My dad, who worked for INCO out at Creighton, loved going to Melanson's as it was one of the few places in Sudbury that sold his favourite shelled seafood, periwinkles.

After our visit to Melanson's, we headed to the Paris House Hotel (one of seven hotels in the area) where I sat on his lap while he visited with his friends.

Even though I was only three years old, that memory is locked in my mind forever.

My dad didn't drink, but his friends did and I remember the smell of beer and seafood like it was yesterday.

I would like to think had Borgia Street survived, it would today be a go-to destination filled with farmers markets, restaurants, fishmongers and historic hotels, all within an area that should have been known as Sudbury's Old Town.

But sadly, it’s all gone, 100 years of history unceremoniously wiped off the map.

Borgia had a reputation as a rough and tumble street filled with taverns, prostitutes, bootleggers and second hand shops, no question there.

However, it also was a neighbourhood of families with family-run businesses, and as a friend of mine who lived there during my high school years would say, it was harsh but loving. 

Borgia was the most densely populated area of Sudbury with more than 2,000 people living in 300 homes on a few streets that surrounded its namesake roadway.

My high school friend lived on Vercheres Street, in a basement apartment with her sister and mother.

I remember there was dirt for a floor, curtains instead of doors, a pump for water and cockroaches.

For a kid like me from the suburbs, I had never seen such unforgiving living conditions, and my friend, well, she took it all in stride.

When the homes of Borgia were demolished, it took almost another 10 years for new ones to be built.

The historic old town, which dated back to the 1890s, was gone and better living conditions replaced, for lack of a better word, a slum. 

When I moved to Toronto, I would come home a few times a year, and on one visit in the 1970s, I went to visit my friend's mom, who was relocated to Louis Street in a brand new home that she loved and a far cry from the “dirt hole” (her words) where she once lived.

In the 1960s when I started to explore downtown Sudbury on my own, Borgia became a fascinating destination. Typically, I stayed closed to Elm and Durham, then the more gentrified part of downtown Sudbury.

Back in the day before the City Centre was built (now known as Elm Place), I would head over to Lisgar and Elm, then the informal entry to the Borgia Street area.

The four corners of Lisgar and Elm was a happening place, with Dolomity shoes on one corner, and across from that was the Canada Life Building, a very modern structure that wasn't even 10 years old when it was demolished. Across from that was the new post office and from that the extremely popular Army Surplus Store.

Before it was torn up to build the City Centre, Lisgar Street north of Elm had a slight bend to it with the Evoy Furniture store on one side and the Century Theatre on the other.

I remember the Evoy store well as I went to school with the owner's daughter.

Evoy's was two storeys high with large windows on the second floor overlooking the street and the theatre.

Even then, I thought how much this street looked like Paris, France, with its little curve and its old buildings (it would be another 30 years before I would visit the French capital).

The Century Theatre was a magnificent 1930s art deco-inspired movie house that saw many first-run films — “Dr. Zivago” and “The Sound of Music” played there.

What I remember most beside the movies were the impressive front doors, each one emblazed with giant 'C' handle.

Once you rounded the bend, you came upon Borgia Street itself where on the corner stood the famous (or infamous) Queen's Hotel. The Queen's was part of Sudbury's early mining heritage.

As it was often said, first came the railroad, then came mining.

Sudbury built two great hotels at the turn of the 20th century: the King Edward, which stood at Cedar and Elgin, and the Queen's on Borgia.

While both were considered fine establishments, the Queen's took a turn for the worse when the area started to become sketchy in the 1930s.

However, the King Edward managed to keep a bit of its former glory, as I remember my mom telling me that when she moved to Sudbury in 1950 from England, she had her girlfriends would often go there for afternoon tea wearing gloves and hats.

The Queen's (also known for a time as the New Queen's) had a second floor veranda that was its signature feature.

I was never brave enough as a teenager to ever set foot in the Queen's, but the one time I did as a young man, I remember it had saloon-style swinging doors. It also had a fire escape that was a rope with knots at two-foot intervals. Really.

Next to the Queens was the Paris Hotel, which was across the street from Melanson's Fish Market.

Next to Melanson was Lefebvre Meat Market and next to that was the Sudbury Clinic, which was beside a Marleau's secondhand store. Across the rail tracks was the King Taxi Stand.

Further along, there was the Toronto Bargain Store and Ferguson's Barber Shop. I also remember a Chinese restaurant called the National Tavern, a name that would become ironic.

On July 1, 1923, Canada banned all immigration from China, a day the Chinese community would call Humiliation Day.

Sudbury's Chinese community, mostly men who were brought over from China in the 1860s to build the railway across Canada, could only operate restaurants and laundries in the Borgia Street area and were not allowed to hire white women in those days.

Between 1923 and 1949 when the law was repealed, if a Chinese man wanted to stay in Canada and later send for his family, he had to pay the infamous $500 head tax, an enormous sum back then that only recently was paid back.

It was after 1949 that Chinese-run restaurants started to spring up in other parts of Sudbury, including the celebrated Radio Lunch on Cedar Street, and the racist hiring practices were abandoned.

Eventually, the owners of the National moved from Borgia to Lorne Street, and renamed it the Golden Gate Tavern.

Another building I remember well was the Co-op Funeral Home on Beech Street, just around the corner from Borgia Street.

I remember it because flanking its main doors it featured two dragons each holding a light fixture.

Right across from Melanson’s Fish Market was Greco Barber Shop and Slim's Lunch.

Further down the street was Lum's, another Chinese restaurant and near there was the legendary Louis Smoke Shop.

To this day when I mention Borgia Street to friends of mine who lived there, they always mention Louis Smoke Shop (I think it was the only place a young man could buy condoms behind the counter). 

Borgia Street had its fair share of fires, one of the reasons for its eventual doom.

The one I remember the most was the fire that destroyed Evoy's Furniture store in the late 1960s. From what I remember, Evoy's was never rebuilt and sat there, a burnt out ruin, until its ultimate destruction as part of Urban Renewal.

In 1966 when it was announced that the City of Sudbury along with Marchland Holdings was going to embark on its Urban Renewal project of the Borgia area, another mega development for the downtown was also on the books.

Marathon Realty wanted to build a new shopping mall on the rail lands where the School of Architecture is today.

This massive project was to be filled with shops, high-rise apartments and office towers.

I remember The Sudbury Star had a supplement detailing this development, complete with an artist rendition of how that corner to be known as the Elgin Mall was going to look. 

However, the Elgin Mall never got beyond that supplement, as the city wanted to focus its time and money on the Borgia Street project.

And so began the demolition of Sudbury's inner core.

Once everyone was moved out, the pulling down began and as I recall it was fast — one day it was all there, and the next it was all gone.

There were no pesky heritage boards that I was aware of to deal with back then, and most of the buildings were wood and poorly constructed, so down they came.

Canada, too, was going through an enormous change. The country was celebrating its 100th birthday, and Expo 67 out in Montréal all was going to be fresh, clean and new.

Everything from skyscrapers to housing to adopting new attitudes was going to be bright and clean.

Not only were buildings demolished, but so were streets. Notre Dame Avenue used to run directly beside Borgia Street and would end at Elm Street just east of Durham, as did the train tracks.

Notre Dame Avenue was realigned and expanded, eventually taking over what was once Borgia Street.

Today, where the eastern part of Elm Place now stands at Notre Dame and Elm Street, was once the continuation of Young Street. At Young and Elm, there were a number of unique railway warehouses that used to line Elm Street just east of Lisgar.

I remember during the summer of 1967, when it was announced that the inner city was going to be demolished, one of these warehouses was turned into a temporary discothèque.

Sudbury during the aptly named Summer of Love in 1967 had its fair share of discos and I look forward to sharing my memoires of those hot spots with you in a future article.

Once the 60-acre site was leveled, the building of the new City Centre Mall and public housing could begin.

What I remember most during the construction of this new city centre were the giant pile drivers pounding in huge cement foundation pillars, the first of those inscribed with the names of the men and women at City Hall, including then Mayor Joe Fabbro.

As the City Centre Mall began to take shape, I remember peering through the construction boarding at the new front doors on Elm and being very thrilled that it was almost finished.

It was an exciting project for the time, as it was hoped it would revitalize the downtown core. In fact, it would eventually do just the opposite.

I remember the opening day in October of 1971 as a huge event with many hailing the new mall as a breath of fresh air for a once derelict part of town.

And why not? For at the time many of the mainstay stores — Kresge's, Zellers, Woolworth, Wolf's Bookstore, Murray's Restaurant as well as the Capitol, Empire and Plaza Theatres and the Nickel Range Hotel — were all still in operation, coexisting gladly with Sudbury's newest mall.

But, this wasn't to last. The downtown core began to shift its priorities from mercantile to commercial, and the older stores and business seemed to just disappear.

The biggest shift was once Eaton's moved from Durham and Larch into the new shopping mall, many felt that this was the death knell for downtown Sudbury.

I always felt fortunate enough to witness the end of Borgia Street and the opening of the City Centre as I got to witness first hand the end of the old and the beginning of the new.

But oh how I wish the powers that were back then would have renovated the old markets on Borgia, turning that part of our city into an old town experience and preserving its history, as well as building new homes.

Even though it’s all gone, today when I walk through Elm Place, I try and remember the sounds, the smells, the buildings and families that used to call this area home.

Bruce Bell is a former Sudburian, now living in Toronto. He shared his memories of Christmas in downtown Sudbury back in the 1960s and 1970s back in December 2020. You can read that story here. In January, he reminisced about SS Kresge’s, which you can read here, while in February, Bell took a stroll through the old Sudbury Woolworth's location. In March, he took us on a tour through the old Zellers store and last month he led us on a wander through the old Nickel Range Hotel.