In What’s the Meaning of This?, we explain what those weird public-art installations you walk by every day are supposed to represent. This week: the story behind the biggest thimble in Toronto.
Name of installation: Uniform Measure/Stack
Artist: Stephen Cruise
Location: Northwest corner of Richmond and Spadina.
Date of display: 1997
What’s it supposed to be?: The street signs along Spadina, roughly between Queen and Wellington, may bear the words “Fashion District,” but that is largely a nod to the area’s past—something that artist Stephen Cruise hopes pedestrians will acknowledge when they walk past his installation. Consisting of a giant bronze thimble, sitting atop six oversized, multi-coloured buttons, and two buttons made out of concrete that now act as planters for growing trees, Cruise’s work is a reminder of the neighbourhood’s history as a centre for garment and cloth-making, which dates back to the early part of the 20th century.
In 1912, a thousand garment workers—many of them Jewish—at Toronto’s Eaton’s factory (at 483 Bay St.) went on strike to protest the sweatshop-like conditions in which they worked. And while they were forced back to work after just three months, many never returned to the factory but, rather, set up shop along Spadina, which at that time had a growing Jewish population (along with the nearby Kensington Market). For years afterwards, the area in and around that stretch of Spadina was known for the production of clothing, garments, and textiles, though things have changed considerably since then. “I was fortunate to visit some of the last garment-making houses back in the mid-1990s,” says Cruise, “but, at that time, everyone was going offshore, and the spaces were all being renovated and taken over by IT companies.”
And while the street signs still speak to the area’s history, there will soon come a day when it’s all just a distant memory. “Looking back on the piece now, it almost resembles a stupa, so I think it’s very appropriate.” One slightly comical note: the long tape measure running along the sidewalk originally existed simply as an outline of the sowing ruler but a concerned citizen has, within the last few years, painted it yellow, and filled in the numbers without Cruise’s blessing or approval.