A jumble of stories about an area lost to time
By Annemarie Brissenden
Before there was Ed Mirvish and his free turkey giveaways, there was Merle Foster and her annual Christmas trees; parties the sculptor would throw in St. John’s Ward for children who would have little other pleasure during the holiday season.
Foster’s story is just one of many delightful snippets to be discovered in The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood. Edited by John Lorinc, Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg, and Tatum Taylor, it’s a ragtag collection of essays, photographs, and narrative memorabilia about the area bounded by University Avenue, and College, Queen, and Yonge streets. Now known for Nathan Phillips Square, City Hall, high rises of office towers and condominiums, for many years the rectangular swath of city blocks was part slum, part artist colony, and part way-station for the thousands of people who lived and worked there. Toronto’s first Chinatown sprang up there, the first synagogue was built there, and the first novel of Toronto — Morley Callaghan’s Strange Fugitive — was set there. It was where Black men and women escaping slavery prospered alongside refugees of Europe’s pogroms. For many, it was simply home.
The book does not attempt to be an exhaustive history of the Ward, but is — rather like the area it memorializes — a patchwork quilt of stories that aims to echo its jumble. Chronology is eschewed in favour of randomness, and each random patch has its own tone. One entry traces William Lyon Mackenzie King’s summer investigating the sweatshops of the Ward for The Mail and Empire, while another examines city directories for clues on one street’s evolution. There are reminiscences of the V-J Day celebrations in Chinatown, a story about a Sai Woo condiment dish — “a genuine Ward artifact” — and tales of bootleggers, sex-workers, and strikes at Eaton’s.
This purposeful randomness is not without some frustrations, however. Readers grapple with abrupt changes in tone, and can be startled from a dry historical tract into a rollicking tale about “my grandmother the bootlegger” with the flip of a page. It’s also not clear how or why each entry was chosen, or what, if anything, wasn’t included. A brief biography of each contributor is included at the back of the book (placing them alongside each entry might have made more sense), but there’s no discussion of why each writer was chosen. It almost feels as though everything were thrown together accidentally, or haphazardly. A little more formality would not have been amiss.
Neither would some exploration of the themes that provide a common thread between entries, particularly the notion that no matter how much we evolve as a city, we can’t seem to shake certain obsessions.
Consider that Charles Hastings, Toronto’s medical officer of health in 1911, “vehemently opposed the development of modern apartment buildings as a solution to downtown housing needs, claiming they’d degenerate into tenements”. Or that from about 1870 — when the “pace of urbanization in Toronto had become the subject of public interest” — the “city’s newspapers began to publish annual reports about building activity in each ward”.
Or that as early as 1896, King was proposing to improve living conditions in the Ward through improved transit, cycling, and mixed social-class housing. While writing about tuberculosis, Cathy Crowe notes, “As a street nurse, I was always drawn to Goss’s photos because they mirrored what I had witnessed in the flophouses, shelters and streets of contemporary Toronto”.
And a 1918 report released by the Bureau of Municipal Research, a non-profit advocacy group, recommended that “public schools should be open for community use after school hours”, and “any new housing developments should include adequate municipal services and employment opportunities for residents”.
Did you know?
- Several blocks of Toronto’s first Chinatown were razed to make way for Nathan Phillips Square
- The Hospital for Sick Children sits on land that in 1947 was a trailer park for people who couldn’t find alternate housing
- The Ward’s bootleggers were often older women who relied on the trade to survive; one of the Ward’s most notorious bootleggers, Bessie Starkman, was assassinated by an Al Capone henchman in 1930
- Before the formation of the Group of Seven, Lawren Harris did many paintings of the Ward; his first known painting of the area was titled In the Ward and exhibited in 1912
- America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford, was from the Ward, and grew up in a brick home on University Avenue north of Gerrard Street
- The colourful houses on Gerrard Street, home to many artists and writers, inspired the creation of Mirvish Village
It seems ironic that the real story of the Ward, then, in a book that attempts to resurrect the memory of the area, is left out. The challenges faced by the Ward are as present as they ever were, and remain unresolved today. Our city has become one great ward, and as contradictory as the Ward itself once was. Let’s hope, though, that our future will not be limited to a random collection of essays in a book.