Remembering The Ward
The Ward was a working-class immigrant neighbourhood in downtown Toronto that seemed to encapsulate all the social problems of the modern city at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the 1950s, reformers “renewed” it out of existence.
In the summer of 1897, William Lyon Mackenzie King was a twentythree-year-old university student with a summer job at the Toronto Mail and Empire newspaper. King took advantage of his opportunity to write a series of articles about the city’s burgeoning working-class neighbourhoods and in particular The Ward, a downtown precinct that was gaining increasing notoriety as an urban slum. The future prime minister noted that certain sections of the city occupied by “foreigners” suffered from overcrowding, poverty and high rates of disease. In one article he described conditions in the sweatshops associated with the garment industry, though he had to censor himself, he noted, because some details were “too hideous to admit of publication.”
King’s investigations brought positive results for some residents of The Ward and for himself. Many of the worst sweatshops were producing uniforms for government workers, and as a result of his revelations an embarrassed federal government soon took steps to improve wages and working conditions. Meanwhile, King went on to attend Harvard University that fall; three years later he parlayed the contacts he had made during his study into a job in the Canadian public service, the first stepping stone in a long, successful career in politics.
King’s summer in the sweatshops is the subject of an essay by Myer Siemiatycki in a new collection, The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood, beautifully produced by Coach House Books. The book offers a kaleidoscopic history of the area, using more than sixty contributions from a diverse collection of authors to touch on subjects as varied as Chinese cafés, Jewish peddlers, street photography, public baths, urban renewal, prostitution, vaudeville, public health and much more. An array of evocative black and white archival photographs illustrate the text.
The Ward, or St. John’s Ward to give it its proper name, was a downtown neighbourhood bounded by College Street, Queen Street, Yonge Street and University Avenue. It was the first stop for many immigrant groups when they arrived in the city, as so many did during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an explosive period in the city’s growth. Until the 1880s it was, writes Karolyn Smardz Frost, “the heart and soul of African Canadian Toronto,” a refuge for Blacks fleeing the United States in search of freedom. Later they were joined by Italian, Chinese and Jewish newcomers. The Ward was home not just to an army of garment workers but also to the people who built the streets, laid the railway tracks, owned the market stalls, collected scrap and peddled their wares off the back of horse-drawn wagons; in other words, the city’s immigrant working class.
Being home to so many “foreigners,” The Ward naturally attracted the attention of members of Toronto’s British Protestant elite who looked down their noses at the newcomers and condemned the neighbourhood as a cesspool of poverty, disease and vice (when, that is, they were not visiting to take advantage of one of its blind pigs, brothels or bohemian nightspots). “A festering sore,” one Protestant clergyman called it. Even sympathetic observers were alarmed at living conditions in The Ward. Medical Health Officer Charles Hastings reported in 1911: “What we have read of with disgust as having happened in the cities of Europe in the Middle Ages, happens in Toronto now before our very eyes.” Houses were overcrowded and child labour prevalent; backyards were a mess and parks were almost non-existent. Many social reformers were followers of the eugenics movement, believing that southern and eastern Europeans were importing feeble-mindedness and sexual promiscuity into Canada and were threatening to “outbreed” the better stock of citizen.
For years reformers studied The Ward and debated whether to clean it up, redevelop it or eradicate it altogether. Faced with endemic social problems, city government eventually bulldozed much of it in the 1950s to make way for a new City Hall and civic square. Today it is, in the words of Shawn Micallef, another of the book’s contributors, “a disembodied notion, found more in memory than in physical form.”
The destruction of The Ward was an act of urban renewal common to many North American cities in the last century. The book is particularly interesting to someone like myself who lives in Vancouver, a city that in the 1960s went through its own flirtation with the “creative destruction” approach to urban regeneration before a protest movement derailed the planning
process and preserved much of the downtown from the wrecker’s ball. The story of The Ward also has contemporary relevance here on the West Coast. Vancouver struggles to come to terms with its own urban “slum,” the notorious Downtown Eastside, and doubtless there are many who would like to send in the bulldozers and “renew” it out of existence. For a Vancouverite, The Ward feels not like history at all, but present politics.
Is it my imagination or is The Ward symptomatic of a new vitality in the historical writing about Canadian cities? I am thinking of another book, Vancouver Confidential (Anvil Press), also an entertaining collection of essays published recently, about the disreputable side of urban life; that is, sex, showbiz, crime and corruption in the Terminal City. Do these books succeed in spite of, or because of, the fact that neither is produced by historians? The Ward is edited by John Lorinc, a journalist, Michael Mcclelland, an architect, and Ellen Scheinberg and Tatum Taylor, a pair of heritage consultants. The Vancouver book, although edited by the academic historian John Belshaw, consists of essays by a disparate collection of journalists, musicians, heritage advocates, curators and bloggers. “On any given day, there are more people learning about Vancouver’s history from the contributors to this book than there are in every undergraduate British Columbia history class in the world combined,” Belshaw boasts. In his own essay on the street photographer James Crookall, Belshaw suggests that the essence of street photography is “the pairing of public spaces and people in unposed and unguarded situations,” and in a sense this is the attraction of both books. They present urban life as it was lived in the streets by all the diverse members of the community. It is not City Hall that preoccupies their contributors but brothels and hobo jungles; not the Anglo elite in their west side mansions but Jewish rag merchants, east side gangsters and seamstresses in the sweatshops. “History is everywhere,” Michael Mcclelland, one of the editors of The Ward, reminds us, “and it exists in all communities” and in all the “undocumented and unrecognized lives” of the people who lived in them.
The success of The Ward and Vancouver Confidential at evoking the “street history” of their communities suggests that for the time being at least the academic historians have ceded the field to the amateurs, which on the evidence is no bad thing.
Daniel Francis is a writer and historian who lives in North Vancouver. He is the author of two dozen books including, most recently, Closing Time: Prohibition, Rum-runners and Border Wars (Douglas & Mcintyre). Read more of his work at geist.com and danielfrancis.ca.