Geist - - Features - Daniel Fran­cis

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 and daniel­fran­

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