The Ghost of a Place — The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood

Toronto is a city I know well. As a child and teenager growing up a couple of hours west of this metropolis, it was the go-to “big city,” the place where you could shop for fancy things, eat special food, go to galleries, museums, concerts, clubs. As an adult, I lived in Toronto for a few years (in the Junction, which will always have a place in my heart). But it is only recently that I have learned about The Ward, thanks to this illuminating book.

The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood, edited by John Lorinc, Michael McLelland, Ellen Scheinberg, and Tatum Taylor, is comprised of memories, scholarship, historical documents and maps, and intergenerational stories that have been passed down through families and communities. It is a treasure trove of details of a place and time that no longer exists—at least not in this particular way. Reading this collection is like travelling through time.

The Ward (short for “St. John’s Ward,” back in the days when the city was divided into segments named for saints), was a neighbourhood where many newcomers to Toronto first settled, thanks to its low-cost housing and cultural diversity. Geographically, it was bound by College Street to the north, Queen Street to the south, University Avenue to the west, and Yonge Street to the east. Traditionally, this area was the ancestral land and meeting spot of many First Nations, including the Huron-Wendat, Petun, Seneca, Anishinaabeg, and the Mississaugas of the Credit.

From the 1800s to the 1920s, The Ward was home to immigrant communities including refugees fleeing Russian and Eastern European pogroms, refugees from the Irish potato famine, and African Americans fleeing slavery on the Underground Railroad (although that term was not coined until the 1830s). Later in the 19th century it was also home to Toronto’s Italian community and the location of its first Chinatown.

The Ward developed in this spot, posits this book’s introduction by author and journalist John Lorinc, thanks to three cornerstone institutions. The first was the Church of the Holy Trinity. Completed in 1847, it was built explicitly to serve the city’s poor (the standard practice at the time was to charge fees for the use of pews — at Holy Trinity, seats were free) and located between Yonge and Terauley (now Bay) streets, just north of Queen Street. The second was the British Methodist Episcopal Church, located east of University Ave. and just south of Agnes (now Dundas) Street. This church was built by and for the city’s African-Canadian community, many of whom had come to Toronto because of “its reputation as a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment.” The British Methodist Episcopal Church, in addition to religious services, offered educational programs and public meeting space for the Black community. The third institution that framed The Ward was the Poor House. Located at Elm and Elizabeth, this Victorian institution relocated to The Ward in 1847 and provided food and shelter to destitute people. Women and children were provided for unconditionally, but men were forced to break stones in the stone yard to receive their welfare.

As far back as the 1850s, here was a complex and recognizably urban neighbourhood already characterized by ethnocultural diversity, crushing poverty and upward mobility, as well as the presence of sturdy institutions that claimed to be acting in the best interests of the area’s inhabitants.”

The Ward: Introduction by John Lorinc

This was the foundation of the Ward. Then, in the latter half of the 19th century, rapid changes began to occur. In the 1890s the T. Eaton Company began building its enormous brick-and-glass factories along the eastern border of The Ward. During that decade, and the early years of the 20th century, social reform, suffrage, and union membership was booming (as was missionary work and temperance activism). The Ward, as a working-class district, opened its arms and its cheap, crumbling rooms (often with no plumbing or street frontage) to the floods of immigrants arriving from Italy, China, Eastern Europe, Macedonia, and Finland. According to Lorinc, the population of Toronto increased from 56,000 to 376,000 between 1871 and 1911, a truly explosive growth.

The essays in this book paint a thorough and multifaceted portrait of The Ward. The contributors range from history professors to street nurses, to city archivists and journalists, to lawyers and activists. Many of them have roots in The Ward, and grew up with stories from their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents that give a very human understanding of the neighbourhood.

I learned so many fascinating things reading this book. Among them were stories about the bootlegging trade; Chinese laundries; the freedom-seeking Black men and women who settled in the never-segregated Ward (two of whom went on to become Toronto’s first Black deputy mayor and Toronto’s first Black postman); the Eaton’s strike; the first Little Italy and the first Chinatown; the rag trade and the child newspaper sellers; the violence enacted on the Jewish community by the Presbyterian missionaries; the nuances of sex work in The Ward; and the heartwarming story of Merle Foster, a sculptor who provided whimsy, welcome, and treats from her art studio to the impoverished children of the neighbourhood.

The Ward certainly had its issues. The dense population and the lack of sanitary living conditions were a breeding ground for disease, and the crushing poverty was very real. For every hardworking entrepreneur or labourer who made a go of it, there was an equally hardworking person who was not able to. The sometimes horrific living conditions of the neighbourhood were well documented, primarily by city photographer Arthur Goss. Nevertheless, The Ward was also a home, in many ways a place of opportunity, and, above all, a place of community.

Patient in a bed in Ward alleyway, 1912. Dept of Health.

Sadly, though, the city officials of the time saw nothing redeeming in this neighbourhood that was branded a slum. After the second world war, “urban renewal” became the priority. In an essay by U of T professor of housing and community development J. David Hulchanski, the deliberate eradication of The Ward is described.

Urban renewal was seen as the answer to The Ward’s blighted streets — it meant clearing away much of what existed and starting over. Existing government buildings, like the Land Registry Office, were replaced with a new city hall and a new courthouse. The city also expropriated and then demolished The Ward’s residential areas.”

“Unrealized Renewal” by J. David Hulchanski

In writer and heritage specialist Tatum Taylor’s essay “Storytelling is Part of the Story,” she writes about the way The Ward was portrayed in the media over the years — from an undesirable slum and a moral danger to a romanticized peculiarity. “The Ward was not an area that many non-residents frequented,” she writes, “so published descriptions had heightened potential to shape public opinions.” Perhaps something to consider today, as urban renewal, gentrification, and displacement continue to affect low-income communities.

Today this area of Toronto bears no resemblance to the neighbourhood it used to be, although ghosts of The Ward are still found in people’s memories, the odd keepsake, and the exhibits in The Toronto Ward Museum. It’s first on my list of places to visit the next time I’m in the city.

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