Toronto has long prided itself on its diversity, even enshrining the value in its latest global ad campaign with the words “the views are different here.” It’s a value many inside and outside the city are proud to champion.
But right in the middle of the downtown core lies a key piece of that diverse history that has, until recently, been mostly forgotten.
From the 1840s until the Second World War, St. John’s Ward (known as The Ward) was home to thousands of newcomers from around the world. Houses and businesses were crammed in between Queen St., Yonge St., University Ave. and College St., an area that is now a vital part of Toronto’s downtown core.
“It was a fascinating moment in Toronto’s history,” Gracia Dyer Jalea tells Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer. She is the co-founder and executive director of the Toronto Ward Museum, a space that shares the city’s migrant stories.
According to Jalea, the neighbourhood offered newcomers a chance to grow their families, work and start businesses.
Some of its earliest inhabitants included African American slaves fleeing the United States, who founded a Methodist church that served as an important focal point for the city’s growing black community. Other early residents included refugees fleeing the Irish potato famine.
By the early 1900s, the neighbourhood included Jewish people who escaped the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, along with Italians, Germans, Russians and Chinese immigrants. The neighbourhood was bustling with cafés, restaurants, laundries and other businesses serving working-class citizens, many of whom worked at the nearby Eaton’s factories. Toronto’s Little Italy began to take shape, and the first Chinatown started to emerge.
The vibrant neighbourhood was also frequented by writers and artists, including the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris, who painted images of its buildings prior to his work chronicling the landscapes of Canada’s North.
It also attracted the attention of a young William Lyon Mackenzie King, who went on to become Canada’s longest serving prime minister.
In a series of articles for the Daily Mail and Empire he wrote, “Everyone is inclined to be ready to criticize St. John’s Ward but the reputation which this ward possesses today must be attributed more to the overcrowding of its houses than to any fault in the character of the tenants who inhabit them.”
Indeed, housing was tight and dilapidated, and poverty was prevalent, and the area became known as a slum.
“If you look at early images from the neighbourhood from the early 20th century, some of the descriptions are that this was an immigrant slum,” says Gracia Dyer Jalea. “Those images were commissioned by departments [such as] public health, and in my opinion all done to make a case for why it should be demolished.”
Eventually the city did begin to carve off parts of The Ward, making way for the hospitals that now line University Ave., and later for highrises, the new City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square.
One of the last holdouts was the Chinese community. “In 1955, the city removed all these Chinese businesses and as a result 500 people lost their jobs,” says Jalea. “[Chinese peopele] lost their livelihoods and their homes and were just forced to move out of the neighbourhood.” They eventually moved west, reestablishing a second – and current – Chinatown.
According to Jalea, there are only a few remaining buildings from the heydays of The Ward. They include a handful of row houses, Osgoode Hall, the Church of the Holy Trinity, Old City Hall and the Arts and Letters Club.
The only other reminder is a lone plaque, sponsored by a local business group and placed near City Hall. It details the uprooting of the Chinese community. Many of the neighbourhood’s last remaining former residents have begun to die off, fading from collective memory.
Jalea interviewed former residents about their early years in Toronto for an oral storytelling project. She believes the decline of The Ward is a cautionary tale about how Toronto handles its current low-income areas.
“Some of these neighborhoods get characterized as unsafe, unsavoury, [with] public health issues and safety issues,” she says. “This is all very reminiscent of what was said of The Ward, and what is still in some cases being said about it.”
She says what’s not being shared enough is the community services and support networks that exist in these communities.
“I think we have to involve [the] community in how we define what the future should be. That begins with looking at the past and discussing what should be remembered, what lessons can be learned from the past, as we imagine a more equitable and inclusive future.”
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