June 16, 2015
Author John Lorinc shares stories from The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood (Coach House Books). He co-edited the collection that revives a demolished area bounded by College, Queen, Yonge and University — now the realm of City Hall.
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Ep. 7 Ghosts of The Ward with John Lorinc
This is The Cities Podcast, I’m Brianna Goldberg.
I was talking with a friend yesterday about her family’s upcoming vacation to Europe. They’re originally from Iran. Hard-working small-business owners putting their kids through university here in Toronto. It took decades and more than a few heartbreaking episodes to finally secure their Canadian citizenship… But, with Canadian passports now in hand, she says she feels like the world is newly open to them.
They’re celebrating with a tour of global cities. Paris, London, Amsterdam… the kind of places whose names just drip with history. Deep history. Romantic history.
The kind of places that sometimes make me feel embarrassed to live in a city like Toronto. Still so young, still struggling to find its character. As urban studies professor Shauna Brail put it in episode four, not long ago we were ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water.’
It can be easy to feel at times like this city doesn’t have an interesting backstory. But maybe one of the reasons… is that we bulldozed over it.
John Lorinc covers urban issues in his writing for Spacing, the Toronto Star, the Globe and elsewhere. And he’s just co-edited a new book about a Toronto neighbourhood whose bones remain buried beneath the lands around City Hall, one that’s been likened to New York’s Lower East Side
The book he co-edited with Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg and Tatum Taylor is called The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood, published by Coach House Books.
It’s a collection of official and unofficial histories that bring the landfilled neighbourhood to life through dozens of storytellers — including U of T’s Mariana Valverde, Mark Kingwell, Shawn Micallef who you might remember from episode one of the podcast.
Here’s what the cover copy says… Crammed with rundown housing and immigrant-owned businesses, this area, bordered by College and Queen, University and Yonge streets, was home to bootleggers, Chinese bachelors, workers from the nearby Eaton’s garment factories and hard-working peddlers.
Its citizens were Irish, Jewish, Italian, African-American… a multicultural Toronto from as early as the 1840s… until the city flattened what it saw as a slum, to make way for Nathan Philips Square after World War II.
I grabbed a coffee with Lorinc and he shared some of his favourite secrets from The Ward, from tales of shvitz steam baths to abolitionist churches… the kind of stories that could make even a sceptic like me learn to love the story of Toronto… and see it on today’s streets now that it’s finally been revealed.
It’s weird as I learn more about that area, especially north of Dundas street that there was a very in-tact working class neighbourhood there until fairly recently… and it’s completely eradicated. Like, there’s not a trace of it left. You know, in the rest of Toronto things changed more incrementally because of post-Jane Jacobs planning rules. But in that area it was, like, clean cut. But until the early 70s or late 60s, the built form in the area north of Dundas and around Gerrard and Bay was pretty much in tact, right? Lots of row houses, small shops, trees. There’s a picture in the book of the corner of Hader and Laplante which is a corner nobody now knows about or goes to because it’s like the corner of nothing and nothing. But it had cottages and trees and cafes and it was one of these hangout areas in the 50s and early 60s and actually I was taken there when I was a baby, according to my mother, because my parents were Hungarian refugees and they used to go to a Hungarian joint there called Jack and Jill’s.
Brianna: And what’s there now?
Lorinc: It might be a condo or an office building, I’m not sure. Like, it’s got nothing. They’re just blocks of buildings. There’s no ‘there’ there.
Stories of The Ward skip from personal anecdotes of bootlegging grandmothers to a look at the area as a place the rich sought vice. It touches on Public health emergencies and murders. Synagogues and strikes. Chinese cafes as a means of survival. David Hulchanski explores how the ward’s renewal quashed its sense of community. Bruce Kidd digs into a historic playground on Elizabeth Street. Mark Kingwell writes about the impact of the new City Hall buildings on our collective imagination. And then there are smaller stories that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, like one of the short essays from Lorinc’s co-author Ellen Scheinberg, about a sauna… also called a ‘shvitz’in Yiddish… at a time when only 10% of the Ward’s houses had plumbing and yet its immigrant population was being blamed for its lack of hygiene.
Lorinc: I enjoyed discovering that there was more than just destitution there. And even at an early stage. So when the city really began to get worried about slum conditions, quote unquote, was in the early 1910s. And if you look at the photographs taken by the city, they’re pretty grim. Now at that time there were a lot of Eastern European Jews coming to that neighbourhood. So Ellen has this fantastic story about this guy who came from Eastern Europe who was a peddler. Didn’t do so well as a peddler, say he’s hauling around this cart, collecting rags and bones and whatever. He didn’t do so well. So he decided to set up a shvitz bath in his house. Part of it was a ritual bath for the women but part of it was a shvitz bath and then it got kind of popular. Now this was on Centre Street. And I’ll talk about Centre Street in a second. So he bought the house next door, expanded the whole operation, advertised. The interesting thing is that, so in his business where these men would go for shvitz baths, it wasn’t just Jews. There were African-Americans and there were Italians, Macedonians. There was everybody. They’d sit there and they’d talk about politics and have a drink and whatever. It’s like a fantastic image of what this city was capable of a long time ago, long before we associated multicultural aspects to Toronto.
So that, the location for this place was Centre Avenue. Centre Avenue is again one of these nothing streets. It runs north-south for a couple blocks, just east of University Avenue at the courthouse basically up to Dundas. On one side is the back of a bunch of office buildings and the other side is a parking lot which is going to become a new courthouse. But I pass Centre Avenue quite regularly when I go to City Hall. I get out at St. Patrick subway station and cut through an office building and then cross Centre and then cross that parking lot. I always think about this shvitz bath.
And then on the other side of that parking lot there was a church, which was an incredible thing. And as an aside, we are incapable of not only remembering but acknowledging publicly that these places existed. So, there’s a church that was built by basically a community of African-American slaves and freemen came up through Windsor and Chatham and ended up in Toronto because Toronto was place where there was a lot of abolitionist sentiment here going way back, in 1847 or something like this. This community, small, entrepreneurial, upwardly mobile, very education-oriented community of African-Americans got enough money together to build a church which was located basically opposite where the Chestnut hotel, the U of T residence is. Now, it’s a parking lot entrance today.
At the minimum there should be a plaque there saying what was there. It was the centre of the community. They had people like Frederick Douglas come up and speak in Toronto and it was a place where there was a lot of talk about all of these civil rights issues a hundred years before there was a Civil Rights movement. And there are all these ghosts in that area. And for me the great pleasure in doing this book is that I can walk around and I can see what was there now. And our publisher was terrific and allowed us to put in a lot of pictures. The pictures are really important because you can see what was there and what’s not there now. And I don’t want to be nostalgic about it but it is kind of cool to be able to sort locate yourself and say, ah, this is what was there.
That was John Lorinc. He’s a senior editor at Spacing Magazine and co-edited a book about The Ward, published by Coach House Books.
I’m guessing that you have a favourite secret history of Toronto, too. So tweet with the hasthtag #uoftcities or send me an email at email@example.com… Your tips will help me find great stories and make their way into future episodes.
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Music you heard in this episode comes from Ketsa and Jazzafari, made available on the Free Music Archive.
This series is produced by me, Brianna Goldberg, with help from U of T News editor, Jennifer Lanthier.
Thanks for listening.