Media Releases

Ep. 7 Ghosts of The Ward with John Lorinc

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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More about The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immi­grant Neigh­bour­hood (Coach House Books)



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… Your tips will help me find great sto­ries and make their way into future episodes.


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For exam­ple, the next one I’m pro­duc­ing to coin­cide with three major fes­ti­vals in the city next week… North By North­east, the Jazz Fes­ti­val and Lumi­na­to.


We’ll get the inside info from a music crit­ic and a Juno-win­ning musi­cian on what it’s real­ly like to break into Toronto’s music scene… and hear their advice for tru­ly mak­ing this a Music City.


That’s com­ing up on The Cities Pod­cast.


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.