John Lorinc: The City in Four Dimensions

Book Cover The Ward

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John Lorinc is a Toronto urban affairs journalist and co-editor, with Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg and Tatum Taylor, of The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood.

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When I was growing up, in North Toronto in the early 1970s, I loved to thumb through a picture book that my parents had acquired as part of a small collection of titles about the city’s history. They had fled Hungary during the 1956 revolution, settled in Toronto and set to work becoming Canadians, and, as the presence of those books suggested, Torontonians as well.

Some of these volumes documented a time that seemed impossibly remote. They contained (to my eye) dust-dry tales of stern Anglicans and colonial superintendents presiding over a town depicted in engravings that bore no discernible similarity to the city I was coming to know.

But one volume—A Toronto Album: Glimpses of the City That Was—captured my attention. Edited by Mike Filey, who became famous for his collections of folksy Toronto tales, Album was filled with early twentieth century archival photos documenting a city shaking free from its Victorian roots and becoming fitfully modern. Some images depicted vistas I couldn’t reference, but many others showed streets and buildings I recognized, albeit in an earlier state—tree-lined boulevards where offices now stood, the Royal York towering over the skyline, and so on.

Book Cover A Toronto Album

I recall one picture in particular—a shot looking north on a stretch of Yonge Street near Lawrence Avenue, just minutes from my house. The photo shows a country road passing by a tumbledown barn, with a shallow ravine in the background. But based on the information in the caption, I could align that languid image with my own knowledge of the same stretch, lined as it was with apartment buildings and a local library. Nothing in the old photo existed in the here-and-now of the early 1970s, except for that slight dip in the street as it passed over a creek. Yet that surviving contour rendered the scene highly evocative for me—suggesting, as it did, the ghost of another city that existed before the city I experienced every day.

It seems trite to say that old photos, engravings and paintings of urban scenes enrich our appreciation of the cities in which we live. But when we take the next step and superimpose those images onto our day-to-day mental geography, we have the opportunity to experience cities in four dimensions—to sense the way that time acts upon urban spaces, buildings, and, of course, people. We mostly don’t think of the ghosts that fill our cities—demolished buildings, or the long-dead individuals who walked these sidewalks or lived in these apartments before we arrived. But be assured that they’re there, and their collective presence informs the city of today, just as our presence will echo through time, to the city of the future.

 

When we superimpose those images onto our day-to-day mental geography, we have the opportunity to experience cities in four dimensions—to sense the way that time acts upon urban spaces, buildings, and, of course, people.

In The Ward, my co-editors and I sought to excavate a largely erased portion of Toronto’s history, using archival images and paintings as portals to stories of a neighbourhood that played an out-sized role in creating the contemporary city. The Ward encompassed a chunk of downtown—Queen to College; Yonge to University—that became home to thousands of newcomers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—Irish, African-Americans, Italians, Jews and Chinese, among others.

Ward City Hall

Many were very poor, but also ambitious and pre-occupied with building lives for themselves and their families. City officials, however, came to see the neighbourhood as a nexus of potentially contagious social problems in search of solutions. Many in Anglo Toronto were alarmed by this island of conspicuous difference, with its strange languages, unfamiliar smells and challenging habits. The Ward, in fact, was the very first place where Toronto confronts the geography of difference, and, by implication, the world that existed beyond the British Empire. It’s main artery, Elizabeth Street, was an urban space as vital and pulsing with life as the St. Urbain Street depicted in the early novels of Mordecai Richler. 

The short version of how the Ward’s story ends is that much of the original built form was razed, for a mix of motives—some well-meaning, others less so (public health and housing reform, anti-Chinese sentiment, a fear of the spread of New York-style tenements). In the 1950s and 1960s, the City expropriated or re-zoned much of the area to make way for a new civic square, offices, hospitals and apartment buildings. Cities must move forward, of course, but the loss was significant—a Kensington Market-like built form, plus places of worship, theatres, stores, factories, schools, parks, and Toronto’s first artists’ hang-out. Elizabeth Street today is lined with parking garages and implacable walls, and nothing much to denote its role in the lives of the generations of immigrants who lived there.

Ward Kids

Over decades, The Ward’s residents decamped to other parts of the city, built neighbourhoods, started businesses, and became Torontonians. But faint echoes of the lengthy and fractious civic conversation about what, precisely, the Ward represented—a debate that played out for almost half a century—can still be heard in the way we talk about immigration, poverty, housing, public space and culture. We still have a tendency to erase things, and to reduce the complex experiences of new immigrants into socio-economic problems to be solved. And unlike Richler’s Montreal, the Ward does not live on in our cultural imagination.

 Faint echoes of the lengthy and fractious civic conversation about what, precisely, the Ward represented can still be heard in the way we talk about immigration, poverty, housing, public space and culture.

Indeed, for a metropolitan region blessed with newcomers from all over the world, as well as stubbornly high levels of poverty and social exclusion, the Ward’s hidden stories are not just compelling, but essential and determinative. Like that old photograph of Yonge Street I found so fascinating as a child, those stories reveal the original contours of the city that is, and of course the city that will be. 

Suggestions for Further Reading: 

Consolation, by Michael Redhill

About the book: "There is a vast part of this city with mouths buried in it...Mouths capable of speaking to us. But we stop them up with concrete and build over them and whatever it is they wanted to say gets whispered down empty alleys and turns into wind..."

These are among the last words of Professor David Hollis before he throws himself off a ferry into the frigid waters of Lake Ontario. A renowned professor of "forensic geology," David leaves in his wake both a historical mystery and an academic scandal. He postulated that on the site where a sports arena is about to be built lie the ruins of a Victorian boat containing an extraordinary treasure: a strongbox full of hundreds of never-seen photographs of early Toronto, a priceless record of a lost city. His colleagues, however, are convinced that he faked his research materials.

Interwoven into the contemporary story is another narrative set in 1850s: the tale of Jem Hallam, a young apothecary struggling to make a living in the harsh new city so he can bring his wife and daughters from England. Crushed by ruthless competitors, he develops an unlikely friendship with two other down-on-their-luck Torontonians: Samuel Ennis, a brilliant but dissolute Irishman, and Claudia Rowe, a destitute widow. Together they establish a photography business and set out to create images of a fledgling city where wooden sidewalks are put together with penny nails, where Indians spear salmon at the river mouth and the occasional bear ambles down King Street, where department stores display international wares and fine mansions sit cheek-by-jowl with shantytowns.

Toronto: Biography of a City, by Allan Levine

About the book: With the same eye for character, anecdote and circumstance that made Peter Ackroyd's London and Colin Jones's Paris so successful, Levine's captivating prose integrates the sights, sounds and feel of Toronto with a broad historical perspective, linking the city's present with its past through themes such as politics, transportation, public health, ethnic diversity and sports. Toronto invites readers to discover the city’s lively spirit over four centuries and to wander purposefully through the city's many unique neighbourhoods, where they can encounter the striking and peculiar characters who have inhabited them: the powerful and powerless, the entrepreneurs and the entertainers, and the moral and the corrupt, all of whom have contributed to Toronto's collective identity.

Toronto: No Mean City, by Eric Arthur and Stephen Otto

About the book: Eric Arthur fell in love with Toronto the first time he saw it. The year was 1923; he was 25 years old, newly arrived to teach architecture at the University of Toronto. For the next 60 years he dedicated himself to saving the great buildings of Toronto's past. Toronto, No Mean City sounded a clarion call in his crusade. First published in 1964, it sparked the preservation movement of the 1960s and 1970s and became its bible. This reprint of the third edition, prepared by Stephen Otto, updates Arthur's classic to include information and illustrations uncovered since the appearance of the first edition.

uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto, by ed. Jason McBride and Alana Wilcox

About the book: Since the election of Mayor David Miller in November 2003, Toronto has experienced a wave of civic pride and enthusiasm not felt in decades. At long last, Torontonians see their city as a place of possibility and potential. Visions of a truly workable, liveable and world-class city are once again dancing in citizens’ heads. In the past two years, this spirit has, directly or indirectly, manifested itself in multifarious forms: in writer Sheila Heti’s sui generis lecture series, Trampoline Hall; in the transformation of derelict hotels such as the Drake and the Gladstone into cultural hotspots; in renewed interest in waterfront revitalization and public transportation; in exciting, controversial architectural developments such as the OCAD building, the expansion of the ROM and the AGO; in the [murmur] project, which catalogues stories about Toronto neighbourhoods and broadcasts them to people’s cell phones; in the explosion of the local independent music scene.

uTOpia aims to capture and chronicle that spirit, collecting writing by many of the people inspired by and involved in these projects.

The Street, by Mordecai Richler

About the book: In this beguiling collection of short stories and memoirs, first published in 1969, Mordecai Richler looks back on his childhood in Montreal, recapturing the lively panorama of St. Urbain Street: the refugees from Europe with their unexpected sophistication and snobbery; the catastrophic day when there was an article about St. Urbain Street in Time; Tansky’s Cigar and Soda with its "beat-up brown phonebooth" used for "private calls"; and tips on sex from Duddy Kravitz.

Overflowing with humour, nostalgia, and wisdom, The Street is a brilliant introduction to Richler’s lifelong love-affair with St. Urbain Street and its inhabitants.

 

            

 

May 22, 2015
Books mentioned in this post
A Toronto Album

A Toronto Album

Glimpses of the City That Was
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Consolation

Consolation

A Novel
edition:Paperback
tagged :
More Info
Toronto

Toronto

Biography of a City
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
More Info
Toronto, No Mean City

Toronto, No Mean City

Third Edition, Revised
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
More Info
uTOpia

uTOpia

Towards a New Toronto
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
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