Historic Preservation

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Modest Hopes

Modest Hopes

Worker's Cottages of Toronto
edition:eBook
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Excerpt

As our city evolves it is critically important to preserve and understand our community and the stories of the people who built the city. The physical form of their modest homes reflects this largely ignored part of the narrative. With this understanding can come value. The validation of these houses can in turn help to support their preservation and reuse. We hope that these stories will continue to be embedded in the city context and enrich the story of Toronto. Without value these various elements of the story of Toronto, the cottages, the mansions, the bridges, factories, public buildings and parks are vulnerable. So often it appears easier to demolish these structures, to rip those pages out of the Toronto history book than to edit and preserve them.

George H. Rust-D’Eye coincidentally summarizes the purpose of Modest Hopes in his Author’s Preface to Cabbagetown Remembered, when he writes that this book “… is intended to remedy, in some small way, the imbalance of attention to the lower social orders and their environment, caused by the perspective of the early writers on the history of this city.” In the early 1800s York was defined by Simcoe’s 1793 “Plan of York Harbour” with its ten square block grid just west of the river. The geography of the lake, river and rising ground to the north contained the small community of one and two storey, log, frame and later brick buildings. “Muddy York “, named after the condition of the streets, had a population of 700 in 1812 that was made up of mostly English, Scottish and Irish settlers, Loyalists who had fled the American Revolution and a small number of escaped slaves from the southern United States. Forty years later by 1852, York had become Toronto and had a population of 30,000 people.

As the use of brick, fired from local clay, became more common, initially as a way to clad wood structures to reduce the spread of fire, the red and “white” (really yellow or buff brick) used in Toronto houses became an architectural symbol of affluence and taste. Visitors to the city in the early part of the century often remarked on the clouds of wood and later coal smoke that obscured the community and the few church steeples, such as St. James Cathedral. They would also have been assailed by noise of industry, carters and merchants yelling in the streets as well as by the unavoidable smell of horse dung, and backyard privies.

These were some of the conditions that would have greeted so many of the thousands of newcomers that had begun to flood into Toronto at that time. Though this environment did not dim what must have been for many of them their almost inconceivable sacrifice, commitment and hope for the future. Their sense of dislocation, their fear of the unknown and the utter strangeness of this community in the wilderness would have been almost overwhelming but would have been somewhat lessened by the fact most of them spoke English, the language of their new home. Some of the new arrivals may have had family in Toronto with whom they could live until they found their own homes, which would have made the transition from the old to the new easier. But for most of the newcomers it must have been a struggle that is only comparable to the experience of immigrants today.

The enduring need for and dream of a “Home” as a safe and nurturing place to live and raise a family in the “New World” must have helped to sustain them. So many of these new arrivals to Toronto left or were driven out of their homes and off ancestral land that they and their families had lived in and worked on for countless generations. From the peasant’s stone huts or hovels of rural Scotland and Ireland to the crowded tenements of cities like Edinburgh, Dublin and London, the hope for a better future led them to Upper and Lower Canada and cities like Toronto and Montreal.

The conditions they had left behind, the experience of their passage across the ocean or the trek from other parts of the continent, the conditions they met on arrival, and their expectations that they had for Toronto would all affect their progress and success in their new home. The following sections will introduce a range of different immigrants who came to Toronto from the 1820s-1920s, describe who they were, where they had come from and the conditions they had left behind and talk about the reaction of Toronto’s citizenry and ruling elite to these waves of new arrivals. But more importantly as this is not about the social or immigration history of Toronto, this book will provide a detailed account and picture of the homes that these new arrivals to Toronto were able to rent, to own and to live in. The modest brick and wood “vessels’ contained and nurtured the lives of these future citizens of the City. Living in these small homes, these worker’s cottages that still exist and are scattered throughout the oldest parts of the city today, provided one of the first and most important, upward steps for these recent arrivals and embodied their hopes for a better future for them and their families. These 300 - 600 square foot (sf), narrow houses, found singly or in rows, often located in the less desirable, southern and eastern sections of the city, whether rented, shared or owned, symbolized their dreams for a better life, their improved economic status and success. Multi-generational families consisting of parents, grandparents, multiple children and sometimes other members of the extended family, lived and flourished in them.

A city can be seen as a collection of neighbourhood communities. Each one consists of a physical and tangible context made up of streets, buildings, open spaces, natural features, as well as an intangible context that is made up of the events, stories and the lives of the people who lived there. These varied communities combine all of these tangible and intangible elements to contain, enable and enrich the lives of generations of people who have lived and worked in them. This context and the individual elements within it reflect their stories. Scattered throughout the older neighbourhoods you can still find some of Toronto’s first “worker’s cottages”. Detached houses are squeezed between their larger, newer neighbours, or still exist in short rows and are hidden behind decades of change and “modernization”. The layers of porches and second storey additions, clapboard fronts, angel stone and vinyl siding, disguise the original modest homes that sheltered and nurtured the families of the waves of immigrants and labourers that built Toronto.

To have worked and saved enough money to move from the crowded conditions of areas such as Toronto’s former “Ward” neighbourhood into, for example, a self-contained, 12-16 foot-wide, frame and brick, 600sf row house, was the result of an unimaginably strong hope, belief and commitment to their future. For the workers and their families these houses were far from modest, they improved their quality of life and reflected their social and economic advancement, their ambition and values.

From the perspective of many Torontonians today though, these tiny, modest couplet and row houses are cramped, poorly constructed, unlivable and historically unimportant “teardowns”. John Doyle in The Globe and Mail comments:

There is little thought for the past, especially the past of the working poor, those who lived in tiny homes and laboured in the traditional industries and trades. Memory or acknowledgement of those who truly built the country with their hands and their skill and fortitude is obliterated. We just romanticize them as an idea and pave over their existence.

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Company Houses, Company Towns

Company Houses, Company Towns

Heritage and Conservation
edition:eBook
also available: Book
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Vancouver Vanishes

Vancouver Vanishes

Narratives of Demolition and Revival
by Caroline Adderson
introduction by Michael Kluckner
by (photographer) Tracey Ayton
edition:Paperback
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Casa Loma

Casa Loma

Canada's Fairy-Tale Castle and Its Owner, Sir Henry Pellatt
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