Bound by College Street to the North, Queen Street to the South, University Avenue to the West and Yonge Street to the East, the Ward was where many newcomers first settled from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.
Bound by College Street to the North, Queen Street to the South, University Avenue to the West and Yonge Street to the East, the Ward was where many newcomers from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th centruy first settled. It was a densely populated neighbourhood and at various points home to African-Canadians, refugees from the Irish Potato Famine, African-Americans who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, Russian and Eastern European Jews, Italian and Chinese migrants, and many more.
Prior to this, the site where the exhibition now stands was located south of a sacred Indigenous river later known as Taddle Creek (Lorinc, 2016), with the sacred land where the modern city of Toronto now stands being the site of human activity for at least 15,000 years prior to the period discussed in this exhibition. The land is the territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River (Ontario First Nations Maps, 2016).
Former residents of the Ward included: Thorton and Lucie Blackburn, African-Americans who escaped slavery and who became wealthy landowners and owners of Toronto’s first taxi company; Francis G. Simpson Sr., a shoemaker who lived at 31 Centre Street (7 Centre Avenue) and was a reputed conductor of the Underground Railroad; Edward Lye (90 Sayer/Chestnut Street), a famous organ maker and founder of Edward Lye and Sons Organ Company; Rev. Thomas Jackson, one of the last Ministers of the BME church on 94 Chestnut St.; Edward Pasquale, a grocer and the founder of the Unico and Gallo brands; Bertrand Joseph (BJ) Spencer Pitt, a prominent lawyer who once lived at 123 Chestnut St. and then at 168 Dundas St., who was also the uncle of the Hon. Romain W. Pitt, a retired Ontario Superior Court Justice; Judge George Carter, a former resident of 10 Walton St. who articled for BJ Spencer Pitt; and many more.
The Ward was an attractive area for newcomers due to its affordable housing and proximity to downtown workplaces. The majority of people who settled in the Ward were predominantly working class. In most cases, the living conditions were poor, homes were overcrowded and often lacked proper heating and sanitation. Infant mortality was high. Families often left as soon as they were able to afford the move – typically staying no longer than five years.
In 1911 an investigation by the City of Toronto’s Department of Health documented in detail the poor living conditions in the Ward. These reports sparked heated political debates that eventually led to the demise of the area. Slowly, amid protest, individuals and communities were pushed out. Businesses, churches, synagogues, theatres, and shops closed as residents were moved out and buildings were demolished to make way for hospitals, government buildings, Eaton’s Department Store, a bus terminal, New City Hall and Nathan Phillip Square.
With so few buildings from the historic neighbourhood remaining the stories and images of former Ward residents and their descendants must play a central role in helping us to better understand what it was like to live in the area. Through the sharing of these stories we recognize the legacy of the Ward and how, even today, it continues to inspire our aspirations for the city’s future.
Please click on any of the images below to begin exploring stories of the Ward.