Let’s explore the significance of Toronto’s Cecil Community Centre, a building that has adapted to the surrounding neighbourhood for over a century.
Located in Chinatown at 58 Cecil Street, the centre serves the catchment area from Bathurst Street to University Avenue, between Bloor and Queen Street West. This area includes many distinctive neighbourhoods like Chinatown West, Kensington Market, Alexandra Park, and Harbord Village. Since 1978, the centre has had the mission to “foster a sense of community and enhance the quality of life through the development, encouragement and support of programs and activities responsive to local needs.”
In the Beginning
The Cecil Community Centre’s building has a rich history reflective of the ever-evolving neighbourhood around it. Built in 1890 by architects Knox and Elliott, it was originally the church of the Protestant congregation of the Church of Christ. Toronto’s Jewish population rapidly grew in this area between 1900 and 1930, and the building was sold in 1922 to the Polish Ostrovtzer congregation. It became a synagogue and the bell tower that originally adorned the roof was converted to a dome. In order to raise money for the purchase of the building, the congregation received donations from community members; their names were commemorated in gold Hebrew lettering on two large marble plaques installed at the inauguration of the synagogue, which are still in the lobby of the centre today. For decades, the Ostrovtzer Synagogue played an important role in the lively Jewish community of the neighbourhood.
In the Mid-Twentieth Century
During the 1950s and 60s, the Chinese population of Toronto established roots around Dundas and Spadina after the near-total destruction of the first Chinatown for the construction of Toronto’s new city hall. At the same time, Jewish residents were moving to other neighbourhoods. During the mid-60s, the building at 58 Cecil Street became the Chinese Catholic Centre, acting as a religious hub and offering help for new immigrants to the area. Its congregation grew to have members from all over the city and it eventually relocated to a different area.
Then, in the early 70s, the building became the headquarters for one of Toronto’s earliest gay rights groups, the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT). CHAT used the building as offices and as a space to hold events, conduct public education, offer support services such as drop-in sessions and counseling phone lines, and many other activities for the local gay and lesbian community. CHAT also hosted many early Pride week events, such as panels and art exhibits, and was the starting point of Toronto’s first gay pride march in 1972. In 1973, CHAT moved their operations to a new location on Church Street.
Finally, in the late 70s, the city acquired the building at 58 Cecil Street and it became the Cecil Community Centre. Operating now for over four decades, the centre caters to kids, youth, adults, and seniors through camps, educational workshops, health and fitness classes, language classes, tax clinics, and so much more. They serve diverse neighbourhoods and offer a welcoming space inclusive of racialized, low-income, homeless, and LGBTQ+ peoples to increase connection and foster community. As many of their programs have had to be canceled or moved online due to the pandemic, the centre continues to serve its community; in late May of this year, the centre hosted a Covid-19 vaccine clinic with volunteer translators, live music, and lion dancers!
As the neighbourhood around 58 Cecil Street has changed over the last century, the building has changed with it. Its adaptable nature is reflected in the Cecil Community Centre’s mandate to provide responsive programs to local communities. The building has played an important role in being a space for development and connection, whether as a church, a synagogue or a headquarter for a social justice group, and this legacy is continued today through the centre.