Throughout 2015 and early 2016, Torontonians working high up in the office towers near University and Dundas were able to observe a curious and slow-moving drama playing out on the site of a sleepy parking lot north-west of City Hall. Behind high hoardings, a team of archaeologists meticulously peeled back the asphalt, first in strips and then in large swaths, to reveal the shadowy forms of long buried buildings. Some of the foundations were large and in tact, while others were smaller and broken up. Strange holes – some rectangular, others round — appeared amidst the growing piles of mud and broken brick, with workers sifting through the contents, searching for objects like miners panning for gold.
The site turned out to be a tiny corner of St. John’s Ward, the storied and eventually infamous immigrant enclave that existed from the 1840s to the 1950s in an area bounded by Yonge, University, Queen and College. When the archaeologists had completed their excavation – part of the site preparation for a new Toronto courthouse on Armoury Street – they had unearthed between 300,000 and 500,000 artifacts, everything from animal bones and scraps of newspaper to tools, toys, cosmetics, and housewares, all of it evidence of how life was lived in a working class immigrant neighbourhood. Besides the objects, the archaeologists also discovered the remnants of a 19th century Black church, a synagogue founded by Russian Jews, row houses, factories, cisterns, hand-made wooden drains and over 40 privy pits.
Beginning in the late 1830s, modest working class cottages began to sprout up in an area north-west of Yonge and Queen, then known as Lot Street, which was the northern edge of Toronto. The city was growing quickly, and the influx of newcomers, many of them poor, created a demand for housing. This area, known as Macaulaytown (after the original owners of the land), was Toronto’s first suburb.
During the latter 19th century, it became home to many of the immigrants and refugees arriving to Toronto: Irish fleeing the potato famine; Black Americans escaping from slavery along the Underground Railroad, migrant Italian labourers, and finally thousands of Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe in the 1890s. By the 1910s and 1920s, the Ward had become home to Toronto’s growing Chinese community, and eventually came to be known as the city’s first Chinatown.
While St. John’s Ward was hardly the only neighbourhood in Toronto that saw large-scale immigrant settlement during the population boom that extended from the 1890s to the 1920s, it became one of the densest and most over-crowded, as well as one of the most visible. Many immigrants worked in the sweatshops in the looming T. Eaton Co factories along Yonge Street or ran their own businesses – everything from peddler’s carts to cafes, bottling factories, and junk yards. Yet the area’s packed rooming houses and the tumbledown backyard shanties rented to poor families came to be seen as both a blight and a potential public health disaster. Conditions in The Ward also incited moral panic – social reformers targeted the area as a hotbed of gambling and prostitution while temperance activists focused on the bootlegging that provided much needed income for many poor families.
Despite what mainstream Toronto feared in this community, its residents – generations of people who lived and worked there, and eventually moved on – built businesses, community self-help organizations, places of worship and even cultural venues.
Situated in the heart of a predominantly white, anglo-Protestant and politically conservative city, The Ward provoked both explicit and thinly veiled racist responses from outright assaults on Chinese merchants to strictly enforced rules about conducting business on Sundays. As a pejorative, “The Ward” became code for slum-like conditions and alien influences deemed by some to be incompatible with Toronto’s conception of itself. By the early 1910s, reformers began pushing for various measures to either contain or raze the Ward’s slums.
Despite what mainstream Toronto feared in this community, its residents – generations of people who lived and worked there, and eventually moved on – built businesses, community self-help organizations, places of worship and even cultural venues. Members of the mid-19th century Black community, which was centred in St. John’s Ward, established relief and educational programs for refugees arriving to the city from the pre-Civil War United States. Two generations later, Jewish immigrants established numerous synagogues in The Ward and, in the early 1910s, were active through the labour movement in pushing for better working conditions.
Meantime, some Toronto reformers pressed for the creation of new public spaces, like the Elizabeth Street playground, and set up non-denominational settlement services, like Central Neighbourhood House on Gerrard Street West, that sought to assist newcomers acclimatize to a new city.
In the 1910s and 1920s, the growing Chinese community — which was initially mostly comprised of single men due to Canada’s exclusionary immigration rules — established family associations, which provided everything from informal banking services to assistance for the elderly. Later, some of these organizations mounted amateur Cantonese opera productions staged on Sundays in downtown theatres. During the post-war period, Chinatown had many large Chinese banquet halls that often catered to white diners, as well as its own newspaper and outspoken advocacy groups pressing the federal government to repeal racist immigration laws.
Over the two decades after the end of World War Two, much of The Ward was expropriated and demolished to make way for new civic buildings, offices, hospitals and even a mall (The Eaton’s Centre). Throughout the century when the area teemed with families living in crowded and often profoundly sub-standard housing, tens of thousands of newcomers to Toronto passed through The Ward, Toronto’s original “arrival city.” The Jews migrated towards Kensington Market. The Italians relocated to College Street. The Chinese community, uprooted by plans to build New City Hall, moved north to Dundas and eventually west towards Spadina.
Although Toronto’s colonial history is one of immigration and settlement on lands inhabited for millennia by Indigenous peoples, the narrative of The Ward offers important lessons in the way countless newcomers — especially non-white and non-Christian – not only established themselves in the face of considerable adversity, but also changed the city with their presence, customs, and practices.
If we aspire to understand how Greater Toronto became the most culturally diverse urban region in the world, we can look to the stories of St. John’s Ward to gain a clearer understanding of what that past can tell our present.
(1) The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood
Edited by John Lorinc, Jane Farrow & Stephanie Chambers
320 pages. Coach House Books.