I was first introduced to The Ward several years ago through a compelling archival photograph. It was of an impoverished child standing in the debris-filled lane of what looked like a ‘slum’. In the background were the unmistakable Romanesque Revival towers of Old City Hall. The disparity between the two places – the majestic civic heart of the city and the desperate ‘ghetto’ literally at its doorstep – struck me at the time. And it still does. Even more striking is that photo was taken in what is now the southern end of Nathan Phillips Square.
The story of St. John’s Ward is very much one of lost geographies (like in the photo), lost narratives, and how and why we remember or don’t remember. The Ward’s former borders were from Yonge to University and College to Queen. Those streets still exist of course, but the built form between them largely hasn’t survived. For a long time, the stories associated with those landmarks and their Chinese, Italian, Jewish, and Black communities also went underground.
The 2015 release of The Ward: The Life And Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood was an excellent step in revealing those narratives. The book was co-edited by John Lorinc, Ellen Scheinberg, Michael McClellan, and Tatum Taylor, and features the great contributions of many talented writers. It is easily one of my favourite titles in the Toronto History genre. Today, “The Ward: Representations and Realities, 1890 – 1950” continues that work.
Part of the Myseum of Toronto’s 2015 “Intersections” festival, “The Ward” exhibition is housed in Campbell House Museum, the 1822 residence of Sir William Campbell, a former Chief Justice of Upper Canada. In 1972, the Georgian-style house famously moved from its original location on Adelaide Street to Queen and University.
It’s a fitting locale given the museum’s placement near the historic area of The Ward (and indeed, above the mantle of the ballroom is an aerial photograph of the neighbourhood taken from the location of the museum.)
The challenge of interpreting and showcasing The Ward’s histories is the lack of contemporary borders attached to those stories. Thus, from a museological perspective, it affects the kinds of artefacts one has access to. Photos of The Ward are abundant, so the curators – Paul Bishop, Daniel Panneton & Marisa Strom – had no issues there. Photographer Arthur Goss, at the instruction of the health department of the day, did a remarkable job of documenting the troubling conditions of the enclave.
The show is organized thematically with well-displayed panels and pictures about The Ward’s politics, labour strife, Lawren Harris’ artistic take on the area, and other realities. New to me was Albert Lane was one of Toronto’s notorious laneways.
A nice collection of loaned artefacts offer some physical connections to The Ward. They include a labour union banner, restaurant items and Eaton’s pins, and a copy of the (in)famous 1911 Hastings Report in which Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Hastings, observed and critiqued the overcrowded, ‘diseased’ conditions of the enclave. Slums were not a good look for Toronto, according to the high-ranking civil servant. The report came to be the official representation of The Ward.
The neatest addition for me, though, was the collection of oral histories from surviving members of the neighbourhood. “The Voices of The Ward” offer different realities than the Hastings Report — one that emphasizes its deep community. Stories include the ethnically diverse clientele of its shops, being an Italian during the War, and how Eaton’s would not hire Italians.
The interviews provide an audible, human element to The Ward in a way that faces in pictures or names in old news articles cannot. Archival images and words are certainly great resources, but they can put history at a distance. The recordings are a very important reminder that there are living connections to St. John’s Ward today. After all, 1950 wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of history. Residents of The Ward and their descendants still live in Toronto.