By Melanie Kwong, originally published August 26, 2009
Now home to Toronto landmarks, was once home to our city’s immigrants
Some forms of heritage can only be preserved through memory. In 1797, Dr. James Macaulay was granted one hundred acres of land in central Toronto . Within the next two centuries, his land would evolve from its modest beginnings as Toronto’s worst slum into an area now known for key landmarks such as City Hall, the Hospital for Sick Children, and the Toronto Eaton Centre.
By 1850, old Macaulaytown was already branded as a slum. Renamed St. John’s Ward in 1880, the disreputable nature of this area bounded by Yonge Street, University Avenue, College Street, and Queen Street caused its name to be corrupted into “The Ward”.
The Ward consisted of a mixture of residential and light industry land uses. Housing was largely unsanitary, in disrepair, and overcrowded by the city’s poorest immigrants. In response to increased housing demand at the turn of the century, landlords profited by subdividing land and raising rents which, in turn, forced many families to double-up in order to fulfill payments. Moreover, speculators considering the area for future commercial and industrial development placed these households under the threat of displacement.
Crowding worsened as the pre-war construction projects of Old City Hall and the Toronto General Hospital swallowed up large tracts of The Ward. Related issues of public health, including the wretched living conditions in The Ward, came to the forefront in these years of rapid expansion. Programs of preventative medicine, education, and condemnation of the worst of the dwellings were applied throughout the city, but with the Ward as its main target. Nevertheless, this reform movement would do little to alleviate the fundamental problems of poverty and hatred that would guarantee the isolation of The Ward’s inhabitants for years to come.
The period of British Toronto was not kind to its immigrants. Outside of The Ward, immigrants faced unaffordable housing, barriers to transportation, and overt racism. Upward economic and social mobility was a slow and difficult process.
In contrast, The Ward offered lower-cost housing, closer proximity to work, and community acceptance. Its location was also easily accessible from the immigrant arrival points at Union Station and the Great Western Station. Consequently, The Ward came to serve as a major immigrant reception area as well as an incubator for Toronto’s struggling Jewish, Italian, and Chinese communities.
From 1890 to the early 1920s, Jews were the dominant cultural group in The Ward. Starting in 1910, overcrowding within the district prompted the westward movement of the Jewish community, who made its presence known through the development of Kensington Market.
The second largest cultural group within The Ward was Italian. In fact, The Ward would host Toronto’s first Little Italy until the pressure of urban renewal induced the creation of a second Little Italy focused at College and Grace Streets.
After the departure of the Jews and Italians, Chinatown proper, or Old Chinatown, flourished along Elizabeth and Dundas Streets between the First and Second World Wars. The construction of the New City Hall in the 1950s would force the Chinese to relocate to Kensington and Spadina.
New City Hall would signal the beginning of the end for The Ward. In keeping with the demands for progress, urban redevelopment would continue in full force in the 1960s, eliminating almost all physical traces of its history as the slum district, and replacing it with much of what we see today.