The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood

The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood was the gift I received last year at my work’s Secret Santa event. The giver must have known me and done her homework, or lucked out on a book topic I love: Toronto history. In this compilation of short essays from 2015, 48 authors wrote over sixty stories about the area known as The Ward. Bordered by College and Queen to the north and south and Yonge and University to the east and west, The Ward housed immigrants in densely populated, yet often rundown homes. For over one hundred years from the 1840’s until the Second World War, waves of immigrants, most specifically Italians, Jews, Chinese, Irish and blacks came to settle in The Ward and set up their businesses.

The Ward provided an area where these immigrant populations would be welcomed, and various authors wrote about the multicultural harmony which even led to mixed marriages. One of my favourite chapters was “Paper Pushers” by Ellen Scheinberg, about the paperboys who peddled the news, often to earn money for their impoverished families. Kristyn Wong-Tam wrote “Remembering Toronto’s First Chinatown”, which only later relocated further west to Spadina. Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris often visited The Ward to make paintings of its houses, revealed in “Lawren Harris’s Ward Period” by Jim Burant.

In a wave of urban renewal, the City of Toronto gradually expropriated lands and razed buildings in The Ward to expand hospitals, erect office buildings and build the (then) new City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. The Italian, Jewish and Chinese immigrants resettled to establish new communities. Little of The Ward is left, aside from a few row houses on the northwest corner of Gerrard and Bay, the four peaked gables running from 181-187 Dundas Street West and the former Wineberg apartment building on the northeast corner of Dundas and Elizabeth. Patrick Cummins even wrote a chapter on these areas that didn’t get demolished and explained the buildings’ histories and why they were left standing.

I have found that books that compile short essays by different authors are not always the most flowing of reads. The lack of continuity in writing styles makes an uneven reading experience after only a few chapters. Yet in this case, I could go on reading without feeling restless. The writers kept their chapters between three and seven pages, and each one was supplemented by archival photos from that specific area. It was a read I couldn’t put down, and will gladly share it with others.

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