Shaping Toronto: Reusing an Old City Hall

Originally published on Torontoist on September 30, 2015.

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Crowd gathered at the opening ceremony of (Old) City Hall, 1899. Photo by Galbraith & Lewis. Toronto Public Library.

From Old City Hall to mall?” To some web denizens interested in heritage and urban affairs, headlines along those lines have likely induced fits of anger lately. On the surface, you’d suspect the denigration of a National Historic Site was upon us.

Take a moment to breathe.

The suggestion in the city staff report to the Government Management Committee to convert Old City Hall into a retail centre as a future source of rental income is tempered by other recommendations to replace the provincial and municipal courts when they vacate the premises. Based on analysis from real estate brokerage Avison Young, stores could be part of a multi-use facility incorporating food, event, and civic uses. Such a fate is not unusual for other cities across North America dealing with historic city halls, or even our past municipal battlegrounds.

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City Hall on Front Street, 1895. Picture by Frank William Micklethwaite. Toronto Public Library.

When the city’s second city hall opened at the southwest corner of Front and Jarvis in 1845, it was intended as a mixed-use complex to ease overcrowded, unsanitary conditions across the street at St. Lawrence Market. While Henry Bowyer Lane’s design included a clock tower that visitors recognized as they sailed into the harbour, it lacked the imagination of its successors. Architectural historian William Dendy assessed it as competent, but hamstrung by “providing for too many functions with too small a budget.” The building was outfitted with more retail space than planned, as City Council desired more rental income.

Their greed may have been hasty. Merchants felt their shops were too small. Structural faults emerged as the building settled into the ground. Lane soon left town, leading a contemporary observer to reflect that it was “a very strange building and it was unfortunate for the reputation of the architect that he had not left the province before he completed the building instead of afterward.” The city stepped in to improve the building’s structural integrity.

By the end of the 19th century, the site was too tiny to meet the needs of a growing municipal bureaucracy, and too old-fashioned to meet contemporary ideas about grand civic architecture. The city decided to integrate it into an enlarged south St. Lawrence Market. While its wings were demolished, the centre was encased within the new façade. After decades of disuse, the old council chamber was reborn during the 1970s as the Market Gallery.

Replacement proposals during the 1870s and 1880s faced Toronto’s deathly fear of spending one cent too many. When the city purchased the site that would become Old City Hall in 1884, it was intended as York County’s new courthouse. But a committee viewing of Buffalo’s combined courthouse/city hall prompted a public referendum to borrow $200,000 to build a similar duo here. Opponents such as the Board of Trade and the Globe raised the spectre of spiralling costs due to potential political corruption and argued that a new trunk sewer was more pressing. The vote failed. Years of wrangling ensued until the cornerstone for E.J. Lennox’s design was laid in 1891.

When it opened in 1899, Old City Hall joined a wave of Richardson Romanesque landmarks emerging within the city’s landscape. These included the parliamentary buildings at Queen’s Park, the Confederation Life Building at Yonge and Richmond, and Victoria College. It was also well-placed near the city’s early skyscrapers, such as the Temple Building a block south. “Its clock tower soaring above the vista from the lake,” historian J.M.S. Careless observed in his book Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History, “this edifice was a testament in lavishly worked buff sandstone to the metropolitan dignity of the High Victorian city.”

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Before Eaton’s revealed models of its proposed Eaton Centre, local cartoonist drew their own visions based on early descriptions. Here’s Andy Donato’s from the September 10, 1965 edition of the Telegram.

Such dignity was less appreciated by the early 1960s. Once the current City Hall was approved, the future looked gloomy for its predecessor. In October 1965 a delegation from Eaton’s department store proposed to buy the building for $8 million from Metro Toronto, who had purchased it from the city four years earlier. Eaton’s, encouraged by city planners, intended to transform the mega-block of Bay, Dundas, Yonge, and Queen into the Eaton Centre a complex of office towers, a hotel, shopping mall, and new flagship store. Officials on the project claimed that Old City Hall was “an insuperable barrier” which, no matter how much they tried, was a square peg in the plan. Their solution was to demolish all but the clock tower, as well as getting rid of nearby Church of the Holy Trinity because of the march of progress.

While many politicians were dazzled by the plans—Swansea Reeve Lucien Kurata said it was “so gorgeous, it’s almost sexy”—public outcry arose. When revised plans called for the full demolition of Old City Hall to make room for the podium of the closest office tower, questions were raised. A lobby group, Friends of Old City Hall, formed, performing actions such as cleaning off a portion of soot to show the beauty of the original walls. Eaton’s suddenly cancelled the project in May 1967, blaming unreasonable municipal demands. John David Eaton, head of the retail empire, bitterly remarked to an associate “let’s walk across the street and tell [Mayor William] Dennison he can shove the Old City Hall up his ass.” The irony is that the building Eaton wanted to vanquish outlived his department store.

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Old City Hall, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 651, Item 18.

While our former City Hall carried on as a courthouse, other cities across North America found mixed uses for their former municipal sites, or are struggling with solutions. Boston’s 1865 Old City Hall houses tenants ranging from heritage agencies to law firms to a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. In Indianapolis, the old building housed the state historical museum for four decades, then served as a temporary home for the city’s central library. Vacant since 2007, the city recently entered a lease agreement with boutique hotel operator 21c Museum Hotels to restore the building as arts-related spaces and a museum, and provide a physical link to a new hotel being built in the neighbouring vacant parking lot.

Like Toronto, Tacoma, Washington nearly lost its Victorian-era city hall to demolition in the early 1970s. A remodelling with space for businesses and restaurants fell prey to the real estate market collapse. Falling into the disrepair, Tacoma bought the building from a private owner for $4 million earlier this yearafter a failure to meet repair deadlines. This week, the city is showing it off to potential investors, hoping to attract office use or a hotel.

Being a National Historic Site, it’d be a difficult, protracted process to radically overhaul the building, so anyone fearing a mini-Eaton Centre can probably relax. If such plans went ahead, public outcry would alter them (though the cleaning the soot stunt might not work a second time). What is required is a strong vision which, fingers crossed, can survive the inevitable petty political wrangling. Ideally, the building would house a long-needed city museum or other historical exhibition spaces accessible to the public. Retail tenants could integrate nods to our past a la the current occupants of Maple Leaf Gardens, and include businesses offering Toronto made or inspired products. The city report hints at possible trendy office uses such as a business or technology incubator. Given its long service to the city, whatever goes in the building should celebrate Toronto while continuing to respect Lennox’s enduring design as much as possible. It’s a site with plenty of potential that would be foolish to waste.

Additional material from Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History by J.M.S. Careless (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1984); Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986); Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993); The Eatons by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999); and Unbuilt Toronto by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2008).

BEHIND THE SCENES

Shaping Toronto looks at the decisions, processes, and trends that form the city we know and love.”

Shaping Toronto was my last ongoing series for Torontoist. It was proposed by new EIC David Hains as a means of looking into the mechanics of Toronto history, how our present landscape was shaped, and what examples could we draw on from elsewhere.

While envisioned as being less labour-intensive than Historicist, my work habits prevented that. Ultimately, the series diverted too much time from better-paying gigs, and, likely in a state of burnout, I pulled the plug in March 2016. In retrospect, ending Shaping Toronto began my gradual withdrawal from the site, a process which took a year to complete.

It’s still a great concept, and maybe one of these days I’ll get around to doing something similar either on this site or elsewhere (send your pitches now!).

The Rise and Fall of Stollerys

Originally published on Torontoist on January 21, 2015. Additional archival images have been included.

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A policeman in fur busby directs traffic at Bloor and Yonge in front of Stollery’s men’s and boys clothing, with Humphrey gas arc lamps extending from the windows, circa 1922. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1034, Item 816.

There’s a good chance Frank Stollery wouldn’t have been impressed by what happened to his building this past weekend.

During his 70-plus years in the garment trade, Stollery made it a point not to cut corners. As a young foreman cutter in Montreal, he questioned management’s insistence on using inferior materials when the cloth he required for a necktie order was unavailable. That experience helped motivate Stollery to launch his own menswear business in 1901. Over time, he developed a reputation for quality work, refusing to trust the advice of salesmen and carefully examining the cut and strength of cloth with a large magnifying glass.

But the cutting of corners, or at least the exploiting of existing laws, was on display at the southwest corner of Bloor and Yonge this past Saturday. Workmen armed with crowbars chipped away at the façade of Stollerys. Art Deco stone carvings dating from a 1920s expansion vanished from the streetscape. Work was completed so hastily that little to no sidewalk protection was erected.

The building’s swift demise—which occurred one day after Mizrahi Developments received its demolition permit from the City—raises a number of issues regarding Toronto’s handling of heritage preservation.

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Toronto Star, January 23, 1919.

Even if you have doubts about the building’s historical merits, it’s hard to deny that the undertaking involved a certain amount of arrogance. As Star architecture critic Christopher Hume observed, “To send in the wrecking crews on a weekend—before the hoardings are even up—is as succinct a way as possible to give the city the middle finger.”

“We don’t feel there is any heritage value to it and neither did anyone else for the last 100 years,” developer Sam Mizrahi told the Star over the weekend. Yet Stollerys was one of the first businesses to make a name for itself in Yorkville. When Stollerys opened its doors in what was then considered a semi-suburban area, pessimists believed its proprietor would starve to death within a year. But the business prospered, as did Stollery, who was active in the local business association and served a one-year term as a city councillor. After renting the property for years, Stollery purchased the site in 1928 for $400,000 and transformed his store into the building currently fading away.

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Globe and Mail, December 16, 1963.

The store was praised by Advertising Age magazine during the 1950s for its straightforward sales pitches. “The copy doesn’t do much of a job of whetting desire, but it does an excellent job of carrying conviction,” columnist Clyde Bedell observed. “The advertising is successful because it fully, sincerely, honestly, warmly, effectively served the public in connection with what it offers.”

Frank Stollery sold the business in 1968, but continued to work there full time until his death three years later at the age of 91. The ensuing years saw renovations, a third-floor addition, family feuds, and a growing sense that time was passing the store by. While it carried high-end English labels, the presentation grew tired. “The windows look a lot like those of Honest Ed’s,” Karen von Hahn wrote in the Star in 2014, “except that Honest Ed’s sells jackets for $14.99, not two-ply cashmeres for hundreds of dollars.”

Like Honest Ed’s, Stollerys sat on prime real estate. Mizrahi, who bought the property in October 2014, is promising to build a retail and residential complex—complete with underground TTC access—that will complement the intersection’s other towers. British architect Norman Foster (whose work includes U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, Berlin’s Reichstag, and London’s City Hall) is reportedly attached to the project, currently called “The One.”

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Stollerys, between 1966 and 1972. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 109.

Details about Mizrahi’s plans have yet to be divulged, and a building application has yet to be submitted. This concerns Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre – Rosedale), whose ward has already witnessed heritage demolition fiascos such as the one involving 81 Wellesley Street East. Wong-Tam made a motion for the building’s heritage designation at the January 13 session of the Toronto and East York Community Council, less than a week after Mizrahi applied for a demolition permit. While residential developers must submit replacement building plans before a permit is issued, commercial developers are under no such obligation. “One hundred and ten percent, I want to see that done for commercial properties,” Wong-Tam said Monday. “We want to prevent properties from being randomly demolished across the city.”

A key issue affecting Stollerys, and sites like it, is that the City’s building department is required to grant a demolition permit if all requirements have been met. Provincial stop orders can be issued to prevent hasty action when it comes to potential heritage sites, but that hasn’t happened since 2009, when 7 Austin Terrace was saved.

The fact that the process of identifying potential heritage buildings is such a slow one concerns advocates like Catherine Nasmith, president of the Toronto branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. “It takes the city ages to put any of this stuff into place,” she told the CBC. “Once [a building] is damaged and torn down, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Nasmith also observed that developers dislike heritage designations because of the limits they place on reshaping properties. This sentiment was echoed by the City’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, who tweeted earlier this week that Mizrahi had “acted rashly” because he worried the building would indeed be deemed to have heritage value.

So what could Toronto do to avoid more hasty demolitions such as the one that took down Stollerys? In general, it needs to put in place more people (paid or volunteer), who could improve the flow of designations by identifying potential heritage sites. Building a heritage impact assessment into the demolition permit process could also have a real impact—and encourage the City and developers to arrive at constructive solutions. Adding extra time to the process might also provide more opportunities to come up with imaginative ways to readapt heritage properties or to integrate them into new structures. And if it’s ultimately determined that a building can be demolished, it’s possible that elements deemed to be of historic merit could be archived, saved for future museum display, or even given to the descendants of those who worked on its construction.

It’s probably too late to salvage pieces of Stollery’s. Of concern now is whether the site will become a lingering eyesore. If Mizrahi’s construction plans end up being delayed, he could, of course, build goodwill by allowing temporary public use of the site via a park or plaza. “All we can hope for now,” Christopher Hume concludes, “is that city hall suddenly lurches back to life and does what it can to ensure that what replaces Stollerys isn’t as tacky as its builder’s behaviour.”

Additional material from the May 1, 1951, June 18, 1954, May 14, 1957, and January 4, 1971 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 21, 1928, January 4, 1971, January 5, 1971, April 23, 2014, January 18, 2015, and January 19, 2015 editions of the Toronto Star.

Cumberland Terrace Tells the Story of Yorkville at a Glance

Originally published on Torontoist on November 6, 2014.

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While most time capsules are buried in the foundations of buildings, their contents to be revealed at some future date, Cumberland Terrace is a living (if barely breathing) piece of Me Decade retail architecture frozen in time.

Promoted as “the nicest way from Yonge to Bay” when it opened in October 1974, the mall’s resistance to modernization—orange and brown tiles, large banks of phones, signage for chains such as Teriyaki Experience unused elsewhere for decades—gives Cumberland Terrace the feel of a living museum, and makes it perfect venue to celebrate the history of Yorkville.

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Trifold Creative, whose recent downtown work includes Adelaide Place and 438 University, has covered the windows of empty storefronts with snippets of neighbourhood history—a project titled “Yorkville History at a Glance.”

According to Trifold’s website, it’s an attempt to “revitalize, direct traffic flow and brighten up Cumberland Terrace’s walkway by creating an engaging yet aesthetically pleasing atmosphere.” Given 9,000 square feet to cover, their designers combined sketches, historic photos, and watercolour splashes on white backgrounds, bringing some light to the dingier corners of the mall.

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From stories of Victorian businesses such as Frogley’s Bakery and the Severn Brewery, to tales from the neighbourhood’s hippie era (including a nod to Joni Mitchell), the project covers the breadth of Yorkville’s varied history. Most of the stories run the length of an average storefront, although some stretch out a bit farther—one series of panels offers visual representations of TIFF People’s Choice Award winners, while another salutes the local contemporary art scene with a tribute to the late Walter Moos that incorporates works he displayed at his gallery.

The panels fill space while the future of Cumberland Terrace is determined. Since 2008, several developers have come forward with proposals to bring the site into the 21st century. Owner Oxford Properties submitted a development application to the City this summer based on designs by architectsAlliance. The plan calls for a 54-storey residential tower with a 50-foot lobby surrounded by a revamped mall that will be better integrated into the streetscape.

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But until a proposal is chosen and construction begins, visitors may continue to marvel at the time-warped Cumberland Terrace, and perhaps learn a bit about the history of Yorkville, too.

UPDATE

As of June 2018, the history panels are still there, and Cumberland Terrace still awaits redevelopment.

Pop-Up Goes the Museum

Originally published on Torontoist on August 29, 2014.

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Advertising Card for Massey-Harris Co. Ltd, Head Office Toronto, Canada, 1895. Image courtesy of Heritage Toronto.

The term “pop-up” conjures images of hip retailers and restaurants occupying temporary storefronts. But the concept is spreading to other fields, too. Among those jumping on the bandwagon is Toronto Museum Services, which is involved in two kinds of pop-up program.

The first, a collaborative effort between Museum Services and Heritage Toronto, will open Saturday in conjunction with the unveiling of a historical plaque commemorating the Massey-Harris plant that once stood at King Street West and Strachan Avenue. The pop-up will feature ephemera related to the plant, which was the largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment in the British Empire.

For Heritage Toronto plaques and markers co-ordinator Kaitlin Wainwright, display items such as anniversary pins and colour advertising cards show what it was like to work for Massey-Harris years ago. “We can learn about a company not only from what it did in the past, but how it remembers and celebrates itself,” she says. “Given that the presentation is taking place where much of the facility stood, it makes sense to bring artifacts to a place where there is a geographical connection.”

The display may prompt visitors with connections to Massey-Harris to share their personal stories. The potential for that kind of public participation and knowledge sharing is the driving force behind the second kind of pop-up program in which Museum Services is involved, which offers visitors the opportunity to display artifacts of their own. As Museum Services defines it, a pop-up museum is “a temporary exhibit created by the people who show up to participate. It works by choosing a theme and location, and inviting people to bring something on the topic to share.” Cities across Europe and the United States have already taken to this concept—the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has posted a video that explains how it works. Interactive events, often held in public spaces, allow institutions to bring out items long unseen by the public. Ilena Aldini-Messina, supervisor of program design and development for Museum Services, says pop-ups foster public engagement with local history and “make it a participatory experience rather than doing an exhibit from a curator’s perspective.”

A pilot pop-up, “Toronto Treasures,” ran at the Market Gallery on June 6. Alongside displays of City-owned artifacts such as subway-related buttons, 15 people set up tables to share their own treasures. Show-and-tell items ranged from decades’-worth of local baseball memorabilia to a jar of marmalade made in Toronto that shaped one woman’s view of the city as an industrial powerhouse during her childhood in Alberta. The experience was educational for the displayers and visitors: a man who brought a scrapbook commemorating a 1978 Blue Jays game where singer Ruth Ann Wallace was booed for singing “O Canada” in French learned that Wallace later married Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley.

For the upcoming holiday season, there are plans for a toy-centric pop-up. Though a location hasn’t been confirmed, Spadina Museum seems a likely choice, as it houses a large collection of toys. Beyond that, ideas include marking Valentine’s Day and other occasions ripe with objects and stories to share.

The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, 40 Years Later

Originally published on Torontoist on November 27, 2013.

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Some archival institutions begin with a philanthropic endowment; others arise from legal necessity. In the case of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA), a notice at the bottom of the editorial page of a 1973 edition of the pioneering LGBT journal The Body Politic provided the starting point:

The task of reconstructing the history of gay people is painstaking work—often yielding little more than speculative sketches of what has been. History can be a tool of both oppression and liberation. It has all too often reflected the world view of the status quo, projecting the historian’s own political, moral, and psychological biases onto reality, rarely providing an objective and neutral account of the real people and forces involved. These straight historians and other “guardians of morality” have been conscientious in their near obliteration of gay history. One way to encourage accurate historical research is to gather, and make available, resource material relevant to all aspects of gay history. To this end, The Body Politic has founded the Canadian GLM [Gay Liberation Movement] Archives.

From a filing cabinet in the paper’s office, the CLGA, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, has grown into a collection whose range of artifacts runs from bar matchbooks to softball uniforms. Though some materials, including the world’s largest collection of LGBT periodicals, reside in an office at the corner of Church and Wellesley streets, most holdings have been stored in a mid-19th-century home at 34 Isabella Street since 2009.

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Researchers working in the ground-floor reading room will notice the stained glass memorial window. According to a note from artist Lynette Richards, the piece depicts the “pages of history being lifted and shuffled in the winds of change.” The window is designed to be viewed with reflected light, to symbolize the reflection undertaken by the room’s users. Its patchwork design is intended as a reference to the the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Upstairs, exhibition space provides a forum for artistic and historical displays. Throughout the building, the National Portrait Collection honours notable contributors to the Canadian LGBT community.

The CLGA operates with a base of around 70 volunteers. Their commitments range from occasionally helping at functions to cataloguing the collection. Some have assisted the archives from its earliest days, motivating younger volunteers like archivist Kate Zieman. “It’s really inspiring to see people devote that much time to something with so little glory or public acknowledgement,” she told Torontoist in a recent interview. “We all do it because we love the material and feel like it’s worthwhile.”

Zieman began volunteering at CLGA while studying at the University of Toronto seven years ago. She started by cataloguing the rare book collection, then assisted the archives’ community outreach program, which includes school visits, tours, and the promotion of exhibits being held at outside venues like the Yorkville Public Library. One of her current CLGA projects is writing historical vignettes and biographical sketches for Proud FM.

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Asked about her favourite items in the collection, Zieman points to clippings and full issues from Toronto’s gutter press. “Anyone who thinks Toronto in the 1950s was a really dull place needs to spend some time with the tabloids,” she laughs. Publications like Flash and Hush ran sensationalistic tales of arrests and bar raids, ruining the lives of those it named. Zieman feels these papers give a sense of what postwar gay life was like in the city, even if it’s all filtered through a homophobic lens.

As a counterpoint, she points to the CLGA’s photo collection, originally built from the files of The Body Politic. The holdings include pictures of lesbians during the Second World War enjoying each other’s company. They provide a positive view of gay life, especially compared to the miseries compiled by the tabloids.

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Because the CLGA lacks a steady source of government funding, it relies on the generosity of donors for its operations and collection building. One unexpected source of money has been eBay. The archive sells donated books that don’t fit its current collection criteria. (At the moment, the CLGA is primarily looking to fill in gaps in materials relating to bisexuals, lesbians, and trans people.)

Overall, Zieman finds the CLGA serves as a community builder, open to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation. “We provide a nice place to come and witness the struggles of people who came before us, and celebrate the gains and focus on what we still need to do.”

Additional material from The Body Politic #10, 1973.

Heritage Toronto Leads a Historical Bike Tour of the Huron-Wendat Trail

Originally published on Torontoist on June 18, 2013.

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Riding a bicycle along the Finch Corridor path near Jane Street and Finch Avenue takes you past plenty of grassy fields and hydro towers. The serene surroundings make it hard to imagine that over 500 years ago the area already had its present-day population density.

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The path runs through the Parsons Site, a former Huron-Wendat village that is now considered one of the city’s major pre-European archaeological discoveries. On June 15, Heritage Toronto staged a historical bike tour through the area.

The ride, Heritage Toronto’s second bike tour this year, was run in collaboration with Community Bicycle Network (CBN). Those who couldn’t drag their bikes out to North York were accommodated with Bixi bicycles.

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The ride followed an unveiling ceremony for some new trail plaques. City Councillor Anthony Perruzza (Ward 8, York West) read a proclamation from Mayor Rob Ford declaring June 15 Huron-Wendat Day. Speakers included descendants of the Parsons Site community, who currently reside on the Huron-Wendat reserve in Wendake, Quebec. Starting in 2010, the band consulted with the City on the trail’s creation.

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Riders pedalled back and forth along the trail from Jane Street to Sentinel Road. At each stop, archaeologist Ron Williamson discussed different aspects of the significance of the site, which was the largest of four major Huron villages between the Humber and Rouge Rivers. He addressed why the trail honours the Huron-Wendat, when most people associate Toronto’s aboriginal past with other tribes. The answer: the Huron-Wendat (also known as Wyandot) remained in the area until they were displaced in the mid-17th century because of a combination of epidemics of European diseases and war with Iroquois tribes, who were subsequently pushed out by the Ojibwa. Williamson discussed the importance of maize to the Huron diet—it made up half their daily food intake—and how trading maize and other items changed their language from an Algonquian tongue to Iroquoian long before they were physically displaced.

Williamson also discussed how the Parsons Site has been excavated and protected over the years since the University of Toronto first dug there in 1952. Just under the grassy surface sit palisades and the remains of at least 10 longhouses. The last major dig in 1989 was prompted by a watermain project.

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Members of the CBN marshalled the ride. Among them was Thomas Hasan, whose Heritage Rides organization seeks to bring together historians and cycling advocates to provide guided tours. While there aren’t any other rides scheduled at present, Hasan has had interest from groups stretching from Mimico to The Beaches. He notes that he would “like to work more closely with the BIAs, local businesses, and other sources of funding, including crowdsourcing, to support the development of new heritage rides.”

Heritage Toronto’s Chief Historian and Associate Director Gary Miedema hinted that there might be a remount of the first heritage bike tour, which had taken place a week earlier on the Toronto Islands. He imagines future tours drawing on longer stretches of off-road trails, like those along the Don and Humber Rivers, as well as rides exploring the histories of communities like Don Mills. He finds the participation of cycling groups like CBN critical to making tours work smoothly. Expansion of the program will depend on finding volunteer tour leaders.

Diversifying Toronto’s History

Originally published on Torontoist on December 21, 2012.

An oral history of Italy’s 1982 World Cup victory, and its effect on Toronto’s Italian community. The video was made as part of Heritage Diversity Stories.

“Cultural diversity has become a defining feature of this city and a fundamental part of its identity,” begins the introduction to Heritage Toronto’s new initiative, Heritage Diversity Stories. The project aims to shed light on the stories of communities that have helped transform Toronto from a very British locale (and one that frequently discriminated against newcomers) to a diverse, multicultural metropolis.

Supported by a grant from the provincial Ministry of Tourism and Culture and corporate assistance from RBC, the first wave of Heritage Diversity Stories consists of 26 written pieces spotlighting nine of the major non-English language groups in the city. Some are contextual essays written by project coordinator Tyson Brown, while others are oral histories prepared by students. The stories, which are presented on the revamped Heritage Toronto website in English and the relevant language, aim to show how immigrants brought their cultures to Toronto and adapted them to a new setting. Besides text, the entries incorporate archival photos and video interviews.

Oral histories are key to preserving records of these communities. That’s because coverage in the mainstream press used to be—especially prior to the Second World War—non-existent, or dripping in stereotypes. A flip through any of the major daily papers prior to the 1960s can be a cringe-inducing experience. Acknowledging the change in the cultural makeup of the city was a slow, awkward process that sometimes resulted in well-intentioned but patronizing work.

“Heritage Toronto has wanted for some time to make sure that the stories we tell about this city reflect the full diversity of the city,” notes project director and Heritage Toronto Chief Historian Gary Miedema.

The project has served as a mutual bridge-building exercise. Heritage Toronto wanted links to groups it had previously had little connection with, while community cultural groups sought ways to assemble their organizational histories—an especially tricky process in groups with longer histories in Toronto, whose first-generation leadership is aging. “All of us were in the right place at the right time to realize that this is something we can all work together on,” says Miedema.

The initial batch of stories covers topics ranging from Filipino caregivers, to the evolution of Lahore Tikka House. One tale that stood out for Miedema was one about the celebrations surrounding Italy’s victory in the 1982 World Cup. Beyond providing a model for other communities around the city to celebrate future wins in the soccer tournament, the victory provided local Italians a chance to demonstrate their self-confidence. “I hadn’t realized fully how important that moment was to Toronto’s Italian community as a moment when they could really feel like this city was theirs as much as anyone else’s, and that they felt immense pride at being Italians and Torontonians,” Miedema says. (A video of an oral history of the soccer victory, assembled as part of the project, is embedded above.)

Those behind Heritage Diversity Stories hope that the launch material is just the beginning. As strong relationships build, more unheralded pieces of Toronto’s history will, if all goes as planned, be uncovered for a wider audience.