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Welcome to The Ward: tales of Toronto's forgotten neighbourhood

Innis College hosts launch of book examining neighbourhood bulldozed decades ago

William James ca. 1911/ City of Toronto Archives via Flickr)

It was the City of Toronto’s first at-risk neighbourhood – and experts say the area known as The Ward offers insights into the challenges of redeveloping underprivileged communities today.

On Sept. 30, U of T’s Innis College hosts a panel discussion around The Ward, an anthology of essays compiled by Toronto journalist and alumnus John Lorinc and his fellow editors Michael McClelland and Ellen Scheinberg.

The book tells the story of Toronto's first immigrant neighbourhood of Irish, Jewish, Italian, African American and Chinese newcomers. Considered a slum by the city, it was bulldozed in the late 1950s to make room for a new city hall and Nathan Phillips Square. Today, few Torontonians know of its existence.

Essays by politicians, novelists, academics and U of T scholars, detail life in the crammed slum – Toronto’s own Lower East Side – formerly located between Queen, College, Yonge and University. They tell tales of sex workers, public baths, playgrounds, health concerns like tuberculosis and policing

U of T professors and instructors speaking at the event contributed essays for the book. They include Professor David Hulchanski of social work, who has written extensively about a polarized Toronto with increasing income disparity; criminologist Mariana Valverde, who studies racial profiling today; author and urban enthusiast Shawn Micallef who has written about his strolls through the city; and U of T Scarborough Principal Bruce Kidd.

Read more about the free event and find out how to register 

The panel discussion will touch on some thorny issues laid bare by the book for city planners, community activists and urban enthusiasts seeking to improve what the city today calls priority neighbourhoods.

black and white archival image of the ward“The city is more consultative now,” says Lorinc. “It’s more aware and is talking to communities, but I still think we have this tendency to wipe things off the face of the city. It’s easy to kind of stereotype communities using the one lens of their socio-economic well-being.”

(Image at right: Looking north from the top of T. Eaton factory/ photographer: William James ca. 1910/ City of Toronto Archives via Flickr)

Before its redevelopment, Regent Park was known for crime, Lorinc says, but there were networks and people doing interesting projects.

“It was a community that was not in need of saving, and it’s not hard to find people who actually are nostalgic for what was there before, which totally runs contrary to the accepted narrative of Regent Park,” he said.

Similarly, he points to Thorncliffe Park where residents are doing interesting things and are focused on building their community.

“What does the past tell the present, which is the idea behind this book?” Lorinc said. “It tells us we have a lot of neighbourhoods in the city like the Ward. We have these euphemisms like priority neighbourhood. We have to really peel away at that, and ask, ‘What do we mean when we designate a community a priority neighbourhood? What do we not talk about with these neighbourhoods? What do we not recognize as valuable?’”

Transcript available. Explore more episodes of The Cities Podcast.

Undergrad Melissa Vincent, a third-year urban studies and media studies student, says that’s why she’s excited about attending Wednesday’s event.

“I find that a lot of time it’s easy to obscure vital parts of Toronto's past,” she says. “As an urban studies student, I have a vested interest in recognizing our multiculturalism as a product of several years of meaningful and deliberate growth from our large immigrant population.

“I'm curious to hear about those who had a massive hand in helping form Toronto's identity but are often left out of the conversation.”

image of poster for The Ward