Historicist: Forgotten Urban Squalor of The Ward
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.




Historicist: Forgotten Urban Squalor of The Ward

Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Slum – Price’s Lane (August 27, 1914). City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 32, Item 320.
In Low Life, Luc Sante writes of how slum districts in contemporary New York—despite the gentrification of the Lower East Side—are essentially the same neighbourhoods that were slums in the nineteenth century. He writes: “Places that seem consigned to eternal repetition of poverty and low life and carnival traffic are made so by accrued prejudice.” Perhaps no one remembers the tannery that originally characterized a neighbourhood, “but it was succeeded by a rookery, then by two generations of tenements, and then by a housing project, which has now gone to seed.” As a result, mention of the Bowery today evokes the same rough-and-tumble spirit it did at the turn of the twentieth century.
Mention the Ward, however, and most Torontonians aren’t likely to be horrified by images of the filth and disorder of inner city poverty, though we probably ought to be. The Ward was Toronto’s worst slum. Taking its name from the old St. John’s Ward electoral district, it encompassed the area between College Street, Queen Street, Yonge Street, and University Avenue. Erased from the map by redevelopment, the Ward has been likewise effectively erased from the subconscious lore citizens carry about the place they live. The problems the neighbourhood hosted, however, did not disappear when the district was razed.

Slum courtyard. 142 Agnes Street. (November 26, 1913). City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 32, Item 259.
The Ward was a warren of narrow lanes densely packed with ramshackle cottages, dingy storefronts, and street-corner preachers hassling the locals to convert. Muddy alleys were cluttered with garbage, wash-baskets, and clothes hanging to dry. The air smelled of rot and waste. Conditions were just as deplorable indoors. With leaky roofs and peeling wallpaper, the homes were a far cry from the architect-designed houses of the city’s newest subdivisions on Euclid Avenue and Palmerston Boulevard. In his history of Toronto, Michael Kluckner quotes a City Health Department inspection report (about the property pictured above) from November 26, 1913:

In the rear of a store located at 142 Agnes Street were found living quarters consisting of three rooms, one of which was used as a storeroom for all kinds of rubbish. The bedroom contained four beds, used by a father, mother and two children. The third room was a kitchen, which a daughter of about eleven used as a sleeping room. Under the bedroom was a cellar full of dirt, wood and rubbish. The cellar was inspected because a very decided dampness and strong odor was noticed when inspecting the bedroom. It was found that two tin or lead pipes which connected the sink of the kitchen with a tile drain were overflowing.

For these miserable households, according to Kluckner, people paid $10 to $12 per month. Demand was so high that absentee landlords never had to trouble themselves with any repairs or improvements. In one boarding house, six Polish labourers were sharing accommodations in two small rooms that the Health Department did not think could reasonably house more than three. In other lodgings, families lived in abysmal rooms in dank cellars. Overcrowding and unhealthy living conditions were common, but a lack of resources meant that when the Health Department did in fact close a property, the lack of follow-up inspection and high demand almost ensured that it would open right back up. In a 1913 report, the head of the Health Department, Charles Hastings, noted that there were at least 3,000 houses each being occupied by two to six families. Hastings’s efforts and campaigning went a long way in demonstrating to the broader public that poverty was not a consequence of vice, but a dictate of necessity. People had to live this way; they didn’t choose or deserve it. Residents survived on the optimism that they would have a chance to move elsewhere.
Slum interior, occupied. (November 25, 1913). City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 32, Item 254.
Throughout its history, the Ward was a gateway neighbourhood for the most beaten down and penniless immigrants seeking refuge from the 1848 European rebellions, the Irish potato famine, and oppressive regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. With little public assistance available to immigrants upon their arrival, the Ward became a staging ground for nascent immigrant communities to establish themselves before escaping to colonize other parts of the booming city. The Ward was a demographic chameleon.
Speaking in broad strokes, the Ward was dominated by Jewish immigrants by the First World War. They lived side-by-side with Italians, Poles, Macedonians, Lithuanians, Chinese, and those from countless other countries. As the Jewish population settled further west to establish Kensington Market as the heart of their new community, the Italian population came to dominate the Ward. They too eventually escaped to College Street and beyond—as did the Poles to The Junction and other Eastern Europeans to their own vibrant pockets of the city. By the dawn of the Second World War, the Ward had become Toronto’s first Chinatown.
It was probably no coincidence that along with this immigrant-fuelled population boom in the 1920s—when the city grew from 522,000 in 1921 to 826,186 in 1929—came growing public concern over crime, poverty, and drug abuse. It would be easy to imagine faceless immigrants as social threats, defined by their strange accents and mannerisms rather than their individual and personalizing characteristics. While the majority of the Ward’s population was hard-working and undeserving of the added stigmas of vice and criminality, that element certainly existed there. The neighbourhood was rife with bootlegger dive bars (in the era of the Ontario Temperance Act), gambling dens, and brothels. Centre Avenue was the city’s most notorious red-light district, where prostitutes openly solicited from their doorstep while young boys earned their pay keeping watch for the police. Police targeted lower classes at least partly out of concern that their poverty and urban squalor would contaminate respectable society. Police reports, according to sociologists Helen Boritch and John Hagan, characterized the foreigners who ran the Ward’s illegal gambling houses as “vicious criminals” and “racketeers.” Whether an accurate or salacious assessment, this view reinforced that the department’s intention was to be heavy-handed in their enforcement of morality laws based on the belief that doing so would prevent more serious crime.
2008_10_11Eviction8030a.jpgFor the rest of the city, it would probably have been comforting to relegate these social, economic, and ethnic “others” to a neatly bounded geographic corner of the cityscape. The majority of the Anglo-Protestant population in Toronto certainly didn’t want to confront unsavoury aspects of their city. When Morley Callaghan published his first novel, Strange Fugitive (1928), the story of an out-of-work lumberman turned bootlegging gangster, the setting was unmistakably Toronto. Callaghan was hailed as a bright new talent in New York. But the escapades of anti-hero Harry Trotter—who turns his back on respectable domestic life for a journey into an alienated world of crime, adultery, rum-running, and murder—made very little impact in his hometown.
Despite his sparse style, Callaghan brought the character of the city’s underbelly to life. Elizabeth Street, in his hands became “the street of Chinese merchants, chop-houses and dilapidated roughcast houses used for stores. Some cafes were of new tan brick, with electric signs. Chinese men sat on steps or stood in groups under street lights. No women were to be seen.”
But Torontonians didn’t want to acknowledge that there really were Harry Trotters running around. Nor did they want to admit that, as depicted in the novel, the Ward was the destination for respectable people to find vice. Callaghan’s novel is now praised, in the words of Randall White, as a “the human geography of the place.”
The Ward shrank over the twentieth century, first with the demolition of eight acres for the construction of Toronto General Hospital, then with streets widened to allow the commercial district’s office towers, hotels, and, more recently, condos to stretch northwards. The biggest change came with the controversial expropriation of much of the Ward as the site of the new City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square in the late 1950s. Now effectively erased from the streetscape and memory, the Ward does live on in the city in at least one unfortunate way: the problems of under-valued immigrants and the struggle for a better life still persist like the ghosts of Sante’s New York. With the Ward’s disappearance, they’ve just changed neighbourhoods.
Eviction from a slum (ca. 1919). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8030.

This article mistakenly identified the title of Morley Callaghan’s 1928 gangster novel, Strange Fugitive, as Strange Fruit (which, a decade later, would prove to be the title of something else entirely). Thanks to reader Teraulay for catching the error.