Books for a City's Birthday
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Books for a City’s Birthday

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Toronto celebrates its 175th birthday today, which provides an opportunity to look back at its accomplishments, determine what makes it work in the present, assess why we like living here, and ponder where its future lies. Past anniversaries have combined these elements in commemorative books, with two standing out from the pack (advance apologies to those who produced the 150th anniversary book—our blue-ribbon book selection committee couldn’t get past the sax-playing clown balanced on a unicycle in front of Union Station).


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“The First Fire Engine, About 1837.” Illustration by Stanley Turner. Source: Toronto’s 100 Years, The Corporation of the City of Toronto, 1934.

Through the course of fifteen chapters, Jesse Edgar Middleton steers readers of Toronto’s 100 Years through the city’s first century, accompanied by line drawings from Charles Comfort, C.W. Jefferys, T.W. McLean, and Stanley Turner. In between tales of the past, several florid observations are made about the character of Torontonians, including their love of sports:

Toronto is an out-of-doors city. All through the long Spring and Summer evenings, made longer by the stultifying of the clocks, the parks are crowded by muscular young men and maidens crying “Love fifteen,” or “Vantage out.” Baseball, hard and soft, allures the boys, and even transforms many girls into strange amazons with set expressions, long-peaked caps and expansive serge bloomers. Yachtsmen and dinghy sailors lie well out to windward, take another turn of the sheet and trust in Providence. Pretty girls loll in canoes allowing their esquires the pleasure of paddling. Elders in white trousers trot down the lawn to watch the bias of the bowl and sporting Methusalehs come breezing up the hill to the Nineteenth Hole with their tongues hanging out.

Among the many statistics presented about the state of affairs in Toronto in 1934: 2,236 manufacturing plants employing more than 100,000 people to pump out $600 million worth of products; a Toronto Public Library system consisting of fifteen branches and a main reference building at College and St. George (now the Koffler Student Services Centre); an equal number of high schools and golf courses (seventeen); and a public transit fleet of 953 passenger streetcars, 95 service streetcars, 197 buses, and six ferries, none of which had seen a passenger fatality since the TTC’s establishment a decade earlier.
Little is said about the city’s future apart from a plan or two that didn’t pan out—don’t you love driving across the swing bridges connecting the Toronto Islands and the mainland as part of the busy scenic drive from Sunnyside to the Beaches?
In the epilogue, Middleton gives his thoughts on the personality of 1934 Torontonians and more colourful stereotypes from elsewhere that weren’t in evidence (or, perhaps, he purposely ignored):

But to live in Toronto, even for a short time, is to find congenial friends, people who are lavish in hospitality , and whose spirits are shot-through with kindness. It is a population mainly of English speech. There is more than a trace of American vivacity to lighten “the burden of Empire” and social life in its dozen-or-so planes is cheerful and satisfying. It is a community of moderationists.
Determined poseurs are not common, even among the artists. A long-haired denzien of the Boul. Mich. of Chelsea or of Greenwich Village would find himself a lonely figure. We have no Bright Young People of the uppermost social plane to afflict the police by doing paper chases at three in the morning. Neither have we a criminal quarter filled with Apaches of both sexes preying upon decent society.

These thoughts are followed by the program for a religious service held at the Canadian National Exhibition Coliseum late on March 5 to commemorate the anniversary. A 2,500-strong choir led the assembled in an seemingly endless list of hymns, while attendees were asked to “especially” pray for the federal and provincial governments. After a listing of civic officials and members of centennial subcommittees that range from reuniting war veterans to exhibiting postage stamps, the book ends with a lengthy series of advertisements.

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Photo by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist


For its 125th birthday, the city produced Toronto ’59, an oversized commemorative book that sold for $1.25 per copy. Like Middleton’s book, Toronto ’59 is organized into fifteen chapters, but the resemblance ends there. The scrapbook-style format results in a colourful, entertaining read that is more a snapshot of a city starting to take on its modern shape than a look backwards. Photo essays provide a look at the increasing diversity of the city’s population, the joys of late-1950s childhood in Toronto, and a look at popular theatrical reviews of the decade. Physical changes to the face of the city are well represented, including a shot of a bulldozer clearing land for the Don Valley Parkway, where “use of this natural route saved [the] city many millions in construction costs.”
In her essay “My Toronto,” Jeannine Locke provides one view on what gave Toronto its charm, some of which still holds true:

To me, one of the city’s most lovable qualities is that it doesn’t expect, let alone require, love…You can call University Avenue ugly, insult the Argos and vilify the Leafs without disturbing local hackles…Because Toronto doesn’t ask for admiration, the discovery of its charm is all the more satisfying. One expects to be thrilled by the spectacle of Montreal from the mountain. Seeing Toronto’s forest setting for the first time, from the rooftop of a skyscraper, one has the added thrill of surprise. It takes time to discover Toronto. It’s worth the time.

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Source: Toronto ’59

Glimmers of the future include Eric Arthur’s piece on the winning design for the new City Hall:

It has been called many things, mostly in praise by the architectural press, but the word “breath-taking” was used by the Mayor [Nathan Phillips] at his first meeting with the press. That is still a very appropriate word. Throughout history, the church and town hall were the buildings that dominated the town…In modern Toronto, sometimes called the city of churches, we have many and all of equal stature. It is, therefore, appropriate that the building that houses our democratic government at the municipal level should dominate the city. Commercial and industrial buildings—even the proudest of our financial institutions—will lie under the shadow of the City Hall. In the 18th century, the age of good manners in architecture, the town hall occupied just that position of dignity and importance and Toronto’s City Hall, in a few years, will again occupy that proud position.

Most of the other glimmers of the future came from advertisers, ranging from IBM’s skyline to Dominion’s space-age supermarket designs.

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