Historicist: The Future of the Past
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Historicist: The Future of the Past

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Illustration by Jeremy Kai/Torontoist.

“And, oh, what a glorious pleasure to again be in Toronto after an absence of twenty years!”
The year is 1928. Reginald Fleming is laid back comfortably in the smoke-room of the Dominion Hotel. Twenty years earlier, Fleming found himself disappointed with his business prospects in Toronto and left to seek his fortune in the publishing industry in New York City. Now, befitting his success, upon his first return to the city of his youth he is staying at Rosedale’s fashionable Dominion Hotel. Rising to an astounding 250 feet (76 metres or 18 storeys), the Dominion is “Canada’s costliest, largest and most elaborate hotel; noted as a model of elegance and delicate beauty.” It has huge balconies, a marble staircase, and elegant ballrooms, as well as mural paintings, “bas reliefs and beautiful interior decorations.” On the grounds, along a magificent drive, there are store houses for airships and aeroplanes used to whisk hotel guests for tours of Niagara.
Of course, the Dominion Hotel never existed.

The Dominion was, actually, an imaginative projection in Toronto in 1928 A.D. (National Business Methods & Publishing Company, 1908), author Frederick Nelson’s fictional view of the future, published in 1908. With a population he imagined to be one-and-a-half million, the prosperous Toronto of 1928 undoubtedly deserved such a luxurious establishment.
In reality, the city’s population was about 630,000 when the similarly luxurious Royal York opened (in a slightly different location) in 1929.
“And now,” Nelson writes, “after a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast [Fleming] felt he must run all over Toronto and renew his acquaintance with old familiar sights,” with a talkative taxi driver, Frank, as his tour guide. “Drive slowly and let us have a good time,” Fleming tells him. “I’m glad you have always lived in this city, for you will be able to answer a lot of questions I am sure to ask….Now, you choose your own route and do not be particular where you go. It is sure to be all new to me.”

Image of the Canadian National Exhibition, near the Dufferin Gates, in 1908. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 272.

Frederick Nelson’s forty-eight page speculative novel was produced to be sold to visitors at the 1908 Canadian National Exhibition. In the introduction, the author explained his motivations: “[T]he work is a forecast, and should not be taken too seriously. Rather I hope it will be looked upon as a passable reading to provide amusement for those who peruse it; and that the public will remember the work is written by a humble Torontonian.”
He mostly discusses the physical cityscape rather than the system of government, political culture, or the city’s artistic life. He admitted these blind spots, noting that if he hadn’t rushed the book’s composition, he “would have dealt with questions and sections of the city that have been omitted.”
Little is known of Nelson’s background. He didn’t appear in the era’s Who’s Who books or the Society Blue Books. In Science-Fiction: The Early Years (Kent State University Press, 1990), researcher Everett Franklin Bleiler concluded simply that Nelson was “[p]resumably a Canadian author.”
Critics have not been kind to Toronto in 1928 A.D.. David Ketterer called it an “[u]ninspired, racist fictionalized futurology.” Bleiler added that the book is “[a] vanity curiosity.” Researcher Karen Bennett has judged that the book “has no literary merit,” but conceded that Nelson’s “‘predictions’ do have some curiosity value.”
Setting off on his taxi tour, he quickly comments on how widespread automobile ownership had transformed the city. A garage was a necessary appendage to all newly-built houses, and each factory had ‘special store houses’ for workmen’s cars. In the neighbourhood surrounding the hotel—which Nelson doesn’t specifically locate but which was likely near Castle Frank—Fleming noted the existence of not only a bridge like the Prince Edward Viaduct (1918), but also a high-screen suicide guard. Likewise, Nelson predicted that Bloor Street had grown up from the dirt road of isolated structures surrounded by vacant lots to a fully matured commercial district.
“Great Caesar Frank! Is this the old Yonge Street?” Fleming exclaimed as the taxi wheeled onto what had been, in 1908, a modestly-scaled business district with buildings of two-, three-, and four-storeys. “No,” the driver, Frank, replied, “this is the new Yonge, the Broadway of Toronto.”
For miles in the distance—as far as Newmarket, Frank said—huge buildings of seven or more storeys and hundred-foot-wide frontages towered on either side of Yonge. Frank explained that a high-speed electric streetcar service covered the distance to Newmarket in fifty minutes, including stops. Fleming also noticed that the streetcars were no longer powered via “cumbersome and dangerous” overhead wires, but via a contact in “a trench between and beneath the rails.”
The northern sprawl was an accurate prediction, and a natural one to make in 1908. By that time, the city had already annexed Yorkville, Rosedale, the Annex, and grown northward past St. Clair. Within a matter of years, as J.M.S. Careless detailed in Toronto to 1918 (James Lorimer & Company, 1984), the city limits expanded to include East Toronto, Riverdale, Balmy Beach, Wychwood, Earlscourt and West Toronto among other annexations. In his meandering taxi tour, Fleming found that the city’s wealthy had systematically migrated north to make the vicinity of St. Clair and Avenue Road—a muddy and isolated intersection in 1908—the “best residential district of Toronto.”

Illustration by Jeremy Kai/Torontoist.

Nelson’s novella suffers from his casual and unthinking racism—particularly toward the city’s Chinese and Jewish communities. Given that the city’s overwhelming Anglo-Celtic majority only shrunk from 91.7% in 1901 to 86.4% by 1911, it seems odd that Torontonians of Nelson’s vintage were so threatened by newcomers. The author seemed completely unaware that (as depicted in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion) it was the very newcomers Nelson derided who would have built all the magnificent new landmarks of his futuristic vision.
Nelson argued that Queen’s Park, once an enjoyable park, had been doomed—in the century’s first decade—by the proximity of foreigners living nearby in The Ward. But, Fleming discovered on his 1928 tour, “University Avenue had improved wonderfully. The homes of the foreigners no longer existed.” In their place were expanded university buildings and athletic fields, a massive hospital, and a massive public marketplace attached to the still-extant Armouries.
Instead, the city’s immigrants and labouring classes lived in a slum district stretching between Sherbourne Street and the Don River, which had only Riverdale Park as “breathing space.” Nelson described it:

Here you found dirty and squalid tenements—the awful hives of neglected humanity. ‘Twas an unsafe district to travel by night—the shady places proved too good a hunting ground for persons of shady practises. Such districts are often termed the resorts of the scum of the earth. Truly, the races of the earth were pretty fully represented here….Yea, in this district could be found representatives of almost every civilized nation in the world, huddled together and living in wretched tenements; and whose furniture generally consisted of bundles of rags or old mattresses as beds, and rough wooden boxes for use as chairs and cupboards; whose winter light was obtained from cheap candles stuck in old or broken bottles and which diffused but feeble rays through the vile rooms.

It was inhabited by all the city’s immigrants—clearly undesirable, from the tone of Nelson’s writing—including English and American immigrants, “and, sad to say, even the Canadian who had seen better days.” Nelson accurately predicted the real-life Cabbagetown, but his demographic description didn’t reflect the area author Hugh Garner has called the “largest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America.”
Nelson made a solitary comment about social reform in his book, and it had less to do with social consciousness than with beautifying the slum’s blight. “Toronto now owned her millionaires in plenty,” he wrote. “Here was a district to which they could turn their wealth in the alleviation of distress and the building of clean and sanitary lodging homes.”
On Yonge, near the greatly expanded university district, stood a majestic library. “Well-lighted through the roof,” this tower was one of twelve library branches “circulating over one-and-a-half million volumes a year.” The post office, too, was spread across Toronto with eleven outlets connected by a “pneumatic dispatch system” to the city’s many skyscrapers. Although several tall buildings had existed in turn-of-the-century Toronto, like the Beard Building (1894) and the Temple Building (1895), not even Nelson predicted that they would be stretching to upwards of twenty-eight storeys by the end of the ’20s in the real Toronto.
Anticipating the growing importance of major retailers like Simpson’s and Eaton’s from the turn of the century, Fleming next saw “[a] great departmental store [towering] ten stories in the air, [and] surmounted by a giant dome that shone like silver in the sunlight and which was a landmark for miles around.” Keeping in mind that the city’s Great Fire had occurred only four years before Nelson dreamt the future, the author predicted that all the city’s buildings would be outfitted with fire alarm systems connected to giant switchboards in fire stations. Furthermore, structures were surrounded with “concrete and iron passage-ways opening from every floor and fitted with electrically-worked emergency doors.” Fire safety was an even higher priority than architectural design, because Nelson noted that these safety features “interfered somewhat with the usual layout of windows and the interior natural light.”
Once the fashionable shopping district, Fleming found “[v]ery few respectable retail stores” in existence along King Street. Now the district to the south and east of the downtown core was filled with “colossal wholesale warehouses and sheds.” The area from Bay to Bathurst was a manufacturing district where, Fleming saw, major factories competed “with each other to turn Toronto Harbour into a chemical pond” with no regard to what citizens or city council might think. This neighbourhood also housed shipbuilding yards and “the huge smelting works…whose night glare was a beacon for the mariner.”
At the turn of the century, Toronto’s prosperity as a manufacturing centre was driven by its railways, steam-powered factories, plentiful (often immigrant) labour, and abundant raw material. There were 847 factories in 1901 and 1,100 by 1911 (while the number of manufacturing workers grew from 42,000 to over 65,000 in the same period). Nelson predicted Toronto would have 8,000 factories employing 200,000 workers, manufacturing goods with a wholesale value of $600,000,000. In reality, 1929 statistics showed 102,406 employees at 2,236 factories producing products valued at $371,090. Furthermore, by the 1920s, major manufacturers no longer headquartered in the downtown core. Shortly after the First World War, companies like Kodak and Goodyear began locating their facilities in the city’s industrial suburbs like Mount Dennis and New Toronto. In addition, by the late ’20s, Toronto’s growth and prosperity—to finally surpass Montreal as Canada’s foremost economic centre—was due to financial services, with its stock exchange and banks closely linked to the mining and extractive resource sector in northern Ontario and Western Canada.

Illustration by Jeremy Kai/Torontoist.

“The island,” Fleming learned from the taxi driver, “had become the Coney Island of Toronto. Scores of thousands of dollars were spent here every summer—and all for pleasure. Here you would find variety shows, merry-go-rounds, inclined railways, shooting galleries, museums, wooden toboggan slides, aquariums, skating rinks, air-ships, concert halls; in fact, everything that could be thought for amusement.” Only a handful of residences and clubhouses existed on the east end of the Island. It had been improved with sea-wall embankments and park-like drives. And, in order to overcome flooding and infestations of mosquitoes and typhoid brought on by standing water, the whole island had been built up on five feet of earth. Nelson predicted that bridges east and west side of the Island would connect to a lake-front drive that stretched to the Humber River.
In Nelson’s time, Toronto was hog-tied by acres of railway tracks and the decks and piers of a working waterfront. In the author’s view of the future, it still was. Infill had been used, he said, to expand the waterfront, and the piers had been vastly improved after the creation of a “great waterway—the channel of trade and commerce from all parts of the world”—connecting Toronto to Quebec.
Many of these were elements in a comprehensive 1912 waterfront plan by the Toronto Harbour Commission, which had been established in 1911 by the federal government. Although many of the Commission’s recommendations were implemented—such as, Careless notes, “rebuilding and increasing dock facilities, deepening and protecting the harbour, and rationalizing shore land-uses”—the First World War slowed the plan’s implementation and the eventual lake-front parkway across the city took another route.
Above these rail and port-lands, Fleming saw:

A great bridge had been erected at the foot of Yonge and Front streets; other bridges ran in sections from York, Bathurst and Sunnyside—the four joining in one great wide way near, and leading to, the Island. The bridge of bridges consisted of upper and lower divisions and was a splendid reality of engineered skill. The lower way was used for the double track cable railroad. Above were the ways for vehicular traffic and pedestrians. The footwalk for pedestrians provided a delightful means for ‘doing it on foot’, and seats were provided at frequent parts—thus enabling one to rest and enjoy the harbour view below.

Some of Frederick Nelson’s predictions were prescient; others create an alternate reality of Toronto in the late 1920s and beyond. But one prediction made by the author was undoubtedly accurate. “Toronto was growing,” he concluded in 1908, “and would grow for a long, long time.”
For further reading, a 1904 speculation of how Toronto would look in 2004 written by leading architect E.J. Lennox is discussed in Mark Osbaldeston’s Unbuilt Toronto (Dundurn Press, 2008).
Other sources consulted include: Richard Harris, Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto’s American Tragedy 1900 to 1950 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); James Lemon, Toronto Since 1918 (James Lorimer & Company, 1985); and Jesse Edgar Middleton, Toronto’s 100 Years (The Centennial Committee, 1934).