A talk with the person in charge of putting historical markers on Toronto's streets.
I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
As the plaques and markers program coordinator for Heritage Toronto, Kaitlin Wainwright works on the historical reminders that dot Toronto’s streets. From a marker at the former Riverboat Coffee House in what used to be hippie Yorkville, to a series of plaques that commemorate the intertwined histories of Toronto and its Jewish population, these signs impart local history to anyone who happens to be passing by.
Wainwright, who has been on the job for about a year, works out of the Historic St. Lawrence Hall, near King and Jarvis streets. As she excitedly says, “I get to work inside a National Historic Site!”
Our interview with her is below.
Torontoist: How did you get involved with the Plaques and Markers Program?
Kaitlin Wainwright: My academic background is in public history, so I’m very interested in how the past is represented and the challenges inherent in that. I’ve been lucky in my career to have had a lot of contract work that involved taking complex histories and distilling them into bite-sized pieces, while still maintaining historical integrity.
I actually moved from Ottawa—where I worked for the federal government—for the position. The great thing about this role, though, is that I’ve learned about Toronto and its history and geography very quickly. In a given week, I can be in North York for a presentation, at the City Archives for research, and in Etobicoke to meet with an applicant.
How do you decide what makes the cut as historically significant?
Heritage Toronto is a charitable agency of the City of Toronto, and so we have a board that sets guidelines for the organization, including criteria for our plaques. For built heritage, it’s generally straightforward: we will consider a plaque for a property on the City’s inventory of heritage properties, which is a register of properties that have been listed or designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. That distinction makes it onto the plaque’s text. This ranges from homes in heritage conservation districts, to industrial heritage such as buildings in the Distillery District, to cultural landmarks like Maple Leaf Gardens.
For cultural, archaeological and natural heritage, the question that generally is asked is whether the subject matter has historically shaped our city, or a neighbourhood or community, within this city. The answer to this question is usually “yes.” We want to encourage heritage education as much as possible. Toronto’s heritage is very diverse, which keeps me on my toes in terms of the range of subject matter that I work with.
Has the idea of “historically significant” changed over time? Would places and events that wouldn’t have made the cut 10 years ago now be approved, or vice versa?
As time passes, we gain historical distance from subject matter. The historical horizon changes. Ten years ago, architecture from the 1960s would not necessarily have been seen through a historical lens. Similarly, there was a cultural shift in Canada and in Toronto in the 1960s and early 1970s that we now see represented in our plaques. We did a plaque commemorating the history of the Spadina Expressway and its surrounding political activity. Ten or fifteen years ago, it would have probably been seen as too soon to commemorate its history.
We’re also seeing a better representation of Toronto’s diversity, and are hopeful that this will grow with our collection of heritage diversity stories. We have a plaque at College and Grace that honours the legacy of Johnny Lombardi, who founded CHIN Radio, Canada’s first radio station providing full-time multilingual programming. We have also been working with both the Italian and Jewish communities on a series of plaques commemorating their cultural heritage in Toronto.
How many of the plaques come from outside nominations? Does the department ever hear of something and say internally, “That deserves a plaque”?
The majority of projects need someone to come forward and say, “I think this merits a plaque.” We then work with our plaques program committee to make sure it is historically significant. We sometimes look for opportunities to work with community organizations who are commemorating a historical anniversary. For example, later this year, we’ll be presenting a plaque for Spruce Court, which was one of the city’s earliest publicly supported affordable-housing options. They’re celebrating 100 years, and it’s a great chance for the community, which is now a housing co-operative, to reflect on its history.
The program also has plaque initiatives. Here, a citizen has approached us and asked that we create a series of plaques that recognize the significance of a community within the larger history of the city of Toronto. One of our past board members, Eric Slavens, began a Jewish Heritage Plaque Initiative in 2006, and we have 10 plaques that commemorate the history of people, places, and events that have impacted Jewish life in Toronto, and have historical significance to the city. These [initiatives] have been a chance to consult with experts within that community and ask “what deserves a plaque?”
What does a typical day look like for a plaques and markers program coordinator?
The joy of this job is that there isn’t a typical day. I spend a fair amount of time researching and reading on plaque subject matter. In most cases, by the time the plaque is produced, I’ve become a bit of an expert. I’m a frequent face at the City of Toronto Archives and the Toronto Reference Library, but much of the work gets done online through their digital databases or other resources. I also look at images and maps to help build the research and, in the case of some plaques, help tell the story. My time is also spent writing and editing texts for the plaques. It can be a challenge to learn a lot about something and then explain it in very few words, but I relish it.
There are frequent meetings with plaque applicants, community partners, and property owners, to discuss what the plaque will say and where it will go, and to plan any presentation events. I work closely with our marketing staff and our chief historian and associate director to make sure that the events are as much a success as the plaques.
What’s the coolest or most interesting historical tidbit you’ve learned while on the job?
I’m continually fascinated by the use of recreational spaces—parks and arenas—for military training and demonstration during the two World Wars. Riverdale Park East, for example, had a series of trenches constructed on its flats during the First World War, and there are photographs of soldiers training in Maple Leaf Gardens.
This interview has been edited and condensed.