Historicist: Reflections of a Historicist
A few thoughts as Jamie Bradburn wraps up nearly a decade of contributing to Historicist.
The history of the city, like that of any city, is not a celebration of perfection, but it is a saga worth probing, praising, and critiquing.—Allan Levine, Toronto Biography of a City, 2014.
Once upon a time, the basic story of Toronto’s history went something like this: Long ago, some “Indians” wandered by. The French dropped in, but didn’t leave much. Then came John Graves Simcoe and the establishment of York as an outpost of British civilization. There were battles against the Americans, a name change to Toronto, and a rebellion. More British people arrived, along with the Irish, sparking tussles between the two. Then came “Toronto the Good,” where zealous Methodist piety turned Toronto into one of the world’s dullest cities, a place where fun was outlawed on Sundays. Aided by immigration from places other the British Isles, Toronto gradually loosened up. It became a city known for its clean streets, great subway, and progressive ideas. The end.
Toronto is recognized to be liveable by world standards, and relatively safe and prosperous. But as a great city, it lacks history, drama and flair.—Conrad Black, National Post, 2012.
Sorry Conrad. And sorry to those who stick by the old narrative of Toronto having a dull, inconsequential history.
If writing Historicist over the past decade has taught me anything, it’s that there are plenty of fascinating stories to be told. We may lack the steady stream of earth-shattering events larger cities have witnessed, but there’s much to enlighten, enrage, and inspire. Scratch the surface and immediately you begin to challenge the old assumptions about Toronto’s history.
Those who’ve written this column have enjoyed the luxury of having all the space we need to tell those tales, taking the time to throw in all the relevant details, fun/depressing anecdotes, and apply our storytelling skills. Looking back at the first instalment from April 2008 on the old Telegram building at the long-gone intersection of Bay and Melinda, it’s surprising to rediscover that it was only 800 words long.
Some of the best tales I’ve shared are accidental discoveries. A side glance at another story on an old newspaper page or a throwaway anecdote in a book or magazine sends me on a hunt that that can last for weeks. Despite the occasional dead end, these trips down rabbit holes have produced posts detailing the horrors of sip ‘n sex joints in 1960s North York and the bureaucratic silliness of the Toronto Patty Wars of 1985.
There have been great changes, conspicuous and real. It is a cosmopolitan place now, and the more interesting for it. And yet to the perceptive it is, while very different, recognizable. Underneath the surface, and only sometimes detected, old Toronto slumbers.—G.P. deT. Glazebrook, The Story of Toronto, 1971.
How long it takes to prepare a Historicist varies wildly. Some instalments, like those on the death of the Telegram/birth of the Sun or the 1972 municipal election, involved years of gathering material. There are folders on my computer which have grown anxious waiting for the right moment to step into the spotlight. Others involved last-minute scrambling when the intended topic fell apart, either from my being overwhelmed by the volume of research or just not feeling the piece coming together. Hint: any column revolving around a magazine article was an emergency replacement.
There have been many long nights over the years, punctuated by occasional panic attacks when writer’s block hit or the rhythm of the words went off key. Sympathetic partners, a steady supply of tea, short naps, and walks around the block have rescued many instalments.
Working on the column even led to an incident at the American border. Running behind on a piece structured like an 1867 tourism guide, I filled my trunk with a pile of books on my way to vacation in Boston. The border guard opened the trunk, saw the research material, and proceeded to grill me, convinced I was trying to sneak over to a conference or seek permanent work stateside. I’m not sure they believed I was scrambling to meet a deadline. They decided to let me go, but not before they accidentally locked my keys in the trunk. That was the day I discovered where the panic button was in my car.
I have suggested that we in Toronto are curiously apathetic towards our history in terms of landmarks, street names, and the like; indeed surely no city in the world with a background of three hundred years does so little to make that background known. Our children are brought up to take pride in the British beginnings of the city, but they have a limited knowledge of that vastly more exciting period when the Senecas had a village on the site, when black-robed priests and French noblemen dwelt at times at the mouth of the Humber and wrote glowing letters back home to France of the potentialities of Toronto as a settlement to the empire of Louis XIV—Eric Arthur, No Mean City, 1964.
The apathy Arthur sensed during the mid-1960s has lessened. A greater awareness of the value of our built heritage has helped, awakened during the 1960s and 1970s as old buildings downtown gave way to parking lots, and landmarks ranging from Old City Hall to Union Station were threatened. The process hasn’t been perfect—there are too many tales of worthy buildings slipping through bureaucratic cracks, poorly realized preservation attempts, and cultural legacies slipping away as neighbourhoods evolve—but we are doing a better job of appreciating the past through plaques, adaptive reuse, and storytelling. Over the past decade, it’s been interesting to notice the public outcry whenever a building is sneakily demolished, how the public has reacted to the end of icons like Honest Ed’s, and embraced once-unloved spaces like the Galleria.
The internet has widened accessibility to Toronto’s historical images and documents. This column wouldn’t be possible without online resources such as the photos posted by the City of Toronto Archives and the newspaper databases offered by the Toronto Public Library. Across the net there’s something for every level of engagement: photo collections which provoke nostalgic memories, long-form essays, and academic takes on the issues surrounding Toronto history.
Clean subways. Safe streets. Cosmopolitan atmosphere. Good government. Friendly cops. Ethnic restaurants. Boutiques everywhere you look. Downtown revitalized. Suburbs that work. Amazing schools. Neighbourhoods restored. This is a litany you’ll hear over and over again in Toronto, not only in the media, which have a vested interest in civic preening, but from people, especially newcomers…But “newcomers” in Toronto means almost everybody. There are 2.6 million people in Metropolitan Toronto, and roughly 60 percent of them were born and raised somewhere else. The newcomers tend to be the city’s most vocal enthusiasts and, at the same time, the people who make the city something to get enthused about. For it is mainly postwar immigration that has changed Toronto from a place which used to be a Canadian synonym for Anglo-Saxon dreariness into a city which, to its own considerable wonderment, finds itself regarded by many outsiders as an urban miracle.—Toronto Guidebook, 1974.
We’re gaining a better understanding of our cultural heritage, especially among immigrant and marginalized communities. Writing Historicist has been as much a learning experience for me as the reader, especially when it comes to communities I do not belong to. I’ve tried to be sensitive when writing about topics ranging from racial discrimination to the fight for queer rights, avoiding a know-it-all stance when it comes to these issues. Examining the available information forms an understanding of why events and prejudices unfolded the way they did. By sharing these stories, I hope I’m contributing context to issues that still affect us, and maybe change a mind or two.
Especially in an era where political leaders, local and international, thrive on divisiveness and mistrust, examining stories from all communities should, idealistically, build bridges of acceptance, understanding, and unity. They should also provoke debate. Whether you celebrate or resist Canada 150, this year is an ideal moment to critically discuss historical issues and how, for better or worse, they affect us today.
Having historical context at hand is one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal, even if sometimes feels pointless. While many of my news-cycle related pieces for Torontoist have fallen outside Historicist, the column has touched topics such as the proposed suspension of civil rights in 1960s Ontario (written in the aftermath of the G20 fiasco) and a look at the city’s early mosques (as Islamophobia rose during the recent American election campaign).
Toronto is a city of stories that accumulate in fragments between the aggressive thrust of its downtown towers and the primordial dream of its ravines. In these fragments we find narratives of unfinished journeys and incomplete arrivals, chronicles of all the violence, poverty, ambition and hope that give shape to this city and those who live in it.—Amy Lavender Harris, Imagining Toronto, 2010.
Something else that has gained greater recognition over the past decade: the role of Indigenous peoples in Toronto history, as we move away from setting 1793 or 1834 as the concrete dates where the city’s story begins. Acknowledgement during public events that Toronto sits upon traditional Indigenous territories is a reminder of their long presence here. A stronger appreciation has grown toward pre-colonialization settlements and trading routes, Indigenous participation in the Battle of York, and opportunities to discuss historical wrongs and present-day reconciliation. These are stories that, through archaeology and listening to the descendants of those who left their traces, provide fresh chapters to Toronto’s epic.
Working on Historicist can be depressing at times. Sifting through bigoted behaviour, boneheaded decisions, repeated mistakes, and Sun editorials can be disheartening. Anything to do with transit makes me want to lay a plague on everyone’s house. But researching these stories is counterbalanced by tales with positive or humorous outcomes.
Thanks to you, the readers, for supporting our work and providing feedback which proves the value of telling the stories we’ve shared with you. As I depart Historicist, I make one request: Start sharing your own historical tales. Whether it’s through social media, websites, or gatherings with friends, start satisfying your own curiosity and dig into Toronto’s back pages. What you’ll find will deepen your understanding of the city you live in, and how you feel about the way it is being shaped.