Wednesday, March 30, 2016

History walk

I don't know about you, but it's always a leap of faith for me to imagine the lives of people who died a generation before I was born.  I am fascinated by their stories and spend a lot of my downtime researching social history without being able to relate to them in a tangible way.  So - we had some fun this past weekend looking for traces of 1900 in our 2016 neighbourhood.

I started with this map from 1910, cropped to just a few blocks around our temporary condo home:

Our condo building replaced almost the whole block to the left
of St. Lawrence Market, shown bottom right

The map is from Goad's Atlas, helpfully scanned and uploaded by Nathan at Recursion.  It was fun to compare what what the area looked like in 1910 to what it looked like in Goad's 1884 map, and I made a note to pay attention to the places where there were differences as we walked by in person.

In the middle of both maps, for example, there is a police station surrounded by roads on all four sides, with a courthouse at the back that fronts onto Adelaide Street  Now though, the police station is a park, and the courthouse is a restaurant.  I had forgotten until I noticed this that in my mystery-writing days I went with a few other Sisters in Crime members with a newspaper photographer to be snapped in the jail cells that are still in the basement there.  They're small and dark and not meant for a group of people holding books.

Once I was really looking, I saw a lot of evidence of the way the city used to look.  How did I miss registering this gem on my regular walks up Church Street, for example?

I know how: I'm too busy watching traffic.  Downtown driving is only slightly less treacherous than downtown walking.  Anyway: it's the original head office of Confederation Life, and it was built in 1892. 

Another thing I did before we went out was to source some photographs of old Toronto as a reference point.  Our condo unit is just a few feet north of the second floor window on the extreme right of this photograph from the 1890s:

(the flatiron building on the left is still standing, and is the constant subject of visitor photographs.  also, the pub underneath does an awesome shepherd's pie!)

Check out this photograph of people getting on a streetcar at Yonge Street and Queen - just north of where I cropped my map - in 1908 or thereabouts:

It's crowded on streetcars today but it looks like it was then too, and certainly at that busy intersection.  Imagine coping with cramped standing space while wearing one of those hats!  You almost never see those things pictured from the side so I didn't know they were quite so crazy big.

Once you're looking, you can tell there are a lot of old buildings (by new world standards) still in use in Toronto today.  This one is at the northeast corner of Lombard and Victoria:

And this whole block is on the south side of Colborne, just west of Church.  I love how well all of it's been preserved because it makes it so much easier to imagine the little elements of what life was here like a hundred years ago.

Lots of arches, aren't there.  And you go up a few steps to access many of the main floor shops and restaurants that occupy them now.

It's funny about the ugly parking lot I stood in to take this picture.  The pretty sculpture garden I walk through most days just to the north of our building was once a run of buildings like these, torn down in the 1930s to make space for - a parking lot!  I can definitely imagine how the city struggled to adapt to the growth of the automobile industry, because parking is still a huge issue here, and everywhere else too.

Of course, after we got home again I discovered this list of all the old buildings still standing in Toronto.  Oh well, we'll use it next time!

How about your neighbourhood?  Do you know what stood there a hundred years before you did? 


Yvette said...

Wow. It turns out we've both recently moved into the Old York/St Lawrence neighbourhood. We're neighbours!
Thank you for this post. I'll use this map on my own walkabouts as I try to familiarize myself with this place.

Su said...

Well, my house was built in 1899, so 100 years ago it was here! I think there were fields here before that, certainly the name of my street and a couple of others nearby alludes to there being deer here.
What always fascinates me are the little details, on perfectly ordinary, run of the mill buildings, that most people miss. When my daughter moved into her house last year, one of the first things I noticed was the keystone 'brick' above the front door. It's a lovely 3D image of fruit. She hadn't even noticed it until I pointed it out. There are lots of little details like that around here and I love them. I also bemoan the craftsmanship ( please excuse the sexism) that has long since gone that allowed these things to be made.

Mary Keenan said...

Yvette that's so fabulous! Click my e-mail at the side of the screen if you want to meet up for coffee or knitting!

Mary Keenan said...

Omigosh Su, you are so lucky to have an old house! I know they are a lot of work but still: so much to love. I agree with you absolutely about the little details. I was walking through the financial core this morning and noticing the old, preserved buildings versus the new builds that totally replaced whatever was there before. Most of the new ones sure aren't going to win any awards for charming detail. And it's so sad about the skills we are losing, for sure. I was amazed to find a place that still does plaster crown molding - we had that in the house originally and I thought it would be fantastic to put it back in - but then I realized we don't have the budget for that now. That's all it takes, is enough people not being able to afford an artisan's time.