More than a century ago had you told an Irish labourer, Jewish peddler, or African-American washerwoman—all residents of “the Ward,” Toronto’s impoverished and squalid downtown immigrant quarter—that one day in the future their discarded soda pop bottles, broken dishes, shoes, furniture, and toys would be considered a “treasure trove” by archaeologists and historians, they surely would have howled with laughter. And who knows what they would have thought about these social scientists digging up their backyard privies and mining the fossilized remains? But according to archaeologist Holly Martelle, “much can be learned from both the fecal matter itself and the objects deposited in privies as trash.” The analysis of old excrement, she adds, can reveal all sorts of secrets about diet, food preference and the “seasonality of privy use.”
By no means was nineteenth-century Toronto anything like ancient Athens or Rome, with precious remnants of vanished civilizations. Yet from the perspective of Martelle and the other editors and writers of this collection, yesterday’s buried garbage, dilapidated buildings, and yes, even age-old, hardened poop, are no less meaningful in understanding how people once lived in pre- and post-Confederation Ontario.
The impetus for this latest study of the Ward was born in 2015. During the excavation of a downtown parking lot, sponsored by the Crown agency Infrastructure Ontario, and not far from Toronto’s City Hall, on a site destined to become a new multi-million-dollar courthouse, archaeologists led by Martelle struck pay dirt. The team uncovered hundreds of thousands of artifacts as well as the ruins of Toronto’s British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church, established on Chestnut Street in the mid 1850s by members of the city’s small African-American community. Most of them had been slaves in the American South who had escaped bondage via the Underground Railway. Discovered, too, nearby were the walls of the original Shaarei Tzedec Synagogue, opened in 1906 on Centre Avenue in what was the former Standard Foundry Company. The synagogue remained on this site until the congregation relocated to another building in 1937 on Markham Street, in a more upscale neighbourhood, and where it is still in operation. The stories of both the church and the synagogue are told well in this new volume respectively by Rosemary Sadlier, the former head of the Ontario Black History Society, and Simon Patrick Rogers, an archivist at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.
This book is thus linked to the 2015 dig around Centre Avenue, and Chestnut and Armoury Streets. It is also a sequel to a similar collection of sixty-plus essays on the Ward’s history published that year, The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood, another Coach House production and similarly edited by John Lorinc, Michael McClelland, Tatum Taylor, and Ellen Scheinberg, a contributor to this new work. (Disclosure: Lorinc was a knowledgeable resource for my own book about Toronto.) While the first collection included dozens of vignettes on life in the Ward and the many characters who inhabited it—bootleggers, peddlers, newsboys, nurses, missionaries, politicians, among many others—this second volume’s fifty essays offers, by design, a combination of archeological reporting on the various discoveries made in the excavation with social histories of people and buildings. With so many authors, the writing is somewhat uneven and some of the subject matter arcane. Hence, there are technical essays about animal bone fragments, coconut shells (available in Toronto from the mid 1850s on), ceramic dishes, and unique histories of the city’s soda-water factories and the popularity of German stoneware bottles used for seltzer water.
The Ward, part of what was once St. John’s Ward, was a rectangle bounded by Queen Street to the south, University Avenue to the west, College Street to the north, and Yonge Street to the east. For about a century, from the 1840s to the 1940s, it was home at various times to several generations of newcomers, in particular African-Americans, Italians, Eastern European Jews, and Chinese immigrants. With the redevelopment of Toronto’s City Hall area in the mid 1950s, the Ward more or less ceased to exist—at least physically. At the same time, as immigration studies eventually became a recognized academic discipline, historians and writers who could trace their ancestry back to the neighbourhood became fascinated with this small urban enclave. And the Ward, like New York City’s Lower East Side, Montreal’s boulevard Saint-Laurent and Winnipeg’s North End, became steeped in mythology and, in this case, a little misplaced nostalgia.
Too often ignored or dismissed in this new collection (as well as other books), for instance, is the fact that the Ward, with its rundown and crowded housing and proliferation of outdoor privies was generally a miserable place to live. Disease was frequently rampant, and sanitation horrendous; as Scheinberg has noted, as late as 1911, indoor plumbing in the Ward, unlike in other more affluent Toronto neighbourhoods, was non-existent.
“Here is the festering sore of our city life,” wrote Rev. H.S. Magee in a profile of the Ward published in the Christian Guardian in 1911. “The lanes, alleyways and backyards are strewn with refuse, houses behind houses, and in the yards between unsightly piles of ramshackle out-houses that are supposed to provide sanitary conveniences.” The reverend’s negative assessment was no doubt coloured by his white Anglo biases and the disdain he felt for the Ward’s immigrant (or “foreign”) population, but he nonetheless was close to the mark. Mary Joplin Clarke, an urban and social reformer, insisted in a 1915 report that “for those of us who know the Ward and its inhabitants it is the safest and friendliest place on earth.” The truth was that once someone had the resources to escape from the Ward, they seldom looked back.
Several of the essays examine the daily hardship of the Ward and the ingrained prejudice and discrimination to which its residents were subjected. Toronto, with a total population of about fifty thousand in 1858, was indeed a haven for a few thousand escaped African-American slaves, yet that hardly meant that the city was welcoming. Many white Torontonians may have opposed slavery, but they shared the bigoted attitudes of the era.
In an insightful essay, archaeologist and historian Karolyn Smardz Frost, who has written extensively on the city’s African-American experience, reviews the popularity of blackface or Jim Crow travelling minstrel shows in Toronto well into the early years of the twentieth century, and the community’s struggle to end these demeaning performances. It was an uphill battle. Petitions from African-American leaders sent to city council to ban such negative depictions received only perfunctory acknowledgement from civic officials, and theatre owners, heeding their audiences’ crude tastes, ignored any complaints. In this case (and others) the need to increase profits trumped concerns over charges of intolerance. As Francis Simpson, who immigrated to Toronto from New York and operated a successful shoe-making business noted in an 1863 interview included in the collection: “I must say, that leaving the law out of the question, I find that prejudice here is equally strong as on the other side. The law is the only thing that sustains us in this country.” Indeed until some years after the Second World War, African-Americans were denied service in Toronto hotels, refused entry at sports clubs, and discriminated against overtly in the workplace. Other non-British and non-Scottish ethnic and religious groups had similar experiences. Suffice it to say that no one living in the Ward during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have thought that decades later Toronto’s motto would have been “Diversity Our Strength.”
As fascinating as the archeological artifacts at the heart of this book might be, the best section of the book, and the one that truly resonates, is the biographical profiles of a handful of the Ward’s residents. Among them are Simpson; William Still, the son of slaves, who settled in the Ward; Cecelia Holmes, who had escaped slavery when her masters from Kentucky visited Niagara Falls with her; bootlegger Annie Whalen, who had come to Canada from Ireland; Tom Lock, who became Toronto’s first Chinese pharmacist, in the early 1950s; Rev. Thomas Jackson of the BME Church; and Henry Greisman, a fairly unique Jewish immigrant success story who rose from being a lowly peddler to become a prosperous garment manufacturer. These and a multitude of others represent the Ward’s spirit of perseverance, its collective survival instinct, and explain why so many years later a keen interest in the neighbourhood persists.