At the beginning of the 19th century, St. John’s ward, the area bordered by University, Queen, Yonge and College streets, became the center of Toronto’s Jewish community, later expanding to include other immigrant groups.
Today, Toronto city councilor Howard Moscoe wants to encapsulate the region’s history in museum form, inside the very walls of our own city hall.
Our current sleekly designed city hall sits at 100 Queen St. West, atop of what used to be the hub of St. John’s ward, which more than a century ago was laden with slums.
Its first settlers were survivors of the Irish potato famine, but by 1850, the area housed many African American immigrants as well, most of them fugitive slaves.
Then came the massive influx of Jewish settlers in the late 19th century. Prior to this, Toronto’s first Jewish families were primarily of English origin. It was these 18 families who established the city’s first synagogue in 1856, its congregation consisting mostly of craftsmen, merchants, and small shopkeepers.
It was following the 1880s that religious persecution and economic hardship forced large numbers of Jews to flee Eastern Europe, vastly outnumbering the city’s original Jewish population, settling as well in The Ward. The significant population growth led to the proliferation of synagogues, in addition to the advent of what Dr. Stephen Speisman, founder of the Ontario Jewish Archives, had referred to as a North American shtetl.
Connection of past and present
The Jewish wave was followed by Italians who established Toronto’s first Little Italy, and Chinese, who built and settled around Elizabeth Street and Spadina, forming Toronto’s first Chinatown.
With the ongoing flood of immigration, St. John’s ward was beginning to accrue wealth. The Toronto Star reported that in 1909, land at College and Elizabeth sold for $95 a foot. By 1917, the value had risen to $1,000 a foot.
It was then that the Ward’s now wealthier inhabitants began to spill out into other parts of the city.
Toronto truly is a living, breathing organism in itself, changing and fluctuating with every multi-ethnic wave of settlers. Over time, it has become the multi-cultural urban centre that it is today.
Still, there is hardly a city that hasn’t been touched by gentrification - the modernization, development, and “cleaning up” of a neighbourhood. It is thus easy to forget that which has been bulldozed by the past, in order to keep up with population growth.
It is this connection of past and present that Moscoe wishes to capture in his proposed city hall-based historical museum; this and the hope that the commemorating the Ward will present our city’s immigration history as not just a stage in the past, but as the continuously evolving narrative that is Toronto.
Reprinted with permission from Shalom Life