Research project gives a voice to London's SoHo neighbourhood

Public historians are putting out a call for stories of the city’s historic SoHo neighbourhood.

Construction for new housing begins Spring 2022

From left to right: Public history student Keely Shaw, Michelle Hamilton, Greg Playford, and public history student Madeline Shaw stand on the stairs of the War Memorial Children's Hospital in London, Ont.'s SoHo neighbourhood. (Angela McInnes/CBC)

Public historians are putting out a call for stories of the city's historic SoHo neighbourhood. 

The area, which was once a buzzing medical and manufacturing hub, will soon be the site of a new residential district that will fuse the past with the present. 

"There's not been a lot of research done on Soho here, particularly because it's a working class neighborhood, and it's a diverse neighborhood," said Keely Shaw, a master's of public history student at Western University. 

"The reason this is so impactful is because you're giving people a voice where they haven't been heard before."

In Spring 2022, construction will begin on 620 new housing units at the site of the South Street Victoria Hospital. 

Two of the site's buildings will be restored and integrated into housing plans: the Health Services Building, opened from 1921 to 1965, and the War Memorial Children's Hospital, which opened in the 1920s. It was a forerunner to today's Children's Hospital. 

The War Memorial Children’s Hospital first opened in the 1920s. It was the forerunner for the Children's Hospital of Western Ontario. (Angela McInnes/CBC)

A collaboration of affordable housing developers called Vision SoHo Alliance, united by the London Community Foundation, says 400 of the units will be affordable, and at least 200 of those will accommodate people with disabilities. 

"Everybody has a story about the site and the Old Victoria Hospital. It's so exciting that the students at Western are taking the opportunity to try and preserve some of that," said Greg Playford, a London Community Foundation board member. 

"The buildings there are a bit of a challenge inside. We're going to save as many heritage features as possible," he said. 

The Health Services Building was opened from 1921 to 1965. It was once a medical research building. (Angela McInnes/CBC)

Students in the public history program's 2021/22 cohort have already begun to conduct interviews about the buildings and neighbourhood. 

They've so far learned that a hundred years ago, life in the area was bustling. 

Beyond the hospital, many people resided in the neighbourhood because of its close proximity to downtown. 

Much of the housing was modestly priced, and close to a soap factory, bread factory, and the Labatt Brewery. 

Michelle Hamilton is a professor of public history at Western University. (Angela McInnes/CBC)

Public history professor Michelle Hamilton said that a 1920s census reveals a multicultural neighbourhood community. 

"There are Italian immigrants, Syrian immigrants, Jewish immigrants from Russia," said Hamilton. "There's also indigenous people living here and also descendants of the early Black population that came from the United States to escape slavery." 

"We're looking to document that diversity, the full diversity through oral history here in London." 

Renderings show what the site of the former Old Victoria Hospital will look like once construction for new housing is complete in late 2023/early 2024. (Vision SoHo Alliance)

Hamilton said her students will hold a public presentation of what they uncover in spring 2022. 

Next year's public history cohort will compile this year's research into audio and visual exhibits that will be displayed inside and outside the new residences. 

Everything will be available to view in the Western University archives once the project is complete. 

Interested participants in the research project can contact Michelle Hamilton. They should be prepared to sit down for an hour-long interview, and be open to the possibility of having their stories published. 

Construction of the new housing is expected to finish in late 2023 to early 2024.