Block by Block exhibit celebrates untold history of the Ward

St. John's Ward, known by most simply as the Ward, was once considered a slum. But the home of many of Toronto's earliest immigrant communities had another side to it, and a new digital exhibit is celebrating that history.

Online photo exhibit focuses on stories of the people who called the Ward home

It began in the 1830s as a kind of beacon in the darkness; a place where escaped slaves from the American south could find cheap shelter and begin rebuilding their lives. 

By the early 20th century, the central Toronto neighbourhood St. John's Ward — known to most simply as The Ward — was a diverse community with immigrants as its backbone. 

Bordered by College Street to the north, Queen Street to the south, University Avenue to the west and Yonge Street to the east, the Ward was considered a slum by many in the city. While it is true that poverty, disease and other social ills were common, especially before the turn of the century, there was another side to the Ward that's largely been forgotten.

A new online exhibit from the Toronto Ward Museum, Block by Block, has unearthed the history overshadowed by a common narrative of The Ward that discounts much of day-to-day life in the former enclave. 

"I wanted to share different stories," said Kathy Grant, Toronto regional coordinator for the digitized exhibit in an interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning

"It was a diverse community. There were members of the Jewish community, the Italian community, the black community, the Chinese community — and a lot of those stories had not been in history books," she said.

To gather material, the exhibit's producers had students in the city interview people who either lived in The Ward themselves or have family who once did. 

One of those people was George Carter, 96, the first Canadian-born black judge. Carter studied at Trinity College and served as an infantryman in the Second World War before earning a law degree from Osgoode Hall. His family lived in The Ward from 1933 to 1936. He is far right in the image below.

(Toronto Ward Museum)

Italians were among the earliest waves of immigrants to settle in The Ward, drawn to it as a place where they could form a community but keep cultural traditions alive.

Viola DeFrancesco's mother Caroline on the porch at 174 Chestnut St. in 1946. Also in the photo are her nieces Madeleine and Irene DeFalco, her brother, John DeFrancesco, and Jerry DeFalco. (Photo courtesy: Paul Piccininni)

The Ward gave an early glimpse into the diversity that would come to define so many of the city's neighbourhoods. 

The Mount Carmel Church ball team in 1942. (Photo courtesy: Paul Piccininni)

Children from each of the different immigrant groups that called The Ward home — including Jews, western and eastern Europeans and east and south Asians — attended classes and grew up together. 

George Carter's woodshop class at Hester How in 1938. (Photo courtesy: Hon. George Carter)
(Toronto Ward Museum)

Grant said that curators were surprised by what they saw in many of the images they collected. 

"The Ward was viewed as a slum but in looking at the pictures, you see them wearing vests and ties and jackets, and that's not something we expected," she explained, adding that in some photos it seems "like they're stepping out of The Great Gatsby."

Best man John Carter attends wedding at British Methodist Episcopal Church on Chestnut Street in 1926. (City of Toronto Archives)

Block by Block also explores what happened in The Ward toward the middle of the 20th century, when parts of the neighbourhood began the slow crawl toward gentrification. Many who lived there did not welcome some of the changes the city forced onto them. 

The Chinese community was especially vocal in its opposition to the demolition of Old Chinatown to make room for Nathan Phillips Square, where city hall now stands. 

Shown here with her daughter Arlene Chan, Jean Lumb was a prominent campaigner against further demolition of the area.

(Photo courtesy: Arlene Chan)

View the entire exhibit here.