Toronto has a history

I grew up believing Toronto had no history.

Like many young Torontonians, History, I believed, was something you left the city to find. Or better yet, left the country. Those years of sitting in class learning about Canada — in Grade 7, Grade 8, maybe even Grade 9 — are now little more than a faint memory, and I’m only 22. A pre-history, a primer, learned only in anticipation of the real History to come, taught in high school classes like ‘Ancient Civilizations’ and ‘Modern Western Europe.’

When it came to Toronto, however, the city I lived and learned in was barely a blimp on my historical consciousness.

Over the last few years, my interest in Toronto’s past has taken a U-turn. It’s hard for me to pinpoint where this interest came from, but I have two ideas:

First, I’ve been living ‘abroad’ for the better part of my adult life, studying in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a brief stint in Edinburgh, Scotland – two cities whose pasts make unmistakable claims on their present look and feel. Centred around a citadel and a castle, respectively, the historical nature of these cities is hard to miss.

Far more likely, however, is that my interest in old ‘Toronto the Good’ stems from its more vibrant present and booming future. In the last decade alone, the city has undergone massive change. From Mel Lastman to Mayor Miller, a stagnant TTC to the beginnings of Transit City (fingers crossed) and from civic quietism to outspoken boosterism, little has been left untouched.

In ten years, parts of the waterfront have gone from underused open spaces and port lands to popular public spaces, and the transformations have only just begun. We are starting to remember that Toronto is a city defined by rivers as well as ravines, that our more recent industrial past is just as important as our earlier colonial history and that we’re no longer just a “city of neighbourhoods” but a sprawling mass of lost villages and suburban downtowns.

For the Generation Xers, baby boomers and my grandparents, these changes must seem drastic. But for me, someone who’s only strong memory of Mel Lastman’s time in office has to do with his connection with the Maple Leaf’s beloved bruiser, fast changes and high hopes for the future of Toronto are as regular a part of my relatively short life as the many cranes and construction sites now dotting the city. It’s all I’ve known.

Now that I’ve thoroughly dated myself, I might as well get to the point of this blog. For me, the history of Toronto has come alive through its still nascent future. The concrete and steel frames of soon-to-be-condos, the high profile renos of many landmark buildings, the newly proposed transit lines and utopian imaginings of waterfront planners fascinate me, not just for what they propose but for the history they have often brought to the surface and translated anew.

I want to try to present some of that history as I see it, through what is both new and still to come. I want to get at Toronto’s past by looking at its present and future, and not vice versa as my middle school teachers once tried.

But first, a disclaimer: There will probably be a disproportionate number of posts on the St. Clair West/Annex area, but that can’t be helped — not only is it a particularly history-filled neighbourhood, but it also happens to be the part of Toronto where I’ve always lived.

And please comment. It’s no fun writing in a vacuum, and I’d love to hear your own take on Toronto’s elusive history.


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