St. John’s Ward, or simply “The Ward”, is bounded by College, Queen, and Yonge Streets and University Avenue, centred on the intersection of Bay and Albert Streets. Historically, the Ward was one of Toronto’s earliest multicultural communities. In 2015, a team of archaeologists removed asphalt from a parking lot in this area to reveal a tiny corner of the old St. John’s Ward. When they completed their excavation 300,000 and 500,000 artifacts had been unearthed. Archaeologists found everything from animal bones to tools, toys, cosmetics, and more. Among the objects the were also the remnants of a 19th century Black church, a synagogue founded by Russian Jews, row houses, factories, cisterns, and a bevy of privy pits. Together, it was all evidence of how life was lived in the working class, immigrant neighborhood.
In the late 1830s, modest homes began to spring up north-west of Yonge and Queen streets, the northern edge of Toronto at the time. Rapid growth of the city created a demand for housing. The Ward, then known as Macaulaytown, after the first land owner, became Toronto’s first suburb. During the late 19th century, the Ward became the home of many of the immigrants and refugees arriving to Toronto. There were Irish fleeing the potato famine; Black Americans escaping from slavery along the Underground Railroad, and thousands of Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe in the 1890s. By the 1920s, the Ward had become home to a growing Chinese community and became the city’s first Chinatown.
While the Ward wasn’t the only neighborhood that saw large-scale immigrant settlement it became one of the densest and most over-crowded. It also had the first gay and lesbian bars in the city. Unfortunately, Toronto being predominantly white, anglo-Protestant, and politically conservative meant that the Ward provoked both explicit and thinly veiled racist responses. The Ward became associated with dirt and disease and moral impurity. As early as the 1910s, there began a push for measures to either contain or raze the Ward’s slums.
As long as there was poverty and destitution in the Ward, the City was working to “clean up” the area, usually by finding ways of demolishing it. In the late 1940s, the City started buying up land in the area, and encouraging inhabitants to leave. There were plans for a new City Hall building to be located where the Ward was. Most of the old Chinatown had been torn down by the mid-1950s to make way for Nathan Phillips Square.
Which brings us back to today with the excavation of the parking lot. Many of the artifacts found on the site can be seen at the Toronto Ward Museum, “a community-engaged museum that facilitates the preservation and sharing of personal stories of migrants in Toronto’s history.” There is also the book, The Ward Uncovered, that both talks about the history of the Ward and shows pictures of items found there.
“About The Ward”. n.d. The Ward Museum. Accessed September 19. http://www.wardmuseum.ca/picturingtheward/theward/.
Bateman, Chris. 2012. “A Brief History Of The Ward, Toronto’s Notorious Slum”. Blogto. https://www.blogto.com/city/2012/06/a_brief_history_of_the_ward_torontos_notorious_slum/.
Martelle, Holly, Michael McClelland, Tatum Taylor, and John Lorinc. 2018. The Ward Uncovered. 1st ed. Toronto: Coach House Books.
Plummer, Kevin. 2013. “Toronto Feature: The Ward”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/toronto-feature-the-ward.
Sylvester, Erin. 2017. “Walking The Ward”. Torontoist. https://torontoist.com/2017/09/walking-the-ward/.
“The Ward Revisited”. n.d.. Myseum. Accessed September 22. http://www.myseumoftoronto.com/programming/the-ward/.