Urban Archaeology: St. John’s Ward, Toronto, ON

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/.

Urban Archaeology

Urban archaeology is a sub discipline of archaeology, its basics are the same as that of non-urban archaeology. However, it looks for clues about our past in cities or areas that have been developed for hundreds of years. It also plays a prominent role in new development. While many new projects go ahead without major archaeological studies, in places like New York City and Toronto, most developments only get greenlit after archaeologists have done at least a preliminary investigation.

One issue with urban archaeology, however, is that archaeologists cannot simply dig anywhere. They must be opportunists, swooping in before new construction projects to research and examine the site. Prior to a site being excavated a great deal of research about the area’s history must be done to tell whether or not the site has potential to relinquish anything significant.

Until the 19th century, civilizations did not remove refuse and debris from construction sites. The refuse was largely buried, reused, or broken down until the new structure was built on top. Due to this, cities are often higher in elevation than they used to be, with the land literally raised by the debris of the past. These artifacts help tell the stories of neighborhoods and heritage in a way that nothing else can.

To be continued…


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/.

Bryant, Charles W. 2020. “What Can We Learn From Urban Archaeology?”. Howstuffworks. Accessed September 19. https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/archaeology/urban-archaeology.htm.

Etherington, Cait. 2017. “Excavating The City: A Look At Urban Archaeology In New York”. 6Sqft. https://www.6sqft.com/excavating-the-city-a-look-at-urban-archaeology-in-new-york/.

Smith, Monica L. 2014. “The Archaeology Of Urban Landscapes”. Annual Review Of Anthropology.

Webb, Thanos. 2017. “Artifacts Down The Street: Exploring Urban Archaeology”. Building Design + Construction. https://www.bdcnetwork.com/blog/artifacts-down-street-exploring-urban-archaeology.

Epidemics and the City: Cholera Pt. 2

There was a significant inequality in the infection and death from cholera. It seemed that it disproportionately affected the poor while seemingly passing over the wealthy and prosperous. Doctors, priests, and municipal authorities visited the ill and their quarters without incident. This, paired with the sudden onset of symptoms which mimicked poisoning, left many suspicious of a conspiracy of some Malthusian cull of the poor. Suspicion grew into violence as riots erupted.

In Naples in 1884, during the first weeks of the outbreak, the City sent out teams of municipal workers to enforce anti-cholera measures. They were meant to be, what we would call today, healthcare workers and disinfection squads but they conducted themselves as if they were military in enemy territory. With great shows of force they barged into tenements to remove those that were sick. These critically ill were taken to cholera hospitals which people saw as places of death and horror from which no one returned.

Hospitals became sites of rebellion. People losing loved ones thought they were being murdered and they were griefstriken and angry. Unwanted medical interventions were met with crowds armed with cobblestones and whatever they could find to fend off guards and doctors. The Neapolitans really believed they were there to kill them. In some cases the only way officials gained control of these riots were by show of force, brandishing weapons and opening fire.

Remarkably, the ravages of cholera did not trigger any great sanitation change at first. It makes me think about our current situation with COVID-19. People want life to “go back to normal” but change is clearly needed. It’s interesting too to see that there have always been people resistant to quarantine and other public health safety measures. Thankfully, anti-mask protests have not stoned anyone…yet.


Cohn, Samuel K. 2018. Epidemics: Hate And Compassion From The Plague Of Athens To AIDS. Oxford Scholarship Online.

Goodman, Ruth. 2013. How To Be A Victorian. 1st ed. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Jackson, Lee. 2015. Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Johnson, Steven. 2008. The Ghost Map. 1st ed. London: Penguin.

Snowden, Frank M. 2019. Epidemics And Society. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Epidemics and the City: Cholera Pt. 1

Germ theory had been floating around for some time but it came into its own in the last decades of the 19th century, roughly 1860 to 1900. Much like other revolutionary theories, germ theory was met with both excitement and resistance. It was an important advance in the history of medicine that led to a new understanding of the nature of disease.

Cholera is thought to have originated in India in the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. There had been an epidemic in India but it was unknown elsewhere until it burst onto the scene with the epidemic of 1817. Initially, cholera was trapped in India as it does not travel easily. That changed, however, when throughout the 19th century, people began to vastly increase their movement between India and the West. Once it got to the West the industrial revolution had created conditions that facilitated the disease.

Cholera thrived on the chaos of rapid growth and unplanned urbanization. Ubiquitous filth and overcrowded, substandard housing and a lack of adequate, secure water supply nor sewers made for ideal conditions for the spread of the disease. To give an idea of the level of pollution in industrial cities like London, during a heatwave in 1858, water levels in the Thames dropped leaving layers upon layer of fecal matter and other waste to ferment in the sun. The stench was so overwhelming they called it “The Great Stink.” Miasma theory blamed the smell for the recent cholera outbreaks; germ theory blamed the water contamination.

Gentility of speech is at an end—it stinks, and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.

City Press on the Great Stink

Cholera was (is) a terrible way to die. Symptoms could develop in a matter of hours after ingesting contaminated water. In most people, stomach acid would kill the bacterium. But if the number of bacterium ingested is overwhelming and for those who are compromised by some gastrointestinal disorder or chronic alcoholism it escapes the stomach and its acids into the small intestine. Once in the small intestine it reproduces and causes infection as it attaches to the mucous lining of the bowel. From there the body reacts by attacking the bacteria, killing it. This is where things go terribly wrong.

When the bacteria dies it releases and enterotoxin, one of the most powerful poisons in nature. It effectively makes the intestine work in reverse, instead of allowing nutrients out into the bloodstream it allows blood plasma to move from the bloodstream into the intestine. This colorless liquid is then violently expelled from the body. The loss of plasma makes the blood thick and reduces circulation. The body’s temperature falls and the massive amount of fluid loss makes the skin seem to shrivel and shrink leaving the person looking gaunt and cadaver-like.

Then, in the second stage, people would appear to get better but it was not necessarily true. The duration of the first stage would determine the likelihood of surviving the second; the longer the first stage lasted the less likely they were to survive. Then, once deceased, the body had a habit of continuing to spasm and tremble. It was It is said that this process could be so swift that someone fine at lunch could be dead by dinner. Between 1831 and 1866, approximately 40,000 people died from cholera in London alone.

Effective treatment for cholera took a long time to come by. Bloodletting was the initial go-to, it was used as a remedy for a great deal of things. The loss of blood plasma, however, made the blood thick and impeded circulation so traditional venesection was ineffective. Desperation led doctors to experiment with new treatments. One such treatment, conceived in the 1830s, involved administering fluids. However, not knowing how much fluid to give the patients they often overdosed. Plus, with germ theory not yet widely accepted, doctors didn’t think to use sterile water and so it induced septicemia. It wasn’t until 1908 when a British physician, Leonard Rogers, created the “cholera bed” to measure fluids lost by the patient paired with a drip of a distilled saline solution did the death toll of cholera drop.

To be continued…


“10 Amazing Facts About Cholera And The Great Stink Of London”. n.d.. 5-Minute History. Accessed September 6. https://fiveminutehistory.com/10-amazing-facts-cholera-great-stink-london/.

Goodman, Ruth. 2013. How To Be A Victorian. 1st ed. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Johnson, Steven. 2008. The Ghost Map. 1st ed. London: Penguin.

Snowden, Frank M. 2019. Epidemics And Society. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Epidemics and the City: Models

In response to the poor health conditions in cities like New York, between the 1890s and 1930s urban planners and architects, Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier, looked combine the benefits of town, country, and new technologies to create new city models. Each came up with their own version of utopian society. They planned their cities in great detail, leaving little to nothing to chance.

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City was a direct response to the idea that fresh air and sunlight made for more healthy environs. The ingredients for his Garden City were far from original but he combined them in a unique way. His ideas were influenced by Benjamin Ward Richardson’s 1876 Address, Hygeia, which called for wide streets, underground railways, and low population density. He also pulled from others like Herbert Spencer and Thomas Spence for his ideas on land nationalization and communal farmland.

Many may be familiar with Howard’s three magnets. Each magnet lists pros and cons of towns and country and then the advantages of his proposal to meld the two together into town-country. His plan for this “town-country” (top middle) was made up of circles. The central city, with a population around 55,000, features gardens, boulevards, grand avenues, and ample room between houses. The generous green spaces ensure that the city could not become over crowded nor as polluted as traditional cities and allow for the plentiful fresh air and sunlight thought to reduce disease.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City was first proposed in a book called The Disappearing City in 1932. Broadacre was meant to illustrate what a modern low density city could be. It seemed, however, to achieve its low density by essentially removing everything urban from the city. The majority of the model was set aside for “minimum houses” with areas set aside for recreation. Each childless family would be guaranteed one acre of land and bigger families would get more. As the plan evolved over the years it ended up with a proposed population density of around 2.5 acres or roughly two football fields per person. Once again, plentiful fresh air, green space, and sunshine surely to suffer none of the ills of the typical city (because it was hardly a city at all).

Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, meant to a linear and ordered metropolis of the future, was proposed in 1924. It was to operate as sort of a “living machine.” The city would be split up into zones designated for commercial, business, leisure, and residential. A transportation deck in the city center would connect city dwellers, via underground trains, to housing districts consisting of towering premade buildings called “Unités.” The city, however, lacked public spaces and seemed to generally disregard actual livability and was criticized for it. Le Corbusier also wanted to raze historical parts of Paris to build his idea which, again, was met with criticism. It’s less clear how his vision was a response to public health concerns.

To be continued…


“AD Classics: Ville Radieuse / Le Corbusier”. 2013. Archdaily. https://www.archdaily.com/411878/ad-classics-ville-radieuse-le-corbusier.

Carr, S. (2014). The Topography of Wellness: Mechanisms, metrics, and models of health in the urban landscape (PhD). Berkeley.

Fishman, R. (1982). Urban utopias in the Twentieth Century (1st ed.). Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Hall, P. (2002). Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century (3rd ed.). Blackwell Publishing.

Kohlstedt, K. (2018). Ville Radieuse: Le Corbusier’s Functionalist Plan for a Utopian “Radiant City.” Retrieved 5 September 2020, from https://99percentinvisible.org/article/ville-radieuse-le-corbusiers-functionalist-plan-utopian-radiant-city/

Nevlus, J. (2017). Is the world ready for Frank Lloyd Wright’s suburban utopia?. Retrieved 5 September 2020, from https://www.curbed.com/2017/1/4/14154644/frank-lloyd-wright-broadacre-city-history

The Disappearing City, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Retrieved 5 September 2020, from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015047936219&view=1up&seq=11

Epidemics and the City: Density

Side Sectional View of Tenement House, 38 Cherry Street, NYC, 1865

Workers or, more accurately, the working poor and immigrants were disproportionately affected by the means to make way for new public health improvements. Many, in cities, lived in tenement buildings which were, almost by definition, overcrowded and dirty. Initially, the buildings were divided into impossibly small apartments with interior spaces completely devoid of windows or ventilation. Conveniences like indoor plumbing was not included in the cheaply built buildings. Most had both the water source and outhouses in their shallow backyards. Overflowing and ill maintained privies contaminated water supplies spreading cholera. Cramped quarters were ripe with diseases like yellow fever and tuberculosis. The Tenement House Acts of 1867, 1879, and 1901 would make an effort to change that.

Tenement House Act of 1867 was a comprehensive legislation on housing conditions which prohibited cellar apartments unless the ceiling was one foot above street level, required one water closet per 20 residents, and required fire escapes. It was amended in 1879 to limit lot coverage to no more than 65%. Without enforcement these regulations the “dumbbell” shaped tenement came into being. These included air and light shafts on either side of the center of the building (as seen below).

The publication of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives in 1890 spurred public concern about the conditions in New York tenements. This lead to the US Department of labor publishing The Housing of Working People in 1895 which looked at housing conditions and solutions. Which ultimately lead to the Tenement House Act of 1901 which required running water and water closets in every apartment, a window in every room, issued fire-safety regulations, and more. Riveting stuff, eh? Let’s move on.

As mentioned, tenement residents were uniquely affected by these advances, for better and worse. With the new sanitation and building practices steadily expanding urban planners and designers began thinking of ways to harness the emerging thoughts on humans’ relationship with nature. This lead to the first public parks. City parks, as we know them, came to be in the 19th century. These parks were considered to be an answer to most of the ills of the times. By transplanting residents to country-like atmospheres it was thought to “instill a hallowed calm, and a spirit of reverence into the mind and heart of Man.” In other words, parks were meant to give people some respite from the filth of the city. Their attractiveness aside, parks became a way to break up the city’s high density.

New York, New York c. 1923 Aerial view of Central Park from Midtown NYC

New green spaces came at the expense of the poor as it was often an excuse to for slum clearance. For example, Seneca Village which was located along what is known today as Central Park West. Nearly 300 residents were evicted via eminent domain. Then all of the homes, churches, and even a school were demolished to make way for Central Park in NYC. The neighborhood was painted as a shantytown with squalid conditions and people seemed to quickly forget it once it was gone. It had been, however, a vibrant community for black middle and working class people.

Despite efforts to break up density (and gentrify *cough*), the popular conception was still that cities were dark, dirty, and unhealthy. People thought sunshine and fresh air were curative. So new city models were conceived to combine the mobility and economic fervor with the perceived health benefits of living in the country.

To be continued…


Apmann, S. (2016). Tenement House Act of 1901. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from https://gvshp.org/blog/2016/04/11/tenement-house-act-of-1901/

Carr, S. (2014). The Topography of Wellness: Mechanisms, metrics, and models of health in the urban landscape (PhD). Berkeley.

Clark, F. (1973). Nineteenth-Century Public Parks from 1830. Garden History1(3), 31. doi: 10.2307/1586332

Halliday, A. (2020). The Lost Neighborhood Buried Under New York City’s Central Park. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from http://www.openculture.com/2020/01/the-lost-neighborhood-buried-under-new-york-citys-central-park.html

Marques, S. (2019). The Early Tenements of New York—Dark, Dank, and Dangerous — NYC Department of Records & Information Services. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from https://www.archives.nyc/blog/2019/5/16/the-early-tenements-of-new-yorkdark-dank-and-dangerous

Nigro, C. (2018). Tenement Homes: The Outsized Legacy of New York’s Notoriously Cramped Apartments. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2018/06/07/tenement-homes-new-york-history-cramped-apartments

Warner, S., & Whittemore, A. (2012). American Urban Form: A Representative History (1st ed.). MIT Press.

Epidemics and the City: Sanitation

Intrinsically intertwined in the history of urban development, epidemics have shaped the way city dwellers live today. Before the 19th century city streets were often lined with mud, sewage, industrial runoff, animals, manure, and garbage creating a setting perfect for the cultivation and spread of disease. The transmission of disease, however, was widely misunderstood at the time.

“From inhaling the oudor of beef the butcher’s wife obtains her obesity.”

Prof. H. Booth, July 1844

People believed in the miasmatic theory or, simply, miasma, derived from the ancient Greek word for “pollution”, which was the idea that diseases floated aimlessly through air and water. Infection was thought not to be passed between individuals but rather affect those within a locale that gave rise to such vapors or “bad air.” Public health officials theorized that the unsanitary conditions of cities specifically, and the odors they produced, were to blame for epidemics.

The influx of people and factories to cities during the industrial revolution drastically increased the volume of sewage and garbage discarded in streets, rivers, and lakes. With waste being the responsibility of the individual or business there was no municipal coordination for its removal. With the crowding and waste outbreaks of diseases like cholera, typhoid, and yellow fever were quickly an issue.

Medical research had already made a connection between housing density and density of people with disease in the 1700s. However, the idea was still tied to the odors that came with such conditions. Edwin Chadwick published a report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain in 1842; arguing that drainage and airflow in houses must be improved. He said to a parliamentary committee in 1846: “All smell is, if it be intense, immediate acute disease…” Confident in this, he concluded that it was more important to remove smells from dwellings rather than to purify drinking water. This thought persisted despite the discovery of Vibrio cholerae (cholera bacillus), the microorganism responsible for cholera, by Robert Koch in 1883.

Miasma, the causes of which were blamed largely on density and waste, was enough to bolster a campaign of sanitation. Sewer systems soon became a mark of a healthy society as well as one that was “civilized” and had potential for economic, social, and cultural growth. By 1850 most major cities had sewer and water systems in place. Early sewer systems made an impact on the waste in the streets but noxious gasses escaped from them. With the miasmatic theory this was still a dangerous problem that needed to be solved. The solution, grading and paving to move water underground, was often done at the expense of worker and immigrant housing.

To be continued…


Arnsten, E. (2020). Six epidemics from American history show how urban design affects our health. Retrieved 1 September 2020, from https://news.northeastern.edu/2019/08/08/six-epidemics-from-american-history-show-how-urban-design-affects-our-health/

Carr, S. (2014). The Topography of Wellness: Mechanisms, metrics, and models of health in the urban landscape (PhD). Berkeley.

Clark, F. (1973). Nineteenth-Century Public Parks from 1830. Garden History1(3), 31. doi: 10.2307/1586332

Serhan, Y. (2020). Vilnius Shows How the Pandemic Is Already Remaking Cities. Retrieved 1 September 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/06/coronavirus-pandemic-urban-suburbs-cities/612760/

Shah, S. (2020). How Cities Shape Epidemics. Retrieved 1 September 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/02/urbanization-pandemic-excerpt/470214/