The district that lies between College and Queen Streets, Yonge Street and University Avenue (known as the Ward) is generally regarded by the respectable citizens of Toronto as a strange and fearful place into which it unwise to enter even in daylight, which after dark — no sane person would dream of running such a risk! The danger that lurks in these crowded streets is not always clearly formulated in the minds of those who fear it, perhaps it is the dagger of an Italian desperado of which they dream, perhaps the bearded faces of the “Sheenies” are sufficient in themselves to inspire terror, but at any rate the fear remains and probably it could best be analysed as Fear of the Unknown ... what right have they to despise the “Sheenie” and the “Dago,” the dirty and the downtrodden, for dare they think that, had the circumstances been reversed, they would have been able to rise above them?’
Miss Neufeld, Life in the Ward, 1915
That area of Toronto once known as the Ward (or, formally, Saint John’s Ward), is unknown to most Toronto people today. Bordered by Queen and College, University and Yonge, here peddlers once pushed vegetable and fruit barrows along lanes of mud, and signs on tailoring shops, cheap clothing outlets, and barbershops were written in Yiddish. The streets were lined with chicken coops; dwellings were fashioned out of wood, brick, stucco, galvanized iron, anything that could be knocked together and called home.
The pervasive odour of poverty combined with that more noxious one, open sewage pits, and families kept windows tightly shut against the stench during the muggy summers. In winter, a mantle of smoke hung permanently in the air. Coal was expensive, and wallpaper, crates, furniture, anything combustible, was burned for warmth — and in rubbish-strewn alleyways, there was a lot to find. Reports by the Department of Health are revealing:
Some houses were so inaccessible that they were at first missed, even by experienced inspectors. A woman, whose house was thus omitted, was quite pleased when the inspector returned. To whom she said: “If there is a house hereabouts that needs inspection it is mine.” The house could be reached only by a curious tunnel-like passage from the street, down a dark and precipitous stairway, and up again into a back yard, where the house was found thus concealed. Two houses in another section were situated over stables, with no evidence of any drainage. One three-room shack was discovered in which were father, mother and nine children, and in the filthy yard three dogs, a horse and chickens. All except the horse had access to the living rooms.[i]
Seventy percent of the 10,000 people crammed into the 1,400 houses of the Ward were Jewish, and the conditions were similar to those in Eastern European ghettos:
The tap ... is the sole water supply for all the houses (six families), and the tenement house, and the workers in the “factory” — forty persons in all. That tap is sometimes frozen in winter ... The owner had for some unknown reason cut off the use of the sole sanitary convenience for 30 people, by nailing it up ... The bare branches of the tree ... mark the place where stands an outside privy of another type, the condemned and out-of-date privy pit. That closet belongs to a house on the front street rented for $10 a month. One of the best-known real-estate firms in Toronto collects the rent. The house is unfit for habitation. The outside privy has been for some time overflowing. Its disgraceful state may be seen from the street across a vacant lot. Into that vacant lot the husband of the poor woman who still struggles to keep that house decent casts, under cover of night, the “night soil.” The same is done from seven other dwellings of which we have reports. In other words, what we have read of with disgust as having happened in the cities of Europe in the Middle Ages, happens in Toronto now before our very eyes.[i]
But, despite poor living conditions, there was pleasure and much stimulation in the Ward. There were seven synagogues — five stood between Armour and Agnes Street. In the Yiddish theatre on the corner of Agnes and Terrauley, famous Yiddish actors like Thomashevsky, Kessler, Adler and Schwartz played to full houses. There were social clubs, night schools where immigrants learned English, cheap restaurants where they played cards, streets where people met and passed on news from the Old Country or eked out shtetl melodies on violins and accordions, and parents, afraid their children would forget Yiddish, sent them to Yiddish schools and to Yiddish story-reading groups.
By 1905, Jews began moving out of the Ward and into this slightly better area of Kensington although, in the beginning, Anglo-Saxon owners were reluctant to rent or sell property to them. Jewish merchants set up their stalls on the streets and did, eventually, manage to take over the shops.
British-dominated Toronto was solidly anti-Semitic. In the 1920s and 1930s, the 50,000 Jews were discouraged from frequenting Toronto Island and the beaches of Lake Ontario. Ski clubs, resorts, fraternities, rotary, and golf clubs were open to gentiles only. In 1938, alderman Jacob Salsberg was refused a rented house; Bora Laskin (eventually Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada) returned to Toronto with a degree from Harvard, but was denied employment. Jews were excluded from practising law, from employment in insurance companies, banks, and advertising. Jewish doctors were prevented from doing internships in the hospitals, and, in 1945, only three Jewish doctors were allowed to join non-Jewish hospital staffs. The few Jewish employees working for Eaton’s were kept in back rooms, away from the public; there were restricted neighbourhoods, few Jewish teachers, no Jewish school principals or university professors. Jewish civil servants and engineers had to change their names before being accepted for employment. This situation changed only slowly, after the Second World War, although restrictions lasted until the 1960s.
Excerpt from: Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers
Finding Home is available here:
1 Report of the Medical Health Officer, Department of Health, Toronto, July 5, 1911. Toronto City Archives, RG8 Series 4, page 5, Item 105.