The OCA has submitted a Heritage Conservation District nomination form for the proposed Ossington Strip district. HCD status is the ultimate in preservation, enjoyed by Queen West (University to Bathurst) and Yorkville as well as a number of neighbourhoods (including Harbord Village, Riverdale, and, who would have anticipated, Rosedale). We believe that Ossington is truly one of the most wonderfully distinctive places in Toronto, and that people know this, which is why it is such a great success as a destination district.
To do the nomination, we wrote up a detailed history of the the area; after that exercise we are even more convinced of the incredibly cool weirdness of our area. (Did you know that this was a meatpacking district until around 1900, with cattle turning left off Ossington onto Bruce, and that the Levack Block was built by a major family in the meat trade, who lived up the street from their stockyard on Givins and eventually built what is now the Maynard Nursing Home as their mansion, on the site of the 1804 house Pine Grove of the Givins family, which in 1884 was celebrated as the oldest house in Toronto, was looted by America in the War of 1812, and …)
The history is pasted in below the fold.
OSSINGTON STRIP HCD NOMINATION
ATTACHMENT 2 — HISTORY AND CHARACTER
The history of the Ossington Strip neighbourhood (‘Ossington’, ‘our area’) — the bottom 560m segment of Ossington Avenue from Queen to Dundas, and its surrounding blocks, from Dovercourt Road to Trinity-Bellwoods Park — proceeds against a background of natural fact, is set in motion by political events, and evolves within a complex set of constraints — including personal attributes of important initial figures, technological progress, broader economic forces, matters of local fashion, and on and on.
Shaping the history of Ossington at the most fundamental level is the path of the buried /Garrison Creek/, which, heading upstream, cuts north-by-northwest starting just to the east of Fort York at the foot of Bathurst. The Creek and its filled ravine hit Queen Street at the southeast corner of Trinity-Bellwoods Park, and run the diagonal of the park, exiting at Dundas and Shaw. Just northeast of Ossington and Dundas, this main branch of the creek is joined by a tributary flowing from the northeast.
Fort York is where it is, of course, because it guards both the mouth of the Creek and the entry to Toronto Harbor. Lands to the west of the ravine and northward to the First Concession Line (today, Queen Street) were a military preserve until 1850.
The most critical actor in setting the history of Ossington in motion is John Graves Simcoe, the British Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada in the early 1790s. Simcoe looked to the policies of the Roman Empire to preclude a second American Revolution: military roads with soldiers and officers stationed nearby would protect towns; generous landgrants to decorated officers would create an aristocracy with close ties to the military.
We begin with the roads; we will return to the aristocracy. Simcoe proposed and built northern, eastern, and western highways to York: Yonge Street, Kingston Road, and Dundas Road. The last of these was begun by the Queen’s Rangers in 1791 at its western terminus but completed only in 1800, when the American contractor Asa Danforth cut the final segment into York from the Humber River. This final segment comprises Dundas Street heading east to Ossington; Ossington south to Queen; and Queen eastward along the First Concession Line to Yonge.
Danforth was in business to make money, and cut his segment of the road predominantly along high ridge lines — thus the failure of Dundas to conform to the city grid west of Ossington. The route of Queen was of course predetermined by the course of the Concession Line. The dogleg at Ossington seems to result from the following: the need to link the natural contour segment with the concession line; Danforth’s having waited to almost the last possible moment in cutting the natural contour segment to avoid the Creek; a decision to link the segments along a north-south property line.
This already establishes a remarkable situation for Ossington: a peculiar dogleg at the end of a highway into town; and yet not itself in town but rather defining a satellite region cut off from town to the east and north by a ravine system and hemmed in to the south by a military reserve.
Unsurprisingly, the area’s earliest enterprises were inns: the eastern corner of Queen and Dundas was occupied by the Queen’s Head perhaps as early as the 1820s; this lot was occupied by an inn or tavern continuously until 1924 or later. Indeed, an early name of the area was ‘Blue Bell Village’, after the Blue Bell Tavern located at roughly Queen and Givins from before 1834 to around 1852.
Other very early businesses catered to transportation and agricultural trade: from 1837 to 1845, William Noble fixed broken wheels; in 1843 he was joined by a grocer and three butchers (the cattle trade would later become a mainstay of the area’s economy); the area of 1846 boasted a blacksmith, two provisioners, a single butcher, a teamster, and a carter; in 1850, directories registered three butchers, a waggon maker, two smiths, and a provisioner.
At the time, these traders, vehicle repair shops, and shippers amounted to roughly half to a third of the local heads of household: the remainder evenly divided between a mix of gentry and professionals (about whom more will be said soon) and workers: brickmakers, carpenters, laborers.
In the 1850s, a toll gate was moved from Queen Street to Dundas and Brock. Perhaps as a result, the period after 1856 witnesses a gradual accretion of light/cottage industry locating on Ossington. Even then, though, Queen Street West was rutted and full of stumps, impassably muddy in the Spring, and crossed at Garrison Creek on a narrow bridge at the ravine bottom. In 1860, there seem not to have been more than 50 households in our area. The development of the neighbourhood awaited the arrival of the first Queen streetcar line built out to Ossington in 1861.
It is in establishing where the eventual residents would settle — by way of influence on the pattern of local streets and laneways — that Simcoe’s second policy, of establishing a local military-affiliated aristocracy, becomes relevant. Simcoe proposed to do so by deeding large tracts of land to prominent officers. These included very large farming plots in the countryside and choice house lots in the town center, but more important for our purposes are the famous /Park Lots/, suburban estates at which to enjoy gentlemanly pursuits at a comfortable remove from the city center.
The Park Lots were 100 acre plots stretching between the First and Second Concession Lines — between Queen and Bloor — but only 10 chains, or 660 feet, wide: the idea was to evenly distribute access to transport, vistas, and other amenities. Our story unfolds on Park Lots 23–26 — 23, from Massey to Shaw Streets; 24, from Shaw to Ossington; 25, from Ossington to Fennings; 26, from Fennings to Lisgar — though Park Lot 23 will not play a major role in this story. The Park Lots were deeded in the 1790s: in particular, Park Lot 23 was deeded in 1793, Park Lot 24 in 1796, and Park Lots 25 and 26 in 1798.
Park Lot 23 was presented to Aeneas Shaw (who in the War of 1812 ordered an infantry detachment marching along Queen Street from the Don River to Fort York to halt at Garrison Creek and defend Park Lot 23, thereby diminishing the opposition to the American landing). It stayed in the family for three further generations until Aeneas’s great-grandson, George Alexander, was declared a lunatic in 1855, allowing the Trust and Loan Company to sieze the land in 1864 and the the following year sell the estate to John Crawford, developer of Crawford Street following 1883.
Park Lot 24 was presented to JB Bouchette, a Quebec merchant and Lake Ontario naval commander already in the grip of mounting disenchantment with disharmony in the military establishment, resentful at the choice of York over Kingston (where Bouchette had substantial land grants) as the naval center, and beleaguered by scurrilous corruption rumors. In 1801 Bouchette cut communication with the central authority and was relieved of his post.
In 1802 James Givins purchased Park Lot 24 from Bouchette — or at least most of it: see below. Givins had a rather better run of things. He was an enlightened and effective administrator of First Nations relations (the Indian Department on the military reservation, notably, housed John Higgins’s forge, offering the service of sharpening fishing spears and iron tomahawks). In 1804, Givins built a house at Halton and Givins. This Pine Grove was designed by William Berczy, a German who cleared 15 miles of Yonge Street and surveyed (and was therefore deeded) Markham (and later for his troubles was expropriated of these 64,000 acres by Peter Russell and the Family Compact). In the war of 1812, the Americans retaliated for Givins’s relations with the First Nations peoples by looting Pine Grove of £388 of goods, including all his family’s clothing. Givins died in 1846 leaving Pine Grove in perpetuity to the spinster daughter Miss Cecilia Givins, who lived there until her death in 1892. Pine Grove was accessed by way of a block-and-a-half long driveway, starting at the contemporary intersection of Ossington and Halton.
Park Lot 24 was under divided ownership well prior to the development of the neighbourhood. As early as 1837, Givins no longer owned Park Lot 24 south of Bruce Street after 1837. According to some sources, the restive and sickly Bouchette had already sold off small parcels at the southern tip prior to Givins’s 1802 purchase; or perhaps Givins’s involvement with the military reserve directed his attention to the needs for, benefits of, or prospects of commerce and activity at the southern end of his lands We will see that this distributed ownership has striking effects on the contemporary street and laneway network.
Park Lots 25 and 26, by contrast, were under single ownership during the critical early phases of development. This land was owned (along with Park Lot 27 at least north of Dundas), after the earliest stage, by the Denison family, which seems to have placed considerable value on the assemblage of land. John Denison acquired Park Lot 25 in 1815 and the southern half of Park Lot 26 in 1816; after his 1824 death the land passed by dower rights to his widow Sophia (neé Taylor) and then upon her death in 1852 to their daughter Elizabeth Sophia. In 1824, John’s son George Taylor completed the family’s assembly of Park Lot 26, purchasing its northern half.
John and Sophia Denison had built a house, “Brookfield”, near the southeastern corner of Park Lot 25 (at the northwestern corner of Queen and Ossington) already by 1818. In 1838, Elizabeth Sophia married her second cousin John Fennings Taylor. They lived in Brookfield with Sophia until the widow’s death in 1852; in 1853, Brookfield was sold, apparently to the cattle dealer John Dunn, and the Taylors moved into town, settling on Berkeley Street.
Brookfield was only the first of the Denison family’s many villas on this estate. Of particular importance is the 1838 construction by George Taylor’s son Richard Lippincott of “Dover Court” at roughly the contemporary intersection of Lakeview and Churchill. The family’s extensive land assemblage allowed for a more ambitious shaping of the local geography than was possible for (or of interest to) Givins: most critical was the construction of the peculiarly laid out Dover Court Road, initially an L-shaped street crossing Dundas Road at two points to form a lopsided diamond. Dover Court Road comprised contemporary Argyle from Ossington to Dovercourt together with contemporary Dovercourt north of Argyle (neither contemporary Argyle east of Ossington nor contemporary Dovercourt south of Argyle were present at this stage). (Less pertinently, in 1839, George Taylor moved from his “Belle Vue” (on Park Lots 17 and 18 around Kensington) to “Rusholme”, just north of Dundas at around Rusholme Drive; in 1864, George Taylor III built “Heydon Park” near contemporary Dovercourt and College.)
By the late 1830s, the fundamental patterns behind the contemporary grid are in place: Queen Street, intersected by Ossington branching off to the northwest at Dundas; the driveway at contemporary Halton to Pine Grove, itself located where contemporary Givins/Roxton is interrupted; a divided pattern of small land ownership between Dundas and Shaw south of Bruce and centered around the bottom end of Givins Street; the diamond-shaped northwest/southeast axis from Argyle/Ossington to Dundas/Dovercourt formed by the intersection of the crooked Dundas Street with the crooked Dover Court Road — which we will refer to as the “Northwestern Quadrant”.
These patterns set the stage for the settlement of the area. In the mid 1840s, the number of households would double from about ten to about twenty. Exact patterns of settlement here are not easy to establish, but it would appear that by 1846, the middle class butchers and traders on Queen and Ossington have been joined by a small working-class cluster of laborers and carpenters in the Givins/Rebecca area at the southeastern corner of Park Lot 24. We will refer to the area bounded by contemporary Bruce, Ossington, Queen, and Givins, together with the east side of Givins below Bruce, as the “Givins Quarter”.
The 1850s open with the January 26 1850 establishment of the Provinicial Lunatic Asylum on the northeastern region of the military reservation lands — the contemporary CAMH site, of course. Employees of the Asylum would settle in the neighbourhood, locating themselves along the now established class-based lines: a handful of keepers, cooks, and boiler firemen would live in the Givins Quarter, while the Asylum’s 1822 born Engineer, Peter Trowern, had by 1856 settled at contemporary 22–24 Argyle Street, where he would reside through at least the 1890s (in 1892 Trowern subdivided and developed that Givins–Shaw block of Argyle; he died in 1909).
Over the 1850s, the number of households would double yet again. By 1856, the east-west flank of Dover Court Road has been renamed Cedar Street and opened by the Denisons for settlement. An initial cluster of eight working-class households on the south side of the street would by the 1880s grow to fifty, flanking the street.
In 1856, contemporary Rebecca Street is also first recorded. It appears to have been for many years regarded as a location of last resort: developed only by 1890 and before then inhabited only for strikingly short tenures, its 1856 situants are an evanescent Primitive Methodist Church; a widow, Mary Scott (who would bounce around the bottom of Park Lot 24 until settling there on Ossington from 1866 to 1874); and a laborer, James Dever, remembered in street’s original name Dever’s Lane (Rebecca Street was the name from 1868 to before 1874 and then again for good by the late 1880s).
The 1858 Boulton map of the area is extremely informative about early patterns of settlement. The most densely populated area is the Givins Quarter. (An interesting resident there on Ossington just south of Rebecca is John Barton, who scrambled around for a profitable business — first brewing sarsparilla, then ginger wine, then trading in woolen yarn, then coffee, finally settling into manufacturing brooms — doubtless not a high-value-added product — from 1867 to his death in 1874; his widow remained in residence until her death around 1890, after which their house was demolished.) Dundas just south of Cedar is home to a couple of laborers and artisans as well as the Smith family, who would manufacture brushes — the bristles for which were a byproduct of the local slaughter industry — for at least the next several decades. We have just noted the working-class stretch of Cedar Street. And finally, Dundas opposite the head of the Pine Grove driveway — the contemporary location of a hardware store and lumber yard — is home to a pair of apparently upper-middle-class residence compounds, serially inhabited over the years by meat traders, shoemakers, and professionals — including in the late 1860s Kivas Tully, the Superintendant of Public Works who had in the previous decade engineered Bishop Strachan’s beautiful Trinity College; we will later refer to these as the Tully Compounds.
The 1858 map also anticipates future patterns of settlement. On Park Lot 24, the Givins family has been hard at work in platting out streets and subdivided lots between Halton and Bruce. Cedar Street has broken through Dundas, running two blocks further to Shaw. Contemporary Halton Street is at this point Cecil Street, named after Cecilia Givins and situated on the axis of the driveway to her house at Pine Grove. Givens [sic] Street is established from Halton to Bruce, at its contemporary width — notably greater than its laneway width below Bruce. Bruce runs through from Ossington to Shaw as an unnamed laneway. The inverted-T patterns above Argyle on the Ossington–Givins and Givins–Shaw blocks have been outlined, as has Argyle Place and its counterpart below Argyle on the Givins–Shaw block (now obliterated, along with the western segment of Bruce, by the Givins-Shaw School lands). Below Bruce Street, the property lines of the antique smallholders prevail. The introduction of the final contemporary J-laneway behind 11–25 Givins would await first the late 1880s subdivision of that smallhold and then the twentieth-century snaking of that laneway between 9 and 11 Givins and into apparently abandoned lands at the center of the block. East of Ossington, then, the street and laneway network of 1858 very closely resembles its present condition.
On Park Lots 25 and 26, the contemporary street and laneway network remains in significant part only foreshadowed. Beyond the L-shaped Dover Court Road/Cedar Street passage, the map deliniates what appear to be lines of subdivision drawn from the foot of contemporary Fennings to the head of contemporary Grove; from the foot of contemporary Lisgar northward most of the way to Dundas; around the cluster of tiny lots along Cedar; along contemporary Rolyat; and along the property lines of the Tully Compounds discussed two paragraphs back. The remaining streets between contemporary Dovercourt and Ossington below Dundas would appear in the following order: Foxley, by 1871, so situated with respect to Argyle as to define a “standard” residential block; Dovercourt below Argyle, by 1875; Brookfield, Fennings, and Humbert (then Maple Street) with their associated laneways, by 1876, with Maple effectively the reflection across Argyle of Foxley; Grove Street, and the laneways transecting Foxley, Argyle, and Grove, by 1877; and finally, in 1884, Rolyat Street and the L-shaped laneway transecting it and Grove — Rolyat could not be run through to Dovercourt because the land there along Dovercourt had been sold to the broker Angus McDonnell already by 1856.
The “Southwestern Quadrant” bounded by Argyle, Ossington, Queen, and Dovercourt was obviously something of an afterthought to the Denison family: by the 1870s, when attention turned to its subdivision, best practices for establishing street and laneway networks seem to have become generally clear. As a result, the street and laneway network there is a “rationally conceived” grid delineating residential blocks of an emerging standard throughout Toronto’s Victorian neighbourhoods — even if the laneways platted out in that area are strikingly pokey, particularly by comparison with those prevailing on Park Lot 24.
By contrast, the Northwestern Quadrant street and laneway network is, by Toronto standards, bizarre. The awkward diamond shape stemming from the slant of Dundas together with existing large properties around which the peculiarly asymmetric lines of subdivision had to be drawn led to some striking anomalies: Rolyat, a subsidiary street flows only into the subsidiary street Grove; one lot off Grove Street is entrirely surrounded by the forks of a Y-shaped laneway; contemporary Skey Lane above Foxley meanders and forks; perhaps strangest of all is the “laneway island” rooted in the lot-lines of the Tully Compounds on the Grove-Rolyat-Ossington-Foxley block, a block of land not directly accessible directly from any street, the contemporary location of a lumberyard.
The earliest developing regions of the neighbourhood, then, were the Givins Quarter and the Northwestern Quadrant. This early development resulted in an especially dense network of streets and laneways in each of these regions — for the Givins Quarter, out of an ancient division of land among distributed smallholders; for the Northwestern Quadrant, out of an initially piecemeal and eventually somewhat whimsical early approach to the subdivision of land adopted by a single large landowner. The neighbourhood was already characterized by a fundamental northwest-southeast axis thanks to the natural flow of Garrison Creek, itself strongly reinforced by Asa Danforth’s Dundas Road; this fine network of initially-settled streets and laneways served to reinforce this axis at a very fine level of grain.
The superimposition of this off-axis spatial flow over the north-south direction of Ossington and the roughly perpendicular flows of Queen and Dundas opens up possibilities for pedestrian movement not ordinarily available in canonical Victorian Toronto. The canonical pattern involves a large number of low-intensity residential-to-commercial transitions (typically along a north-south axis) flowing into a single perpendicular high-intensity commercial-or-commuter conduit (typically along an east-west axis). Jane Jacobs stresses the importance to the pedestrian experience of dense street networks: walking the same way every time is boring, making venturing out of doors faintly aversive; having a choice of many paths keeps day-to-day pedestrian duties fresh, drawing one into the public realm. Appealing spaces concentrate pedestrians and amenities serving them or employers drawing on them in a positive feedback cycle. Both neighbourhood and street would benefit. The neighbourhood is swiftly navigable; an exceptional flow of pedestrians along its residential streets creates a daytime liveliness and nighttime safety not frequently replicated. Ossington would soon, over the nineteenth and early twentieth century, develop an exceptionally dense profile of producers and providers; in recent years, this concentration returned with striking rapidity and success under the guise of the city as leisure ground.
These critical geographic preliminaries establish the “gross anatomical profile” of the Ossington neighbourhood: as a place both immediately adjacent to the city and yet separated by clearly drawn boundaries; as accessible from both the central city to the east and its hinterlands to the northwest; and finally as a place well suited to concentrate pedestrian traffic.
On a mid-grained level, details of the peculiarly asymmetric “rhythm” of the Ossington Strip are also immediately recognizable as a product of its early history. Although many streets confront the Ossington Strip, only one intersects it: its midline, Argyle. Argyle’s western segment was, as we have seen, part of the L-shaped principal artery through Park Lots 25 and 26, Dover Court Road. When it came time for the Givins family to bring their “rational” subdivision vision to Park Lot 24 above the Givins Quarter, it was therefore a natural manoeuvre to extend that pathway to the east — especially in light of its location at the midline of the Ossington Strip. No other street on either side would be so respected by the landowners on the opposite side. Cecil Street, contemporary Halton, would run up to the Tully Compounds, inhabited throughout the 1880s and in private hands. And the primordial Dever’s Lane, contemporary Rebecca, like the Givins family’s “rationally” conceptualized Bruce Street, would later butt up against the Denison family’s gesture of “rational” subdivision below Maple/Humbert in the Southwestern Quadrant.
The primordial Ossington Strip interfaces perhaps more successfully with the whimsical Northwestern Quadrant and the primordial Givins Quarter than with the remaining rationally planned precincts. The Givins family’s approach makes particularly little sense: closely-spaced north-south residential streets elsewhere in the city serve to channel pedestrian traffic to widely spaced commercial districts; a subtle but effective separation of uses results, with residences in almost all cases adjacent only to other residences and the I-beam laneways buffering from commercial activity the remaining end-block houses. But here the commercial stretch runs north-south: accordingly, every residence along Givins backs onto the commercial district. Nor do the long residential blocks serve to channel pedestrians to the commercial district: rather, they make it inaccessible. Instead of combining accessibility with separation of uses, the layout combines inaccessibility with a mingling of uses — the worst of both worlds. Moreover, the laneways gesture only halfheartedly at the I-beam shape: for reasons entirely unclear only north of Argyle is there an east-west laneway — which, absurdly, empties into the commercial district. And the original conception of Argyle east of Ossington is comically bad: stubby residential lots to the north are supposed to face the flanks of deep lots to the south and stare down a laneway. The Ossington-Givins block of Argyle was later partially redeemed by the micro-subdivision of the back of the northernmost lot between Argyle Place and Givins into three residential lots. (The author of this piece lives across from those houses: while he appreciates the block’s engaging jumble, those with more conventional sensibilities would reasonably find it distasteful; the author is also glad not to be staring down Argyle Place from his front porch.) Finally, the failure of the Shaw and then the Crawford families to extend Argyle through Park Lot 23 makes for a thunderous dead-end at the unappealing Shaw Street and a consequently obnoxious dog-leg down to Lobb Avenue for those on the way to Trinity-Bellwoods Park.
But while these decisions by the Givins family make for a street grid of diminished effectiveness, the 1876 platting out of the Southwest Quadrant is truly bad. The gridiron here neglects Ossington entirely, with access only at Humbert; the stretch of Queen above the PLA lands would inevitably suffer from diminished foot-traffic, so it makes very little sense to attempt to jolt it with foot traffic from Brookfield and Fennings. With Dovercourt making no gesture to connect the lands to its west with the Southwestern Quadrant, Fennings Street in particular lurks with a remoteness from the broader urban fabric unlikely ever to be remedied. The post-World War Two destruction of thirty houses on the north side of Humbert to build Senhor Santo Cristo school cut the Southwestern Quadrant’s sole sense of connection to the surrounding area: Humbert now reads as a dilapidated laneway rather than neighbourhood street, completing the isolation of this already vulnerable area. This was the worst decision ever made for the coherence of the neighbourhood.
The Argyle-to-Bruce block of Ossington and its segment below Humbert suffer from these misplaced gestures at rational subdivision. Each is too long, which places pressure on the pedestrian’s capacity to make coherent sense of its offerings. And yet in neither case is the result complete confusion, of the sort prevailing on certain very long but minutely grained commercial blocks of midtown Manhattan: on Ossington, the fortuitously located and rapidly paced interventions of the side streets Humbert, Bruce, and Rebecca advance a subtle punctuation of the pedestrian experience. The Givins family’s other blocks — Argyle to Halton and Halton to Dundas — are more easily navigable: both are shorter than Argyle-to-Bruce; Halton-to-Dundas offers the relief of the spectacular juncture at Dundas Street as an anchor; in the contemporary period, regrettably, the Halton stacked townhouses remove the bulk of Argyle-to-Halton from relevance to the pededstrian experience; and the west side of Ossington north of Argyle is an incredibly successful collection of tiny jaunty buildings on minuscule blocks. Finally, exigencies of built form render Ossington south of Argyle problematic relative to the northern segment for reasons to which we will now transition.
With the street and laneway grid established, the remaining history of Ossington takes on a more conventional form, as a story of buildings, businesses, and residents initially with an impressively self-determining destiny but later buffetted by macro-forces.
The Queen streetcar was, we recall, extended to Ossington in 1861. Although this coincided with the establishment of the “Givens Street Public School”, newcomers did not immediately flood in. Through the 1860s, the inventory of buildings on Ossington would not even double: newcomers in this decade moved principally to the Givins Quarter, with Cedar/Argyle remaining static in its building inventory and stable in its population (over half of the early residents of that block would constitute a core population still in place well into the 1890s). The economy continued to center around meatpacking: the 1868 directory lists a handful of upper-middle class meatpackers or manufacturers living on Ossington, in the Givins Quarter, or on the gradually emerging stretch of Givins above Bruce; a pair of blacksmiths on Ossington (one by Queen, the other by Argyle); a number of workers or managers at the PLA; and one or two dozen skilled and unskilled working class households. Buildings on Ossington up to 1868 were in four or five clusters: the Tully Compounds across from the head of Halton Street; a cluster just south of Cedar on the west side; a sparse line south of Bruce on the east side; and a small cluster just above Queen on the west side. No buildings from this era survive on Ossington.
But the 1870s would witness a burst of growth throughout the neighbourhood. The requisite infrastructure was in place: by 1873, a map of the fire hydrant network clearly highlights the area as a small bulb just beyond a semicircle enclosing the rest of the city; within two decades, residents would pack densely into a network of streets and laneways according to an 1878 map notably more densely interconnected than any other in Toronto. By 1880, Ossington had at least forty buildings on it — about which more will be said after sketching advancements in its surroundings. The pimordial Givins Quarter was by 1880 occupied by fourteen working-class houses. Despite its early lead over the Denison family in establishing the legal framework for development of its Park Lot, the Givins family pursued land development with a rather fainter enthusiasm. Givins Bruce-to-Argyle was developing as a gingerly mixed income district, with a pair of meat packers among two dozen otherwise working-class households: notably, the northwest corner of Givins and Bruce (with its contemporary schoolteachers’ parking lot) was by now a stockyard controlled by the Levack family — and would so remain until its early twentieth century removal to the union stockyards at St Clair and Keele. The generous lots on Givins above Argyle housed a more bourgeois collection of four meatpacking families and a pair of professionals. Argyle east of Ossington had acquired (in addition to Peter Trowern) another resident, the widow Rosanna Cleary, in a now-demolished house at contemporary 48-50 Argyle. Halton Street, too, remained scarcely inhabited: ancient Cecilia was joined across the street by William Bell, engineer. Crossing Ossington, by now closing on one hundred households had mushroomed on the older Foxley and Cedar and the brand new rational gridiron of the Southwestern Quadrant.
Turning to Ossington, very few buildings present in 1868 have been lost by 1880. Novel construction by 1880 (with its 1880 inhabitants) includes: a cluster of six wood frame houses on the Argyle-to-Halton block (two cattle dealers, four workers); the northern and southern stretches of the Argyle-to-Foxley block (a grocer on each corner, three laborers, and a clerk); the near entirety of the Argyle-to-Bruce block, with the sole vacant lot being contemporary 121–125 Ossington and gaps in the streetwall only in the southern halves of contemporary 111 and 103 Ossington (four meatpackers, a handful of artisans and retailers); Argyle-to-Humbert is largely filled in (the block remains the province of the historic Smith brushmaking family, but now joined by a cattle dealer, a poultry dealer, a clerk, and a grocer among a total of about seven households); Bruce-to-Rebecca had developed early with a complement of five buildings by 1871 and seven by 1873, exactly all of which remain in 1880 (three meatpackers; a clerk; a vacant house previously occupied serially by a shoemaker, a saddler, and a blind-maker; and a Mrs Elizabeth Merritt, dressmaker); Humbert-to-Queen witnessed in that decade the 1876 demolition of Brookfield (which had since the 1850s served as a mansion for a cattle dealer, a smithy, a tavern, a residence for a branch of the restless Barton family, and again a smithy until being abandoned for good by 1874) but also the 1878 erection of the fire hall and police station along with, between 1878 and 1880, a half dozen buildings to its north (occupied by the publisher Frank Wootten and, in short tenancies, by a revolving group of small manufacturers and traders in flour and feed).
Of the buildings on Ossington in 1880, exactly eight remain. Their contemporary addresses are 13, 15, 89, 91, 16/18, 26/28, 30/32, and 154. City directories afford estimates of the dates of construction of these buildings. 13 and 15 Ossington were first recorded in 1880 as inhabited by George Robertson, tailor, and Stephen Saywell, harness manufacturer. 89 and 91 Ossington appear to be the oldest remaining buildings on the Ossington Strip, recorded in 1871 as the residences of a pair of painters, Charles Shaw and James Thayer — 91 is distinctively noteworthy as it preserves its original generous and graceful fenestration (akin to that visible in 1920s photographs of a contemporaneous dilapidated and now destroyed building at 67 Ossington). 16/18 Ossington is, of course, the 1878 fire hall. 26/28 is recorded in 1879 as the dry goods shop of William Brown; 30/32 is first recorded in 1880 with its first recorded inhabitant the 1881 window shade manufacturer John Cox. And 154 Ossington is first recorded in 1877 as the middle class residence of William Bell, engineer.
The period up to 1884 witnesses more gradual change. In the neighbourhood, this takes the form largely of filling in gaps on previously developed residential streets west of Ossington, of pushing the boundaries of the developed region southwesterly and northeasterly out to Queen-Dovercourt and Shaw-Argyle, and of reinforcing Givins above Argyle as a retreat for elite cattle dealers; Argyle Street takes on its contemporary name in 1881 and breaks through Dovercourt, running west now as far as Northcote; the Denisons have by now conclusively overtaken the Givinses in the development game, with Halton and eastern Argyle remaining only primitively developed, in striking contrast with the rapidly completing Southwestern Quadrant.
But on Ossington, the early 1880s witness an epochal transition — if one then yet exhibited only subtly. This is the arrival, recorded in the 1884 first edition of Goad’s Fire Atlas, on Ossington of “high Victorian commercial district buildings” — or, more sharply, terraced brick commercial/residential buildings with a three-storey height and roughly five-meter width. Tentative gestures toward this canonical type are made in the early 1880s, at buildings with the contemporary addresses 127, 129, 135, 137, 130, and 132. Those on the west side are a pair of 1883 two-storey veneer (brick facade, wood envelope) structures with winsome upper-story fenestration; these divide what is recorded in the 1884 Goad’s as a single structure. Those on the east side of Ossington are dainty two-storey veneer structures between Argyle and its northern laneway, initially constituting a six-building terraced series of which the central pair were lost in the late twentieth century.
The 1884 Goad’s also projects the completion of a pair of terraces that would be the first truly modern buildings on Ossington: 48–54/60–64 and 210–218 Ossington. The former grouping would initially have been a thoroughly attractive, well proportioned, generously fenestrated broadly Georgian terraced series of townhouses with subdued decorative brickwork and a Second Empire mansard roof at the third store. As of 2013, the series is divided and in need of refurbishment: those at 56 and 58 were at one point torn down and replaced with a single-storey shed (the gap is braced with a steel girder at the second storey line); of those that remain, only 54 Ossington records the dignity of the initial conception: remaining facades have been altered extensively. The further north series of two-storey residential/commercial buildings with jaunty upper storey brickwork and exceptionally rich fenestration fared better — perhaps because they placed a bet for a commercial rather than a residential future for Ossington. Of those, only 212 Ossington has been rendered bland with a cheap restoration of the brickwork obliterating the upper storey fenestration. 218 has been overlain with a strange combination of grey stucco slabs upstairs and rustic barnboard downstairs that nevertheless respected the original facade contours. But 210, 214, and 216 are well-preserved: 210 is a tiny but welcoming corner building suggestive of a miniature Chicago-style tavern; 214 displays a cornice without precedent or influence but rich in cheer, a huddle of arched eyebrows flanking a benevolent central bulb. (I believe that 42 and 44 Ossington may also date from around 1884: these attractive structures are recorded by Goad’s as veneer construction, but are in surprisingly good contemporary condition if that is so.)
The subsequent architectural history of the area, recorded in detail in Goad’s Fire Atlases of 1889, 1890, 1893, 1910, 1913, and 1924, is one of maturation.
The principal trend in the residential neighbourhood is toward consolodation and completion: by 1910, residential development has filled out the remotest reaches of the neighbourhood (in the northeast, the terminus of Halton at Shaw and Shaw just north of Halton; in the northwest, the most deeply involuted corners of Grove). But there are also a few noteworthy cases of regeneration or renewal. Between 1884 and 1890, the entire primordial Givins Quarter has been razed and rebuilt with quaint two-storey brick veneer semi-detached houses, finally taking up the early-1870s activity on the Rebecca-to-Bruce block; even Rebecca Street is by 1890 lined on its southeast flank with these cottages. Bruce Street, however, is the center of the local meatpacking industry, with 1890 slaughterhouses behind the stockyards at the foot of Argyle Place-Bruce-Givins and on a large L-shaped site fronting on the south side of Bruce and the east side of Ossington (the latter was subdivided and presumably shut down between 1890 and 1893, with early commercial development on its Ossington leg and much later residential development on its Bruce leg; the former, recall, is now a parking lot: it would never be redeveloped). A further gesture of renewal is the redevelopment of Pine Grove, celebrated in 1884 as the “oldest house in Toronto” but demolished by the Levack family after 1894 and replaced with their magnificent Queen Anne-style mansion: this multiply gabled and turretted Victorian fantasia, now Halton Street’s Maynard Nursing Home, is the sole remaining nineteenth-century upper-class dwelling of the seven once distributed through the West End. The public realm was also advanced: some time around 1920, the 1870s Givins-Shaw School building was replaced with what is now the Artscape Building; between 1910 and 1913, Osler Playground was established on the site of four 1861 pioneering houses on Argyle near Dovercourt and six from the 1880s behind them on Humbert (those four pioneering houses on Argyle nearer Ossington had been taken down in the late 1880s). The other older large building in the neighbourhood, the bakery at Argyle and Dovercourt, appeared at roughly the same time as the rebuilt Givins-Shaw school.
On Ossington, the period from 1884 to 1924 is largely one of revival and densification: that period is the origin of over half of the contemporary building stock. I will list the contemporary addresses of the existing buildings appearing for the first time in each Goad’s Atlas in chronological order, before remarking on certain especially noteworthy buildings and finally abstracting certain general patterns. Between 1884 and 1889, buildings have been constructed at 12, 88, 90, 92, 94, 164, 166, 168, 220, 222, 121, 123, 125, 139, and 141 Ossington. The 1890 Goad’s records also 110 and 112. The 1893 displays the results of a construction boom: the thirty buildings constructed then are now 178, 180, 182, 184, 186, 188, 190, 45, 47, 49, 51, 53, 55, 57, 59, 61, 199, 201, 203, 205, 207, 209, 211, 213, 215, 217, 219, 221, 223, and 225 Ossington. Nothing constructed between 1893 and 1903 is extant. The 1910 additions are 102, 104, 106, 108, 120, 174, and 176 Ossington. The 1913 Goad’s records no extant new construction. Finally, the 1924 Goad’s records the construction of 170, 172, 21–25, 227, and 229. I have not been able to verify the age of a final building that appears to antedate World War Two, namely 9 Ossington: it is presumably therefore a late 1920s production.
The buildings at 12 and 88–94 are highly valued and widely recognized as such. The former was the Dundas Street Library until the library’s 1909 move to Queen and Lisgar. The latter is famous as the Levack Block, developed of course by the Givins Street meatpacking family. That block originally comprised six terraced mixed-use buildings but the northern pair has been lost (the block’s attenuation is evident from the once-central cornice now occupying the most northern building); their replacement is a chunky confection of a stucco post-modern building now housing the Lower Ossington Theatre. 220 and 222 are part of a block wrapping around the corner at Dundas and are largely intact. 121–125 finally develop the corner lot of Argyle-to-Bruce which had remained vacant through the initial wave of construction in the 1870s; the southern pair are largely intact, while the facade of the corner building has been overlain with stucco. 139 and 141 were initially home to a dry-goods shop and a fruit store (they currently house a fruit and vegetable importer): this pair has a lean modern sensibility uncharacteristic of the generally flamboyant period. While the original facades of 178–188 have been obliterated, the three-storey 190 is strikingly unique, with a mansard roof, an oval window next to a large bay on the second storey, and a series of arches outlined in brickwork just above eye-level. 45–61 is a largely intact block with especially high-quality ground level fenestration and a decorative brickwork considerably more severe than the Levack Block. 213–225 is a largely intact three storey block of evident dignity (though stripped of their original upper storey bay windows and a fancy pedimented cornice, visible in a 1920 photo); its neighbours to the south, at 199–211, are apparently cheaper two-story buildings generally in good condition but which have on the whole been treated with less consideration. 102–6 is a row of terraced residential buildings set back by about eight feet and appearing generally out of place; 108 could perhaps be a a building displaced 100m northward from the Levack Block. 120 is a very high quality corner building — by far the best building at the Ossington-Argyle intersection and among the finest on the Strip. 170 and 172 are visible in a 1920 photo with fussy upper story bays and a dentilled cornice. Finally, 21–25 is a light industrial building of evidently great strength, now home to a ministorage and sporting an amazingly frivolous paint job (and typically a thick layer of illegal advertisements).
Two large areas remained untouched by the late-Victorian boom, and instead sustained their initial wave of 1870s (or sometimes earlier) construction until after the mid-1920s: Argyle-to-Bruce south of 121 Ossington — developed in the 1870s, as we have seen, as worker’s lodgings and small shops — and the northern reaches of Halton-to-Argyle, occupied in the late 1860s as small estates for cattle dealers. Other scattered pre-1880 buildings, now destroyed, displayed the same tenacity: a middle class house at 80 Ossington, probably from 1879; a pair of clerk’s or skilled worker’s 1873 houses at contemporary 124–126; and a pair of truly ancient early 1850s working-class residences at contemporary 41 Ossington. With the exception of the last, these examples illustrate the perils of early success: not quite so primordial as to be obviously worthless to late Victorians thinking long term, these “boomtown” structures nevertheless were too cheaply built to make it through a century of use. In each case, what replaced them is of questionable architectural success. Argyle-to-Bruce is — recalling the exceptional survivors at 89 and 91 — a currently problematic collection of post-WWII large footprint one and two storey light industrial buildings (several of which have been repurposed for upscale services, one of which houses a cigar factory, and two of which are as of this writing the subject of a condominium development application). Halton-to-Argyle is occupied on its northern half by a citadel of inward facing stacked townhouses, the product of late-twentieth century renewal efforts manifesting a discomfort with urbanity. 80 Ossington is a vacant one-storey shed; 124–126 are garage buildings now occupied by a brewpub; 41 was a 1930s vintage warehouse, demolished in 2012. A few further contemporarily underdeveloped or otherwise less successful sites do not quite conform to this pattern: the parking lot south of 21–25 was stockyard land, never developed, in the primordial Givins Quarter; the parking lot north of the fire hall has never had a building on it; the contemporary one-storey bakery at the southwest corner of Argyle had been redeveloped from probably the 1868 house of the cattle dealer James Kane by the cattle dealer James Pearson in 1882 as a residence with a paired block of flanking stores (unlike the Levacks, Pearson shortsightedly used unstable veneer construction); the disappearances of the 1880s brick buildings at contemporary 146, Ossington Tire (visible in a 1920 photo as a substantial block of three canonical Victorian buildings), the pair from the center of the 1883 Georgians and the northern pair from the Levack Block, finally, are not easily explained.
This concludes the architectural history of the neighbourhood. The remaining story pertains to the twentieth century, and is one of broader trends: patterns of emigration; epidemiology; citywide transit policy; suburbanization; deindustrialization; the post-industrial reconception of the city as a white-collar leisure ground. Because many of these themes are familiar and our ambit is here not to write a history of the world since 1900, we will henceforth move quickly and occasionally indulge in speculation.
We can confidently say that the Ossington of the 1910s was thriving: a 1915 map depicts it as more thickly equipped with commercial properties than any north-south arterial aside from Yonge and as continuing to bind together the commercial districts of Dundas and of Queen. A striking 1914 isometric map depicts the surrounding neighbourhood as somewhat more densely populated than any other north or west of a line drawn from Queen and Crawford to Avenue and Bloor. Ossington has its own streetcar, part of a north-south stairstep line including Shaw below Queen and Dovercourt above College to Dupont. The contemporary Dundas car line had in the previous decade been extended across Garrison Creek, which doubtless diminished the significance of the Ossington Strip as a transit arterial, but the local economy seems to have survived that, at least in the short term.
The City Directory for 1922 records over 200 residential and/or business listings. The individuals named appear to be much less uniformly “Anglo” — of British or Irish descent — than in the period to 1884. In excess of three dozen personal names suggest some other ethnicity: of these, roughly two-thirds of names are characteristically Jewish, the remainder characteristically Italian/Mediterranean — save three listings for “Chinese Laundry”. The twentieth century economy of expensive manufactured creature comforts is already present among the many businesses up and down the strip. Notably: contemporary 23–25 Osington is Imperial Motor Sales; 123 is a mattress vendor; 137 an upholsterer’s shop; the now-destroyed 153 Ossington is a wire works; at 201 is a jeweler; at 203 a milliner; at 219 a taxidermist (!); at 221 we find a sheet metal works; at 223 a printer; at 12 Ossington, the Dundas Street Library is now a bowling alley; 34–36 manufactures corrugated cardboard; 96 manufactures baskets; 126 manufactures comforters; 128 is a candy store; 134 is the “Empire Glove Company”; 138 is the dwelling of a piano tuner; 152 deals in sewing machines; 172 trades in fur; 202 houses a branch of the A&P’s Canadian branch, the Dominion Stores; four shops at 214–220 furnish gentlemen, cut their hair, and manufacture their watches. The meat trade, only 25 years ago of great importance to the local economy, is only faintly echoed at 94, where Jacob Solovay is a (perhaps kosher) butcher; and at 61 — at the head of Bruce Street, where cattle were once driven around the corner to their demise at the Levack slaughterhouse — now home to the Toronto Butcher’s Supply Company.
We might suspect that the Great Depression was no more kind to Ossington than to anywhere else. Archival photos from the 1940s suggest extensive worsening of the condition of the stock of buildings, nearly all of which are by then between five and seven decades old: after one or two decades of deferred maintenance, the city is now beginning to photograph buildings which have become dangerously unstable. By December 20, 1940, exterior stucco has fallen away from the facade of 128 Ossington, revealing lath — some of which has itself fallen away, revealing what appears to be tarpaper; the boarded-over facade is papered with a few generations of advertisements; a stained and faded “for sale” sign holds back a few chunks of stucco. The hulk is flanked by a pair of grocers, each with weathered awnings. Around the back, a rotten barn-like structure flanks the property line of 126 and 128; 126 displays marginally greater signs of greater upkeep than 128, but its chimney too is crumbling, and the sagging of 128 threatens its conjoined twin. A May 23, 1941 photo displays the disgusting living conditions at 153 Ossington — I spare the reader’s delicate sensibilities and will not go into detail. On May 6, 1943, the series at 129–133 Ossington appears filthy and abadoned (poignantly, a little girl dressed for early Spring wanders the sidewalk in front of them alone). Around the back, the exterior skin of 133 has fallen away, exposing lath and a huge crack. On July 6, 1947, a mother and two children sit on the sidewalk by a standing man with a cane; behind them are the last two remaining 1870s buildings south of 121 Ossington on the Bruce-to-Argyle block to have been demolished — the southernmost building appears to have been demolished at least a decade before, exposing the flank of the former 67 Ossington: across the overgrown vacant lot, one can see a building already visibly dilapidated in a 1921 photo, the condition of which has only worsened. Large patches of exposed lath, a sickly chimney, and a collapsing back porch; the side of 67 displays faded ads for tobacco products; the ground-storey fenestration of both buildings are hung with dirty, disarrayed curtains; the large vacant lot north of 69 Ossington is dominated by a huge billboard hawking Shell Premium Gasoline. Around the back, a 1920s-vintage car is seen to be parked on the vacant corner lot; the crumbling back end of 67 Ossington reveals extensive lath and gaping windows; the back end of 69 Ossington appears to have been already knocked down. Are the disabled man and his family living in a dangerously unsafe abandoned general store — already photographed as decayed on September 9 1921? Photos taken three weeks later display the fate of 125 Ossington: its northern facade is pulling away, bulging over the sidewalk on Argyle, the wooden sashes of a window separated from twisting, sagging brick wall; a one inch gap is visible between brickwork and door frame, and a single brick at waist-level appears to have popped out of where the wall now folds forward.
Ten years later, postwar prosperity is visible. A photo from October 23, 1958 displays a pair of neatly-dressed men standing in front of the lightly littered vacant lot at the southwestern corner of Ossington and Argyle — a lot that in 1947 had been overgrown but is now mowed. Across the street, the bulging brickwork of 125 appears to have been fixed. In both photos, large, shiny, late-model cars sit in every driveway, line the north side of Argyle Street, and create a mini-traffic jam along Argyle; the street — in 1947, still paved with the cobbles shown being laid in 1921 photos — seems to have been freshly paved, its lines freshly painted. Part of this postwar prosperity would eventually involve the redevelopment of lots that were vacant or occupied by buildings deemed beyond repair and the renovation and stabilization of buildings in decline.
The postwar story of the massive diversion of investment capital toward suburbanization, and the consequent successive waves of repopulation of the inner city by those not yet possessed of the social position to leave it is a familiar one and will be presupposed here. In Toronto, the new inhabitants were immigrants attracted to Canada in order to replenish and expand the nation’s labor force: in the immediate postwar period from southern and eastern Europe and then in the 1970s from the rest of the world. Our area has been a center of Portuguese-Canadian identity for many decades. But eastern Europeans (particularly Poles and Ukrainians) and Italians were the first to replace the Anglo-Canadians who had departed for areas greener, fresher, less crowded, and less associated with a grimy industrial past. These were the inhabitants of the neighbourhood in the 1950s; their presence began to taper off in the 1960s, with the center of Italian-Canadian identification moving outward along a roughly north-by-northwest vector while that for Slavic-Canadians moved roughly west-by-northwest. The author of this piece is acquainted with a handful of stories of the children from this Slav/Italian period. A Polish-Canadian couple in their 60s (now retired to Kingston) stopped at the front porch to chat in Summer 2013: he was helping his aging mother move out of her house on Shaw Street; she had lived in the author’s house until six years old in 1963 along with 11 other residents: her family of four owned the house and lived on the first floor; a Portuguese-Canadian family of five lived on the second floor; three students lived (without plumbing) in the attic. An Italian-Canadian neighbour in his late 50s inherited the house in which he has lived all his life and which his father built (along with its backyard pizza oven); while Italian ethnic identification is not espcially common in this area, sustaining my neighbour’s ties to the neighbourhood are his Portuguese-Canadian wife and her mother. Both of these are obviously stories from a period of considerable transition, involving both a re-evaluation of the nineteenth-century housing stock (either for more intensive multi-family use than deemed proper by the middle class Anglo-Canadians for whom this house was initially envisaged or for fullscale redevelopment) and a shift in the area’s predominant ethnic identity away from Italian- and Slavic- to Portuguese-Canadian.
While the Ukrainian-Canadian community sustains two churches in our area (at Shaw/Halton and at Queen/Bellwoods) and Little Italy (half a kilometer away on College) is of course an important symbol of Italian-Canadian identity in Toronto, data proves what experience makes obvious and nomenclature enshrines — namely, that our area is the epicenter of Toronto’s Little Portugal. The first Portuguese arrivals in Canada were 69 men landing in Halifax on the /Saturnia/ on May 13 1953. These men and those who followed them directly apparently had sought to move to Canada’s cities but were instead directed to labor sites in rural areas — picking grapes, laying railroad track, and the like. By the late 1950s, the governments of Canada and Portugal had both decided that they liked the idea of a more ambitious and sustainable program of resettlement, and around 140,000 Portuguese would emigrate to Canada by 1988. At least half of these emigrants settled in metropolitan Toronto. Kensington and Alexandra Park were the early centers of Portuguese Toronto; as the community grew in numbers and in prosperity, Little Portugal would grow to encompass a region with Dundas Street West as its backbone, defined by urban ethnographer Carlos Teixera as extending west from Bellwoods-Grace Streets to the CPR tracks between Queen and College and including also Brock Street west to the tracks up to Bloor.
The bulk of the Portuguese emigrants to Canada had left circumstances fairly described as ‘feudal’. Under the fascist Salazar government, in a nation with a long history of governance by religious and economic elites and a long-dominant coalition of large landholding families, most of the land on the Azores Islands had by the twentieth century long ago been agglomerated into very large estates; the bulk of the population lived as peasants, exploiting (according to the OISE MA thesis of Amelia Libertacci) only traditional low-intensity agricultural methods, and compelled into an arrangement of sharecropping on large estates, perhaps supplemented by private tending of one of an inadequate number of smallholds. This was the predicament, prior to emigration, of a great many of our area’s first-generation Portuguese-Canadians — who by general acknowledgement hail predominantly from this cluster of Atlantic Ocean islands.
According to Teixera and Libertacci, these origins engendered a broadly agreed-upon system of values in the community of Little Portugal (and, with the passage of time, in the Portuguese-Canadians of the broader GTA): hard work, family, conservation, respect for cultural and religious tradition, and ownership of land. Statistics significantly mirror at least some of these value systems. For example: Teixera cites 2001 data showing home-ownership rates of 66% in west central Toronto among residents of Portuguese ethic identification — as contrasted with 22% among “recent immigrants” (defined to mean, roughly, non-European ethnic identification) and 32% among Anglo-Canadians; according to some sources, the home-ownership rate among Portguese-Canadians in Mississaugua is above 80%. Or: census data from 2011 for Trinity-Bellwoods shows the Portuguese language as of persisting significance as both “mother tongue” and “home language”, possibly reflecting a strong affection for cultural preservation to which both Teixera and Libertacci refer. On an anecdotal basis, these values appear to reinforce the persisting strength of the religious communities at Little Portugal’s Catholic churches, including San Juan Bautista (Dundas and Grace) and Santa Cruz (Argyle and Dovercourt).
Recognizing the pitfalls of speculative amateur sociologizing, it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to suggest that our area and those Portuguese-Canadians who found a new home here in the 1960s and 1970s made an extremely good match. The area’s old buildings, sometimes constructed in haste, were in special need of focused care and consideration from dedicated landholders willing to exchange sweat equity for long-term stability — and actively countervailing the official policy toward the nineteenth century city of neglect, perhaps with eventual redevelopment in line with postwar mainstream suburban values. That much is clear: many of those buildings from around 1890 that we so value today were by 1950 — when still only sixty years old — quite likely neglected to the point of endangerment; those buildings standing today (and meeting, in many cases, a high level of preservation), sixty years after that, are standing only thanks to four decades of hands-on preservation by individuals less focused on official policy and mainstream fashion than on restoring structures of evident long-term sustainability and conserving them for use through the indefinite future. On the flip side, and much more speculatively, it can seem that the new immigrants, emerging from tightly-knit remote small communities with a focused value system, would benefit distinctively from making a home out of an area with the distinctive values we have enumerated for ours. These include: our area’s “urban village”-like paradoxical mix of adjacency to with island-like distinctness from the central city; our area’s encouragement of pedestrianism, again sustaining a village-like regular flow of face-to-face contacts with neighbours; its unpretentious human-scale architecure, bespeaking a context in which the regular person can be a landlord, can participate in trade, is not overwhelmed by the grandiose productions of corporations or states.
Dundas is, evidently to all, the backbone of Little Portugal. But anecdotally and experientially, Ossington/Dundas is its heart. If no longer evident in 2013, even in 2007 there were visible on Ossington the remnants of what, according to a neighbour, had in the 1970s and 1980s been a dense grouping of sports bars each dedicated to the football club of a certain Azorean town. A Lenten parade enacting (so far as I have been able to ascertain) the Micalanese Pilgrimage, an Azorean remembrance of sixteenth-century volcanic eruptions on San Miguel, has for decades been a distinctively significant event for the Santa Cruz community, involves the Argyle/Ossington intersection as a crucial turn. Those manufacturing-related businesses remaining on Ossington are longstanding loci of independent development capital and often play one or more central symbolic or social roles: the Rodrigues Art Steelworks produced the wrought ironwork central to our area’s characteristic syncretism of Victorian with Mediterranian sensibilities (and, in a point of pride, manufactured a plinth for a civic dedication to Queen Elizabeth); the wood-carving in the window of Falcon Cabinetry is by any standard a virtuoso display of masterful hand-craftsmanship; the hardware store provides an obvious anchor to a tradition of valued artisinal or team production, sustains a bilingual practice of customer service, and (anecdotally) led in 2011 a fundraising drive for victims of a tidal disaster on the island of Madeira; Venezia Bakery is both a social hub and a sustaining exponent of traditional foods.
None can confidently assert that, in the years after the turn of the new millenium, Ossington was entirely stable. A number of factors suggest themselves. The first is the swift post-NAFTA (1994) deindustrialization of Toronto: neighbours who had once earned high wages in manufacturing (fur factories, doll factories, candy factories, …) were now, often at age 40, compelled to transition to site-specific (and therefore often less value-added) blue-collar jobs: cleaning (residential and commercial) and construction were, anecdotally and according to Teixera, frequently “Plan B”. A great many of the manufacturing jobs displaced were near our area — a central attraction for its residents, of course — below Queen Street, in Liberty Village, on the former employment lands this side of the CPR lines. The effects of this, though now nearly always neglected, cannot be understated: districts once cyclically absorbing and then disgorging workers by the thousands became inert, annihilating any significance to the pathways to them along with any traders along those pathways; the workers in these districts uniformly both took a big pay cut and experienced a shock to their optimism — doubtless resulting in a bad case of consumer retrenchment, serially shocking local retailers and nightlife spots; these workers lost a central anchor to the neighbourhood: those who found jobs with tolerable commutes would stay, others would leave; their children experienced disruptions both, thanks to increased commute times, in their parents’ contact time with them and in their own sense of any prospect of following their parents’ path of working and living in the neighbourhood. We might speculate that the sudden firing of the entire industrial working class may have engendered a feedback cycle of developer’s pull (more flexible labor markets) and government’s push (keep workers working and keep business growing) toward spiralling suburbanization — indeed, the decade or so after 1994 was in fact a time of explosive suburban expansion. So the late 1990s and early 2000s was in fact a time of great centrifugality for our area.
An influx of Vietnamese immigrants around the time Portuguese immigration tailed off added considerable life to the area. In the 2000s, the younger Vietnamese-Canadians displayed a social energy that in the older Portuguese-Canadians had dimmed somewhat: many social clubs, restaurants, and bars projected a Vietnamese identity. New connections made for new wealth and new sources of enthusiastic restoration of old buildings: going by my impressions, the Canada Herb fruit and vegetable trading company built wealth efficiently and marshalled it effectively to strengthen the local community and reinforce its infrastructure of buildings; a number of high-quality buildings have been preserved and renewed thanks to their efforts, and it is my sense (recalling a story in the Toronto Star) that this family incubated two highly successful restaurants — the owners of both of which have in turn reinvested in the area’s endlessly regenerable stock of small strong buildings. More generally, statistics and experience suggest that what Teixera generally refers to as “recent immigrants” have a largely professionally-oriented and post-industrial set of aims in their adopted country, with a strong focus on advancement through white-collar or entrepreneurial opportunities and a prioritization of acquiring professional credentials for either the migrants or their children or both.
The picture along Ossington in the mid-2000s was not attractive to many. /Toronto Life/ described Ossington as “somber, brooding”. While a number of Portuguese-Canadian-oriented businesses persisted, there seemed to have been a sense that the golden years were over: with an older, less socially-active community having a decade ago taken a huge pay cut and the kids not staying in the neighbourhood, businesses depending on convenience traffic must retrench or shutter. And despite their strong and focused efforts, the Vietnamese community was in the same pickle: after deindustrialization, the inner city offered a broad menu of readily available good wage opportunities only to those with a significantly diminished — and significantly more tightly held — set of social backgrounds. Consequently, I recall having counted in 2007 as many as 44 vacant storeftonts. Could that be accurate? There is little doubt that retail traffic on Ossington was feeling the pinch: businesses that owned their buildings were using too much space or not renewing decor; renters were withering, offering mean goods and services for very little.
In that environment, licit business could no longer pay very much rent. The isolation and involuted geography of the area make it a distinctive place in Toronto in which to hide away. Illicit business could pay rather higher rents; illicit business is happy to find a place to hide away. And illicit business did indeed find its way here: a long-term small-scale landlord and preservationist once listed off a range of spectacular busts — apparently, the turn of the millenium in our obscure area was celebrated at perhaps a dozen grow-ops and brothels. Anecdotally, I can say that after a late night at Sweaty Betty’s, the wife and I decided a round of karaoke might be just the thing to cap off the evening. To our surprise and amusement, the principal offering of this now-defunct business seemed to consist of services rather less wholesome than karaoke. I cannot say whether this was the same establishment which witnessed the notorious double shooting in 2004 that, by many reports, engendered a broader community drive to stem the descent into lawlessness.
Descent into lawlessness or no, according to Teixera’s somewhat systematic interviewing approach, the first-generation Portuguese-Canadian immigrants do not wish to leave. Experientially, that is clear: in 2013, even with kids nephews and nieces in the suburbs, with high six-figure cash-out values universally acknowledged, and with property taxes a source of vexation for retirees — these long-term residents are still here, and do not seem seriously to contemplate cashing out. Anecdotally, the same is true: one roofer, a resident of the same house around the corner for 45 years, tells me that everyone he knows is here, all the social memory of who knows who and who all did what and when — away from that, meaning, history, and memory evaporate. With many of my other neighbours, we have not discussed this, because the prospect of selling and moving simply does not seem to be a live issue for them. According to Teixera, these people are pleased by many of the changes in the neighbourhood since 2005. Would they have felt in 2005 that the time was right to leave? A great many have stayed; that is the important thing.
Things have changed in our area since its 2004 nadir. Just at the moment Ossington was almost destroyed by a mix of policy and fashion, it would be rescued by an abrupt U-turn in policy and fashion. By 2005, a decades-long trend of the mainstreaming of environmentalism and bohemianism led to a widespread appreciation of “Jane Jacobs”-type thinking about cities, broadly abetted by mayors and landlords supportive of the post-industrial reconception of the city as leisure ground. In a local context, the repolarization of urban flows from centrifugality to centripetality would be very strongly backstopped by Ontario’s Provincial Policy Statement and Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe and implemented by Toronto’s reurbanization-oriented Official Plan. Very specifically, these policies have between 2005 and the present led to the repopulation of King West, Liberty Village, and the Queen West Triangle with thousands of white-collar singles.
In 2006, a few savvy entrepreneurs, noting the loss of juice in the Queen West and Little Italy scenes, spotted Ossington as the frontier: the 2007 restoration of the Levack Block was the first gesture among what would by 2013 bring to the Ossington Strip, in each year, on average eight instances of a novel destination business in a restored Victorian — a boom relentlessly flogged by leisure ground and consumerist publications like Toronto Life. By 2013, one can’t hardly get down the sidewalk on Saturday night: the delicate balance of predictability and unpredictability afforded by Ossington’s unpretentious functional architectural patchwork, its overall intimate and quaint built form, and its jumpy series of tributary streets seem once again to have served as a powerful magnet for those seeking a fulfilling pedestrian experience.
This has turned out to engender a revitalization of a widely flung array of surrounding districts. As we have seen, Ossington is distinctively able to collect and radiate pedestrian traffic from all directions (save the direct south, which will always be cut off by the CAMH lands). One result is the emanating revitalization of nearby amenity regions: Dundas to the northwest of Ossington offers an indefinitely extensible hinterland of destination businesses; Trinity-Bellwoods Park is a regional attraction with an allure feeding back with that of Ossington thanks to the permeability of Ossington’s eastern flank; Dundas to the east of Ossington has going on several years come to benefit from destination traffic propelled outward past Trinity-Bellwoods Park; and even what had been the final frontier of retail revival, the ill-starred blocks of Queen below the self-isolating Southwestern Quadrant, has come to attract spillover traffic from Ossington and appears in 2013 able to support a handful of businesses requiring an extensive flow of high-disposable income pedestrian traffic.
The coming wave of residents in our area are already arriving. It is not too early to predict that — thanks to a mix of fashion, policy, and social-consciousness raising — recent and forthcoming neighbours will have rather different priorities than the cattle-traders and laborers of the 1870s; than the workers and small manufacturers and services of the 1920s; than the Portuguese-Canadians working in factories or as artisans in local light industrial floors or neighbourhood services of the 1980s. Any range of trends suggest that for the foreseeable future, our area will repopulate with white collar workers or researchers or independent creatives or skilled artisans or artists or social service providers or writers or small entrepreneurs of a broadly green or bohemian cast of mind. From this point of view — and here I express my own sensibilities — a highly valued place has a range of features we have documented as a source of the repeated cyclical rejuvenation of Ossington. Ossington will continue by its location to attract and radiate pedestrian traffic throughout the region. By its built form, Ossington will continue to attract and retain people who seek a quaint small-scale handmade aesthetic and the personalized, anti-authoritarian conception of urban space it suggests — alongside of a nostalgic and affectionate reminder of a time when human living spaces were made by humans rather than machines. By the seemingly arbitrary and flawed but in fact highly fortuitous arrangement of its streets and laneways, the blocks around Ossington will continue to project and accelerate pedestrian traffic around and across the narrow neighbourhood.
For all these reasons, the coming residents of our area — and all those who visit it regionally and from around the GTA — will inherit an off-kilter yet somehow perfectly comfortable neighbourhood capable, thanks to its endlessly peculiar origins and evolution, of sustaining a rich and incessant series of neighbourly face-to-face pedestrian contacts: a true “village within a city”.