ZeitagTO app aims to pull local history out of government archives and into the hands of those who are curious to see the Toronto that was.
Looking west at the intersection of Queen and Bay, you see the grand Shea’s Hippodrome theatre. Various storefronts line the street. A newsboy waves the morning edition.
But remove your iPad from sight and the cold truth of modern-day reality returns. Those buildings no longer exist, demolished during the 1950s to make way for the construction of Nathan Philips Square and New City Hall.
ZeitagTO, a free app available for the iPhone and iPad, aims to pull local history out of climate-controlled government archives and into the hands of those who are curious to see the Toronto that was by showcasing various images based on your location within the city.
Three years ago, while vacationing in New York City, Gary Blakeley and his family visited the site of the former World Trade Centre.
“At that point it was just a big construction site,” says Blakeley, a graphic designer who emigrated to Canada from England in 1987. “There was no sign of what had stood there and no sign of what happened on September 11.”
There was a museum, he says, but the long lineup was less than encouraging. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if you were standing on the spot and you could actually pull up archival photos?”
But the technology wasn’t yet available. With the arrival of the iPhone, Blakeley revisited the concept, hired a developer, and slowly populated the app with more than 500 images from the City of Toronto Archives, which was supportive of the project.
Gary Miedema, chief historian at Heritage Toronto, a city agency that organizes walking tours of the city, says ZeitagTO and similar apps are a “brilliant next step” in terms of making the city’s history more accessible.
“Using historic photos in this manner is a great way of putting it in the hands of residents and tourists, giving it much more immediate access.”
Still in its infancy — Blakeley seeks the help of historians and heritage aficionados to help bring context to the content — the app functions well for self-led tours.
Its possibilities include highlighting lesser-known or purposely forgotten aspects of local history.
Last summer, while working on a prototype of the app in Berlin, Blakeley later learned the site he and his wife had chosen for an afternoon picnic was a spot where Adolf Hitler had given a rally in 1938.
“That was really blood-curdling,” says Blakeley, “because you always think these things happened somewhere else. And no, they won’t put up a plaque or a marker for that.”
The stories and images become virtual plaques, travelling along with the user. Physical markers have their place in the cityscape, highlighting specific events — at Dupont Station there are three plaques tracing the history of the ill-fated Spadina Expressway — but even Miedema, who produced 25 plaques for Heritage Toronto last year, contends the city shouldn’t be overrun with them.
“We don’t want the city covered in bronze — there are various platforms to bring information to the public. This way, you can tell as many stories as you want.”
As Blakeley has his sights set on other archival collections, the stories cross city boundaries.
“We’ve just begun working with the City of Mississauga. Down in Long Branch, during World War II there was a small arms factory. Heritage Mississauga has the original photo album for the factory, but they never did anything with it. So we’ve started matching some of those images to the Long Branch map.” Only one of the two buildings housing the former munitions factory remains.
Above all, Blakeley hopes the app, which he has paid for himself, will help keep the city’s rich visual legacy on everybody’s minds.
“There’s a lot of good material out there but it’s hard to get to right now,” he says, referring to the million images held at the City Archives, of which only 50,000 have been scanned. “It’s an issue of funding and timing, which is something we’re also facing, but eventually I want it to be part of the way we just do things.”