Remembering Toronto’s history, with the help of the web

The building at the west-end intersection of Dupont, Dundas and Annette streets was the site of an 1837 stagecoach robbery led by Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie. Now, it’s a 24-hour Coffee Time.

Times have changed in Toronto. Neil Ross, president of the West Toronto Junction Historical Society, counts the pre-Confederation tale among his favourite footnotes of Toronto lore. “Here’s the leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion, one day after marching armed men down Yonge Street – three years after he was Toronto’s first mayor – robbing a stagecoach in front of the Peacock Tavern,” Mr. Ross said.

As one of 50 similar associations that form the Toronto Historical Society, the Junction Historical Society meets once a month in the basement of the Annette Street Public Library. Local legends are discussed, but the group, formed in 1980 around the campaign to save the neighbourhood’s Canadian Pacific Railway Station – the public outcry over its demolition later led to the Heritage Railway Station Protection Act – is as much about the future of the booming, gentrifying neighbourhood as it is discussing its past.

History and heritage issues abound in social media, generating a broader outreach to an increasingly younger membership.

“There are lots of young people in Toronto who are interested in discovering Toronto’s history and lots of older people who are excited about the opportunity to share their knowledge and skills,” said David Wencer, a Junction Historical Society member. “The trick is getting them to connect.”

That connection, added Mr. Wencer, can take place at a heritage meeting: “It’s not like the generations are completely different, and one of the great things about a local historical society is the opportunity to learn from people with a variety of memories and experiences.”

Mr. Wencer, 31, has lived in the Junction most of his life, writes about history for Torontoist, and is active on Twitter for all things heritage. “What really draws me to history are not the big names or events, but the details that reveal what everyday life used to be like for people. I love the notion that the world – my world – used to be different, and I like being able to walk around the Junction and look at the old brick buildings and consider what life was like 20, 50 or 100 years ago.”

Access to online newspaper databases and the digitization of still photographs from the City of Toronto Archives has facilitated Mr. Wencer’s historical research, as well as blog posts from BlogTO, Heritage Toronto and Facebook groups like Vintage Toronto.

In more recent years, the group has shown a greater focus on publications such as their quarterly newsletter, the Leader & Recorder, as well as walking tours, but Mr. Wencer said the society remains vocal about the preservation of the Junction’s built heritage.

“We were involved in researching and supporting a heritage designation for the old Baptist church at 200 Annette, and supported a nomination for the Symes Road waste transfer station.” Currently on their radar is Fire Station 424 on Runnymede Road, built in 1929, which narrowly escaped closure earlier this year. While many Toronto historical associations are geographically based, others, like the Société d’histoire de Toronto, cater to a broader, city-wide cultural mandate.

“Our first mandate is to promote the history of French culture in Toronto,” said president Rolande Smith. From Etienne Brûlé’s discovery of the Humber River in 1615 to the construction of the first Catholic church in 1822, the group runs walking tours throughout the city, chronicling not only francophone life and culture, but history at large. “If we just spoke about French history, we’d be repeating ourselves every year,” she joked.

Ms. Smith, who immigrated to Toronto from France in 1972, was instantly curious about the city’s history. “I married a Canadian, I was here to stay. I wanted to know who was Mr. Bloor, and who was Mr. Jarvis. I wanted to know about the buildings we walk by every day, to make people aware of what is around us and why we’ve lost such important buildings.”

Collaboration is not only important among the city’s various historical associations – the Société d’histoire has led walking tours through other neighbourhoods, like Riverdale, with full collaboration from the Riverdale Historical Society, and plans to take its tours to the Junction, which Mr. Ross applauds – but also with the various heritage government bodies, said Ms. Smith. “We work with Heritage Toronto, and the parks department and Toronto Conservation Authority was very instrumental in our creation of our discovery path along the Humber River,” she added.

The city is also big enough for the various groups to co-exist without stepping on each other’s toes. “A historical society is by no means an exclusive entity, and many of our members are involved with multiple groups,” added Mr. Wencer, noting a recent meeting mentioned seminars hosted by neighbouring groups. “It’s all a big, fun community.”

Despite broader access to new members through social media, all three agree that the city’s history is still best experienced on the street, away from the computer. “If at the end of a guided tour, somebody says ‘I didn’t know that,’ then I’ve done my job,” said Ms. Smith.

The Societe d’histoire de Toronto has a walking tour, in French, on May 26 of the trails used by First Nations groups along the Humber River. sht.ca

The Junction Historical Society will hold a walking tour of the work of prolific Junction architect James Ellis on June 9, 1:30pm. More info: wtjhs.ca

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on May 3, 2013.

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