A Town Crier Community Column
The area was once known as the neighbourhood of Runnymede; Jane Street was called the 5th Concession Road and, from the western banks of the Humber River, farmland unfolded into the horizon.
Welcome to the area of Bloor West Village and vicinity, circa 1900.
Those were just three of the lesser-known facts that local historian Madeline McDowell shared with a rapt audience a few weeks ago at the annual general meeting of the Bloor West Village Residents Association.
Local urban history, it seems, is very much a part of the fabric of our community but, sadly, we know so little about it.
McDowell is the exception. A former school trustee for 14 years in the old city of York, McDowell is a life-long chronicler of west Toronto’s urban history. She’s been a member of numerous preservation and heritage committees and was a force behind the successful drive to have the Humber River designated a Canadian national heritage waterway, one of only a handful in this country.
She knows her stuff and is a treasure trove of local knowledge on matters of our community history.
Which makes it all the more disheartening to learn that the Toronto District School Board pays so little apparent interest in fostering local histories as part of the education curriculum, especially for students in the middle and higher grades. McDowell does, in fact, speak to classes on her interests, but it’s not the same as offering courses that bring to life the one part of the world that students are most familiar with: the local community in which they live.
Were this the case for example, students might learn that the district of Runnymede — make that, Bloor West Village — began more than a century ago as a housing subdivision for working families where the men found themselves employed in the stockyards of the Junction, or in the industrial factories of downtown Toronto or along Queen Street West.
Unlike today’s approach to land development where all trees must be brought down in the name of progress, in the Bloor West Village of the early 20th century only the trees located on the footprint of a house, or within the roadway or sidewalk were cut down, thus accounting for the heavily forested environment of west Toronto.
They would learn about the building of the Humber Bridge west of the South Kingsway and the throngs of onlookers — and the front page newspaper coverage the bridge achieved — on the occasion of its grand opening in 1924.
The way McDowell is able to explain it in her delightful and entertaining manner, there is a colourful story behind each of the distinct neighbourhoods of west Toronto, like Swansea, Baby Point, the Junction and others. Often they involve prominent individuals, like Home Smith, who was the original developer in Baby Point. Apparently, elected mayors of the day more than a century ago were also actively involved in land development — an arrangement entirely unimaginable today.
A purveyor of histories past, McDowell looks to the future with considerable concern — especially when she ponders what the future of Bloor Street West, as a retail centre, might someday look like.
“At one time the businesses of Bloor Street West offered local residents everything that they might have needed: screws and hammers, food and vegetables, banks and bakeries. More and more, these sorts of businesses are vanishing.
“That could be the death knell to the community.”
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