Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with John Lorinc

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John Lorinc

If you live in Toronto, you know what The Ward is, even if you've never heard it referred to that way. The area between College and Queen Streets, bordered by Yonge Street and University Avenue, is now a vibrant neighbourhood containing Toronto's City Hall, Nathan Phillips Square, the Eaton Centre and many more landmark attractions. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was filled with recent immigrants living in dubious rooming houses, considered a slum by the city and referred to simply as "The Ward". The area was bulldozed in the 1950s, transforming it into the squeaky clean urban neighbourhood it has since become. But what happened to all those people, new to Canada and living tough, hard scrabble lives?

John Lorinc and his fellow editors (Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg and Tatum Taylor) attempt to cover those stories, and chart the history of the area in their anthology, The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto's First Immigrant Neighbourhood (Coach House Books). With essays from novelists, politicians, urban planners and more, The Ward is a fascinating glimpse into a part of Toronto's history that has rarely been examined. From sex work to playgrounds, contributors write about subjects as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago.

John tells us about how the Ward and its residents helped transform Toronto from a staid Victorian city to a city rich in art and culture, the Ward resident who most fascinated him, and his favourite Toronto-centric reads.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, The Ward.

John Lorinc:

The Ward is an anthology of essays — some literary, some journalistic, some academic — about an area of downtown Toronto that became home for generations of newcomers: Irish, African Americans, Italians, Eastern European Jews, and Chinese. It grew up initially on the outskirts of old Toronto (Queen to College, Yonge to University), but was eventually surrounded by a growing city. In the strictly protestant, Anglo Toronto of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the concentration of generally poor newcomers proved to be very challenging. Some Torontonians were alarmed by the foreign languages and alien customs, and saw the area as a vice-ridden ghetto. Civic officials fretted, often quite legitimately, about over-crowded rooming houses and squalid, disease-prone living conditions. From the 1890s onwards, the area came to be targeted for redevelopment. After WWII, city council moved to freeze development and expropriate property throughout the Ward, paving the way for the construction of a new civic square/City Hall, modern institutional facilities, offices, and parking garages.

What the book aims to do is to show that the Ward, contrary to long-standing stereotypes, was not merely dense and poor, but complex, diverse, and thoroughly urban -— a vibrant community which provided generations of newcomers with their first foothold in a city that was not all that receptive to their presence. It was, to use journalist Doug Saunders’ wonderful phrase, an “arrival city.” The Ward, moreover, attracted entrepreneurs, artists, activists, reformers and future politicians. It is the part of the city where Victorian Toronto first encountered the cosmopolitan place it would become.

That encounter, of course, was fraught and complicated — Torontonians were both enthralled and repelled. But those who felt the Ward’s run-down blocks represented a moral threat and then an obstacle to modernization prevailed, with the result that this neighbourhood was almost entirely erased from the face of a city that was profoundly altered by its very existence. The book seeks to unpack that paradox, and learn from it. What does the past tell the present, especially in a city so dominated by newcomers?

OB:

What drew you to this particular aspect of Toronto history? What is unique about the Ward as part of Toronto's heritage?

JL:

About ten years ago, I started publishing articles about a long-serving Toronto civil servant, R.C. Harris, who was works commissioner from 1912 to 1945. He had to spend a lot of his time dealing with the Ward, and related issues, such as water quality. Harris, in turn, made common cause with a crusading medical officer of health, Charles Hastings. Hastings, who became an international public health celebrity, had to confront the unsanitary living conditions in The Ward, which, remember, sat literally at the base of Old City Hall, where he and Harris worked. They couldn’t avoid it.

OB:

How did you find the writers who contributed to the anthology — what sort of voices were you looking for?

JL:

To find writers, the members of editorial team — Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg, Tatum Taylor and myself — drew on our contacts, and we applied a highly organic process for selecting contributors. We wanted a mix of voices and styles. As we worked, we would meet regularly and do a kind of informal gap analysis — what had we missed, and whom could we tap to fill a void? It was not planned in any way.

OB:

Who are some of your favourite, most memorable Ward characters found in these essays?

JL:

I was fascinated by the story of Mendel Riman, described in one of Ellen Scheinberg’s essays. An Orthodox Jew from Russia, he tried his hand at peddling, but when that business failed, he started the Ward’s first commercial schvitz bath on Centre Avenue, catering to the area’s Jewish community. That was 1910 and the blocks around Centre Ave., which is now lined by the backs of office buildings and parking lots, had no fewer than six small synagogues. But his bath attracts men from all backgrounds, who’d come in for a schvitz and to talk politics or sometimes brawl. I can’t cross the parking lot on Centre Ave. without thinking about Riman.

OB:

What does your writing space look like? Tell us what an ideal day of writing and editing would look like for you.

JL:

I do almost all my writing in coffee shops, mostly Starbucks. This isn’t a product endorsement: as it happens, Starbucks has good chairs, lots of outlets and reliable Wifi.

OB:

What are some of your own favourite Toronto-centric reads (fiction or non-fiction)?

JL:

For an understanding of how Toronto evolved after World War II, John Sewell’s The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning remains an essential reference, as is No Mean City, Eric Arthur’s game-changing account of how the city demolished its physical heritage. The author and journalist Allan Levine’s new book, Toronto: Biography of a City, is on my to-read list. And Michael Redhill’s amazing novel, Consolation, remains one of my favorite works of local fiction. Indeed, we pestered Michael to contribute to The Ward specifically because he’s so strong on the way the city’s past noses its way into its present. And we weren’t disappointed.

OB:

What are you working on now?

JL:

I’m a professional freelance journalist, which means I’m always writing lots of articles at the same time. Currently, the topics include drones, PTSD in first responders, the future of journalism education and the governance of Canada’s school boards.


John Lorinc is an award-winning journalist who has contributed to Toronto Life, The Globe and Mail, National Post, Saturday Night, Report on Business and Quill & Quire, among other publications. He has written extensively on amalgamation, education, sprawl, and other city issues. He is the recipient of two National Magazine Awards for his coverage of urban affairs. His first book, Opportunity Knocks: The Truth About Canada’s Franchise Industry (1995), was shortlisted for the National Business Book Award. He lives in Toronto.

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