The Notorious Ward

In the 19th & early 20th century St. John’s Ward was a nasty festering pool of poverty & disease located in the heart of Toronto. Known simply as The Ward, it was defined by its borders of College, Yonge, University & Queen. The Ward housed TO’s poorest, people who had travelled from afar looking for a brighter future who then did their best to set up housekeeping in TO’s worst slum.

It’s hard to reconcile that description with Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris’ depictions of The Ward: brightly-coloured, sun-kissed cottages with picket fences (above: In The Ward. 1919). Harris’s vision of The Ward included the colour and warmth that settlers brought to their homes and neighbourhoods. Many of his Ward paintings do show the ramshackle nature of the buildings but the scene is always colourful and lively.

But another artist was at work in The Ward, depicting a seemingly different reality. For 37 years Arthur Goss was Toronto’s Chief Photographer. His official assignment, in part, was to document the unhealthy living conditions of Toronto’s immigrant families. But Goss was an artist and he left behind some of the most haunting images of life in The Ward, while recording it for Toronto’s Department of Health. (below: Goss. 1914)

Early inhabitants of The Ward included Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine and slaves fleeing the States via the Underground Railroad.  (below: Harris. In the Ward. 1919)

A bustling Jewish community cropped up until it moved west to Kensington Market. Then came an influx of Italian immigrants who created Little Italy before moving west to College St. The Ward then housed TO’s first Chinatown, until it moved to Spadina and surrounding streets.

There were buildings of note in the ward: Osgoode Hall at University and Queen and Old City Hall, seen in the background in the photo below (Goss 1913). Where the row house stands in the foreground there is now a skating rink in Nathan Phillips Square.

Mary Pickford was born in the Ward in 1892 at 211 University Ave. She started life as Gladys Louise Smith and went on to become a star of the silent screen and “America’s Sweetheart”. At the height of her fame she posed in front of her old Ward digs. (photographer unknown. 1924)

One of the last largely untouched pieces of The Ward exists down an alleyway just south of the Toronto Coach Terminal (Bay at Dundas). People come from all over to catch a bus or eat a piece of cheesecake from Uncle Tetsu’s Cheesecake –  hungry customers line up just south of the alleyway entrance for the coveted dessert, oblivious to the time capsule just steps away. (below: last of the ward. 2016. photo: MW)

The area that once was The Ward is now called “Discovery District” in honour of its pioneering doctors. Where once disease spread like wildfire now researchers are discovering cures. And down a little alleyway is the last reminder of a place that existed for 130 years in all its colourful humanity, as depicted by Harris, and all its drab inhumanity, as recorded by Goss. (below: The Group of Seven by Goss).


McQueen, the Queen & Burr

I saw Queen Victoria in the loo at Steve McQueen’s pad in New York City. Really. I also espied her powdering her nose (and wig) at Aaron Burr’s stables right next door. Let me explain: there’s a restaurant in the West Village called “One If By Land, Two If By Sea” and it’s located in Burr’s former carriage house (built in 1767) and has an adjoining dining room, which is where Steve bunked in the swinging 60s. My paramour and I were having dinner there. As for HRH, it was Halloween (you have to see NYC on Halloween!) Alas, I did not see the ghost of Steve McQueen nor Aaron Burr but I have thought about writing a play where the two of them hang out together. Burr: What was it like shooting The Great Escape? McQueen: Great. What was it like shooting Alexander Hamilton? Burr: Not so great. I had regrets.




You relax on a bench in a pastoral churchyard on a busy east end corner and feel the tension leave your body. You become aware of several blazing red messages being flashed out Morse-Code-like from a sign to your left. You get up to read them but before you finish the first one another has taken its place. You become obsessed with reading them all. You wonder if the scarlet flashes might be never-ending.You hope to catch again the ones that got away before you grasped their meaning. You become uncertain as to where you are in the cycle of blood-red words. You get your cell out to snap them for later review but by then you’re feeling out of sorts. You turn your back on the faux Vegas display.


You start to walk away. You feel like you need a drink. You glance back, take one last shot and head for the nearest bar.

Church sign