by Joanne Doucette
Coxwell Avenue a hothouse for social housing? A Bolshevik threat?
Shacktown: The First Housing Crisis on Coxwell Avenue
Shacks on Coxwell Avenue
A shack on Gerrard Street near Coxwell
The area was first developed for housing around 1906 when many of the fields were subdivided for houses. Most of the houses in the neighbourhood were built by the owners themselves until 1909 when the City of Toronto annexed this part of York Township. By the time of amalgamation, the area was well on its way to becoming a working-class, low-income suburb.
Shacks on Ashdale Avenue, September 20, 1910
By 1909, some streets, including Coxwell Avenue south of lower Gerrard, Erie Terrace (later called Craven Road) and Rhodes Avenue, were packed with small houses, some mere huts, without running water or sewage, with contaminated wells and over-flowing outhouses, creating a public health nightmare.
Some, including Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Charles Hastings, saw these Shacktowns as epidemics waiting to happen. Better housing was a must if only to avoid mass epidemics of typhoid fever already killing many around the Great Lakes at that time.
Officials looked south of the border and to Great Britain for models that could be used in Toronto.
Critics, inspired by the City Beautiful movement, called for building a new kind of housing for low-income families: the Garden Suburb. British ideas appealed to the very British city that Toronto was then. George Cadbury, the wealthy chocolate maker, had set up a trust to provide subsidized housing to workers in England. The Trust built a housing estate outside of Birmingham, England, and rented the comfortable, well-built houses “at the low figures of from $5 to $14 per month.”
Each house had the potential for a garden, an important consideration for those who looked to their own vegetable plot for spuds, cabbages, carrots and other mainstays of the British diet. The Trust carefully handpicked its tenants from a long waiting list. A shopping mall was built in the heart of the housing project. The project offered not only clean, comfortable and attractive housing; it was sustainable. The rents, though low, generated enough profit to the Trust to allow the building of more housing.
The Globe called for something similar to be done in Toronto: To compare these buildings with the houses of Shacktown, on three sides of Toronto is not to our credit, and evidences the need of a stronger civic spirit than at present exists. Globe, March 13, 1909 Globe, October 25, 1913
HOUSING OF THE POOR IN CANADA
By Miss FitzGibbon
Speaking to the preceding papers on the housing of the poor, Miss FitzGibbon said that the great difficulties in Canada lay in the high rents and in the fact that there were almost no small and inexpensive houses. Thirteen to twenty-four dollars a month had to be paid for poor quarters by working people. The remedies that are being tried are building societies, buying on the installment plan and division of expense by two families living in one house.
The Canadian Courier, Vol. XV, No. 9, January 31, 1914
But there is still a large class of people who can afford to pay only about five dollars a month in rent. Emigrants from the old countries should take into careful consideration the fact that rents in Canada are high—even in proportion to the higher salaries paid here than in the old lands. Mary Agnes FitzGibbon, “Housing of the Poor in Canada” in Report of the International Congress of Women held in Toronto, Canada June 24th-30th, 1909 under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Canada. (Toronto: G. Parker & Sons), 140.
Decent housing to keep people fit to work seems a cheaper proposition than housing them when unfit in our hospitals, asylums and jails. We can never build from the top down. We must begin at the bottom up. We must not spend our time and money getting rid of slums, but rather spend brains preventing slums. Closing the doors after the horse has gone has been the policy of too many cities. Cannot Toronto do better? Flora MacDonald Denison, The Toronto World, February 5, 1911
In 1912 social reformers founded the Toronto Housing Company, a private charity that built the houses and subsidized the rents. Their buildings included Riverdale Court on (now the Bain Co-op) and Spruce Court, (now the Spruce Court Co-op) both built in 1913.
The Canadian Courier, Vol. XV, No. 9, January 31, 1914
RIVERDALEANS LISTEN TO HOUSING SCHEMES
W. S. B. Armstrong of Housing Co. Explains Problems of Large Cities.
Riverdale, January 13 – The exceedingly cold weather of last evening was largely responsible for the small audience that turned out at the Royal Canadian Bicycle Club Hall on Broadview Avenue to hear a very interesting address on “Toronto’s Housing Problem, by Mr. W. S. B. Armstrong of the Toronto Housing Company, at a meeting of the Riverdale Business Men’s Association.
“The first question to be faced in this momentous problem is essentially one of health – health of the children and a decrease in the death rate being the striking result of reforms in other cities.
“The home is the fundamental unit of the country, and unless the home is kept on that basis a calamity will result. This the English communities keep in mind, their motto being: “One family to one house.”
The object is for each family to live in one house, with space enough around it for a garden. In Germany the people have developed large tenements, but their children do not get a fair chance in life.
New York City has by far the worst housing of any city in the world, largely because of the tenements. But seemingly the people will live in no other kind of abode.
The Canadian Courier, Vol. XV, No. 9, January 31, 1914
A Geographical Problem.
“Toronto’s housing problem is a geographical one. The slums of to-day were twenty-five years ago the aristocratic district of Toronto. This class now lives on the outskirts.
“The housing problem in any city is the same, and can be divided into three parts,” continued Mr. Armstrong. “The slums – a municipal sore and a wound that no municipality can ever hope to cure. Nor can a housing company. But the municipality can prevent the slums. The second part is the foreign element. These people should be made to conform to the civilized mode of living in our city. Conditions in the foreign slums in Toronto are intolerable. These people should be compelled to live decently.
“The third part are the great body of wage earners. About half of the citizens of Toronto live in houses that they own. Eighty percent of the wage earners renting a house live in only part of a house. Can an average laboring man afford to pay $25 a month rental for a home? He can’t rent a decent abode for less. To this end, he must need rent part of [the] house to another family or other people, and this is detrimental to the upbringing of his family. The problem in a word is to house the average wage earner and not to re-house the slums.”
Mr. Armstrong, in reply to a question put by Mr. James T. Upton, in that land ought to be bought on the outskirts of the city for housing blocks, replied that land had been acquired in the north-western and north-eastern sections of the city and that as soon as transportation facilities were installed the blocks would be built. Toronto Star, January 13, 1914
When World War One began in 1914, attention turned away from the housing crisis. The Toronto Housing Company continued to operate and predated the City-owned Toronto Housing Commission of 1919. Here is a description of how the Toronto Housing Company operated in comparison to the Toronto Housing Commission:
The Toronto Housing Company, on the other hand, is a private venture, which antedates the Commission experiment by some years. It built Spruce Court and other apartments which have been regarded as models of efficient housing.
The Company was launched by men who regarded their stock subscriptions as a contribution to good citizenship rather than a money-making investment. The dividends, indeed, are limited by law to six percent. But a year ago, when the stock was treated in surrogate court as a non-profit-yielding asset, inquiry demonstrated the facts that the shareholder shad up to that time received no return at all upon their money. Instead of paying even the limited dividend which the statute permitted, the Company had kept its rents down to the minimum figure. A long waiting-list of applicants has attested the popularity of the Company’s apartments and the reasonableness of its rentals. Toronto Star, September 10, 1921
ANOTHER HOUSING CRISIS
By 1917, the influx of men and women from rural areas to work in the factories caused an acute housing shortage during World War One. Rental housing was particularly scarce.
Practically all of the real estate agents in Ward One mourned the dearth of small houses for rent, but hoped that building activities this spring, which at the present time warrant predictions of a good year, will decrease this want. The Danforth-Broadview district is becoming one of the best residential localities in the city and hence the increased inquiry for houses for rental and sale. Movements in real estate are numerous, and builders, especially, are preparing to utilize their vacant sites or new building acquisitions for extensive operations this spring. Rents have advanced in proportionate amounts to the rest of the city and during the last three week increases amounting from 20 to 30 percent, have been recorded, and in some case as much as fifty percent. Sales of houses from $3000 and upwards in surprisingly large numbers are being put thru, and in some localities the demand has exceeded the supply. As an indication of the activities in this district a few of the builders who are now building or contemplating building follow: On Ellerbeck avenue, W. J. O’Reilly is to build five houses; Stephens and Grant are building four: H. Lewis has prepared plans for seven, while on Strathmore Boulevard, Muir and Lamb have six underway; E. Preston has four on Bathgate avenue; Fred Lankin, six on Rhodes avenue, and Sam Cairns is filing plants for eight houses on Donlands avenue.
One of the features of this activity is the number of purchasers in the market for small houses. Dwellings, whose sale price does not exceed $2000, are not procurable at the present time, but Gifford and Long purpose erecting thirty houses of this type on Keene street, off Donlands avenue, which will be put on the market at about $1500. The popular opinion prevails that the real estate market is sluggish, but this is given the lie when one real estate agent reports sales within his own office six weeks ago of houses at $4500 and the other day three of those building were turned over at $5000. In the district east of Coxwell avenue, including the old Toronto Golf Club property right thru to East Toronto, houses are hardly completed before tenants and purchasers are seeking out the owners. In discussing the increased population of this part of the city a well-known resident stated that he believed that it was due chiefly to the increase of industries in the eastern portion of the city and to the prospective adequate transportation facilities of the future. Toronto World, March 10, 1917
Wartime heroes were stepping into politics along with women. They wanted to speak for themselves not allow elites to speak for them. A women’s meeting was held in St. Monica’s Anglican Church Hall to support of a candidate. Helen McMurchy addressed the audience along with Sergeant-Major D. Forte, winner of the Military Medal and Private Daniels, also winner of the Military Medal. The times they were a-changing (Toronto Star Dec. 13, 1917)
In the Coxwell Gerrard area, by my estimates, approximately one house in three lost a man killed, died of wounds or succumbed to illness related to war service. 60,000 Canadians died in that war and some 173,000 were wounded. This is about 60 men a day dead – about the capacity of a T.T.C. bus, seated and standing. Think about losing one Coxwell bus of men a day. In 1914 Canada’s population was 7,879,000. 2014 Canada’s population 35,344,962. If Canada suffered the same casualty rate in the more recent war in Afghanistan over 250,000 Canadians would be dead.
While most soldiers survived, they were changed and came back as different men. They returned to a Toronto swept up in an influenza epidemic that spread through military camps and troop ships. Millions died worldwide. Sometimes soldiers came home to find their wives or children dead.“To arrive home safe and sound from the dangers of war and find that his wife had in the meantime died in the “flu” epidemic, was the sad experience of Pte. G. Wilkes, one of the party of 175 Toronto men who returned home from overseas at North Toronto last night.
Pte. Wilkes’ little cottage at 395 Morley avenue [now Woodfield Road], which he formerly looked upon as home, is deserted, for his wife was buried last Wednesday in Norway Cemetery, a victim of the influenza, while his little two-year-old boy is being looked after by neighbors. Sympathetic friends met Pte. Wilkes at the station last night and took him to Todmorden. Before enlistment he was employed at the Union Bank, corner of Kind and Bay streets. A sister-in-law resides in Todmorden. Pte. Wilkes has seen much hard fighting in France. Toronto Star, October 30, 1918
Many men were disillusioned and embittered against the elites who had sent them, wave after wave, to die in long khaki lines under machine-gun fire. Left alone, their wives coped with worried children, acting out fears. The news of war seeped down even to the toddlers. These returning soldiers and their families were not satisfied with the Ontario that had been, feeling that now was the time for change. A sense of grievance and entitlement ran deep. In the civic elections in the winter of 1918, a housing shortage and jobs for returning veterans dominated politics. Many suggested that the City build homes for working men in the suburbs. A recession followed World War One and housing and employment stagnated until the spring of 1923.
Many veterans were unemployed. High expectations clashed with cruel reality. The cry was for “Jobs, jobs, jobs” and good, well-paying jobs so that a young man could support a family. Labour unrest led to strike after strike after strike. Toronto’s police went on strike. There was a transit strike. In August 1918, what came to be known as the “Greek Restaurant Riot” or the “1918 Anti-Greek Riots” saw thousands of veterans pouring onto Yonge Street and other city streets to loot and burn Greek-owned businesses. They fought pitched battles with the police on Toronto’s streets.
This reflected not only the racism widespread in Canada at the time, but also the thwarted sense of entitlement of war veterans. In February 1919, as the post-war housing shortage worsened, representatives of the Great War Veterans Association (G.W.V.A.) demanded that the Toronto Housing Commission to build houses in the suburbs where taxes were more affordable. The G.W.V.A. was a forerunner of the Canadian Legion, but far more obviously politically active. For example, the G.W.V.A. endorsed some running for election, preferring “soldier candidates” with a known track record for leadership such as officers and non-commissioned officers sympathetic to the plight of other veterans. Many business leaders, including representatives of the Canadian Manufacturers Association, feared a Bolshevik-style revolution here in Canada.
THE TORONTO HOUSING COMMISSION: A BARRIER AGAINST BOLSHEVISM
The City of Toronto responded by setting up a Housing Commission composed of some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the city.
EATON, ROLPH, WOODS, WILLIAMS, AND ROSS
Toronto Housing Commission Appointed – Advisory Body Later.
John Craig Eaton, member of the Toronto Housing Commission. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244
Toronto’s new permanent Housing Commission consists of Sir John C. Eaton, Mr. H. H. Williams, Sir J. W. Woods, Mr. Frank A. Rolph, and Mr. J. Allen Ross.
The five names were submitted to the Board of Control to-day by the interim Housing Commission which consisted of civic officials, and the Board adopted the suggestion.
This honorary commission will organize and appoint an advisory committee representing the following interests: banking, loan, trust and insurance, manufacturing, mercantile, labor, returned soldiers, building and real estate, city and provincial government, each of which will be entitled to two representatives.
The procedure which will be followed may be indicated by the following recommendations from the officials’ report made some weeks ago:
That a company be formed with share capital to erect and sell moderate-sized dwellings.
That the city guarantee its bonds to the extent of 5 percent of the value of land and houses, as already done in the case of the Toronto Housing Company.
That dividends to the subscribers be limited to 6 percent.
That the Provincial and Dominion Governments, either jointly or separately, undertake to provide the funds by buying the bonds guaranteed by the city on a basis of 5 percent interest.
That all vacant lands held by the city be available for such a company on more reasonable terms than would ordinarily apply.
May Itself Be Company.
The foregoing recommendations were those made before the personnel of the new commission was announced, but there is no reason to believe that any different procedure will be followed.
It is conjectured that the commission may itself form a company without waiting for others and in that case the construction of hundreds of new houses would go on forthwith.
The officials’ report suggested a capitalization of $1,000,000, of which $250,000 would be paid up by the stockholders, and the other $750,000 guaranteed by the city and provided by the Government at 5 percent. This is not exactly the Ontario Government’s plan, but the money could undoubtedly be obtained in this way by special legislation.
The report suggests that houses could be sold to citizens on an initial payment of ten percent of the price, and paid for in installments covering five to twenty years.
For a house selling for $3,000, the installment would be $19.22 per month, for twenty years, assuming that the interest charged is 6 percent. The initial payment would be $300.
The buyer would thus be getting a house for what it would cost to rent.
Will Be a Success.
The five members of the Permanent omission have consented to act, and the fact that Sir John Eaton is identifying himself with the enterprise guarantees that things will be done in a big way.
One of the most pressing reasons for the construction of new dwellings in the city is the need of accommodation for returned soldiers, and Sir John has taken the keenest interest in these men since the war began, his disbursements of his private funds on behalf of enlisted employees having run into seven figures. But even apart from this, Sir John is a public-spirited student of civic affairs, and the housing proposition is of an importance which appeals to his desire to serve his fellow men.
Mr. H. H. Williams, the well-known real estate expert, has been very active during the war as an organizer of patriotic effort. The energy and business efficiency which he has displayed in this public capacity will be brought to bear upon the Housing Commission’s affairs. He is a Torontonian born and bred, has an intimate personal knowledge of the city and its needs. It is interesting to recall, in the present connection, that he began his career as a lumber merchant and builder.
Has Served the Empire.
Sir James W. Woods, president of Gordon MacKay & Co., ex-president of Toronto Board of Trade, and founder of the War Production Club in Toronto, has served the Imperial Government in New York as one of Canada’s “dollar-a-year” men in the purchase of war supplies, co-operating with the Morgan interests.
Mr. Frank A. Rolph, head of Rolph, Clark, Stone, Ltd., succeeded Lloyd Harris as chairman of the Canadian War Mission at Washington, having previously, at the cost of sacrificing his business interests, accepted the position of vice-chairman.
Mr. J. Allan Ross is vice-president of Wm. Wrigley, Jr., Co., Ltd., and has had an interesting career. Known as the holder of the American intercollegiate championship in 1906, he jumped into the night managership of the Bell Telephone Co. in Chicago in 1907, became associated with the Wrigley Company in 1909, and founded their Canadian business the following year. Toronto Star, February 18, 1919
Wants Suburban Houses Most.
Comrade Morani, of West Toronto G.W.V.A., advocates that the new Toronto Housing Commission build suburban dwellings. He believes that houses of 25-foot frontage in the centre of the city would be too heavy a burden to the owner on account of the present system of assessment. Toronto Star, February 21, 1919
THE COMMISSION IS FORMALIZED
Notice of Registration of By-law
Notice is hereby given that a By-law was passed by the Council of the Corporation of the City of Toronto on the 9th day of May 1919, to appoint “The Toronto Housing Commission,” and to authorize the borrowing of money for the purposes thereof, and that such By-law was registered in the Registry Office of the Registry Division of East Toronto on the 13th day of May 1919.
Any motion to quash or set aside the same, or any part of thereof, must be made within three months after the first publication of this notice and cannot be made thereafter.
Dated the 14th day of May 1919.
W. A. LITTLEJOHN
VACANT LOTS NOT ENOUGH
Those owned by City Insufficient to Solve Housing Problem
TOUR OF THE CITY
All Members of Commission but Sir John Eaton Make First Survey
In company with Assessment Commissioner Forman and W. Swaine, their newly-appointed manager, the members of the Toronto Housing Commission spent yesterday afternoon [May 14, 1919] in an inspection of the lands owned by the city which might be suitable for the purposes of the new project.
Although several thousand feet of such properties were included in the trip, the conclusion was arrived at that the amount of city property available will not be sufficient for the needs of the commission, and they will have to investigate the resources of the privately-owned lands of the city with a view to supplying this deficiency.
Sir John Eaton, who is out of town, was the only member of the commission not present.
The area covered during the afternoon extended from Morton road and Gerrard street east [and] as far west as Jane street, and in all some thirty blocks of land were visited.
It was considered desirable to apply the activities of the commission so far as possible to large blocks of land suitable for the erection of units from ten to twenty houses each.
Several such blocks were discovered.
The commission has arranged a meeting with the Board of Control to-day when the question of the acquisition of city lands will be discussed at length.
The erection of houses in such units would, it was felt, materially lower the cost of construction and accelerate building operations. The greater part of the land under consideration will cost less than forty dollars per foot, as a high price would tend to places the houses beyond the reach of the purchaser of limited means.
By making large purchases of both land and material it is anticipated that substantially-built houses can be sold by the commission at prices ranging from $3,000 upwards. The terms suggested include a first payment of ten percent, the balance to be paid in monthly installments of principal and interest, extending over a long period of years.
These houses will be of sound construction, and the unit system will not of necessity involve that they be all of one type. Their frontage will probably be in the neighborhood of twenty-five feet.
W. Swaine, who accepted the managership of the Housing scheme, went yesterday to New York, where he has been associated during the war with Sir James Woods of the War Mission. On his return the commission will open the temporary offices which it has acquired on the ground floor of the Temple Building. The permanent quarters of the commission will be on the ninth floor of that building.
The chief properties inspected yesterday were on Danforth avenue, Carlaw avenue, Dundas street east, Munro street, Cavell avenue, Leslie street, Jones avenue, Rhodes avenue, Coxwell avenue, Morton road, Shaw street, Roxton road, Montrose avenue, Edna street, Keel street and Jane street. Globe, May 15, 1919
The Threat Increases
At 11:00 am on May 15, 1919, workers left their jobs and marched into the streets of Winnipeg, leading to one of the biggest labour actions Canada has ever seen. Strikers included both the private and public sectors, and ranged from garment workers to police officers. Many were afraid that there would be a revolution in Canada if something wasn’t done to improve conditions for these angry young men…and women.
On June 21, 1919, the Royal North-West Mounted Police and hired union busters rode on horseback and fired into a crowd of thousands of workers, killing two and injuring countless others.
Work Goes On
Housing Com. Plans Coxwell
Those for Six-Roomed Houses Filed at City Hall
The Housing Commission’s plans for seven pairs of semi-detached houses on Coxwell avenue (price unstated) have been filed at the City Hall.
The houses are to have brick basements, stucco on the first floor, and clapboard on the second. They will have spruce floors, heavy table oilcloth on the kitchen and bathroom, dadoes, combination sink and tub, and a kitchen dresser supplied.
Toronto Housing Commission. Coxwell Avenue Plan.
Each semi-detached house is 19 feet wide, and the dimensions are as follows:
First floor – Porch, 6 x 6t.; dining room, 8 ft. 3 in. x 11 ft.; living room, 14 ft. 3 in. x 9 ft. 6 in.; hall 4 ft. 6 in. x 10 ft.; kitchen, 10 ft. 9 in x 11 ft.
Second floor—Bedroom, 9 x 13 ft., bedroom, 11 ft. 3 in x 7 ft. 6 in.; bedroom, 7 ft. x9 ft. 3 in. Toronto Star, May 31, 1919
Globe, June 26, 1919
Toronto Star, August 6, 1919
WHO REPRESENTS THE INTERESTS OF WORKERS?
RIVERDALE HAS FOUR LABOR MEN.
Candidates All Claim to Represent Interests of Workers.
CONTROLLER W. D. ROBBINS Secretary, Conservative.
B.S.-M. JOSEPH MCNAMARA, soldier, Independent.
JOHN T. VICK, bricklayer, Labor.
GEORGE LOCKHART, rubber-worker, Socialist-Labor.
The chief point at issue between the candidates in Riverdale riding, when they met at the Oddfellows’ Hall, Broadview avenue, yesterday, appeared to be as to which was best qualified as the representative of Labor. All four of them have entered as Labor candidates, and as such the three who were present at the nomination announced themselves.
The fourth, George Lockhart of Kitchener, was announced by his official agent, James Underdown, as “the nominee of the Socialist-Labor party, whose main platform is to take the tools of the country for the workers, both by political and industrial action.” Mr. Lockhart’s papers were submitted an hour after those of the other candidates by Mr. Underdown and Edward Farrell. The signatures of the necessary nominations had been secured by a house-to-house canvas of Erie terrace and Rhodes and Ashdale avenues.
Stands for Soviet
According to Mr. Farrell, the principles of his party are embodied in the policies of the Soviet government of the present day, and Lenin is credited with stating that he was trying out the theories of one of its chief adherents.
Controller Robbins, who was the first of the candidates to speak, referred to his career as Secretary of the Street Railwaymen’s Union, as Alderman and Controller; proclaimed himself a representative of Labor and its protagonist.
Mr. Vick, whose candidacy had, he said, been endorsed by the Independent Labor party and the Trades and Labor Council, disputed the Controller’s right to call himself other than a Hearst candidate, pure and simple. “A man,” he declared, “cannot be the representative of Labor and a nominee of the Hearst Government at the same time.”
He favored an expansion of the Workmen’s Compensation Act to provide 100 percent compensation for disability, and regarding the referendum protested. “Surely we have common sense enough to enjoy our lives in our own peculiar way without interfering with the rights of others.
Soldier Candidate Cheered.
Sergeant-Major McNamara was greeted with cheers. He ran as an Independent candidate, he said, because, with other returned soldiers, he believed that the party of the future was the voice of the people.
As a trades union man, he would represent both Labor and the returning soldier. Globe, October 14, 1919
The Toronto Star suggested that in order to deal with the crisis “Toronto may even have to relax its building restrictions for a time in order that humble homes may be constructed to met the pressing need.” The Editor remarked that “…the emergency is such that even Shacktowns upon the outskirts would be justified.” The reasoning was that experience showed that the tarpaper shacks would be replaced with better, brick houses as this had happened in places like the Midway Shacktown (Gerrard Coxwell). Toronto Star, April 30, 1920
As before the Great War, Toronto turned to Britain for models to deal with the crisis.
Some local garden suburbs already existed, such as the ones established by the earlier Toronto Housing Company, and in other places around Canada.
But the reality was that Garden Suburbs, the ideal, were expensive.
The Standard Must Be Lowered
To-morrow is the first of May when many leases expire and many citizens have to move. Some of them say they have nowhere to go.
Their complaints have resulted in a sudden manifestation of activity at the City Hall, where it is beginning to be realized that Toronto may even have to relax its building restrictions for a time in order that humble homes may be constructed to meet the pressing need. That, at any rate, is a healthy sign.
City Council has gone too long on the assumption that the city could not possibly embark upon any building scheme except such as would result in the erection of houses which could be shown to visitors with the remark: “Now, aren’t those creditable little places?”
As THE STAR has been pointing out for months past, the emergency is such that even shacktowns upon the outskirts would be justified.
It is the unanimous testimony of social service workers that, while downtown slums become worse and worse, the tendency in a suburban shacktown is to progress towards better and better conditions, brick and cement houses gradually replacing the wooden ones.
City Architect Price assured the controllers yesterday that a workman could not take pride in a home unless it was complete.
History shows that the artisans of other years have not only taken pride in such places, but have from time to time completed and improved them so that to-day they are creditable buildings.
The Controllers are also met with the assertion that inferior and cheap construction would mean increased fire risk, and that terraces of houses, with only wooden partitions between, should not be built because of that.
But the time has come when Toronto must consider not the kind of housing accommodation it would like to have, but the kind which it can get, at prices those in need can afford to pay. Toronto Star, April 30, 1920
A Little Garden Suburb in the East End
Yet in its own way, the City of Toronto tried to create its own garden suburb northeast of the railway bridge between Coxwell Avenue and Hillingdon Avenue between a munitions factory and the site of the future T.T.C. streetcar barns.
In 1920 the City of Toronto planned to build city-owned low-income housing on four streets that ran eastbound from Coxwell: Stacey, Haig, Currie and Hanson. But people in the neighbourhood objected, forming The Toronto Housing Commissioner Ratepayers’ Association Coxwell avenue district. There was a pervasive attitude that good things should go to the deserving poor (British, men who had served) not slackers (immigrants, especially those who had not fought overseas). The worthy would prosper.
They Do Not Stay Shacks
A supervisor of psychiatric nursing assured the Ontario Educational Association that mental defectives do not come from “Shacktown,” but from the older and poorer sections of the city. “The condition of Shacktown,” she added, “Is one of steady progression—frame, cement, or brick houses gradually replacing the original rough structure.”
There is a lesson in this for those who would restrict municipal housing schemes to the construction of what might be called “creditable” houses – homes which visitors to the city could be shown with pride. Undoubtedly such dwellings serve a useful purpose, and those erected by Toronto’s Housing commission will long be a monument to the public spirit of its members. But here are artisans who would gladly put their own labor into the building of much less pretentious structures, if they could get cheap land, cheap material, and cheap credit from the city. Every house so built, no matter how humble, would relieve the pressure upon the downtown slum-districts which breed mental defectives, and would lift some family into the home-owning class in a healthy outlying district, where the “steady progression” which has taken place in other Shacktowns would be repeated. Toronto Star, April 9, 1920
These were the people who purchased at a subsidized cost their own housing. The Toronto Housing Commission (THC) put up solid homes, sold cheap, but free, as freehold properties. The THC Ratepayers’ Association did not want lower quality housing or renters nearby: They registered their objection to a cheaper grade of houses being built in rows on every street adjacent to the better houses of the Housing Commission. They objected to the houses being rented, as tenants of the city in large numbers would lower the morale of the district.
The worthy poor would prosper with the help of organizations like the Toronto Housing Commission.
The Self-Respect of the Poor
The poor, and there are plenty of them in Toronto, are those whose income is insufficient to maintain themselves in physical efficiency and live according to ordinary standards of comfort. Some prosperous individuals conceive of the poor as a grasping horde whose troubles are brought upon themselves by their own laziness and shiftlessness and whose hand is always outstretched to receive from the bounty of others that help which their own industry should supply. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Poverty is not pauperism. There is a group in every city, poverty’s lower fringe, who have lost seemingly all moral standards and have reverted to a squalid barbarism. Their number is, however, comparatively small, while the number is legion of those, who, amid a struggle merciless and unceasing, fight the good fight, and with a courage beyond all praise continue to keep the faith.
… So far from the truth is it that the poor as a class are suppliants for relief, the fact is that they will, in many cases, suffer the most serious deprivations before they can bring themselves to accept help. The people who know the poor are the ones who believe in them and they see them, not as a separate class, but just as human folks. Toronto Star, July 26, 1920
The families in the THC houses were mostly those of returning war veterans who had a strong sense of entitlement. City Architect G. F. W. Price tried to be reassuring: My proposition is to erect the houses in pairs, not in rows, and I want to say that they will be just as well built and will look just as well as the Housing Commission houses. They will not be as wide of course, but otherwise their appearance will be just as good. He even suggested that the occupiers of the new houses would not, in fact be renters, but homeowners like the Coxwell Avenue residents. Toronto Star, May 4, 1920
Neat duplexes, mostly owner-occupied, line these streets to this day. One model, repeated over and over, distinctly resembles the earlier houses built by the Toronto Housing Commission on Coxwell.
The Toronto Housing Commission’s subsidized housing built on Woodrow (formerly called Stacey), Haig, Currie, Hanson and Hillingdon, 1924 Goad’s Atlas
Toronto Housing Commission Plan. North side of Currie, showing lots 44 through to 39, from west to east.
Toronto Commission Plan, Hanson Street.
The Roaring Twenties Finally Begin to Roar
In the spring of 1923, prosperity returned along with warmer weather.
BUILDING ACTIVE IN ALL DISTRICTS
Winter Weather Has Left very Little Frost in Ground
An amazing number of houses and stores are now under construction in the four corners of Toronto within the city limits. The depth of frost varies in the numerous localities, running from six to eighteen inches deep, but builders claim little frost has entered the ground since December, and the heavy blanket of snow has acted as protection or the earth.
The Danforth district has witnessed a continued activity in home building during the stormy months, and a large number of houses are now in the process of construction in the Danforth and Woodbine, north of Danforth avenue, where houses valued from $4,000 to $7,000 are rapidly filling up the subdivisions, Danforth Gardens, Monarch Park, the Gledhill and Parkview avenue districts adding a large share to present-day new homes now building are filling Patricia Park, Jones avenue, Woodbine, Leslie and Pape avenues.
Building Is General.
The building impulse is also evident south of Danforth and Gerrard street east from Main street to Coxwell avenue, including the new subdivision, Kelvin Park Beach, which is a stir with scores of houses rising above the snow-cloaked fields. Variety in architecture and price underlie the building movement of this district, and homes range in value from $5,000 to $9,000. The ring of the hammers of the builders in the Gerrard street east district echoes over the hills south to Kingston road, where from the city limits at Victoria Park avenue to Queen street, with its lake frontage streets, are building up with blocks of homes valued from $4,500 to $8,000. During the last few days cellars have been excavated in the new Bingham avenue subdivision and Glenmount Park. Globe, February 27, 1923
The area filled in with rows of brick bungalows, detached, duplexes and triplexes. The very topography of the neighbourhood changed as one resident, Hannah Bedell, recalled:
“Into the wilds below Monarch Park, where my grandfather would take me for rustic walks in the 1920’s. The Ashdale Ravine, as we called it, meandered south from the park between Hiawatha Rd. and Ashdale Ave. toward Gerrard St. E. As we strolled down there, amid a profusion of wildflowers, songbirds, towering trees and sparkling waters, it was very difficult to believe we were still in the city.
Last time we checked out that neighborhood, our lovely ravine appeared to be filled in and gone, something we never imagined could happen to such a pretty place.” Interviewed by George Gamester, Toronto Star, June 14, 1995
These new houses were mostly “Bungalow-style”, inspired by Stickley and the Arts and Crafts movement. However, they were adapted to Toronto’s harsher climate by being raised a little with basements. Originally the Arts and Crafts movement stressed hand-crafted goods and houses, producing beautiful, functional objects and homes that were too expensive for the ordinary working family. Gustav Stickley in his Craftsman magazine produced floor plans and designs for everyone, including people with very little money, large families and even single women.
Butchers, bakers, confectioners, greengrocers, tobacconists, cinemas, lined Gerrard and Coxwell south of Upper Gerrard. The “four corners” at Coxwell and lower Gerrard was the hub of the community. Homeowners tore down many of the tarpaper shacks. However, some were simply covered with siding and remain to this day. A discerning eye might pick out a small house that is shoe-box shaped: an original from Shacktown. Few if any remember that this neighbourhood was home to some of the first large-scale public housing in Toronto, certainly not the homeowners on the quiet residential streets northeast of the underpass on Coxwell Avenue or the first row of sturdy duplexes on the west side of Coxwell just below the rail line.
Toronto Housing Commission property, City of Toronto Interactive Map Aerial, 2015