When we moved to Toronto we found an apartment in the Garden District. We’d tell new friends which neighbourhood we were living in and were met with blank looks from just about every single person. This seemed sort of strange since we noticed that some of the street signs around us included “Garden District” below the street name so it must be a real place, right?
This led to some obsessive researching to find out about the Garden District, where it was, why nobody had ever heard of it, how it came to be, and a fair amount of historical background. Final verdict: it’s a real place!
The boundaries recognized by the Garden District Residents Association are from Yonge St. to Sherbourne St. in the east, between Queen Street East St. to Gerrard Street East St. to the north, plus the grounds of Allan Gardens. Garden District evokes the idea of a lot of green space and the neighbourhood association supposedly picked it because of the proximity of Allan Gardens and Moss Park (the actual park, not just the neighbourhood). However, when you look at a map of the Garden District boundaries, claiming that Allan Gardens is part of the Garden District seems, well, like a bit of a stretch.
To get a bit more technical, the Garden District can be found within the “official” neighbourhoods of Church-Yonge Corridor and Moss Park. There is also some overlap in the north with the Church and Wellesley Village.
The Garden District was officially established as a neighbourhood in 2001 by Mayor Mel Lastman. Prior to that this area was known simply as “East Downtown,” and in some cases still is. In fact, I came across an article published by NOW Toronto in 2015 that makes reference to the “Downtown East Side” (especially noteworthy because the NOW headquarters is located within the boundaries of Garden District at Church and Shuter). The re-name was made in attempt to separate the neighbourhood from Moss Park and return it to the glory days before it came notorious for crime. Moss Park had started out at an exclusive area, one where you’d find the richest families in the city living in large estates on Jarvis and Sherbourne streets.
Red Light District
In more recent times, Moss Park was notorious for crime and can boast of a spot known as “crack central” where a certain former mayor was caught doing something shady. The president of the Garden District Neighbourhood Association said that “East downtown was really just a location on a map for the neighbourhood . . .Renaming this area the Garden District is how a neighbourhood becomes a community.”
One thing that sets the Garden District apart is its dedication to serving low-income residents. There are a number of co-ops and other buildings providing subsidized housing through the Toronto Housing Corporation.There are seven shelters in the Garden District and another six in Moss Park and the Church-Yonge Corridor. While there are a number of shelters throughout the downtown core, there’s a high proportion in or near the Garden District, including the largest shelter in Toronto, Seton House. Metropolitan United Church, All Saints Church Community Center, Yonge Street Mission, and the Toronto Friendship Centre serve those in need. There are several other social support organizations and shelters just outside of the neighbourhood boundaries, such as the Sherbourne Health Centre, Follower’s Mission, and Maxwell Meighen Centre. Because the Garden District is designated as a low income neighbourhood, all services at the Recreation Center are free. This clustering of social services and affordable housing serve to concentrate poverty.
When I first got to Toronto I heard plenty of rumblings about Moss Park being a…let’s say less than desirable area but I had just spent a decade in New York City so I wasn’t scared off. I assumed that the area had been bad since the 1970s like so many other North American cities. However, I came across an article published in 1953 that calls the intersection of Jarvis and Dundas the “heart of Toronto’s ‘Red Light District.’” The article specifically mentions that the Wilton Court Hotel (now Filmore’s Hotel) was a well known place of prostitution. That distinction remained through 2009 when it was still known as “Toronto’s unofficial red-light district” and a place where you’d be likely to find “higher-end” prostitutes working outdoors.
How did Toronto’s East side go from one of the most prestigious addresses in the city to what has been called the red light district, skid row, and everything in between? It all began with the formation of Upper Canada in 1791. Most of this area of the city was gifted to some of the first government officials, so right off the bat this area was associated with prestigious families of the new city.
About half of the area we now know as Garden District and Moss park started off as part of the Jarvis Estate, known as Hazle Burn (or Hazleburn). The 100 acres of land between Queen Street (then Lot Street) and Bloor Street was given to William Jarvis by Governor Simcoe in 1791 as a perk for being elected the first provincial secretary and registrar of the newly formed Upper Canada. Jarvis had a reputation of being bad at his job and was apparently known for challenging people to duels (though nobody ever took him up on the offer).
Eldest son Samuel Jarvis inherited Hazle Burn after his father died in 1817. It turns out that Samuel, like his father, was terrible managing his finances. He owed a ton of people money, which is basically what turned him into a murderer in 1817. Jarvis was said to owe money to the Ridout family, and at some point 18 year old John Ridout called on Samuel to return the funds. Jarvis was affronted and ended up challenging John to a good old fashioned pistol fight. The story goes that Ridout shot early before the count to 3, and so Jarvis was awarded a free shot while poor John was obligated stand there motionless and let Samuel shoot him dead. Jarvis surrendered himself to the authorities and stood trial, but was eventually acquitted of manslaughter. The next year John’s brother Samuel bought some land east of Hazle Burn from the Allan Farm estate. Rideout and Allan eventually built a road between their lands, naming it Sherborne Street (later Sherbourne). Sherborne grew into a pretty swanking road to live on as well, but it was always second fiddle to owning property on Jarvis.
In 1845, Samuel opted to sub-divide the estate in 1845 and sell off the lots in order to clear up some of his outstanding debts. This led to the creation of Mutual, George, and Jarvis streets. The Jarvis house was demolished to allow for the northern extension of New Street (which then became Jarvis Street). However, Samuel ran out of money for the roads (again) and sought assistance from Toronto’s richest man, William Cawthra, who provided the needed funds in exchange for some land in the northwest area of Hazle Burn in what is now Toronto’s Gay Village. By 1878 Jarvis Street was known for being “the handsomest avenue in Toronto” where many prominent Torontonians built their homes. The southernmost 40 acres of Jarvis (aka Lower Jarvis) was primarily developed by Cawthra with the purpose of providing smaller lots for working-class homes where they could easily access the factories and industrial areas along the waterfront. These lots grew in size as one ventured north to Bloor, where you’d find all the mansions for the wealthy families like the Masseys, Gooderhams, Mulocks, Flavelles, and McMasters. A one acre plot on Jarvis near Bloor would go for a whopping $500. In case you’re wondering, most of those mansions were demolished after World War II.
Jarvis Street in 1915:
William Allan immigrated to Upper Canada from an area called Moss, near Huntley in Scotland. One of Allan’s most valuable landholdings was a lot in eastern York between present day Richmond St to Bloor St in the north and between Sherbourne and Jarvis streets. Allan built a large house, which he called Moss Park, on the land for his family, but eventually ended up alone after the death of his wife and nine of his eleven children. He became a successful merchant, served as the postmaster of York, and was later elected the first president of the Bank of Upper Canada (which literally operated out of his own store for several years).
William died in 1853 and his property was inherited by his only surviving child, George William Allan. The younger Allan would later be elected Mayor of Toronto, served on the Canadian senate, and became Chancellor of Trinity College. After the death of his father, George William quickly subdivided the estate. The subdivision created 69 new villa lots between Gerrard and Wilton Crescent, aka Crookshank (now Dundas) streets as well as George and Sherbourn streets. George donated about five acres of the northern section of the former Moss Park estate to establish a botanical garden in memory of his father’s love of horticulture, which first opened to the public in 1860 and was eventually known as Allan Gardens. The park grew in size over the years, first through additional donations from the Allan family and later from land purchased from the Jarvis family.
For about half a century, the center of hockey in Toronto was in the middle of the present day Garden District. Starting in 1875, the Caledonian Skating & Curling Rink could be found on Mutual Street between Dundas and Shuter. By 1906, the city’s first professional team, the Toronto Professional Hockey Club, was playing out of the rink (by then known as the Mutual Street Rink). As hockey became more popular, more games were taking place at the rink and a larger building was needed that could house a regulation sized ice rink as well as the large crowds the games would draw. This brought about the construction of the Arena Gardens in 1912 by the Toronto Arena Company or a sum of $500,000 (about $11M in 2016 dollars). Fun fact: one of the first directors of the Toronto Arena Company was Aemilius Jarvis.
This fire insurance map from 1890 shows the original site of the Caledonian Rink:
Now compare that to this 1913 map showing the much larger footprint of the Arena Gardens structure:
Area Gardens was the first home of the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise. They were first known in 1917 as simply Torontos/Toronto Blueshirts/Toronto Hockey Club, then the Arenas, followed by the St. Patricks, before finally emerging as the Maple Leafs in 1927.
Though the Arena Gardens was built to house 7,500 spectators, hockey had grown so popular that the Maple Leafs decided to build the much larger Maple Leaf Gardens and left the Arena in 1931. The departure of the Maple Leafs was a huge blow to the Arena, which quickly defaulted on its loans and was re-branded in 1938 as an entertainment venue that would host sports and concerts, known as the Mutual Street Arena. The building was re-branded one last time in 1962 as The Terrace and became popular as a roller rink until it was demolished in 1989. Today, you’ll find a public park called Arena Gardens in the spot formerly occupied by the Arena.
While Jarvis Street started off from the beginning as one of the premier addresses to have in Toronto, the affluent families only ended up staying for one or two generations before they were leaving Jarvis street for nearby suburbs like Rosedale. As the wealthy moved on from the area following World War I and the start of the Great Depression, their old mansions were either divided into rooming houses or completely demolished to make way for apartment buildings and hotels. While Toronto established laws that tried to limit the number of apartment buildings, the wealthy property owners on Jarvis Street were frequently granted exceptions to this rule, resulting in more apartments, hotels, and rooming houses here than other areas of the city.
Today, Moss Park has the third highest concentration of licensed rooming houses in all of Toronto (behind Parkdale and Annex/Kensington Market/Chinatown). Just look at all of those red triangles in Ward 27 in this neat map that the Torontoist put together:
A rooming house is defined as a building in which accommodations are provided for at least 5 people in individual rooms and they share a bathroom, kitchen, and/or living room. Often times a person will rent a single private room on a weekly basis and then share facilities with the other renters.
Rooming houses in Toronto were once viewed as somewhat respectable places for people to live on a temporary basis. They could be found throughout the city, particularly near factories and close to the city center, making the Garden District area prime real estate for this sort of living arrangement. The end of World War II brought with it some changes to how rooming houses were perceived. Returning veterans flocked to rooming houses and the middle class ran away from them as the idea of owning a home became more feasible.
The city government established the Rooming House Licensing Bylaw following the winter of 1973-1974 after 20 people were killed in rooming house fires. Enforcing this new policy actually ended up reducing the number of registered boarding houses because it was often too expensive to upgrade the rooming houses to bring them up to legal code. Owners either changed their buildings into single unit rentals or sold them off to developers who later built market rate units. This in turn left more people unable to afford traditional housing, so they were more apt to seek out shelters in the absence of rooming houses.
The mid-20th century saw the rise of public housing initiatives in downtown Toronto. These projects were heavily focused in Moss Park and nearby Regent Park. Many of the single family homes and rooming houses in Moss Park were razed in order to build large buildings for low income families. While this increased the amount of apartment units in the area, the new units did not benefit the people that were only able to afford rooming houses.
By the 1970s, the Toronto Planning Board wanted to focus on preserving the existing housing stock and zoning restrictions in order to keep rooming houses available for the population that relied on them. The plan was to allow for a certain number of rezoning applications to be approved to allow some larger buildings to be constructed, but also to meet the needs of low income rooming house boarders. This effectively slowed new construction in the neighborhood and kept a lot of the remaining rooming house buildings frozen in time.
In 1947, Jarvis was the first street in Toronto to be paved. In order to make the road more car-friendly, the street was widened to allow for more automobile traffic. This led to a loss of most of the trees that had lined to road, significantly changing the character of the street, as you can see in these before and after pictures:
As the automobiles took over the streets, the area also lost two significant streetcar lanes down Church (1891 – 1954) and Sherbourne (1847 – 1942) streets. At one point the Church tracks ran all the way from Front Street to Bloor Street. Though the line went through a lot of track changes during the construction of the Yonge subway line, it probably would have continued if not for the overloaded electrical grid from the subway line that resulted in the city deciding to replace the streetcar with a bus route. You’ll still see these unused tracks on Church Street in the Garden District. Most of the Sherbourne Streetcar route was retired for a different reason: the line had been built on older tracks and the city decided not to replace them. Once in a while you’ll see a rogue streetcar running down the tracks on Church but don’t get your hopes up, there’s no current plans to bring those tracks back into regular service.