Toronto in Time

Those with smartphones may be interested in the new (and free) Toronto history app, Toronto in Time.  The app combines narratives, images, and physical space to present Toronto’s history across a variety of subjects, themes, and neighbourhoods.

I can’t really do an impartial review of Toronto in Time, as I was privileged to be paid for writing a handful of the nodes.  Also, I don’t own a smartphone, so while I can readily access the content online I’m not really interacting with the content in the way that the curators have intended.  (Although all of the content is accessible on the Toronto in Time website, so anybody with internet access can still full access to the stories.)  Still, I do have a few thoughts about it that I’d like to share.

First, looking at the map, you’ll probably notice a definite bias towards downtown.  It’s worth pointing out that this is only the first phase of the Toronto in Time project; the website notes that they are soliciting suggestions for additional nodes, which hopefully will be rolled out in the future.  History, like so many other things, is never really “finished,” and I think it’s important to bear that mind when looking at this app.

My understanding is that the initial phase was deliberately limited to a manageable number of stories, and that they tried to choose stories in close geographic proximity to one another,  so that users might be able to use the app to improvise self-guided walking tours.  Hopefully, some of the future upgrades will fill in the Toronto map, and share more of the history of Etobicoke, Scarborough, and other so-called “outlying” parts of the city.  As there are still many great stories absent from the project, why not contact Toronto in Time and suggest some?  The notice on the website advises contacting them via Facebook, but they also provide an e-mail address at the bottom of this page, which I presume may be used for this purpose by those of us who don’t use Facebook.

Second, as a web user, the content can look tantlizingly brief.  Clicking on a node provides some images and some text, but compared to some other websites it may look a bit thin in terms of content.  It’s certainly very different from the kind of history writing I’ve grown accustomed to doing for Heritage Toronto or Torontoist.  (Incidentally, the other two regular Historicist writers, Kevin Plummer and Jamie Bradburn, also wrote content for this app.)

What’s important to remember is that not all history writing is designed to be read in the same way.  I like to imagine that most of my other history pieces get read on a weekend afternoon by someone who is sitting at home, drinking tea; I am pretty sure that this is not how smartphone apps tend to get used.  I think of these Toronto in Time stories as being like virtual plaques.  Like a plaque, they cannot hope to convey all of the complexity that Toronto has, nor all the nuances of history.  What they can do, though, is present the tip of a history iceberg, and hint at the grand substance underneath.  Just like physical plaques, each of these nodes serves to introduce some intriguing aspect of the city’s history, and hopefully inspires the reader to learn more.  And I think Toronto in Time does a pretty good job at succinctly reminding us that a physical place, a subject, or an idea is not as permanent or as one-sided as we may assume.  One of the strengths of Toronto in Time, I hope, is that it presents history for people who like history, but who either don’t realize it, or who otherwise find it a bit overwhelming.

Toronto in Time is, in essence, a fun way that curious people can learn for free, and that’s makes it a pretty great thing.

I should also point out that projects like this, especially ones that are free to the general public, don’t just happen on their own.  It costs money to set up things like this, and a lot of people put a lot of work into this.  Please take some time to note the organizations who funded and co-ordinated Toronto in Time, in particular The Canadian Encyclopedia and Heritage Toronto, and let them know if you like it.

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Summer of ’36

Ad for Burroughes Furniture Co., Ltd., advising you to buy a couch so you can "sleep in the cool downstairs." Toronto Star, July 10, 1936, page 5.

If you missed it, I did a series of articles for Heritage Toronto a few weeks ago on a few interconnected subjects relating to Toronto in the summer of 1936.

The first looks at Toronto’s experience during the major North American heat wave of that summer.  In the early summer, some aspects of city life seem to have shut down while various laws were relaxed; at least 225 people died from the heat.

While looking in old newspapers for articles connected to the heat wave, I found several articles concerned with what men were and were not allowed to wear on Toronto beaches, thus spawning an article on the city’s bathing suit regulations.

This being 1936, all this transpired during the great depression.  My third article looks at some of the unemployment problems in what was then York Township (essentially what later became the City of York in the 1960s and then acquired by Toronto in the 1998 amalgamation).  During the height of the heat wave, tensions boiled in Toronto’s suburban regions over how governments should distribute financial relief to the needy.  While this article deals with York Township, similar unrest was happening in Etobicoke in 1936, which I wrote about on this very blog.  With these protests flaring at the height of the heat wave, it is tempting to think that the excessive temperatures caused frustration to boil over, as it seemingly does in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.

Headline from the Globe, July 10, 1936.

While I enjoy researching and writing on a variety of topics, I like doing these clusters of related historical articles.  Often, while researching a specific subject, I encounter interesting tangents and side issues which I am tempted to cram into my copy.  When I try to share all of these delightful details, my articles grow too long, and I  find myself forced to omit some of the bits which I think are the most intriguing.

Doing these clusters of articles permits me to provide additional context for the readers, juxtaposing events with parallel issues in Toronto’s history, and providing a more nuanced account of the city’s past.

In a previous cycle of articles for Heritage Toronto, I described an incident with a “gypsy” group in North Toronto, both from the perspective of the people in the camp as well as from the perspective of the camp’s bears.

In creating these clusters of related articles, my hope is to present Toronto’s complicated history in a spirit similar to that of the classic PBS miniseries Connections, hosted by James Burke.  Burke tells the history of science from a strong perspective of inter-connectedness.  He generally starts at one specific invention or discovery, and then follows that thread through history, touching on many events, people, and discoveries along the way, all the while reminding viewers this is just one of an infinite number of paths available to explore.

Toronto’s history, like all history, is similarly complex.  While it is a historian’s duty to provide necessary context, there are many choices that a historian faces as to what to include.  By grouping some of these related articles together, I feel I am reminding readers that no person, building, or event is isolated, and that all of Toronto’s history is linked by time, place, people, and/or thematic subject matter.

My hope is to work on a few similar clusters in the new year.  They tend to involve considerably more research than a “one-off” article, but I feel that the end result is worth it.

The Canadian Air & Space Museum

I have written a general overview of the building now known as 65 Carl Hall Road, which currently houses the Canadian Air & Space Museum, which you can read on the Heritage Toronto blog here: http://www.heritagetoronto.org/news/story/2011/11/10/story-plant-1-downsview

This is, sadly, a timely article as the Canadian Air & Space Museum is under threat of eviction; there are plans to demolish the building it is in so as to make way for a hockey rink.  In recent weeks developments have been fairly well-reported elsewhere.  If reports are accurate, the building currently containing the museum was designated as a historical building by the federal government in 1992, but quietly lost this status a few years ago.  Historical information outlining its designation was available on a federal website until late October, when it was mysteriously yanked.

There are, in essence, two overlapping issue here.  One is the eviction of the museum, whose collection consists of many materials, most notably older planes and equipment relating to the city’s (and country’s!) aviation history.  The other issue is the building itself, built in sections between 1929 and 1944 as a multi-purpose facility for de Havilland Canada.

To a degree, the building is itself a museum piece, and certainly one of the Air & Space Museum’s chief assets.  It has served a variety of uses over the years, and has come to represent three key stages in Canada’s aviation history: the early, pioneering days; the manufacturing of aircraft for the allied war effort in WWII; and the post-WWII economic boom which saw Toronto eventually emerge as Canada’s largest city and the golden horseshoe develop as a major industrial area.  The building embodies the rise of Toronto in the mid-twentieth century, as the city’s surrounding farmland increasingly gave way to large-scale industry.  This shift is mirrored in some of the airplanes which were developed inside this building in the post-war years, such as the Beaver, a civilian craft designed to help develop the vast Canadian north.

I encourage you to read the article for more information – it also has some great pictures courtesy of the museum and various other archives.

Online Sources of Information about the site

The federal government’s 1990 background file on the the Downsview site is available on the City of Toronto’s website, which you can access here as a 66-page PDF file.

The building is listed on Toronto’s official heritage inventory, a status which does not offer any real protection but which is often used a stepping stone to designation (i.e. protection) under the Ontario Heritage Act.  It also means that the city should have an extensive background file on the property, although as the listing was added back in 1998, this file does not seem to be available online.

The best repository for information on the museum, both in terms of its building and the museum as a collection, is undoubtedly the museum’s own website.  The museum has also posted links to information concerning some of the more recent developments concerning the museum.  Some of the highlights include:

There are dozens of more good links on the museum’s website, but I believe these provide the best overview.  I encourage people to visit the museum’s website and read all that they can.

And finally, the museum’s website includes a link to a petition which asks “that the building be granted a long-term reprieve and the protection of the Federal Government and that the Museum be granted the opportunity to continue its work in preserving the memory of Canada’s place in aviation and aerospace history.calling for the building to receive long-term .”