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Popular social media feeds devoted to photos from the city's past reveal a lot about the landmarks that exist in the present
It’s a snowy day on Spadina between College and Bloor. A streetcar is stopped in front of barren trees and a row of attached Victorian homes en route to Seaton Village. A lone passenger’s face peeks out the front window. The driver looks at the camera, his horse standing at attention.
This photo, from 1890, is in the Toronto Public Library’s archives and is typical of what you might see if you follow Instagram accounts devoted to sharing archival imagery from the Toronto history, like Old Toronto, Toronto Before, Toronto Past, RetrOntario, MyseumToronto and Toronto Starchives.
The horse-drawn streetcar shot appeared on the Old Toronto feed, which is among the most popular of these accounts, with nearly 100,000 Instagram followers plus another 93,000 on Facebook.
“Any history nerd knows where to look for in-depth histories to learn about the city,” says Morgan Cameron Ross, who runs the account, as well as Old Ontario and Old Canada. “But the public sometimes doesn’t even know that they’re interested in history. This is a way for people to very quickly learn about their city without having to do too much work.”
A musician and songwriter, Ross scored a few lucrative hits and took a break from music in 2017. Disenchanted with the industry, he decided to focus on “geeky history stuff” by enrolling in a masters program at York University and starting Old Toronto.
Four years later, it’s his full time job, thanks to sponsors that commission neighbourhood-specific history videos.It’s easy to see why. Aside from his large, diverse following – everyone from seniors to teens, new immigrants to people’s whose families have lived here for generations – he has a steady and authoritative yet affable narration style. The images, sourced from public collections, span decades but he particularly likes to focus on the late 19th century and early 20th century.
“It’s not really about nostalgia because no one who was around then is here to remember,” he says. “I try to straddle the nostalgia of brightening up someone’s day via a childhood memory with with actually showing something historical.”
Recent posts run the gamut from a video history of Roncesvalles to children dancing at Caribana on Centre Island in 1967 to a military burial from 1885 in what is present-day Liberty Village.
While history accounts frequently indulge in retro kitsch and escapism, which is definitely necessary on days when the world seems headed for oblivion, these accounts also make connections between past and present, peeling away layers to capture slippages from official narratives – intentionally and unintentionally.
Ross has started drawing attention to heritage preservation causes in areas like Little Jamaica or the Foundry in Corktown. It’s a way to broach social issues and help foster real-world change, but without setting off culture wars in the comments.
“I try to stay away from politics and try to keep it fairly positive, but I’m not shy about posting things that were unflattering to the city,” he adds, noting Toronto was a major neo-Nazi hub in the 80s. “I believe you shouldn’t hide the, as they say, warts and all.”
Accounts like Old Toronto and Toronto Before also juxtapose historical photos with the same view from the present to show, for example, King West now and then. These posts can lead to comments around how Toronto doesn’t value historical buildings.
Seeing the city with fresh eyes is one reason artist Luis Jacob follows these Toronto history accounts. In his book Form Follows Fiction: Art And Artists In Toronto (Art Metropole, 240 pages, $59.95), Jacob explores how who we are shapes where we are, and the role artists have played in articulating the cultural forces present in the buildings and cityscape we see around us.
“Part of the attraction for me about these Instagram accounts is that they give a historical dimension to the things that I take for granted every day,” he says.
The fast pace and the evolving environment are what makes Toronto an attractive place to live, but Jacob laments the willingness with which we pave over the past, as though it were insignificant. And so, the before-and-after shots, he says, have a way of suggesting the city’s historical layers.
“I know that can easily slide into a feeling of nostalgia: ‘Oh, it was better then and it sucks now.’ That’s not the feeling that I get,” he explains. “The feeling I do get is this way to overcome amnesia and some of these feeds do that super well.
“Another word for amnesia is colonization,” he continues. “I do think colonization has always depended on this amnesia, on this idea that what exists here doesn’t count and it’s only the new thing that counts.”
In the book, Jacob highlights art work that contrasts bulldozed “vacant lots” with vibrant “tangled gardens.” Some may look at a lot and see a space devoid of history, a plot awaiting a glittering new investment property. But empty lots are also telling.
“There’s a class element to what we decide to keep and what we decide to bulldoze. Signifiers of wealth are often not demolished,’ Jacob says. “They’re seen as precious landmarks that can’t possibly be demolished but working-class landmarks are demolished as if they don’t mean anything. A lot of these Instagram feeds don’t emphasize those dimensions very explicitly but I think if you have an eye for it you can see that.”
Neighbourhoods are stigmatized, and that becomes a pretext for tearing things down. Jacob points out that Cabbagetown was once an enclave for working-class Irish immigrants, who were considered “the other” in the early-to-mid-1900s. Parts were torn down and Regent Park was built. That area then became home to immigrant Black and brown Torontonians. Long considered a “bad neighbourhood,” it has undergone “revitalization” in recent decades.
That question of what we value enough to preserve hangs over Eglinton West in Little Jamaica, a focal point for Caribbean, African and Black communities for decades. Initiatives to preserve the area’s heritage and economy have grown more urgent in recent months as LRT construction has accelerated gentrification.
“It’s this cycle that just happens over and over,” Jacob says. “Working-class neighbourhoods, immigrant neighbourhoods have a lot of life and richness, which you can’t see if you only see them as something stigmatized.”
One person’s Carlu (the Art Moderne-style former department store on College at Yonge) might be another person’s neighbourhood barber shop.
Part of the challenge for Instagram historians can be finding archival images that show that value, which is especially important when making connections between social issues from Toronto’s city’s past that are still relevant today, like racism, homelessness and affordable housing.
“We really feel that [archival imagery] is a powerful tool to connect the past in the present,” says Riaz Charania, marketing manager at Myseum of Toronto, “and really show that as progressive as we like to maybe think of ourselves as, not much has changed for a lot of communities and people in this city.”
Myseum’s goal is to shine a light on the history of marginalized people via digital projects, events and social media, which includes sharing two stories on Instagram per week that mix photos with stories and deeper research. But finding that material can be tricky.
Institutions are realizing they haven’t done the best job at collecting and preserving material that relates to underrepresented people, whose stories haven’t been part of the dominant narrative, Charania notes.
Recent Myseum posts have covered protests that erupted following the 1990 shooting of 16-year-old Marlon Neal by a Toronto police officer; Toronto hockey great Herb Carnegie, who the Maple Leafs refused to sign because he was Black; and Jean Lumb, the “unofficial mayor” of Toronto’s original Chinatown, who lobbied for years to repeal the federal act banning most Chinese immigration.
“My parents are both immigrants and so I think that’s what gives me that extra kind of care for telling these types of stories,” he explains.
Like many Toronto history accounts, Myseum also mixes in lighter material, sourcing photos of young Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy or Boxing Day shoppers lined up outside Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street.
For Myseum’s Family Day post he collected photos of five different families, including a Black family who lived in the city’s first immigrant community, St. John’s Ward, in 1936. The Carters are posing in a line according to height. The formation is echoed in the last photo, from 1987, of a white family skating in formation from the Toronto Star archives.
“There is this universal human connection when it comes to posting photos about families,” says Charania. “All of these are very different communities, different cultures, but there is a common theme of being united with your family. Those types of photos are quite popular.”
In addition to fighting for real-world preservation, Charania says followers have to do more than hi the like button to ensure alternative histories are no longer relegated to footnotes.
“It’s up to people to show they care about these stories. Then the institutions will care,” he says. “If people who have the power advocate for other people more, you’ll see these changes in what we’re valuing and what we’re not valuing.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Old Toronto is the most popular local history social media accounts. It is among the most popular accounts. This story has been updated.