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Toronto Imagined: The City in Words and Images

Introduction

Novels, poems and diaries are a reflection of the city both real and imagined. This exhibition pairs images from the City of Toronto collections with text from generations of writers. Together they form a personal and unique vision of Toronto

How has your city changed since you were small? How would you tell your city’s stories?

Think about stories you've read about your own city, and the images you would pair with them to give the story more drama and descriptive power. Feeling inspired? Write your own story about a specific area of the city and create your own images to help bring your words to life!

Use the links to the right to browse this presentation.

Contributor

The City of Toronto began to collect artefacts and art works in the 1880s. These collections, now managed by Arts Services and Museums and Heritage Services, reflect the many voices and stories of our diverse city and contribute to a greater understanding of Toronto's history, growth and development into the 21st century.

Queen Street West, near Spadina

I head north then east along Queen Street, which is another place we never used to go. It was rumoured to be the haunt of grubby drunks, rubby-dubs we called them; they were said to drink rubbing alcohol and sleep in telephone booths and vomit on your shoes in the streetcar. But now it's art galleries and bookshops, boutiques filled with black clothing and weird footwear, the saw-toothed edge of trend.

From Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood © O.W. Toad Ltd, 1988. Used by permission of the author.

Tin Advertising Sign

By the beginning of the 19th century, more than 60 retailers sold jewellery in Toronto. While the gemstones were mostly from New York City, local artisans created the settings.

Large tin sign advertising for Woltz Bros. & Co., for watches, chains, diamonds; store on 29 King Street East, Toronto.

...towers, lights, wide avenues, big automobiles, and the bold intimacy of advertising that comes from so many living so close together; tooth powder, hair tonic, foundations, women in poses that embarrassed me.

From Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels © 1996. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Used with permission of the author.

Stores on Danforth Avenue

On the west side of the bridge is Bloor Street, on the east side is Danforth Avenue. Originally cart roads, mud roads, planked in 1910, they are now being tarred. Bricks are banged into the earth and narrow creeks of sand are poured in between them. Tar is spread... The smell of tar seeps through the porous body of their clothes. The black of it is permanent under the nails.

From In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje © 1987. Published by McClelland & Stewart Inc. Used with permission of the author.

Evening Paper

The Humane Society was formed in 1887 in response to existing social conditions. The original mandate of the Society was to protect children from cruelty and neglect, and to prevent cruelty to birds and animals. Many young children were forced to find employment as newspaper sellers to assist their families eke out a meagre living. It was commonly believed that the working conditions on the streets led children to corruption and a life of crime. In 1888, Mayor Howland and officers of the Toronto Humane Society succeeded in amending the Ontario Municipal Act (section 436). As a result of this legislation the Board of Commissioners of the Police became responsible for licensing newspaper vendors. Boys under the age of ten were refused licenses while girls were completely banned from selling newspapers on the streets of Toronto.

Then she lifts a timid eye,
Then she raised her baby face,
So timidly, so falt'ringly,
Yet with such a gentle grace,
Is it this way you would have?
"Sir, my papers will you buy?"
But they roughly said her nay;
And they rudely held their way.

H.St.Q. Cayley, My Papers Will You Buy, Sir? 1885

On Portland Street

I judge from the appearance of your principal business street that [Toronto] is a bright little town, and I have no doubt it is a commercial centre. But I cannot help wondering why your citizens build their houses with that horrid white brick when red brick is the same price. I think white brick such a shallow colour - in fact it spoils the effect of the architecture.

Oscar Wilde, Globe, May 25, 1882

Dundas and Seaton Streets, Winter

...the evening sky purple with cold or cyanotype summer blue, the darkening shapes of the houses against the dissolving bromide of twilight.

From Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels © 1996. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Used with permission of the author.

Don River

It is one of the most beautiful walks that could be taken. Here was quiet, only the rippling of the water over a stoney bed, or the whirr of wild ducks, or the partridge drumming in the distance. The water was pebbly and clear, the banks covered with evergreens and trees, forming a canopy of beautiful green. A temple not made with hands.

William Lea, founder of Leaside, 1881

Bloor Street Viaduct

The bridge goes up in a dream. It will link the east end with the centre of the city. It will carry traffic, water and electricity across the Don Valley. It will carry trains that have not even been invented yet. Night and day. Fall light. Snow light. They are always working - horses and wagons and men arriving for work on the Danforth side at the far end of the valley...

Men in a maze of wooden planks climb deep into the shattered light of blond wood. A man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame. Drill smoke in his hair. A cap falls into the valley, gloves are buried in stone dust...

The bridge. The bridge. Christened 'Prince Edward.' The Bloor Street Viaduct.

From In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje © 1987. Published by McClelland & Stewart Inc. Used with permission of the author.

Loan Agreement

Almost everyone has come from elsewhere - a market, a caravansary - bringing with them their different ways of dying and marrying, their kitchens and songs. A city of forsaken worlds; language a kind of farewell.

From Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels © 1996. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Used with permission of the author.

War News, King and Frederick Streets

Now I've reached the place where we used to get off the streetcar, stepping into the curbside mounds of January slush, into the grating wind that cut up from the lake between the flat-roofed dowdy buildings that were for us the closest thing to urbanity. But this part of the city is no longer flat, dowdy, shabby-genteel. Tubular neon in cursive script decorates the restored brick facades, and there's a lot of brass trim, a lot of real estate, a lot of money. Up ahead there are huge oblong towers, all of glass, lit up, like enormous gravestones of cold light. Frozen assets.

From Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood © O.W. Toad Ltd, 1988. Used by permission of the author.

Max Meat & Poultry Market

When I first discovered the Jewish market, I felt a jolt of grief. Casually, out of the mouths of the cheese-seller and the baker came the ardent tongue of my childhood. Consonants and vowels: fear and love intertwined.

From Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels © 1996. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Used with permission of the author.

Girls Skipping Rope

Grace produces a long skipping rope, and she and Carol teach me how to turn it. As we turn, we chant, in monotonous minor-key voices:

Salome was a dancer, she did the hoochie kootch; And when she did the hoochie kootch, she didn't wear very mooch.

From Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood © O.W. Toad Ltd, 1988. Used by permission of the author.

Don River

It's city of ravines. Remnants of wilderness have been left behind. Through these great sunken gardens you can traverse the city beneath the streets, look up to the floating neighbourhoods, houses built in treetops.

From Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels © 1996. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Used with permission of the author.

Nuns at Holy Trinity Church

It's the darkest time of the year. Even in the daytime it seems dark; and at night, when the lights are on, this darkness pervades everything, like a fog. Outside there are only a few streetlights, and they're far apart and not very bright. The lamps in people's houses cast a yellowish light, not cold and greenish but a buttery dim yellow with a tinge of brown. The colours of things in houses have darkness mixed into them; maroon, mushroom biege, a muted green, a dusty rose. These colours look a little dirty, like the squares in a paint box when you forget to rinse the brush.

From Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood © O.W. Toad Ltd, 1988. Used by permission of the author.

Toronto Wharf Scene Stereograph

Stereograms were a popular form of entertainment in an era when travel was both expensive and dangerous.Stereoscope images featured images of far away places, sentimental and didactic scenes as well as prominent city landmarks. An optical illusion of depth is created from a pair of two-dimensional images viewed through a stereoscope.

...Toronto is an active port, it's a city of derelict warehouses and docks, of waterfront silos and freight yards, coal yards and a sugar refinery; of distilleries, the cloying smell of malt rising from the lake on humid summer nights.

From Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels © 1996. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Used with permission of the author.

Parade

From there we watch as people dressed like snowflakes, like elves, like rabbits, like sugar plum fairies, march past us, strangely truncated because we're looking down on them. There are bands of bagpipers in kilts, and things like big cakes, with people on them waving, that slide past on wheels. It's begun to drizzle. Everyone down there looks cold.

Santa Claus is at the end, smaller than expected. His voice and loudspeaker jingle bells are muted by the dusty glass; he rocks back and forth behind his mechanical reindeer, looking soggy, blowing kisses to the crowd.

From Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood © O.W. Toad Ltd, 1988. Used by permission of the author.

Hallowe'en

Black cats and paper pumpkins gather on the school windows. On Halloween, Grace wears an ordinary lady's dress, Carol a fairy outfit, Cordelia a clown suit. I wear a sheet, because that's what there is. We walk from door to door, our brown paper grocery bags filling with candy apples, popcorn balls, peanut brittle, chanting at each door: Shell out! Shell out! The witches are out! In the front windows, on the porches, the large orange heads of the pumpkins float, glowing, unbodied. The next day we take our pumpkins to the wooden bridge and throw them over the edge, watching them smash open on the ground below. Now it's November.

From Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood © O.W. Toad Ltd, 1988. Used by permission of the author.

Last modified on April 15, 2013