History from the Urban Fringe


Toronto’s Lower Don River slides unceremoniously along the eastern limits of the old city core, its muddied, placid channel host to the scattered wreckage of twenty-first-century urban living: plastic bags snagged at intervals along its length; a rusting shopping cart marooned on a broken tree limb; faint spirals of purple and blue motor oil caught in a back-eddy. Viewed most frequently through car windshields on the adjacent Don Valley Parkway, the river is often difficult to make out: a strip of grey-brown water among like-coloured strips of pavement, its moving surface barely distinguishable from the expressway exit ramps that criss-cross the bend near its mouth. Moving into the river valley on foot or bicycle, one is struck by the strange juxtapositions of a post-industrial landscape: a newly paved recreational path alongside an industrial brownfield bordered in chain-link; a recent planting of native vegetation; freight trains running down a still-active rail corridor. It is the kind of place that compels the question, what happened here? Or, as Claire Campbell has said of her own research into the environmental history of Canada’s historic landscapes, “what once were you”?

My doctoral dissertation, completed in 2010, explored the social and environmental history of this changing urban landscape from the late eighteenth century to the present. I was particularly interested in investigating the river valley’s relationship with the city as it grew and developed, charting not only the history of environmental and human-induced change in the watershed, but also the social history of this place at the urban fringe: who used the valley at different times, and for what purposes?

Environment, I found, played an important role in precipitating and perpetuating the valley’s status as a place “at the margins.” A yawning valley difficult to bridge, steep ravine slopes that impeded development, and miasmatic lowlands that fueled malaria outbreaks all contributed to perceptions of the area as a wasteland unfit for development. Despite plans to locate the original town plot near the mouth of the river, Toronto consistently moved north and west as it developed, leaving in the area around the river mouth a vacuum to be filled by less desirable uses: breweries, packing houses, soap factories and tanneries. (For a geospatial representation of these developments, consult the Don Valley Historical Mapping Project, developed with support from NiCHE and the University of Toronto Map and Data Library as a companion initiative to my doctoral research). The river provided a convenient disposal mechanism for industrial wastes and later municipal sewage, with predictable results for ecological integrity and public health.

Following the logic of centres and peripheries, the valley absorbed not only the material wastes of the urbanizing centre, but also human “undesirables,” people who for various reasons and circumstances found themselves pushed to the edges of society. In addition to the institutionalized “others” of the Don Jail, House of Refuge, and valley isolation hospitals, a small number of squatters, hoboes, gangsters, and Roma travellers sought refuge in the valley over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There they found not only respite from authorities, but also a place that provided the means for limited subsistence: water, sources of wood and plant materials for shelters, cast-away items from abandoned dump sites in the valley, and in some cases, fish and other sources of food. In this way, the Don Valley operated (and continues to operate) as a place where various kinds of marginality can be seen. A borderland between rural and urban, the valley also served as a liminal space within which “old” and “new” political economies, modern and premodern lifeways overlapped and asserted themselves. Cottagers who occupied the valley with “back-to-the-land” ambitions carried this sense of the valley as a space apart into the mid-twentieth century.

My current research picks up upon this interest in the persistence of what we typically think of as “rural” activities–cottaging, farming, gathering–in the neglected or undeveloped spaces of the urban landscape. I am currently exploring these themes in a study of the history of bee-keeping in twentieth-century Ontario and New York State as a “traditional” economy that existed alongside and in relationship with urban (and rural/agricultural) industrial norms.

Suggested Reading

Ph.D. Thesis, “Imagined Futures and Unintended Consequences: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley,” https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/24690

“A Social History of a Changing Environment: The Don River Valley, 1910-1931,” in Gene Desfor and Jennefer Laidley, eds., Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, forthcoming, March 2011).

Originally published for Scholar’s Profile, Network in Canadian History and Environment