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TO175: Historian Mike Filey On The Changing Face Of Toronto

It’s scary just how much Mike Filey knows about Toronto . Give him a street name and he’ll tell you its origins, mention an intersection and he can tell you what was there in 1900, 1940, 1970.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise since Filey has made documenting this city’s history his life’s work – he’s written nearly two dozen books on the subject, pens a weekly column in the Sunday Sun called The Way We Were, and hosts Mike Filey’s Toronto on AM740 Sunday at noon.

With Toronto ‘s 175 th anniversary approaching, CityNews.ca sat down with the history buff to talk about how the city’s changed over the years.

We asked him to specify five places in Toronto , or elements of the city, that have transformed dramatically over time. Here’s what he had to say:

1. The Toronto Skyline

“The skyline is the most obvious. You look at some of the old views of the skyline and it’s like any city. There’s no recognition except for things like St. James Cathedral, which will appear right back to the start of photography back in the 1860s.  You find a skyline shot back then, you’ll find St. James, because it was the highest point in the city. They would hang a light up in the steeple, so that people coming across the lake could find the city.”

2. The corner of Yonge St. and Eglinton Ave.

“Streets like Yonge and Eglinton changed dramatically. I went to school near there, at North Toronto , and they used to sell Christmas trees on the southwest corner. TVO’s in there (now), and the Minto apartments across the street – those two huge buildings — that was all houses, with storefronts.”

3. Toronto Island

The Island – in total. When I was a kid I used to go over to the Island and it was all beautiful big houses. At Ward’s were, and still are, houses literally built from the boxes the tents came in, when it was a tent city. I wasn’t young enough to remember Hanlan’s Point, which was an amusement park, where Babe Ruth hit the famous home run baseball in 1914. Big ballpark, amusement park, much like Canada ‘s Wonderland, similar rides, merry-go-rounds, chutes.”

4. The corner of King and Simcoe Sts.

King Street, King and Simcoe, in that block, where you have The Royal Alex, The Princess of Wales. That was all industrial and where Roy Thomson Hall is now was a railway yard. CPR had the big freight yards there. Now you go along King Street and they’ve got that new Festival Hall – I remember that was the site of Farb’s Car Wash, the most famous car wash in the city. It was literally manned by about 30 guys. Your car would drive in and they would descend on the car, underneath, doing the wheels etc. That place replaced the Arlington Hotel, which replaced Toronto ‘s first hospital, which was called York General, which then became Toronto General in 1834 and lasted until they opened the one on Gerrard.”

5. The waterfront

“The waterfront – Queen’s Quay was very industrial. (Years ago) I was walking along Queen’s Quay, when the Harbour Commission used to have police down there, unlike today when it’s city police, and (one of the constables) said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Writing about the waterfront.’ He said, ‘When I was a cadet, if I saw someone like you down here, I knew you were up to no good, or about to commit suicide. Those were the people we got down here.’ That’s an area that’s changed. Queen’s Quay Terminal, the shopping at the foot of York St. – that was originally the Toronto Harbour Terminal, and all the products that had to be chilled before they went to Eaton’s or Simpson’s were kept there. It was just a warehouse.”

On March 6, Toronto ‘s official 175 th birthday, Mike Filey hosts and narrates a film program exploring Toronto ‘s history. There are two screenings of the silent film compilation entitled Toronto in Silent Cinema, one at 12pm , and one at 2:30pm . The film runs 34 minutes, and is being screened in City Hall’s Committee Room 1. It’s also free, for those interested in attending.

Images courtesy City of Toronto Archives:

Southeast corner of Yonge St. and Eglinton Ave.
Created April 11, 1930
Archival citation: Fonds 1231, Item 737

Hanlan’s Point Amusement Park
Created 1911
Archival citation: Fonds 1244, Item 192A

Waterfront at York Street
Created 1913
Archival citation: Fonds 1244, Item 590

Northeast corner of King and Simcoe Sts.
Created 1908
Archival citation: Fonds 1244, Item 525

Toronto skyline from the bay
Created May 1919
Archival citation: Fonds 1231, Item 105

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