This post was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca

Last week, two media items caught my attention.  The first story was the discovery of remains from an 18th-century ship found during construction at the World Trade Centre in New York City.  The second was a short debate on CBC’s Metro Morning between Toronto City Councillors Mike Feldman and Adam Vaughan on heritage designation of historic homes.

As I reflected on these two news items I was struck by their differences in tone.  In New York City, the discovery of this ship seems to have sparked significant interest (especially given the global significance of the site).  The New York Times followed up on this with an interactive summary of other archaeological finds in the city.  In Toronto, the tone was quite different.  First, there was debate about the merits of historical designation of private property.  But more concerning was Adam Vaughan’s critical point that only four people work in the City’s Heritage Preservation Services department. [editors note (July 27 2010): there are actually 14 people currently employed at Historical Preservation Services see the comments section below for more information]

Without getting into the important differences between New York City and Toronto (and there are many), these two stories challenged me to take a look at the government departments overseeing historical preservation in each city.  The differences in how each city handles heritage preservation is striking and perhaps reflects why Toronto frequently suffers from a mythical reputation of being without history and culture while New York City thrives in both.

Toronto’s lack of history, heritage and culture is, of course, a myth; but the question that these stories raise for me is whether that myth thrives in the city’s municipal structure.

Take a quick peek at New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.  What you will find is a separate government commission overseen by 11 commissioners.  The commission must consist of 3 architects, 1 historian, a city planner or landscape architect, a realtor and 1 representative from each of the city’s five boroughs.  The commission has four departments, runs a grant program and co-ordinates environmental review.  It has a relatively balanced number of designated historic districts in each of the five boroughs.

Now let’s look at Toronto’s Heritage Preservation Services.  Instead of having four departments, the service only has four employees.  The service is overseen by the Heritage Preservation Board which is comprised of 7 city-council appointed members, 3 city-councillors, and the chairs of Toronto’s four Community Preservation Panels.  The presence of professionals working in history, architecture or city-planning is not mandated.  For the most part research and archaeology are contracted out rather than dealt with internally.   Finally, although Toronto is half the physical size of New York and has one less district, its designated historic districts are clustered around the downtown core; only five historical areas (of 30) fall outside of Toronto/East York.

The minimal support for Heritage Preservation Services in Toronto (4 staff members for 8,000 properties [editors note: there are 14 employees.  See the comments section below]) relative to New York City is not just a function of New York being much older.  It is more a symptom of the type of history that the city has chosen to remember.  Historic preservation in Toronto is centred on the 19th and early-20th centuries.  Toronto’s history is significantly broader than this.  The city has a deep history of Aboriginal migration and settlement, the 18th-century French fur trade, as well as important mid-to-late-twentieth century developments – all of which are important and inscribed on the urban landscape.

This somewhat narrow focus has had some serious consequences for how the past is remembered.   Take the Parsons Site, for example.  This pre-contact Iroquoian village neighbouring Jane/Finch, Black Creek Pioneer Village, York University and (now) the Archives of Ontario has been the subject of numerous archaeological studies since the 1950s.  Since the 1960s efforts have been made to commemorate the site.  These efforts ultimately failed and today the site is occupied by a hydro-corridor, an apartment building, and a gas pipeline.  Along with Black Creek Pioneer Village, the community at Jane/Finch, and York University, the landscape and built heritage tells more than 500 years of human history in the region.  None of this is apparent to local residents or visitors and the area is seldom seen as a place of cultural and historical value.

Imagine how Northwest Toronto might have developed if heritage preservation were to have had a more developed structure – perhaps something similar to New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission – which included the input of professionals and citizens.  With greater professional involvement and more human resources Toronto might have a deeper sense of its history.  Instead of having been more-or-less destroyed, a site like the Parons site could have been a public park, a focal point for future urban planning, or even a museum representing pre-contact Aboriginal history and culture.  Demonstrating the way that Aboriginal peoples, immigrants and urban and suburban development have shaped our physical space can help to encourage Torontonians in thinking about their past and the way Toronto has developed.

The fact of the matter is that Toronto, and many other cities, has hidden treasures like the ship that was found underneath the World Trade Centre.  They are scattered beneath our feet, behind our walls, and sometimes immediately apparent without our knowing it.  Many people, groups, other municipal agencies and corporations (such as Heritage Toronto and Archaeological Services Inc) do a great job at revealing these places and their importance to us.

The municipal government, however, should be leading the way.  A strong well-developed and supported municipal heritage preservation program not only preserves the city’s historical and cultural heritage, but also creates greater pride and engagement with civic issues, builds a desire to explore a broader range of neighbourhoods and urban spaces, and helps to foster a deeper sense of the dynamics of a city’s history.

***Two important side notes should be made here:

First, in 1997 Toronto found a boat of its own underneath the city floor during the construction of the Air Canada Centre.  The discovery of the Commodore Jarvis became the subject of Michael Redhill’s novel Consolation.  More information (with pictures and maps) can be found on pages 44-47 of “The Archaeological Master Plan of the Central Waterfront.”

Second, Heritage Toronto was created by the city and has a role in heritage preservation in Toronto.  Its structure bears closer resemblance to New York’s Landmarks Preservation Board.  It is, however, more of an advisory body.  Its mission is to celebrate, interpret, and advocate “for our cultural, architectural, archaeological and natural heritage.”  Although mandated through they city, much of its work is supported by donation.

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