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A look back at when Toronto was kind of filthy

Posted by Derek Flack / October 20, 2011

Toronto Dirty, FilthyEver since the Walrus debate on Toronto's lack of beauty, I've been thinking about how much more polished the city looks today than it did 20 to 40 years ago. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the degree to which the downtown core — which was once a sea of parking lots — has filled in, but there's another rather basic reason for this, too. Our buildings are simply much cleaner today than they were in the 1960 and 70s.

Toronto's industrial past doesn't tend to get a whole lot of attention, but had you lived here during the period in which these photographs were taken, signs of its presence would be pretty much everywhere in the sooty exteriors of the city's buildings. On an aesthetic level, this filth is anything but pretty, but there's also a certain rawness to these images that speaks to a time that was a little less tidy in general (you know, bad haircuts, hodgepodge signage, less corporate cleanliness). There's something almost compelling about it all, like photos of New York's SoHo in the 1970s, when the area was more than just a little rough around the edges.

On the flip side, photos like these make it somewhat easier to understand why it is that Toronto's city builders were so cavalier about knocking down heritage structures. Take City Hall for instance. When it was proposed to knock it down to make way for the new Eaton Centre (a complex that was to be much bigger than what we ended up with), the building was this nasty dark brown on account of soot accumulation over the years, a sign of neglect that helped foster the idea that it was worth replacing.

While it seems Toronto streets have always remained clean, various improvement and maintenance efforts in the 1980s and 90s would help bring the buildings up to par via the removal of much of this industrial residue — but not before a few were lost to the demolition process.


2011426-no-name-cab-1970s-union-f0124_fl0002_id0117.jpgUnion Station, 1970s (what it looks like today)

Toronto Dirty FilthyCollege Park, 1970s (what it looks like today)

20111020-confed-life-1960s-f0124_fl0001_id0136.jpgThe Confederation Life Building, 1960s (what it looks like today)

20111020-dirty-city-hall-above-1970s-f0124_fl0002_id0022.jpgAbove City Hall, 1970s (what it looks like today)

20111020-dirty-king-sword-restaurant-f0124_fl0001_id0107.jpgNear Yonge and King, 1960s

20111020-royal-alex-f0124_fl0001_id0134.jpgThe Royal Alex, 1970s (what it looks like today)

2011225-flatiron-f0124_fl0002_id0065.jpgEven the Flatiron Building looks a dull brown in the 1970s (what it looks like today)

20111020-dominion-public-early-80s-front-dirtyf0124_fl0003_id0095.jpgDominion Public, 1970s (what it looks like today)

Need help identifying these locations:

20111020-quebec-bank-dirty-1970s-f0124_fl0002_id0032.jpgOld Quebec Bank builing, 37 King Street West 1960s

20111020-unspecified-dirty-to-1970s-f0124_fl0002_id0090.jpgOld Courthouse, Adelaide near Church, 1970s (thanks Sakura)

20111020-dirty-engineer-1970s-f0124_fl0002_id0101.jpgUnspecified location, 1970s

20111020-dirty-where-king-f0124_fl0001_id0108.jpgUnspecified location, 1970s

Photos from the City of Toronto ArchivesEllis Wiley fonds. For information about ordering these or other archival images, check here.



Derek / October 20, 2011 at 03:35 pm
To head off the inevitable question/comments regarding the roll that the photographs themselves have to do with the dirty-looking buildings, let's note that the underexposure of a few of these images certainly highlights the filthy factor – but even with a bit more light, the buildings are quite clearly marked by a level of soot that's uncommon these days.
click / October 20, 2011 at 03:37 pm
the dinginess has a lot to do with the film and the weather too, no?
Bum Article / October 20, 2011 at 03:40 pm
This reads like an article written by a hick.

Was is that slow of a day? To write about how old pictures of our city taken during the winter make our Toronto look drab?

People weren't dirtier in 1960 or 1970. The buildings the composed our downtown core were at this time already approaching 100 years old. Today it's all glass and concrete. To say that our city was dirty before is idiotic and feeds into poor preservation of our few, in blogto's definition "dirty", historical buildings that are left.

Blog TO i am ashamed. This article is so childish.

click / October 20, 2011 at 03:43 pm
The power washer was merely a dream, a thing of the FUTURE
Jeffrey Beaumont / October 20, 2011 at 03:48 pm
so many beautiful buildings, how many are still there?
guy replying to a comment from Bum Article / October 20, 2011 at 03:51 pm
You can't possibly believe, regardless of weather, that Union Station or College Park don't look like they were coated in a layer of filth?

What's "childish" about calling buildings dirty, or sooty? Honestly, I just don't understand comments on here some times...
Derek replying to a comment from Bum Article / October 20, 2011 at 03:52 pm
Bad grammar, poor reading comprehension, underlying rage — yup, that'd be an anonymous internet comment!
Sakura / October 20, 2011 at 03:56 pm
Unspecified location #2 is the old court house on Adelaide (which now houses Terroni).
Ben / October 20, 2011 at 03:59 pm
Or as I like to say "A look back at when Toronto looked like Montreal"
James Tucker / October 20, 2011 at 04:06 pm
If some comments at the Guild Inn are accurate, they hold some architectural remains of that Quebec Bank building, which apparently somewhere on the site of Commerce Court.
James Tucker / October 20, 2011 at 04:10 pm
Yep, the remains are at the Guild in Scarborough. Address given as 37 King West; building (G. Curry) built 1912, demolished 1969.
Eric / October 20, 2011 at 04:12 pm
53 King Street East
Juice / October 20, 2011 at 04:26 pm
I like the dirt
McRib replying to a comment from Bum Article / October 20, 2011 at 04:34 pm
you are so full of shit. shut up.

Kick a troll replying to a comment from Bum Article / October 20, 2011 at 05:13 pm
shut up, these articles are the best, keep them coming!
Torontonian / October 20, 2011 at 06:21 pm
Three contributing factors to the clean-up
of the city are:

1. The change in automobile fuels and
exhaust systems.

2. The arrival of greater supplies of
natural gas and the conversion from coal-
fired heating to natural gas heating systems.
When natural gas made greater inroads into
the city, the old hoppers of spent coal stopped
showing up on city sidewalks for collection.

3. The ending of apartment building incineration
systems. Once a day, the incinerator would
be fired up and all the garbage would go into
the system and the smoke emanating from these
buildings probably had quite a toxic soup of
fumes and smoke. Small apartment building
that converted to natural gas then had extra
space and, after a good scrubbing, could offer
a smaller apartment for rent.

I can clearly remember plumes of black smoke
emanating from almost every large building
in mid-winter until the time of the Trans-Canada
gas pipeline from Sarnia being brought into
the city and the old boiler rooms being changed
over into natural gas fired heating systems
or being connected to a local central heating

Co-incidentally, the increase of the natural
gas supply contributed to the closing of the
old Weston TB sanitarium. One of my former
classmates in 1959 at Humberside had to leave
school and go to the Weston "san". Her family
had come from East Germany.
signs / October 20, 2011 at 08:09 pm
i love that the signage (public + private) and advertising is minimal - it actually allows you to see the city/buildings.
I would argue that the city is dirtier today due to all of the visual pollution.
yuck / October 21, 2011 at 10:41 am
Yonge/Dundas is still very filthy.
linked replying to a comment from Bum Article / October 23, 2011 at 04:27 am
You completely missed the point of this article. Did you not notice that the stone was completely discoloured due to neglect in all of these photos? This was the result of the 1950's-60's,70's disdain for historic buildings and probably led to their tragic demise in many cases, (let's get rid of those eyesores)when in fact all they really needed was a good scrub.
a guy / February 19, 2012 at 05:58 pm
I'd like to see University College get a cleaning. Underneath the black, its original colour is more like sand.

Before anyone jumps in to say "UC fire of 1890!!!" I'll point out that the rebuilt-from-scratch East wing is just as black as the non-destroyed original parts of the building.
RDK / March 6, 2012 at 11:07 pm
Come on folks!

This is what gives it character. It's history. It's reflection.

We are so self-obsessed today with FoodTV style presentation, HGTV style design, bland glass condos, brainwashing of corportized design and signs everywhere. This is where we came from, and who we are today.

A time when we were forced to live 'Out there' instead of in a electronic world and our iphones.
Mark / March 7, 2012 at 12:50 am
Hmm yes, I enjoy not bathing for weeks on end becuase I believe it gives me character. Anyone who enjoys seeing buildings as they were meant to be seen and not covered in decades or centuries of filth and grime is obviously an uncultured fool who doesn't appreciate squalor.
Angus Lang / March 7, 2012 at 02:44 pm
The unspecified pic under the courthouse - Toronto Archives said this was the old central fire station on the north side of adelaide, east of simcoe west of york.
NostalgicMan / October 18, 2012 at 04:05 am
Did someone really write that it is childish to show pictures of our infrastructure's improvements? RIDICULOUS! I found it quite interesting, especially Union Station. Kudos Derek!
Steve Dune / December 24, 2012 at 08:59 am
this is impressive all the pictures are just awesome, what was this time in which Toronto heating and cooling was filthy ?
Me / December 24, 2012 at 11:53 am
The best part is no Graffiti vandalism making the city look like a ghetto.
Lynda / December 30, 2012 at 10:13 pm
The air from the 50s and 60s was sometimes hard to breathe. I often think of how we hated to follow a bus in traffic or get stuck behind a big truck because the exhaust came out in big black clouds and made you gasp for air. No wonder the buildings had a coat of sooty dirt. Also, the air in the subway trains was often the same. Our air is definitely much cleaner now.
melinda / April 8, 2013 at 09:45 pm
The last pic (unspecified location 1970s) is Melina and Jordan, NE corner. I'd like to know what was in it/who built it though.
the lemur replying to a comment from melinda / April 8, 2013 at 10:55 pm
I believe it was called the Osler building and was previously Standard Bank.
Colin / July 28, 2013 at 12:23 pm
I've been surfing for 3 hours straight!...great work Derek!
John / October 29, 2013 at 04:44 am
I agree. This is a childish silly article.
Moaz Ahmad / February 23, 2014 at 05:40 pm
It's a nice reminder of how polluted Toronto once was. Ironic that the cars are so much cleaner and the Lakeview and Heart generating stations and the Ashbrides Bay incinerator are now closed but we aren't happy with the cleaner air.
Bobo / February 23, 2014 at 07:48 pm
Interesting to see the comparisons. That first image I believe is now a very nice section of King, just East of Church.
annakarenina replying to a comment from Bum Article / February 24, 2014 at 06:33 pm
buildings get dirty ... we cleaned them. Whats your point?
Jil / November 8, 2015 at 06:53 pm
It's also interesting to see how little traffic there is. I drove a taxi in Toronto in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and once you were out of the two rush hours (7-9 and 4-6), the streets were generally empty. I could go up the DVP from the Gardiner to the 401 at lunchtime and there would only be a handful of cars on it.

As well, back then, the lower downtown was a ghost town at night. Adelaide, Richmond, King, Front ... you just didn't go down there because everything was shut up tight.
Greg Hannah / November 8, 2015 at 07:04 pm
Hence, Toronto - "The Big Smoke", a term my dad used when I was a kid (1970's). Lots of industry in Toronto, heavy use of coal in the 19th & 20th centuries and, as noted above, automobile exhaust emissions, trains, incinerators etc.
Sharny / November 8, 2015 at 08:32 pm
Boy, those buildings sure are dirty. I love seeing them like that again.
Jason / November 8, 2015 at 10:23 pm
Hello. Unspecified ,,#1 is Toronto Fire old Station 1 located at Adelaide and University. It was torn down in the early 70's and replaced with the current Station 332 located at Adelaide and John Street. The original beautiful building in the photo was built in 1907. As Toronto has done for years, the history can't rise above the progress!
Trish Johnson / November 8, 2015 at 11:43 pm
It was the burning of coal that made so many Toronto buildings black. I remember how surprised I was that so many were pink and beige when they started sandblasting them in the 1970's.
Bettie / November 9, 2015 at 10:02 am
. . . and most of the people smoked then too, including I think even in the subway, streetcars and buses. Ick!
amr replying to a comment from Bum Article / November 9, 2015 at 01:46 pm
You realize most of the pictures here are of the SAME buildings that currently are still standing in Toronto (Union Station, Flatioron), So we are comparing these with the same buildings, not new glass/concrete ones. Yes lighting and film have a role, but there is still a difference.

And by the way- relax.
John / November 13, 2015 at 09:28 am
I miss that old industrial charm that was waiting for someone to come along wash it and make it look shinny and new , with a cafe here and there . Nowadays it's StarBucks here and there. So hommogized.
Gramage replying to a comment from Bum Article / March 3, 2016 at 11:52 pm
No, the buildings were genuinely dirtier than they are today. Pretty obvious.
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