Toronto Dirty, Filthy

A look back at when Toronto was kind of filthy

Ever 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.



Union Station, 1970s (what it looks like today)

Toronto Dirty Filthy

College Park, 1970s (what it looks like today)


The Confederation Life Building, 1960s (what it looks like today)


Above City Hall, 1970s (what it looks like today)


Near Yonge and King, 1960s


The Royal Alex, 1970s (what it looks like today)


Even the Flatiron Building looks a dull brown in the 1970s (what it looks like today)


Dominion Public, 1970s (what it looks like today)

Need help identifying these locations:


Old Quebec Bank builing, 37 King Street West 1960s


Old Courthouse, Adelaide near Church, 1970s (thanks Sakura)


Unspecified location, 1970s


Unspecified location, 1970s

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

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