Liberty Village Toronto History

What Liberty Village looked like before the condos

For all the development that's shaped Liberty Village over the last decade or so, the area's industrial past retains something of a ghostly presence — at least if one confines himself to exploring the western half of the neighbourhood. The eastern end, leading in across the still new-feeling East Liberty Street from Strachan Avenue, on the other hand, remains a source of angst for heritage preservationists who lament this city's near-complete contempt for 19th and early 20th century industrial architecture.

Once home to the mighty Inglis factory — a key player in the local war movements of the previous century and a major manufacturer of the Bren light machine gun — the area is marked by a pseudo-suburban housing development that is as cold as it's removed from its important place in this city's history. Artist Gene Threndyle, writing in John Martins-Manteiga's solemn rhapsody for Toronto's lost modern heritage, Endangered Species, probably offers the best summary of the preservationist's view in saying that this new neighbourhood "does everything wrong."

With the exception of the old chapel from the former Central Prison, this section of current day Liberty Village was completely razed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It's this tension — between the old industrial warehouses that played host to an IT boom that paved the way for the renewal of the area and the condo-based developments that continue to this day — that got me curious about the history of the site.

Before it was an industrial hub, what's now called Liberty Village was home not only to the previously mentioned Central Prison, but also the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women. According to Mike Filey in Toronto Sketches 6, it was these institutions that gave birth to the main strip's name. Liberty "was the street upon which reformed prisoners set foot when they'd served their time," he explains. The former jail was demolished in 1915 save for two buildings, while the latter was abandoned in 1969 after a reports of substandard conditions were brought to a grand jury. Lamport Stadium, which still occupies the site was built in 1974.

John Inglis Factory Toronto

As was the case with West Queen West to the north, the decline of industry led to the arrival of small population of artists in the 1980s. Attracted to the low rents and and warehouse buildings, they remained until the mid 1990s or so.

According to a report from the University of Toronto's Centre for Urban and Community Studies, "municipal deregulation of land uses in the King Street West area in 1994 contributed to the attraction of the area for developers and real estate speculators...Many small businesses and low-income tenants were evicted to allow property owners to renovate their buildings. The deregulation of zoning bylaws had increased the pressure to redevelop industrial lands and put planners under constant pressure to allow the conversion of old industrial buildings for residential or office use."

And that's when the redevelopment of the area went boom. By the mid 2000s most of the Inglis buildings were gone, following the destruction of the Massey Ferguson site on King West a few years earlier. A small group of heritage enthusiasts tried to save the industrial character of the eastern end of Liberty Village, but they didn't stand much of a chance given the value of the property in question and the incentives developers had to build residential properties.

What remains now is a thoroughly mixed neighbourhood that lacks the historical identity of something like the Distillery District, but has nevertheless escaped the complete destruction of industrial heritage experienced by its neighbours to the north and northeast.

PHOTOS

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Liberty Street, 1915

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King West subway, 1915

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Ariel view of King West and Liberty Village

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Curtiss Aeroplane plant, Strachan Avenue

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Central Prison Yard, 1926

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Central Prison Yard and Massey Ferguson Buildings (right), 1926

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Inglis factory at night, 1940s (via Gary Blakeley)

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Baseball game women workers, 1940s (via Archives Canada)

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Veronica Foster, Bren Gun Girl, 1940s (via the Wikimedia Commons)

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War workers, 1940s (via Gary Blakey)

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Compare to shot from 1990s (via Gary Blakeley)

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Central Prison Chapel, 1953 (via Toronto Public Library)

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Liberty Street, late 1970s

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Off Liberty Street, late 1970s

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Liberty Street, 1970s

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Compare to 1915 photo above

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Liberty Street and Jefferson Avenue, 1970s (the buildings on southeast and west corners still stand)

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Liberty Street looking west, 1970s

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Dufferin & Liberty streets, 1970s

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Strachan Avenue looking towards King Street, 1980s

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Strachan Avenue and Inglis factory, 1980s

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Aerial view, 1980s (Photo by Eugene D. Burles via Trainweb)

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Foot of Hannah Avenue, Inglis Complex 1990s

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Inglis Warehouse rooftopping, 1990s

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Irwin Toys (now the Toy Factory Lofts), 1990s

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Approaching Irwin Toys, 1990s

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Central Prison chapel, 1990s

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Strachan Ave, old Inglis factory (Collations)

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Off Strachan Avenue (Photo by Patrick Cummins)

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Inglis plant, 1992 (Photo by Martin Reis)

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The birth of East Liberty Street, 2003 (Photo by Christ Smart)

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Transition time, 2005 (Photo by Chris Smart)

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East Liberty Street, 2006 (Photo by Alex Luyckx)

Liberty Village

Liberty Village, 2009 (Photo by Stephen Sokolov)

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Looking west across Liberty Village, 2010 (photo by Tom Ryaboi)

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Construction continues, 2012 (Photo by Toronto.Pictures)

Photos from the Toronto Archives unless otherwise noted


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