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As published in COLLECTIONS by Harvey Kalles Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage, Fall 2016 / Volume 12, Issue 4

At Liberty

EXPLORING WEST TORONTO’S INDUSTRIAL HERITAGE

By Candice McCavitt

Liberty Village, an attractive community in the downtown east-end with a catchy name, is well known as one of the fast rising condo collections in the city.  The neighbourhood boasts a rich pre-industrial, industrial, and now post-industrial heritage—some less savory aspects of which people have tried to minimize over time, but all of which has left tangible and intangible marks on the neighbourhood.

Liberty Street marks a concrete path, having cut through what is now Liberty Village since it was first laid in the 19th century.  From its beginnings, the community has grown up around this street, and eventually took its name.  Liberty Street originally served to connect two institutions; the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, opened in 1872, and the Central Prison for Men, opened in 1873.  What must have seen a bitter irony to some, Liberty Street led to the prison door. The flip side, of course, is that Liberty was the path they would walk at the end of their sentence. For those who were able to leave.

The Mercer Reformatory was a women’s prison, designed to reform the “fallen women” sentenced to time there for crimes that included vagrancy, inter-racial marriage, sexual precociousness and incorrigibility, among others.  Predominant thought at the time held that female offenders could be reformed and taught to be good women through the domestic arts.  To those ends, the Reformatory was intended to be seen more as a home than a prison, where inmates could redeem themselves through hard work. The Reformatory was closed in March of 1969 amid grand jury charges, public controversy, outrage over living conditions, and claims of medical experimentation and incompetent staff.  The building was condemned shortly after, and torn down in the early 1970s.  The only remaining vestige of the once formidable institution is the former Warden’s house on the corner of King Street and Fraser Avenue.

The buildings were demolished without much public opposition; not despite the built and cultural heritage they represented, but because of it.  The City of Toronto bought the land from the Province with the condition that the site be used for parks and recreational uses.  Lamport Stadium, built in 1974, redefined the space where the Reformatory buildings stood.  Where once imposing Gothic Revival walls locked the public out and confined those inside to deleterious ideas and conditions, open-air stands now accommodate 9,600 people and create a sense of community and belonging.  Even in its absence, the Reformatory shapes the neighbourhood of Liberty Village.

Located at the other end of Liberty Street, the Central Prison was built on land originally part of the Fort York Garrison Commons and used for the annual Toronto Industrial Exhibition until 1858, when the fair moved south of the rail line laid in the 1850s to what is now Exhibition Place.  The 336-bed institution was conceived of as an industrial facility, and the prisoners were expected to work hard—both for their own rehabilitation, and to make money for the prison.  This access to a dedicated pool of cheap labour, a large area of previously undeveloped land, and proximity to the railway was an attractive incentive for industry, and various factories set up shop in Liberty Village.

Some of the industrial buildings that grew up around the prison are still standing and have been adapted to new purposes.  The Toronto Carpet Factory (1899) is now a commercial complex for creative businesses, the SF Bowser Company building (1908) has been converted to short-term office space for start-ups, the Ontario Wind, Engine and Pump Company (1901) is a work/live artist studio space, and the Canadian Bank of Commerce Book Vaults (1912) is the City of Toronto Collections and Conservation Centre.  Located between the original sites of the Mercer Reformatory and the Central Prison on Liberty Street is 60 Atlantic.  

Originally home of the St. David’s Wine Growers Company (1901), Artscape moved into 60 Atlantic in 1991, setting up their head office and opening 44 low-cost artist studios.  Through the mid-1990s manufacturing and other industry moved out of Liberty Village and artists moved into the deindustrialized neighbourhood, enticed by the cheap rent, large studio spaces, and location on the fringes of the more established parts of Toronto.  Artscape continues to support artists and offer affordable artist space in 60 Atlantic, keeping alive a critical part of the neighbourhood’s deindustrial heritage.

Other buildings have been erased from the neighbourhood, like Russell Motorcar Company factory (1916) that is now a parking lot, and much of the Inglis lands (owned by John Inglis and Sons Manufacturing Co., 1881) that have been turned into the planned residential community of Liberty Village.  Of the Central Prison, only the two-storey Roman Catholic chapel that sits on the edge of Liberty Village Park, on the corner of Liberty Street East and Pirandello Street, is still standing.  The Pegasus Group currently owns the site, and reports since 2011 have Miller Tavern renovating and operating it as a gastro-pub.  Although this has not yet come to fruition, there is a certain pleasure in the irony of the once somber chapel of a notoriously brutal prison being repurposed as a place of pleasurable food and drink, celebration, and community.

We hold on to our heritage in the most interesting ways, preserving buildings, adapting spaces, and subverting original uses to suit our modern purposes.  In the 1870s, the vast majority of the hundreds of people who lived and worked in the neighbourhood were prisoners, working in factories.  140 years later, there are more than 10,000 townhouses and high rise condo units, and Liberty Village has become a self-sustaining live/work community for the high-tech and creative sectors.  The thread that has continued to hold the neighbourhood together is Liberty Street. Originally built to connect two institutions, Liberty Street became the main artery of an industrial, deindustrial, and now a mixed-use residential neighbourhood.