Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Matt Elliott: Museum of Toronto is an idea long past due

A plan being pitched this week could turn Old City Hall into a city museum.
A plan being pitched this week could turn Old City Hall into a city museum.

This city has a history.

It goes back hundreds of years. The stories range from triumphant to terrible. But they’re ours.

Toronto’s past includes the stories of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation, the Haudenosaunee, the Huron-Wendat and other Indigenous peoples, whose land we took and whose traditions we tried to erase.

It includes figures like Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1831 and battled their way to Toronto. They then created the city’s first taxi company, and worked to establish Toronto’s place on the Underground Railroad.

It includes shameful moments, like the 1933 riot at Christie Pits park, sparked by the unveiling of a swastika during a baseball game, or the anti-queer 1981 police raid of four downtown bathhouses.

It includes notable people and landmark events. Visits from The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Martin Luther King Jr. An armed rebellion led by ex-mayor William Lyon Mackenzie at a pub near Yonge & Eglinton. The first ever basketball game played in the league that would become the NBA. Jane Jacobs, and her fight against the Spadina Expressway.

But these stories of Toronto are scattered. Some are almost invisible. The city’s artifacts are kept in boxes, or spread out across a handful of small museums or exhibits.

But there is finally a movement to change that.

A report going before Mayor John Tory’s executive committee this Wednesday discusses future uses for Old City Hall. The 1899 building is currently where you go if you want to fight a traffic ticket but the courts plan to move after 2021, creating an opportunity for an event space, a library, a wedding venue and — at last — a Museum of Toronto.

Past attempts to bring up the idea of a Toronto-focused museum have been stymied by concerns about costs and logistics. But this report, prepared after public consultation, makes the case that a museum is the best possible use for this historic building.

While the cost of renovating Old City Hall won’t be cheap — refurbishment is estimated at about $122 million – it’s work that needs to be completed regardless of future use, unless Torontonians are prepared to let the building crumble to the ground.

And a museum right next to tourist-magnet Nathan Phillips Square would be a draw, according to estimates. The report says the museum would draw up to 270,000 visitors in its first year, before settling into a range of 225,000 annual visits. That will bring in enough revenue that the government subsidy required to maintain operations will be relatively small — between $3.4 million and $3.5 million per year.

It’s a cost worth paying.

Because there are so many lessons to be learned from Toronto’s past.

It would be folly, for example, to talk about transforming Yonge Street without first looking back at efforts to pedestrianize the street in the 1970s.

Similarly, the city’s conversation about police accountability should be informed by this city’s history of police antagonism directed toward Black and queer communities.

And political decisions about poverty and inequality will be better if they’re made with knowledge that Old City Hall was built atop the Ward, Toronto’s poorest neighbourhood.

These stories matter and deserve to be told. Toronto’s past has a purpose. Let’s give it a place.

This post was originally published at on 2018-01-21T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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