The Heritage of Cabbagetown
Much has been said about Cabbagetown and its history. It is one of the most famous neighbourhoods in Toronto and it is known today as “the largest continuous area of preserved Victorian housing in North America”.
Winchester Bridge, circa 1870.
In the early 1840s, this area was known as “the village of Don Vale” which had developed around Winchester Bridge Street. Back then many travellers enjoyed the village’s taverns and hotels. Decades before the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct, the old Winchester Bridge was the only way to cross the Don River in the north.
Winchester cottages, fine exemples of brick houses in Cabbagetown. Photo credits: Scott Weir
The name “Cabbagetown” was inspired by the Irish immigrants who lived there in the late 1840’s. It is said that they were so poor, they had to grow cabbage patches in their front yards. By the end of the 19th century, these families were well established in Cabbagetown. Most of them were employed in the industries in Corktown. It’s this middle-class that built the brick Victorian style houses in the area.
335-337 Parliament Street, expropriated for Regent Park North, 1947. Photo credits: Toronto Archives
Sadly, the original lower portion of Cabbagetown, now known as Regent Park, slowly became Toronto’s largest slum. In the 1940s, the City razed southern Cabbagetown to make way for the Regent Park housing project. The remaining northern neighbourhood was also to be cleared for a similar project. Fortunately, a man named Karl Jaffary, started a protest to protect the old Don Vale from the bulldozers. He was successful in his battle and by 1969 became one of the city councillors who formed a movement to stop such plans in Toronto.
Not until the 1970s did the area start to gentrify. Wealthier residents were buying the elegant grand Victorian houses and restoring them to their original beauty. Many of the residents who bought during that time period still live there.
Navigating the Area
Today’s true limits of Cabbagetown (after the demolition of part of the original neighbourhood, which is now called Regent Park) are bound by the Don River to the east – Gerrard Street to the south – St. James Cemetery to the north – Sherbourne Street to the west. Some residents of the area would argue that the western limit is Parliament Street. However, the survival of incredible Victorian houses between Parliament and Sherbourne has extended the original footprint of Cabbagetown to the west. Interestingly enough, the original boundaries, before the government housing projects of the 1940s, encompassed not only Regent Park, but also Trefann Court and Moss Park.
There are no Subway Stations in this area, but many buses and streetcars will take you to one easily. The closest subway line is Bloor-Danforth, which you can reach by taking the 65 bus on Parliament Street. To get to the Yonge-University line, you can ride the 506 streetcar, which runs to College Station, then to Queen’s Park Station.
One of the big advantages of living in Cabbagetown is the proximity to the rest of the downtown core. Many residents use public transport or simply walk. For those who own a car, the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway are moments away. With the charms and attractions of this neighbourhood, many tourists come to walk the streets during the summer. With it’s proximity to some of the poorest areas of Toronto, Cabbagetown also attracts more transient folk, and despite the 1970s gentrification, the area is still struggling with crime and social issues. A restaurant review in 2005 captured the Cabbagetown dichotomy: “ Cabbagetown might be one of Toronto’s most exclusive districts but you’d never know it from strolling down its main drag. A jumble of discount stores and cheap coffee shops that attract the down-on-their luck and the just plain unlucky. Parliament Street is the polar opposite of the leafy avenues lined with million-dollar piles only a block away.”
The neighbourhood is quite an interesting pocket of Toronto to live in. A lot of residents consider themselves “priviledged” to have their home here! The people in the community are involved, and there is a Business Improvement Association, three residents associations, and many community groups. While several artists and famous people call Cabbagetown home, many owners are actually empty nesters who have downsized from larger residences.
Asymmetrical semi-detached pair of modified bay and gables on Sword Street, built around 1882. Photo credits: Scott Weir
On the cultural front, this area holds many neighbourhood festivals.There is the annual Cabbagetown Festival, which happens the second week-end in September. For two days participants display their arts and crafts under tents in Riverdale Park West. Another major highlight is the parade on the Saturday morning. Finally, the “Tour of Homes”, in which local residents open their doors for a paying public, is very popular.
A typical scene during the Cabbagetown Festival: residents holding a garage sale in their front lawn. Photo credits: Kaeko
Parliament Street is the main commercial thoroughfare where you really notice the dichotomy of the area. On the same corner you can find a refined caterer next to a cheap coffee shop. This mix is less obvious at Carlton Street, where Parliament becomes vibrant with a selection of bars, restaurants and retail shops. For the caffeine lovers, Jet Fuel Coffee shop offers an amazing selection of roasted coffees and lattes for a good price. Still in the affordable category, The House on Parliament will serve you daily specials that have nothing to do with the regular “bar food”. The staff are friendly, the beer is cold, the desserts are delicious and the wine list is reasonably priced.
Riverdale Farm. Hard to believe you are so close to Toronto's downtown! Photo credits: Denis Aubrey
A tour of Cabbagetown would not be complete without a stop at the Riverdale Farm. To have a farm exist within the central, downtown area is quite remarkable. In fact, before being called “a farm”, the site was best known as the Toronto Zoo. In 1974, the zoo relocated in a larger zone in Scarborough, and in 1978 farm animals took over in Riverdale Park. Nowadays parents and children can spend a day at the farm with the cows, horses, goats and chickens.
Victorian houses are the norm here. In fact, because of its large amount of preserved Victorian homes, Cabbagetown has become a Heritage Conservation District and its buildings are now protected by municipal bylaw.
Another fine exemple of a brick house, facing Riverdale Park. Photo credits: Scott Weir
What is exactly the style of this neighbourhood? The Victorian architecture style has so many interpretations. Between 1837 (coronation of Queen Victoria) and the early 20th century, there was a great movement against the simple looking houses. In reaction, and with the help of the industrial revolution, many older grand styles were being reinterpreted. Cabbagetown is the perfect example of this mix of designs: on the same street corner we can see a gothic cottage next to a bay & gabbles, which is next to a second empire row housing project!
One particular aspect of these houses is that their original owners took great pride in adding decorative bits here and there. In fact, many carpenters helped them introduce unique architectural features and custom woodwork to their residences, such as cornices, spindles, decorated porches, detailed trim and interesting roofs and windows. Not one building is exactly identical, which plays a big role in the historic charm of this area.
Unfortunately, some developers did some minor damages in the 1980s and 1990s. To give an example of this struggle, a project was put together to purchase a row of workers houses on Metcalfe Street and turn them into condos. By chance, the Cabbagetown Preservation Association was able to stop the bulldozers from leveling them. Instead, the developer had to keep the houses and build the townhouses at the back of the lots.
Even with these waves of new projects, the Cabbagetown look is primarily intact. Actually, one could say that it’s like stepping back in time to visit Toronto the “way it used to be” more than 100 years ago!