Home Culture Arts & Entertainment This summer, The Ward comes back to life in Toronto

This summer, The Ward comes back to life in Toronto

Friends at Smith's Bay House, 1944. (Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre)

When David Ackerman found his father’s forgotten photographs, he uncovered an entire world on the verge of being lost. Inside these unmarked boxes, maybe a dozen in all, lay hundreds of neatly organized printed photos, slides and negatives documenting his late father’s life in The Ward, a now-demolished downtown Toronto neighbourhood that crammed Jewish, black, Chinese and Italian immigrants side-by-side in slummy quarters.

“It was exciting,” Ackerman says. “Pretty much no one had seen any of them.”

Today, The Ward comprises mostly condo buildings, office towers and Nathan Phillips Square, which made the photos of John Ackerman – David’s father – especially valuable to historians and archivists.

When the Ackerman family brought them to the Ontario Jewish Archives, executive director Dara Solomon immediately realized their importance.

“The scope is quite unbelievable,” Solomon says. “From personal intimate moments to community celebrations, they really capture the essence of life in The Ward.”

Max and Abner outside Ackerman’s Grocery Store in the 1940s. (Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre)

Solomon found a pair of curators from the University of Toronto’s master’s of museum studies program, who dug through the batch to create a comprehensive photography exhibit that is being displayed at the Black Cat Artspace.

The exhibit depicts a candid humanity, Solomon notes, which might contrast the image most people may have of The Ward.

“It was dirty and impoverished,” she says of The Ward’s early years. “Maybe life was challenging and hard for people, but there’s a real humanity in the photos.”

That humanity, and the chaotic energy The Ward represented, is what attracted musician David Buchbinder to The Ward several years ago. After reading The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood, a historical book released in 2015, he approached the editors with the idea of turning the book into a live musical cabaret, what he now describes as “the sounds and songs of The Ward.” The editors loved it, and The Ward Cabaret was born.

A woman smokes in The Ward, 1938. (Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre)

Buchbinder, an award-winning jazz trumpeter, gathered together a team of musicians and produced two iterations of the show. This year, as part of the city’s Luminato arts festival, Buchbinder is staging a grander theatrical stage production of The Ward Cabaret, with costumes, lighting, video and historic texts.

“I try to think of it as a dream of what was,” Buchbinder says. “We wanted to give you the experience of walking down the road at that time.”

Every element of the show is drawn from real-life documents. Marjorie Chan, the show’s writer, stitched together a script by sifting through countless archival materials to find exactly the right emotional and contextual pieces. Piecing together those building blocks has been a collective process, continuing well into the musicians’ rehearsal schedule.


During a recent get-together in the group’s utilitarian rehearsal space, one of the show’s artistic associates, Andrew Craig, led a choir of four on piano, manually adjusting each note to fit with the rest. It took more than 20 minutes, and the end result was roughly seven seconds of singing, but it was a beautiful, triumphant choral arrangement, equally heart-wrenching and epic.

Buchbinder explains that he adapted that song from a handwritten piece of music he found, written by a cantor who worked in one of the city’s first synagogues near Queen Street and University Avenue. It is a perfect example of how audiences today can learn from the artistic works – and lives – of the past.

“It’s about creating something new out of all this rich culture we’ve brought to this place,” Buchbinder says. “Our dream of The Ward is the root of what Toronto is.” n

“Collected Memories,” John Ackerman’s photos, will be on display at the Black Cat Artspace until June 10. “The Ward Cabaret” will run from June 20-22 as part of the Luminato Festival; click here for tickets.