Brian Doucet

Urban Geographer

Streetcars and the Changing Geography of Toronto

by Brian Doucet and Michael Doucet

Under advanced contract with The University of Toronto Press

Today we take more photos than ever before. But fifty years ago, photography was much less common. Even rarer were photos of ordinary parts of cities. One exception to this were the photos taken by streetcar enthusiasts. In an attempt to capture these vehicles on film, they ventured into urban neighbourhoods, distant suburbs and gritty industrial districts in big cities and small towns. While doing this, they unintentionally recorded the buildings, activities and day-to-day life of these places the way no one else did.

Their photos offer a power record of how cities have changed. Far from being confined to the world of nostalgia, they portray urban life and cities that are very different today. They show us a unique insight into a world before suburbanization, deindustrialization, superhighways, and the rise of shopping malls. They help us to understand the impact that big shifts in society have had on buildings, businesses, neighbourhoods and daily urban life.

Toronto has North America’s largest streetcar network and is one of the few cities to have retained this mode of transport after World War II. As a result, there are many photos which uniquely captured the city in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In Streetcars and the Changing Geography of Toronto, we will use many of these photos and update them with contemporary images taken at the exact same locations. This side-by-side format will dramatically show the ways in which Toronto has developed and changed over the decades.

The aim of our book is to allow readers to better understand how Toronto has changed and why by visually comparing historic and contemporary images of different parts of the city. A second aim is to build bridges between academic research and a city whose residents desire to know more about why Toronto is the way it is, how it has changed and where it is going.

We examine three parts of the city in which the streetcars ran and in many cases continue to run. Downtown, we witness Toronto's transformation from a provincial city of little global importance in the 1960s, to becoming Canada's major world city and a home of international finance and real estate. The core of Toronto used to be very much centred on industry. But since the 1980s in particular, much of this land has deindustrialised and in this second part of the city, we examine what has become of the sites of old factory, warehouse and railway yards. It is here, where the 'condoization' of Toronto is most evident, with towering residential skyscrapers replacing industry. Finally, we examine residential neighbourhoods, where there is a surprising lack of physical change, and in many locations, the buildings are the same as in the 1960s (and earlier). In these spaces, however, gentrification has been a dominant trend for decades and this is also evident in the changing commercial activities along main streets.

The streetcars primarily served the parts of the city built before World War II. It is these older neighbourhoods in the city's core where neighbourhood upgrading, gentrification and the dominance of high-end (financial) services has been most evident. The city we depict is becoming wealthier, less of an immigrant reception area and more professional, particularly when compared with the 1960s. Therefore it is also important to contextualise this 'streetcar city' that we depict, within a wider urban and metropolitan area that also contains many areas which are downgrading, particularly in the post-war suburbs constructed between 1945 and 1970. 

More than just a photo book, Streetcars and the Changing Geography of Toronto will employ visual methodologies, combined with descriptive and analytical chapters which will place the images into the context of both Toronto’s changing geography and wider national and global trends.

We hope to have more information about the next stages of this exciting book project soon!

Click on the photo gallery below for a sample of some of the images in our collection. We express our gratitude to the streetcar photographers who have provided us with historic images, or allowed us to use their photos as part of this project.