Corktown is a neighbourhood that’s proud of its history, and has, several times, fought hard to protect it. The result is a part of Toronto that has managed to integrate its past and its future, as new luxury condo buildings mingle with 1800s homes and churches, and quiet streets lead conveniently to major Toronto roads.
Bordered roughly by Shuter Street to the north, Berkeley Street to the west, Lake Shore Boulevard to the south and the Don River to the east, Corktown began its life in the 1800s as a home to many Irish immigrants, as well as to a thriving trade in distilleries, breweries and bottle-stopper manufacturers. Today, many of those original warehouses and factories are being converted into high-end condos, and a number are in use as studios and technical facilities for the film industry that is thriving in the area.
The neighbourhood is also becoming an increasingly popular location for artists, and for craft, design, clothing and furniture stores, as those establishments find themselves priced out of the nearby and trendy environs of Leslieville. Corktown itself, is becoming increasingly popular due to its variety, its convenience and the fact that families and young professionals alike can still find housing in a neighbourhood that feels like a small village and also offers easy access to parks and recreational facilities, and to entertainment, especially in the neighbouring Distillery District with its combination of history, arts and entertainment.
And with the neighbouring West Don Lands area undergoing a massive revitalization project, Corktown is on the verge of becoming one of Toronto’s most popular neighbourhoods.
History and Social Profile
Corktown was established in the 19th century as an enclave of Irish immigrants, many of them working in the distilleries, breweries and bottle-stopper manufacturers that had been established in the area. There is debate over whether the name Corktown stems from the county of Cork in Ireland, from the alcohol industry or the manufacturing of actual corks in the area.
But the industrial base in the area led to the construction of plentiful housing, much of which still exists today. Red-brick rowhouses or detached single-family houses occupy many of the quiet side-streets in Corktown, many of which have been renovated.
A number of the churches and schools from that era are still standing in the neighbourhood today. Given its Irish heritage, it’s not surprising that religion played a major role in the life of Corktown. The first Roman Catholic church in Toronto, St. Paul’s, was built in Corktown in 1822 near Queen and Parliament streets. The current St. Paul’s church was built on the same site in 1889. Near the church is St. Paul’s
Catholic School, the first Catholic elementary school in the city, built in 1842. Under the schoolyard lies the first Catholic cemetery in the city, built in 1822 and closed in 1857. Many of those laid to rest in the cemetery were unnamed victims of the Irish famine, who died after fleeing to Canada.
Also in Corktown, near King and Parliament streets, is Little Trinity Church, the oldest surviving original church in the city. The church was built in 1843 for those working-class Protestants who couldn’t afford the fees for pews in the nearby St. James Cathedral.
And the first free school in Toronto, the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, was built in Corktown in 1848, and named after a local brewer and philanthropist. Today, the schoolhouse still hosts various events, including weddings, and is the subject of tours led by the Ontario Heritage Trust.
Corktown has actually shrunk since its founding, due to the encroachment of city planning and major road construction. Much of the original southern part of Corktown was destroyed in the early 1960s to make way for several elevated roadways, including the Richmond Street off-ramp from the Don Valley Parkway and the re-routed Eastern Avenue overpass. The construction led to the destruction of a number of historic buildings, including the the House of Providence, which from 1857 to 1962 had been run by the Sisters of St. Joseph for orphans and the elderly poor.
But the neighbourhood has also won some of its historic fights. In the 1970s, the city attempted to raze the Trefann Court section of Corktown, just north of Queen Street, where historic rowhouses had stood since the 1800s. The residents of the area successfully defeated the attempt, and the Court still stands today.
But Corktown has also successfully moved into the present. Underpass Park, a park dedicated to public art and to skateboard and playground equipment filled the space under the Eastern Avenue overpass in 2012. The Don River park, scheduled to open in 2013, will feature lowlands with ponds, marshes and boardwalks, as well as an amphitheatre and slides down hillsides.
And the Pan Am athlete’s village, under construction for the 2015 Pan Am games in the West Don Lands, will sit right next door to Corktown. After the games, the site will be converted to condos and housing, and will also feature an elementary school and a YMCA.
Corktown is touted by many as Toronto’s next big neighbourhood, one that combines history with progress, big-city development with a small-town feel and space for artists and boutique stores with housing for professionals and families.
- Morning Glory Café
- The Dominion
- Magic Oven
- Nelson Mandela Park Public School, 440 Shuter Street, 416-393-1730
- Jarvis Collegiate Institute, 495 Jarvis Street, 416-393-0140
- Inglenook Community High School, 19 Sackville Street, 416-393-0560
- St. Paul Catholic School, 80 Sackville Street, 416-393-5204
- Queen streetcar
- King streetcar
- Parliament Street buses