King Street East (Old Town)
Old Town truly lives up to its name. The neighbourhood actually contains the original town of York, founded in 1793, which eventually became the city of Toronto. That storied past means Old Town is full of historic buildings — including the original parliament of Upper Canada and Toronto’s first city hall — Victorian and Edwardian houses and the original lanes and streets of the area.
Today, that history mixes comfortably with new businesses and luxury condos, which coupled with Old Town’s prime location has made the neighbourhood one of the most desirable in the city. The fact that the area contains such attractions as St. Lawrence Market and the design district along King Street, and abuts the Distillery District and Corktown, makes the residents the envy of all those who love to visit the area in their spare time.
Bordered roughly by Richmond Street to the north, Jarvis Street to the west, Front Street East to the south and Parliament Street to the east, Old Town’s unique mixture of past, present and future has made the area one of the most popular in the city for permanent residents, gourmets, visitors and those interested in the history of the city and the country.
History and Social Profile
The 10-block area bordered by Front Street to the south, Berkeley Street to the east, Queen Street to the north and George Street to the west, is the original town-site of York, as laid out in 1793. While none of the original buildings from that time have survived, the site does contain the city’s first post office on Adelaide Street.
The neighbourhood was also home to the first parliament of Upper Canada, built in 1793 at the corner of Parliament and Front Streets. The site was actually lost until it was accidentally excavated during construction on the site in 2000.
Toronto’s first city hall was built on the south-west corner of King and Jarvis Streets in 1834 — when the city of Toronto officially came into being — and functioned as the civic heart of the city until 1844. The original building burnt down in 1849 and was replaced with what is today the St. Lawrence Hall — a national historic site, the building hosted speeches by John A. Macdonald and George Brown, was the home of the National Ballet of Canada and continues to host weddings and conferences — and the north building of the St. Lawrence Market, which hosts farmers’ markets on Saturdays.
The City Hall was rebuilt one block south at Front and Jarvis, opening in 1845. Today only the original council chamber remains intact, while the structure became the south building of the St. Lawrence Market. The market — which originally began as a Saturday farmer’s market in 1803 and was named the world’s best food market by National Geographic in 2012 — is a must-visit destination for thousands of Torontonians looking for an extraordinarily wide range of fresh and sometimes exotic meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, baked goods, or just a good place for lunch.
The neighbourhood is also home to the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. Over the years, since its opening in 1960, the centre has hosted performers such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Marlene Dietrich, Diana Ross, Anne Murray, Tom Jones, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bill Cosby, Jack Benny, Liza Minnelli and Liberace. It was the long-time home of the Canadian Opera Company and has also been the venue of choice for many of the world’s great ballet companies. It was, in fact, from the Centre that Mikhail Baryshnikov defected in 1974. The St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts is next door to the Sony Centre, and still hosts many acclaimed musical and theatrical performances.
The area is also home to some of the city’s most unusual architecture, especially the Flatiron Building at Wellington and Front. Built in 1892, the building’s wedge shape was, at the time, completely unique. It was subsequently used as the inspiration for building designs throughout North America. The neighbourhood also contains such notable buildings as St. James’ Cathedral, St. Michael’s Cathedral, the Bank of Upper Canada and the renowned King Edward Hotel, affectionately known as the King Eddie.
A number of the churches and schools from the 1800s are still standing in the neighbourhood today. 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.
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 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.
The main campus of George Brown College is also in the Old Town neighbourhood. The college is renowned for its various programs, especially its nursing and cooking programs. The results of the cooking program are available at George Brown for local residents to sample.
And the stretch of King Street near Parliament has become home to the city’s high-end, luxury furniture district with dozens of stores offering beautiful, cutting-edge furniture and interior design for the discerning and tasteful homeowner.
Old Town also sits immediately to the west of the city’s popular Distillery District. The district — which operates under a policy of no chains or franchises — is made up of a mixture of independent boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, jewellery stores, cafés, and coffeehouses. True to its historic roots as the 19th-century home of the Gooderham and Worts distillery, there is even an increasingly well-regarded microbrewery, the Mill Street Brewery, in the District. The mixture has made the area a popular destination for tourists and Torontonians alike, for day tours or night-time concerts and shows.
Many of the tours focus on the Victorian-era buildings in the district. While the Gooderham and Worts distillery is long defunct, many of its structures remain and are considered historically important. These includes buildings such as the Boiler House, the Tank House and the Pump House, all listed as official landmarks. The nature of the district has also made it a popular site for film shoots including X-Men, Chicago and Cinderella Man.
The neighbourhood is also very much focussed on the arts, with a number of the historic buildings having been renovated to turn the upper floors into studio spaces and offices for arts organizations and designers. The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, opened in 2006 and built in 19th-century industrial buildings, houses the acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre Company, as well as dramatic productions from nearby George Brown College. Also located in the Distillery District are such performing companies as the Native Earth Performing Arts company and Dance Ontario.
- C’est What
- Jamie Kennedy Kitchens
- Bombay Palace
- Le Petit Dejeuner
- Tom Jones Steakhouse
- Subway stops at King St. and Union Station are both only blocks away from the Old Town neighbourhood
- King Streetcar. The 504 King car runs all the way through the area
- Queen streetcar runs one block north of the neighbourhood
- Parliament 65A bus. Leaves from Castle Frank station on the Bloor line, and runs up and down Parliament St. on the eastern edge of the neighbourhood.
- Sherbourne 75 bus. Leaves from Sherbourne station on the Bloor line, runs up and down Sherbourne St., including through the Old Town neighbourhood.
- Downtown Alternative School, 85 Lower Jarvis Street, 416-393-1882
- Market Lane Junior and Senior Public School, 246 Esplanade, 416-393-1300
- Jarvis Collegiate Institute, 495 Jarvis Street, 416-393-0140