If you’re killing time in front of your computer while waiting for better weather to come, you might want to browse through the 185-page PDF bibliography of Toronto history published since 1990, compiled by City of Toronto Museums and Heritage Services. It features academic articles, novels, dissertations, government reports and biographies of prominent Torontonians and is divided into subject categories such as architecture, neighborhoods and transportation, along with a section devoted to “Social History – Parades, Street Festivals, Protests, Riots and Public Spaces.”
If one were to go by the selection available at Indigo, one might get the impression that there aren’t a whole lot of books out there about Toronto’s history. The comprehensive scope of the bibliography refutes that notion. There are more than a few gems to be found–most of which can be tracked down at the public library. Highlights include Taxinews columnist Peter McSherry’s Mean Streets: Confessions of a Nighttime Taxi Driver and the numerous public space essays by Queen’s Social Geography Professor Peter Goheen, including ‘Parading: A lively tradition in early Victorian Toronto.’
However, while looking through the bibliography I was reminded that there is still no definitive popular history of Toronto that is currently in print.
“In print” is almost as much of a challenge as “popular history”, but I agree that Carl Benn’s bibliography is really an excellent place to start looking if you’re willing to spend some time at the library. I’ve also put up a bibliography of Toronto planning, design, history and culture here. Its focus is slightly more contemporary and planning/design/culture-oriented.
Some books also worth checking out:
Historian Frederick Armstrong’s A City in the Making: Progress, People & Perils in Victorian Toronto (Dundurn, 1988)
York urban studies professor Jon Caulfield’s City Form and Everyday Life: Toronto’s Gentrification and Critical Social Practice (University of Toronto Press, 1994) provides an excellent contemporary history of urban change.
Robert Fulford’s Accidental City: The Transformation of Toronto (Houghton-Mifflin, 1996)
Sally Gibson’s new and lovely Inside Toronto: Urban Interiors, 1880-1920 (Cormorant, 2006) is a wonderful book, combining archival photographs with thoughtful scholarly commentary.
Geographer Richard Harris’ Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900 to 1950 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). A fascinating, striking book that inverts our usual understandings of suburban development. Think ‘shanty’ rather than ‘SUV’ … (and when you’re done reading Harris’ book, check out Antanas Sileikas’ rather parallel short story collection, Buying on Time.
Arts and culture writer John Bentley Mays’ Emerald City: Toronto Visited (Viking, 1994) is more a psychogeographic tour than a history, but is a must-have.
Toronto: No Mean City (edited originally by Eric Arthur, revised most recently by Stephen Otto, 3rd ed., University of Toronto Press, 2003). This is about as close to an in-print ‘classic’ of Toronto history that it gets.
Peter Goheen has retired now from Queen’s. But an excellent, if slightly dry, urban historian. His articles are meticulously researched and fascinating beneath the surface text. I first got interested in urban history/culture when I was one of his students back in the 1990s. Check out “Currents of Change in Toronto, 1850-1900”, published in Gilbert Stelter and Alan Artibise’s The Canadian City: Essays in Urban and Social History (Carleton University Press, 1991).
If you’re willing to browse used bookstores, you can pick up a lot of interesting Toronto history. Last week I picked up Toronto During the French Regime, 1615-1793 (Percy Robinson, University of Toronto Press,  1965 as a second edition). Guess where I found it? BMV Books on Bloor.