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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Urban Photography of Arthur Goss, Part 2: The Housing Series, 1936-1940

Toronto's first official photographer captured the state of housing at the end of the Great Depression


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Housing No. 62, Sept. 23, 1936 Gilead Place City of Toronto Archives, s0372-ss0033-it0062

The Housing Series is the product of the last new project Arthur Goss undertook as the City’s Official Photographer. Between March, 1936 and January, 1940, he produced 675 carefully composed photos of housing conditions in designated “blighted” areas of the downtown core. He went on sick leave in February of that year, suffering from progressive muscular atrophy, and died four months later. He had served the city for 49 of his 59 years, having started as an office boy in the Engineer’s Office at ten years of age.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the question of providing adequate housing for low income Torontonians was as warmly debated as it is today, but the problems politicians faced then, and the remedies they proposed, were quite different. Because apartment buildings hardly existed downtown before the Second World War, low income families were forced to occupy small, cheaply built houses, many of which required extensive renovations to be habitable.

Goss had documented individual instances of sub-standard housing for various city departments, but his most complete coverage of the subject had been a group of about 60 images taken between 1912 and 1918 for the Department of Health. His exterior views show houses hidden in blind alleyways or clustered along main streets that were literally falling apart and sinking into the ground.

Housing No. 28, July. 29, 1936 63-65 Mitchell Ave. Rear City of Toronto Archives, s0372-ss0033-it0028

Throughout his career, Goss had also photographed a wide range of other housing types, including North Toronto farmhouses about to be caught in waves of development, Craftsman Style bungalows spreading over the flat expanses of East York, and the tiny owner-built starter homes that were springing up on the hillsides of Earlscourt.

In 1936, Toronto City Council passed a bylaw requiring landlords to immediately repair sub-standard dwellings or see them demolished. The city was responding to the 1934 Bruce Report on housing commissioned by the provincial government. Goss began his Housing Series three months before the city initiated its program of building inspections under the new bylaw.

Although no administrative records survive, this series was almost certainly undertaken on the authority of the city’s Commissioner of Buildings, Kenneth Gillies. Like Goss, Gillies was a career civil servant who had distinguished himself as an artist. In his earlier role as Assistant City Architect, he had collaborated on the designs of several of the most distinctive public buildings of the interwar period, including the Horse Palace at the CNE and the Water Works complex on Richmond Street West.

Housing No. 97, Nov. 13, 1936, 9-15 Power Street, City of Toronto Archives, s0372-ss0033-it0097

The photos in this series show the variety of housing types to be found in the most blighted downtown neighbourhoods. The Second Empire style was common for row housing, while gothic workers’ cottages and saltbox houses appeared both individually and in rows. Shared architectural elements copied from nineteenth century pattern books gave many of the facades an attractive appearance, despite their condition.

The working-class housing in the city had so far been constructed unconstrained by any municipal building code. Goss’s photos of demolitions on Gilead Place reveal some common structural features. Typically there was no basement. The floor plate was suspended a few inches above the ground on sleepers or wooden piles. The framed walls were sheathed in wide boards, to which the outer cladding was attached.

The cladding materials that appear most often are clapboard and roughcast, a type of stucco that has pebbles and stone fragments embedded in its surface. However, finishing walls in roughcast would seem to have gone out of fashion by the 1930s. The series includes numerous views of newly renovated homes with smooth, whitewashed stucco exteriors.

Housing No. 374, April 12, 1937, 153-157 River Street, City of Toronto Archives, s0372-ss0033-it0374

An important element of Goss’s earlier series on slum housing for the Department of Health was environmental portraiture. Adults and children were photographed in the parlours and bedrooms of dwelling whose sad contents were evenly lit by the photographer’s flash. This later series also includes interior photography, but with a different emphasis. The subject here is not people, but what could be euphemistically described as inadequate sanitary facilities. There are enough starkly lit views of horrid toilets and crude kitchen sinks to make the point about the immediate need for improvement.

Documentary photography is a narrative art form, one in which formal perfection is less important than making images work together. Goss, a master of the documentary mode, maintained the narrative thread of this series for 45 months, progressively adding greater depth while respecting the individuality of each subject.

For me, the evocative power of these images derives in part from the way Goss exploited the changing quality of daylight in different seasons. Surprisingly, he took 352 of the photos, more than half the total number, during the winter months. He seemed to have been unfazed by adverse weather, as demonstrated by the photos he took of Roden Place during a December snowstorm.

Housing No. 468, Dec. 21, 1938, 17-37 Roden Place, City of Toronto Archives, s0372-ss0033-it0468

The quality of light in these images gives evidence of the heavy air pollution that plagued Toronto’s downtown when coal was its principal energy source. Living in a working-class neighbourhood meant living with dirty air. In the group of photos Goss took of housing in lower Cabbagetown on November 13, 1936, buildings in the middle distance disappear in a smoggy haze.

The Bruce Report of 1934 had offered a thorough sociological analysis of Toronto’s housing problems a century after the city’s incorporation. Fortunately, Arthur Goss had the artistic skill, and a mandate, to create a lasting visual document of what the report deals with in abstract terms. Through his efforts, we can better imagine what it was like to be marginally housed in Toronto in that grim era.

Between  1947 and 1968, many of the buildings and streets shown in these images were razed to free up land for the Regent Park and Alexandra Park housing projects, and our new City Hall. However, fragments of the old urban fabric remain, for example, the row houses at 1-15 Percy Street in lower Cabbagetown, which first appeared on a Goad’s Insurance map in 1890. When Goss photographed their Second Empire facades in late afternoon on March 22, 1938, they seemed to be awaiting demolition. Instead, they were renovated and remain in excellent condition today.

For the first part of this series, see The Urban Photography of Arthur Goss, Part 1

Click on any image below to launch the photogallery


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