When her new backyard chickens began to destroy her native species garden Lorraine Johnson felt torn. On one hand, she was immensely enjoying life with the three “girls”. Not only was there a steady supply of fresh eggs, the chickens were a source of constant diversion and she suddenly enjoyed the cachet of being part of an underground movement. The down side was that her beautiful garden would not long survive the presence of the scratching, pecking juggernauts. What to do? Lorraine humorously explores the web of values, feelings and facts around backyard chicken-keeping in City Farmer: Adventures in Urban food growing. She and Jill, local urban farmer, chicken owner and blogger joined market square this Saturday. Discussion among the many who stopped to celebrate the chicken and two quails touched on the city’s backyard chicken ban dating from the early 1980’s, the set-back two years ago for the urban chicken lobby and the fate of Lorraine’s chickens.
The incompatibility of poultry-raising and gardening became evident to residents of this area 100 years ago. On June 6, 1914 the Dovercourt Land, Building & Savings Company, launched a yard beautification competition. Any home owner who was not a professional gardener could qualify. Competitors were asked to send in a “before” photograph so that judges could gauge how, by the August deadline, the “after” was dramatically different. Many scrambled to whip their yards into shape in a district notorious for its under-construction look.
That Spring, the Toronto Housewives League, concerned about inflation and suspicious of price fixing among retailers, had been raising support for neighborhood farmers markets. The idea was taken up by the district’s market gardeners and flower growers keen to sell directly to local consumers. The British Imperial League, a local society reflecting the strong British presence in Wychwood-Bracondale-Oakwood-Earlscourt, backed this venture as a showcase of personal industry and boost to local economy.
. The Star June 6, 1914 p.11
The developers hoped to nudge local culture and landscaping from a rural to an urban ethos with the beautification contest. Those who grew food and kept chickens were seen with new, critical eyes by neighbours eager to complement the straight edges of the new plank sidewalks with picket fences and tidy flower beds
Two years before, a bylaw had been introduced requiring all animal owners to buy permits at a dollar a head for each animal. The Star estimated that there were between four and five thousand hen owners in the city. The fees collected would be directed to the Health Department to support its expanding control over private and public space. The permit system enabled inspectors to check if animals were being properly cared for, housed at a specific distance from the owner’s house and kept under sanitary conditions.
In the district known as “the Ward” chicken warehouses and scenes of trade in live chickens became subject of press photographs and hand-coloured lantern slides by William James. In this neighbourhood, immigrants held fast to the customs of their rural European and Russian roots. Their close quarters with animals was, for many Torontonians, emblematic of their foreign character and antithetical to modern urban life; a view seemingly validated with the introduction of the 1912 bylaw.
A century later, Jill’s chicken confidently assumed its role as the star of the Wychwood farmers’s market. To many older community members she brought memories of a life with animals. For parents and other adults she provoked many questions on the feasibility of keeping chickens as pets and as an element of sustainable living. For market visitors of all ages she sparked a yearning to re-establish a century-old broken link between the rural and urban life.
Bassnett, Sarah and Patrick Mahon. Picturing Immigrants in the Ward: How photography shaped ideas about Central and Eastern European immigrants in early 20th-century Toronto. City of Toronto Archives Gallery. June 21, 2012 – May 2013.