By delivering to the same houses that we were growing from and keeping it so tight so that it was like cycling energy in a tight space, people would start to recognize—‘that’s where my food comes from.’
Jason Hirsch, Neighbourhood Farm
Startup shack pays tribute to a neighbourhood food project launched last summer by Jason Hirsch. With the Neighbourhood Farm he set out to solve a cluster of related problems—young urban farmers without land, under-used backyards, a yearning to be connected to food growing and locally produced food, and a lack of meaningful relations between neighbours.
Neighbourhood Farm put young farmers to work on backyards volunteered by home-owners who received a portion of the harvest. It sold and delivered by bicycle the freshly harvested vegetables as well as the products of other small local vendors within the same neighbourhood. It gave grocery buying and farming a local face and cultivated relations between people who would not otherwise know each other. The business depended on Toronto’s midtown density to peddle/pedal a model of food production and retailing to people who wanted to go beyond the sterile shopping experience offered by the large grocery stores.
Jason, unknowingly, was demonstrating a spirit of entrepreneurship and neighbourly self-sufficiency that a century ago was associated with his territory of North Dovercourt, Bracondale and Earlscourt. Dotted with flimsy, provisional homes built by newly arrived English immigrants who were searching for cheap land outside the city limits, the area became known as “shack town”.
Land agents sold attached housing lots with the promise that the rich soil and lack of bylaws provided ideal conditions to launch a small scale market gardening business. The beguiling vision was that this “startup’ could be combined with a factory job, the initial shack could gradually take more substantial form and, when the district was inevitably amalgamated by the city and property values rose the land owner could sell his neighbouring lots at great profit.
The Toronto Daily Star July 10, 1913
“PRATT ESTATE…We have thousands of workingmen on our books who have bought market gardens in half acre and acre lots with $25.00 as a down payment and large numbers of them have erected their own homes and grown produce of all kinds…
BE A LITTLE FARMER… Live on your own land—you can’t imagine how independent you feel until you try it. In a few years as the city extends you will be able to cut up your land into a number of city lots and sell at a big profit.”
children piggy-backing, Earlscourt
The “Earlscourt Shackers” were celebrated in the local press at a moment when the visible poverty in the heart of the city became cause for alarm. The Ward, the area behind old city hall was associated with “foreigners” exploited by landlords who rented rooms in run-down old houses. For Methodist and Baptist Torontonians, many with rural roots, who saw their city transform into a modern metropolis in the years before the First World War, the Earlscourt Shackers, with their self-sufficiency and quest for open spaces, embodied English values transplanted to Canada.
The Toronto Star Weekly Dec. 3, 1910
“Slum Conditions Develop As Toronto Concentrates—Evidence Shows That Eligible Candidates for The Star Santa Claus Fund Are Decreasing in the Suburbs, But Increasing In the Congested Sections of the City”
Few people in Toronto realize how rapidly the city is acquiring slums.… poverty is concentrating in the down town sections,” says Mr. Alfred Cywll, City Relief Officer. “The poor in the suburbs are getting on their feet and we receive few applications for assistance from them.” … Conditions in “The Ward— Miss C. Cook of the Toronto Mission… often feels the truth of the proverb, “the poor will always be with us.” One of her assistants was accompanied by a Star photographer this week in the homes of some of the poorest citizens in her care. They went through “The Ward” which contains a large foreign population and secured illustrations which speak for themselves…
Better in the Suburbs—It is cheering to philanthropic workers to know that while poverty is on the increase in the more densely populated centres of the city, it is on the decrease in the outskirts. The poor there seem to be able to get on their feet. Instead of living in tenement houses in constant dread of landlords, they put up little shacks on their own diminutive bits of ground. The result is that in a few years they own their modest homes.
The Toronto Star Weekly Jan. 18, 1913
EARLSCOURT “SHACKERS’ NOW BECOMING QUITE WELL-TO-DOAfter Four or Five Years Many of Them own Several Lots Besides Their Own, and Have Creditable Bank Accounts—Successful Struggle Against Great Odds
Considering what a young district Earlscourt is, and how very limited are the opportunities of its residents—probably a majority of whom are unskilled workmen—it is astonishing how many people have become capitalists in a small way. …Like so many Old Country people, when they first come to Canada, he and his family had to contend with a whole lot of sickness at first. There were three children when they came and three more have arrived since… He lived in a shack and built two-storeyed brick-veneered house on the same plot as the shack. Now he has moved from the shack to the house and rents the shack.
The Small Capitalists—Of the twenty or thirty stores in Earlscourt, the three largest are kept respectively by two Canadians and a Newfoundlander. But at least two Englishmen have also done remarkably well as shopkeepers.
Generally, however, the ambition of the Earlscourt Old Countryman is to own his home—the land hunger is strong in the British breast—and he builds the house himself as a rule, although his time for doing so is necessarily limited to holidays and after work hours.
Christie and Davenport streets ca. 1913
To set up backyard market gardens Jason Hirsch examined Goad’s Fire Maps to ensure that none of the properties were on a former site of a soil-contaminating factory. At the end of the 19th century the railways that ran parallel to Dupont Road drew industries to locate along its tracks. While some of the backyards were near the industrial zones, fortunately none were in affected areas.
map showing some of the Neighbourhood Farm’s backyard sites
Goad’s Fire Map 1910 Ward 6, hand-drawn circles show location of some Neighbourhood Farm backyards
The dark side of homesteading in districts without such essential services as sewers, paved roads, and electricity were the frequent fires kindled by open flames in the flammable shacks. With few fire halls and telephones boxes to raise the alarm as well as often impassable streets, homes were often burnt to the ground and residents were badly injured or killed before official help arrived.
The Toronto Daily Star, Jan.9, 1913
A century ago in Toronto the fear of urban density, seen as the evil of “congestion”, caused a perception of the city’s downtown as a crucible of corrupting influences. In contrast, the wide-open spaces of the suburbs were seen to provide the ideal conditions to develop model, self-sufficient citizenry.
Today, the Neighbourhood Farm proposes the antithetical perspective—that it is the proximity of our lives in dense neighbourhoods that provide the ideal setting in which to weave small vibrant local economies from untapped human and natural resources. In short, Jason Hirsch and other creators of brave young start-ups teach us that it is the consciousness of our interdependence rather than independence that make us ideal 21st century urban dwellers.
Thank you Kaya Karpinska and Thomas McGuire for startup shack graffiti.Paint for the shack was bought at Maple Paints, 635 St. Clair Ave. W. and the shack (wardrobe box) at Dr. Copy, 637 St. Clair Ave. W. Shop local.