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2007 01 16
Imagining Toronto | Reading Sally Gibson’s Inside Toronto: Urban Interiors 1880s to 1920s
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A geographer by day and interior design fetishist by night, I lusted after a copy of Sally Gilbson's Inside Toronto: Urban Interiors 1880s to 1920s (Cormorant, 2006) the moment I saw it at David Mirvish Books late last fall. It was the photographs of lodging houses and factory floors that captured my gaze, alongside the portraits of Union Station, underground tunnels, libraries, stairwells, clubs, banks, kitchens and parlours, rarely seen interior images of a city straining toward modernity. Combined with Gibson's meticulously annotated commentary, Inside Toronto fills a considerable gap in Toronto's social history by offering visual evidence of how people actually lived.

A large-format coffee-table-style book, Inside Toronto is attractively presented, but it is more than just light reading. Gibson, an archivist with the City of Toronto who holds a PhD in Urban Geography, harnesses the images to explore intersections between what she calls the "physical spectrum" and the "social spectrum" of lived spaces occupied by paupers, immigrants, businessmen, and magnates. The book begins with a short history of the photographic innovations that enabled interior imaging in the first place, and then proceeds, through a series of richly illustrated and interwoven essays, to examine the social and architectural, and aesthetic significance of Toronto's interior spaces for individuals as well as to the city as a whole.

In her efforts to expose the living and working conditions of the poor as well as the powerful, Gibson's commentary suggests the existence of a close intersection between justice-focused and voyeuristic interests in using photography to record social conditions. Many of the images of lodging houses and the dwellings of the urban underclass were taken by the City's official photographer, Arthur Goss (at the behest of the City's evidently crusading Medical Health Officer Dr. Charles Hastings) as part of a program to expose and ameliorate deplorable living conditions. But it is clear that some of these images were intended to satisfy voyeuristic appetites as well: many of the images in the book appeared initially in the Toronto Globe newspaper, and more than a few of the excerpts Gibson quotes suggest that their writers reveled a little in moral superiority at the squalor and horror of the lives of the 'great unwashed' depicted in some of the images. Similarly, the photographs of some of the city's more richly adorned salons and ballrooms (published originally in magazines like Saturday Night) seem to have been meant to serve the public's voracious interest in the lives of the rich and powerful, as well as to record for posterity the legacies of Toronto's prominent industrialists and politicians. At both ends of the social and physical spectrum, these photographs captured the city's desires as well as its fears. The middle class (whose interiors are depicted too), provide a more prosaic but no less fascinating record of technological as well as cultural change.

Toronto is fortunate to have accumulated an excellent list of urban, social, and architectural histories including Eric Arthur's periodically revised (most recently by Stephen Otto) Toronto: No Mean City (University of Toronto Press, 1964 through 2003), Mike Filey's The Way We Were series, and a diverse array of other scholarly and popular commentaries on the city's past and present. Inside Toronto is an especially valuable addition because it links many of their themes and arguments together, especially the complex connections between architecture, technology, city growth and everyday life.

[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes about new, classic, and evocative Toronto literature every Tuesday.]

[Below, an image of a home office interior in Toronto, circa 2007, showing the combination of personal aesthetics and messy efficiency such spaces exemplify. Personal collection.]

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[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 01/16 at 01:03 PM

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