Old Toronto: Find Your Street in The 20th Century

Ever wondered what used to sit on your street corner 50 years ago? Well, now you can find out.

 Courtesy of SideWalk Labs

Courtesy of SideWalk Labs

Ever wondered what used to sit on your street corner 50 years ago? How about 100 years ago? The old streetcars, the eloquent fashion? Horse-drawn carriages, wide streets and colourful neon signs? First Nations people still somehow unable to vote? Well, maybe you haven’t, but if you’re even the slightest bit curious, now you can find out.

Created by Sidewalk Labs, Old Toronto is an open-source, interactive map tool that allows users to browse through the City of Toronto Archives and view over 30,000 historic photographs. With photos dating back to 1856, Old Toronto’s goal is “to help Torontonians discover something new about their street or city.

 Between 1978-1980, “Devonian Pond” (a.k.a Lake Devo, Ryerson).

Between 1978-1980, “Devonian Pond” (a.k.a Lake Devo, Ryerson).

This 40-year-old photo of Gould street shows Lake Devo and a lack of colourful mirages from the now Image Arts building, back when the university was called the Ryerson Polytechnic Institute.

 Gould Street looking west to Yonge, 1980s, featuring Sam the Tape Man, an additional Sam the Record Man property. Ryerson’s modern SLC library building now occupies the space.

Gould Street looking west to Yonge, 1980s, featuring Sam the Tape Man, an additional Sam the Record Man property. Ryerson’s modern SLC library building now occupies the space.

 Bay Street looking north towards Queen Street, 1901. Foresters’ Arch for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York.

Bay Street looking north towards Queen Street, 1901. Foresters’ Arch for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York.

 Spadina Avenue, looking south from Queen Street, 1914

Spadina Avenue, looking south from Queen Street, 1914

While there are a variety of interesting shots of the city over the last hundred years, a common theme is the number of green spaces and subsequently, the lack of now-dominant high-rises. Personally, I love seeing the history of the city I live and go to school in. With a click of my mouse, I’m able to find out what the Toronto Harbourfront looked like in the 1930s and see Front Street in the 1950s.

While I’m easily distracted by the historic shots of the city, I was also interested in exploring the familiar name of the company that created this tool: Sidewalk Labs.

Using a process known as “geocoding,” Sidewalk Labs were able to use the titles of archived photos to give them a latitude and longitude for mapping purposes. However, they weren’t the first to use this technology for mapping the city’s archives. OldNYC was created by two New York engineers who turned it into a mobile app for people to investigate as they move through the city.

 A screenshot of the OldNYC map tool with photos dating back to 1800.

A screenshot of the OldNYC map tool with photos dating back to 1800.

Sidewalk Labs is owned by the same parent company that owns Google: Alphabet. Along with creating Old Toronto, Sidewalk Labs is also the winning start-up behind a competition in October which named Toronto as the location for the first “Smart City”. Working alongside Waterfront Toronto, the two organizations have combined forces to create Sidewalk Toronto, to develop the Quayside area as the “world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”

Re-imaging the area’s housing, energy, mobility, social services, and shared public spaces, the Smart City would include things like a thermal grid to self-heat and cool buildings. It would also have a unique food disposal system, car-free streets only for bikes, pedestrians and emergency vehicles, sidewalk snow melters and use primarily eco-friendly materials to cut back on waste.

Some don’t think this whole “Smart City” venture is such a good idea, especially because attempts in the past in Abu Dhabi and South Korea “have fallen far short of their tech-utopian promises.” To me, it sounds like designing the story world layout of a futuristic video game, but for real life in a real city. Either way, Sidewalk Labs and Sidewalk Toronto are attention grabbing start-ups working on some pretty thought provoking projects and I look forward to seeing what they come up with in the future.

Visit for more info:

Old Toronto interactive tool: https://oldtoronto.sidewalklabs.com
Sidewalk Toronto website: https://sidewalktoronto.ca/#vision