Strengthening Community through Digitized Local History

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The most common question I get when people ask where I live is: “Why are you still living there?” I live near Jane-Finch and York University in Toronto, a neighbourhood better known for its crime and distance from key services than its rich cultural and community life. Over the past five-and-a-half years, however, I have learned that my neighbourhood’s bark is worse than its bite. I like where I live and a recent Toronto Public Library history project does a really great job at demonstrating some of the reasons why.

Over this past summer and fall the York Woods branch of the Toronto Public Library has been engaging with seniors and high school students to create the Black Creek Living History project. This project aims to tell the story of my neighbourhood through its people and resources. By giving voice to the everyday stories from this community this history-based website helps to demonstrate why thousands of people have chosen to call Jane-Finch/York University home and reinforces the sense of community in this neighbourhood.

At the heart of this project are interviews with local seniors conducted by high school students. The interviews tell the story of the community’s transformation from a small agricultural community to one of the most culturally diverse neighbourhoods in Toronto. The people being interviewed describe migrating to the community from elsewhere in Canada and around the world, the growth of suburban Toronto and public housing, the important role that green space played in drawing people to the community, and the impact of the growth of York University (one of Canada’s largest universities) in their backyard.

In addition to the oral histories, the library ran three guest lectures and a bus tour on the history of northwest Toronto. In the videos available on the website Wendy Rowney, the interpretive co-ordinator at Black Creek Pioneer Village, discusses the 19th century history of the area. Jay Todd, director of Park Management at Downsview Park, discusses the development of Downsview, Ontario which grew in the 20th century due to the creation of a military base and airplane factory in the neighbourhood. Finally, Barbara Myrvold, a specialist on local history at the library, shares some of the library’s resources and practices of the local historian.

Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of this online resource is the collection of photographs detailing the rapid transformation of this neighbourhood. Within a decade and a half the area was transformed from an agricultural space to a suburban space with a growing university nearby. Although perhaps more dramatic and significant than in many other areas, the photos tell the story of suburban growth; its themes played out similarly throughout urban North America.

But where suburbs tend to disrupt the connections to the past through the landscape, the Black Creek Living History project does an excellent job at demonstrating the deep and continuous history of this neighbourhood. The project reminds us that today’s borders and boundaries, often determined by urban planners in the 1960s and 1970s, were once seen as important points of connection. It serves as a good reminder that the way in which we engage with everyday places changes over time based on community and planning decisions.

The Black Creek Living History project is a great example of how community history can be told over the internet. Projects like this provide the opportunity to engage community members in creating the site’s content, the flexibility to present information in a variety of formats, and present your community’s past to a broad audience. Perhaps most importantly though, they creates a resource that can challenge us to think more deeply about where we live and the way past decisions have shaped how we go about our daily tasks and our sense of community.

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