Sunday, December 06, 2015

Neighbourhood History


Over the past few weeks I have been using the City of Toronto archives to build a social history of a few houses in the neighbourhood. When I began the project years ago I intended to look at the history of the house and who had lived here, but once I began going through the records I found myself recording the information for the houses both north and south of the house. I only looked at one side of the street because the assessments were sorted by odd and even streets meaning records were not always located beside each other on the microfilms. 

I began by looking at the assessment records which are mostly on microfilm. As anyone who has used microfilm knows it is a slow process that requires patience and time. At my best I was able to work through a decade a day, leaving my eyes exhausted after scrolling through rolls of microfilm.  Surprisingly there is a lot of information in the assessments, including name, address, age or birthdate, occupation, owners or tenants, religion, the number of residents and at times the number of dogs in a house. This wealth of information allows any researcher with the time and patience to scroll through the microfilms to build a history not only of each house but also of the larger neighbourhood. You get an idea of movement patterns, class and status by looking at the records over time. Combining this with similar information in the City Directories creates a nice view of how neighbourhoods developed and changed over time. 

Sadly, as ideas about public information changed in the late 20th-century, the assessments stopped including the detailed information and became in 1973 only a listing of owners or tenants and assessed tax values for each property. When I explained this to the archivists they were surprised to learn that such information was available even to 1973. From the late 19th-century until 1983 all the assessment records were on microfilm. From 1983 to 1997 the assessments changed from microfilm to microfiche and then after 1997, to the actual hard copy of the assessments which had to be requested from archival storage. These requests take time as researchers are only allowed 5 items for each retrieval which can take up to an hour to be pulled. Earlier this week I finally finished the last hard copy boxes available at the archives allowing me to bring my database up to 2013. Records after this are held by the city and not available in the archives. 

After completing everything this week it occurred to me that I might not be the only person interested in such research and thought I could offer my time and skills to anyone else wanting to research the social history of their home. If anyone is interested please feel free to contact me and I would be happy to help or conduct the research myself for a small fee.I know services like this are offered by lawyers when one purchases a house, but the information does not include the social histories that can unfold when one takes time to search through the assessment records.  

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