Journey Into Toronto’s Past With Old Toronto

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In the City of Toronto, when you cross the threshold of a century home or stand on a street corner, do you ever wonder about the urban pioneers of the past who may have stood in that same spot, or walked these streetscapes paths decades before you did? Centuries of Torontonians have lived entire lives here, built homes, nurtured business, and knitted communities, forming the neighbourhoods we now treasure. What did Toronto look like through their eyes? How was it different from our own vantage point? How did this place make them feel?

It is certainly true that homes (and the communities that they reside in) are dynamic entities that are constantly evolving, retaining the past while integrating into the present in truly unique ways. Centuries of housing layer on top of each other, characterizing the city’s neighbourhoods with a rich historical context that reflects the design, fashion, economy, demographics, and social culture of generations past.

Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, made headlines recently when they sign a deal to collaborate to build a data-driven, “smart” neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront. They are making innovative strides yet again with the introduction of ‘Old Toronto‘, an open source historical archive that lets users access interactive portal to visit the past – almost literally. The same group has done similar digital imagery projects for New York and San Francisco.

Using Google street maps of Toronto today, ‘Old Toronto’ integrates some 30,000 historical photos inserted as points of interest on a digital map. Users can pull up photos that span anywhere from the last 30 to 150 years. It really gives a unique perspective to how neighbourhoods have evolved the generations and to see the differences and similarities in the buildings, people, technology and other items that signal their spot in history.



When you click on a photo, you get an archival description of the picture, including information regarding the date, title and any copyright restrictions. A single dot on the map can reveal numerous images, many times from different eras in history, giving a full sense of the years gone by.

Images have been mapped using geocoding, which lets programmers map images over Toronto’s current street infrastructure. Admittedly, geocoding is not a perfect process, which means that many images may have incorrect addresses. That’s why user feedback is strongly encouraged to make this tool as accurate as possible.

What is the impetus for this development? Says Sidewalk Labs, “Our goal is to help Torontonians discover something new about their street or city. We think Old Toronto provides a powerful way to visualize the changes that have taken place on a given city block over time.”

For example: Here is a photo of the historic Dineen building in current day (Yonge St  & Temperance, close to Sidewalk Lab’s current office space).


The corner of Yonge and Temperance streets in 2018. (Sidewalk Labs)

Next, Sidwalk Labs displays the same street corner circa 1903. The differences in the older picture (automobiles/vs streetcars), the change in the fashion of the façade of the buildings, and the highly trafficked sidewalks, bustling in full movement of pedestrians, sporting fashions of the day) are subtle, but are very effective visual cues to vividly conjure up images of life in the past. Again, this is fascinating when you consider the corner in the current day, because you are acutely aware that a journey through time has unfolded, ultimately to arrive at the same place.


The corner of Yonge and Temperance streets, circa 1903. (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 311)

You’ve heard the saying, “If walls could talk”. While you may not be able to hear the actual conversation that unfolded between the walls of your home, or at your favourite coffee shop, or down the aisles of your favourite local store, you can now see who some of the players in those stories might have been.

The pictures have been culled from the City of Toronto Archives (which holds more than 1.7 million photos, which date back as far as 1856. About 100,000 of these photos have been digitized) and Sidewalk Labs fully intends to continue to add photographs over time. They also hope to build an aerial-view tool that will let people see how the city has changed over the centuries from a birds eye view.

The data for the tool is currently available on their website and is intended to be open source in the future. Many are calling ‘Old Toronto’ an great opportunity for anyone to become a witness to the city’s past, thanks to these new pinholes through which we can peer through time and space. But “witness” implies inaction, and this isnt just any old photo album! ‘Old Toronto’ represents an opportunity to gain a richer context and appreciation for our daily surroundings, how we intereact with them, and how we can shape them in years to come. That kind of awareness has the potential to be transformative in many ways. As leaders in urban innovation, Sidewalk Labs hopes to encourage collaboration to enrich Toronto’s future offerings.

This is just a reminder of how the digital landscape has evolved over the years to support the consumer’s experience with real estate and design. Today, you have ability to house hunt online, draw inspiration for design and décor from a myriad of home media sites and now get real-time historical context for areas of real estate interest. As technology evolves, our experience as users is enriched, and in this case both fascinating and humbling, as we can literally see our places in history as homeowners.

Here are a number of stories that delve a little deeper into Old Toronto and its capabilities: “Sidewalk Labs showcases two new Toronto-focused apps”, “Sidewalk Labs Creates Interactive Photo Map of Old Toronto”, “Travel through time across Toronto with help from Google’s Sidewalk Labs”, “New website gives Torontonians a glimpse of the city’s past” and “Explore Toronto through historical photos — one block at a time”.

With over two decades of experience in the real estate trenches, I’ve seen firsthand how real estate physically and technologically has changed. I’ve always made staying abreast of technology and tools to provide Buyers and Sellers with the best opportunities a priority. We are here to help!


~ The Urbaneer Team

Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-8000

– we’re here to earn your trust, then your business –

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