Harbord Village is a diverse and thriving residential and commercial neighbourhood in Toronto's downtown core. Enclosed by Spadina and Bathurst to the east and west and by Bloor and College to the north and south, with Harbord Street running through the centre, Harbord Village connects to two subway lines and four streetcar lines. It contains two elementary schools (Lord Lansdowne and King Edward Public Schools), and one specialized high school whose students come from all over the city (Central Technical School). A large senior-care complex and a palliative-care hospice are also located here.
With the exception of an orchard and a handful of older houses — no longer standing — the neighbourhood was not developed until the 1870s, when sections of several streets were parcelled off for development. At that time it lay on the northwestern edge of Toronto, technically within the city limits but not serviced by municipal utilities. In the 1880s and 90s, when the city's population exploded and the city began to quickly expand, the rest of its streets were developed and many lots were subdivided to build more densely. Bloor and College Streets became primarily commercial while smaller businesses dotted every residential block.
The initial residents were almost exclusively either "Canadian" or immigrants from the British Isles. Working-class families predominated, often led by men in the building trades, but there was a mix of white-collar residents as well. Some portions of the neighbourhood, most notably along Brunswick Avenue south of Ulster, were built for more affluent middle-class families. Housing was dense, predominantly two-storey houses, many in what has been termed the archetypal Torontonian "Bay and Gable" style, usually sharing at least one wall with a neighbour.
By the 1920s affluent families began leaving the neighbourhood, usually to more recently built sections of the city. Now a more diverse population was able to buy and rent property, including descendants of slaves who had escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. The area became a reception area for diverse groups of immigrants, especially Jewish Eastern Europeans (many of whom worked in the garment district along nearby Spadina Avenue). Stores catering to these ethnic groups flourished, both on the commercial streets and the residential ones. Some churches were converted into synagogues, while others changed denomination (and sometimes language of worship) to meet the needs of the newcomers. Most of the houses were adapted to house multiple families, along with roomers. Light industry, such as dairies, appeared in some of the laneways.
In a time of real hardship there was significant solidarity amongst the residents, despite their differing ethnicities and religious beliefs. Many felt excluded from the white, Protestant, "Anglo" society that dominated Toronto. In 1933, when a fight broke out at nearby Christie Pits between fascist supporters and the local, largely Jewish, Harbord Playground baseball team, hundreds of residents — Jews and Gentile — ran to support “their boys” in what became one of the largest riots in Canadian history.
By the 1940s and 50s there were almost no "English" residents left. The local schools were filled with children who spoke English on the street but another language at home. The neighbourhood was considered to be a slum and the residents, once they earned enough money to move to a better area, usually did.
In the 1950s and 60s increasing numbers of Italian and then Portuguese immigrants came, often buying houses from Jewish families who were moving north. The city decided that the area was ripe for slum clearance and began planning to raze many of the old houses to make way for modern apartment towers, in conjunction with its plan to build the Spadina Expressway along the eastern edge of the neighbourhood. However, by the late 1960s a new group of residents was beginning to settle, young professionals who wanted to return to "the city" and were attracted by the old, affordable (if often dilapidated) houses. Many of these newcomers organized to defend their homes, forming the Sussex-Ulster Residents' Association (SURA). Although the city did raze a block of houses, only two high rises along Spadina were completed, and the Spadina Expressway was stopped.
With the neighbourhood’s future looking more secure, more young people moved in — many the offspring of parents who had fled downtown Toronto decades earlier. These newcomers were enchanted by the Victorian architecture, the proximity of stores and amenities, the walkability and community spirit that they found here. SURA continued to be active, introducing the first traffic maze in Toronto, south of Harbord, and negotiating the use of the former Doctor's Hospital as a temporary shelter for the homeless.
In 2000 SURA recreated itself as the Harbord Village Residents' Association (HVRA), named after Harbord Street, which bisects the neighbourhood. Through HVRA's efforts, several streets are now recognized as heritage conservation districts. Many of the houses have been renovated to restore their original Victorian details, sometimes by people who grew up in the district and have moved back. Others house multiple generations of families who came here decades ago, and about 40% contain at least one rental flat. Despite soaring property values, the neighbourhood continues to attract a dynamic and diverse mix of residents. Much like the city of Toronto, it has built upon its Victorian roots and evolved into a thriving 21st century community.