Saturday, December 28, 2013

My Twelve Most Favourite Posts from 2013

Well, we've finally come to the end of a pretty terrible year for the city of Toronto. Ice storms, floods, crack cocaine. But 2013 was actually a pretty wonderful year for the Toronto Dreams Project. I launched ten brand new dreams, started the Toronto Historical Jukebox, teamed up with the AGO, and published a whole whack of blogposts — both here and over at Spacing. Now, as the year winds down, I've got the perfect opportunity to be completely self-indulgent and look back at some of the posts I had the most fun writing in 2013. And you've got the perfect opportunity to catch any of the best stuff you might have missed over the course of the last twelve months. I've picked my favourite dozen stories — some of them are also the most popular; some are just personal faves. But hopefully you'll enjoy them all. And have a wonderful New Year.

Here we go:

How Napoleon Bonaparte Is Indirectly Responsible For One Of The Best Walking Trails in Toronto
One of my very favourite places in Toronto is the Mast Trail. It's in Rouge Park on the very eastern edge of the city, right on the border with Pickering. The forests there are absolutely gorgeous. So beautiful, in fact, that Rouge Park is slated to become a national park. But the natural beauty is only part of why I love it so much. It also has a rich heritage stretching back into prehistory, through the days of the First Nations and the first French explorers into the reign of the British Empire. In this post from February, I told one of my favourite Rouge Park stories: how the Mast Trails owes its beginning to the war with Napoleon.

Toronto s Stalingrad
I've long been fascinated by Canadian attitudes toward Communism. In particular, the way public opinion and official government policy has swung wildly back and forth on the subject. Some days, the Prime Minster is trying to have the leader of the Canadian Communist Party assassinated. Other days, Eaton's department stores are putting together window displays glorifying Stalin. So I was intrigued when I stumbled across a mention of a mostly forgotten chapter from Toronto's history: the time we "adopted" the Soviet city of Stalingrad. It was during the Second World War, after one of the bloodiest battles in history. And the post I wrote about it in March is still one of my favourites from 2013.

Toronto's First Great Baseball Team — the old-timey Toronto Baseball Club of 1887
Back in April, baseball fans in Toronto were full of optimism. The Blue Jays had just traded for some of the biggest stars in the sport. Las Vegas was declaring our team to be World Series favourites. So I seized the opportunity to write about some of the rich history that baseball enjoys in Toronto, which stretches back to about a century before our city got our first major league team. Our first championship came all the way back in 1887 thanks to a team filled with memorable characters and superstars. I wrote about them in this post on Opening Day.

Lee's Palace Before It Was Lee's Palace
My most popular post of 2013 was about what Lee's Palace looked like before it became Lee's Palace. The building — which is now one of most famous music venues in Toronto — started out all the way back in the spring of 1919. It was a silent movie theatre back then, designed by an architect who would make his name building some of the most beautiful modern masterpieces from Detroit's golden age. The post about Lee's has been racking up page views since I first published it back in May.

The Story Behind the Sakura Blossoms of High Park
This was a particularly good year for the cherry blossoms in High Park. They burst into full bloom just in time for one of the very first weekends of gorgeous weather we got to enjoy this Spring. Thousands upon thousands of people flooded to the slope above Grenadier Pond to take a look, snap some Instagram pics, or have a picnic under the beautiful pink and white flowers. Few of them, I suspect, knew the history behind the trees. I certainly didn't until I got home and Googled it. The trees were a gift from the people of Tokyo, commemorating Toronto's welcoming of Japanese-Canadians during one of the darkest episodes in Canadian history. I told the story in a post I published during that weekend of warm weather back in May.

A Brief History of the Pigeons of Toronto
This might very well be my favourite post of the entire year. Pretty much ever since I started the Dreams Project, I'd been thinking about the pigeons in our city. Where the hell they all came from — and why urban pigeons here look like urban pigeons everywhere else. I finally dug into the research for the post this summer, and used it as an opportunity to also explore the history of the wild Passenger Pigeons who used to live here. There were billions of them in North America when the first Europeans arrived. When Toronto was first founded, they flew above our city in flocks so huge they could block out of the sun for days on end. And yet, by the early 1900s, there wasn't a single bird left on Earth. It's one of the most disturbing — and, I think, most important — stories from the history of our city. I wrote about it in this post in June.

A Bird's-Eye Tour of Toronto in the Early 1930s
Some of my favourite posts to write are the ones where I take an old map or an archival photo and add a legend to it. That's what did with this aerial photo of the city taken back in the early 1930s. It was a fascinating period in the history of Toronto. As I point out in the post, many of the city's most beautiful landmarks opened in the few years leading up to this photo: everything from Maple Leaf Gardens to Union Station to what was, at the time, the tallest skyscraper in the British Empire. Many of them would remain our most striking new architectural icons for years to come — the Great Depression and the Second World War meant that most other major building projects would be put on hold. It's been one of the most popular posts on the blog since I published it back in July.

Simcoe's Vision for Toronto: A City So Awesome It Would Undo The American Revolution
Since Toronto was founded only about 200 years ago, we've got a much closer connection to our roots than many of the cities in the rest of the world. We're particularly lucky to have records kept by the founders of our metropolis. Elizabeth Simcoe's diary is one my favourite Toronto documents, telling the story of the earliest days of the building of our city, while she and her family lived in a tent on the beach by the lake. But this post is about a letter written by her husband, John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant Governor who founded Toronto back in 1793. He wrote it to a famous British scientist before he'd even left England for Canada — and in it, he lays out his vision for what he hoped Toronto would become. As I say in the post, "His plan, in short, was to make our city and our province so undeniably amazing that Americans couldn't help but realize how terrible America was by comparison. They would voluntarily give up their silly notions of independence and beg to be let back into the Empire." I published this post in August.

Star Trek & Nathan Phillips Square
Toronto, as it turns out, has a particularly strong connection to science-fiction. And that might not be too surprising when you take a look at City Hall: that alien modernist masterpiece built in the 1960s. In fact, it's turned up in the world of Star Trek on two different occasions. Once in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and once in a weird Star Trek comic book. The post I wrote about it has been one of the most popular posts on the site since I published it in September.

Toronto's Lucky Lion: The Story of One of Our Most Famous Early Monuments
As I mentioned above, the Toronto Dreams Project teamed up with Art Gallery of Ontario in 2013. I wrote three new dreams about Torontonian artists with work in the AGO's Canadian Collection. One of then was Francis Loring. She and her partner Florence Wyle were two of the most interesting figures I've come across since I started the project. They were both sculptors who moved here from the States in the early 1900s. Their home became the closest thing our city had to the Bohemian art salons of Paris. They became good friends with the Group of Seven and Dr. Frederick Banting. And their work can still be found all over the city. Loring's crowning achievement was the so-called "Lucky Lion" at the entrance to the QEW. Once, it was once of our city's most famous landmarks; today, it's mostly forgotten. And the story of how that happened seemed particularly important in September, while Toronto debated what should be done with the glowing neon disks of the Sam the Record Man sign.

A.Y. Jackson Goes To War — The Group of Seven on the Western Front
Another one of the artists I wrote a dream about for the AGO was the Group of Seven's A.Y. Jackson. He, too, has a fascinating history. I was particularly interested by his experiences during the First World War. He would eventually become one of the most famous artists in Canadian history, but back then his modernist work was being dismissed as meaningless rubbish. He enlisted, fought on the frontlines at Ypres, and was wounded before finally being saved: he was commissioned as an official war artist. His paintings of the Western Front are hauntingly beautiful — and an amazing piece of Canadian history. I wrote about Jackson's time in Europe and those incredible paintings in this post from November.

The Torontonian Roots of Doctor Who — the Canadian Behind the Legendary TV Show
On a completely nerdy personal note, I'm also going to remember about 2013 as the year I discovered how awesome Doctor Who is. I've been completely obsessed with the show it ever since. (I even write about every new episode over at The Little Red Umbrella). So I was stunned and thrilled to learn that the quintessentially British show was actually created by a Torontonian, Sydney Newman. And that he played an extremely important role in the history of Canadian film and television. He ran the NFB and was the head of Drama for the CBC; he's even the guy who put Hockey Night In Canada and the Grey Cup on television for the very first time. I looked forward to writing a post about Newman for most of the year, and finally published this post during Doctor Who's 50th anniversary last month.

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