The name "Cabbagetown" was an epithet used by Toronto's prosperous British residents who were offended by the use of front gardens to grow cabbages and other vegetables by the hundreds of Irish families who had fled famine in the 1840s and found these streets to be their final destination. A mix of prosperous streets, middle class houses and workers enclaves, the area slid into decline well before the Depression. "Cabbagetown" was synonymous for "slum" until the 1970s and 80s when the large stock of decayed but largely untouched Victorian housing was discovered by inner city pioneers and gradually restored as a coherent neighbourhood. Now a village of neighbours within the city, Cabbagetown is a physically beautiful, culturally active mixed-income community. A walk through the district yields surprise streets up unlikely alleys, converted workshops and tiny workers cottages sharing streets with grand homes. Much of the area has been designated a Heritage Conservation District with the benefits and responsibilities that carries.
Cabbagetown is unique in Canada. Its fine representation of architectural and urban design styles, construction technologies, building types and landscapes surround visitors and residents with a sense of history and sense of locality.
An essay could be written to answer the simple question: what are the borders of the area called Cabbagetown? But it is generally accepted that the northern border is Bloor Street/St. James Cemetery, Dundas Street being the southern one. The Don River is the eastern limit, and it goes west to Sherbourne Street. The above excludes St. Jamestown and Regent Park.
Cabbagetown’s cohesive variety of architectural styles, massing scale, height, proportion, materials, colours, textures, rhythm, silhouette, siting, landscape design and spatial and structural elements create a rare “living museum”. It has miles of virtually unbroken Victorian streetscapes, two heritage cemeteries, the Riverdale Farm (yes, a working farm in downtown Toronto), Wellesley Park, Riverdale Park and its grand view across the Don flats and the Don River, and a rich array of trees and shrubs.
The neighbourhood is rich in local and national history: it has been home to a large number of notable people who contributed to major social and political movements and to a vast array of disciplines. These individuals have left a distinct social imprint locally, nationally and globally (the basis for our Cabbagetown People program). Canada’s social history is displayed through the compact Victorian town layout, the later addition of narrow driveways to new homes of the 1920’s “streetcar suburb”, and Spruce Court’s garden city design.
Cabbagetown has been threatened in the past. In the 1950s, local opposition prevented several grand Victorian Carlton Street mansions from being sacrificed to a Don Valley Parkway exit. Developers also lurked. If it were not for the dedication of local residents, Cabbagetown might have become a forest of high-rises, similar to St. Jamestown. The passion behind the activism to protect the architectural integrity and overall “specialness” of Cabbagetown led to the creation of the CPA. Intense local efforts culminated in the designation of most of Cabbagetown as a “heritage conservation district” (HCD).
The historical experience of Cabbagetown is expressed through its streetscape: the building façades, gardens, fences and other elements that are visible from the sidewalk. This area, unique in the density of original buildings and the general quality of restoration, presents a rare view of the 19th century for us today. Homeowners contribute to that when they make changes consistent with the style of their homes.
But first and foremost, Cabbagetown is an enchanting area worth discovering.
History of Cabbagetown in a Nutshell
Cabbagetown was first established in the 1840s, just outside of the newly created city of Toronto, as a northeast “suburb”. Its main thoroughfares were Parliament Street. Parliament is a road that the first Upper Canada Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, cut through the woods to reach his summer camp that was at the north end of what is now Cabbagetown. Winchester Street is the other original thoroughfare. At the east end of Winchester, down in the valley, was Playter’s Bridge over the Don River, linking the developing areas east of the Don (now Riverdale) and the growing city of Toronto.
Cabbagetown developed along these two axes. One of Toronto’s oldest (and still operating) cemeteries, the Necropolis, opened on Winchester Street in 1850. A few other important industries (e.g. the Lamb’s Glue and Blacking Factory and the Toronto General Hospital) opened in the area, providing important sources of employment. Around this time, Cabbagetown developed as a residential area.
In the 1840-50s, many immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine and dreadful conditions in Ireland settled in the east section of Toronto, including the current Cabbagetown, often planting vegetables (especially cabbages) on any piece of land they could find around their small houses. The name "Cabbagetown" was an epithet used by Toronto's prosperous residents of British heritage who were offended by this practice.
Cabbagetown’s prosperity peaked in the late 19th (the majority of Cabbagetown’s stock of homes was built in the 1880s and 1890s) and early 20th century. The First World War had a devastating impact on the area and its population. The area slid into decline well before the 1930s Depression. For several decades following, Cabbagetown became synonymous with “slum” and most of the homes went from single-family dwellings to sketchy rooming houses, forgotten by city planners.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, this large stock of decayed but largely untouched Victorian housing was discovered by clever real estate agents and it was gradually restored as a coherent neighbourhood. This started a gentrification that makes today’s Cabbagetown one of the most beautiful and sought-after areas of Toronto.
The old epithet having become the name of a desired neighbourhood, many Cabbagetowners proudly display the Cabbagetown flag, a variation on the Canadian flag. But the red is replaced by green and a cabbage replaces the maple leaf.