7 News Archive
South of St. James Town

As its name would suggest South of St. James Town is the area just to the South of the St. James Town apartments, roughly bordered by Wellesley, Sherbourne, Carlton and Parliament Streets. Like the nearby neighbourhood of Don Vale and St. James Town (before it was demolished), at the beginning of the 20th century the South of St. James Town neighbourhood housed a mix of working and middle-class residents. As time passed, however, wealthier residents followed the city limits north and by World War II the area was predominantly working-class and poor.

In the mid-1960s a housing development company named Meridian had bulldozed the St. James Town neighbourhood to build market-rate apartment buildings. In the process they had encountered a great deal of resistance, especially to their practice of acquiring property (so they could tear it down) through a technique called blockbusting. In order to pressure single family homeowners to sell to their company Meridian would convert the houses they did own to cramped rooming houses and then hire middle-men to rent them out to low-income people. Representatives of Meridian would then describe to local residents how the neighbourhood was declining and push them to sell while they could still get something for their homes.

After they acquired the land for the original St. James Town apartments, Meridian turned their attention to the neighbourhood to the south. There too they began the same practice of converting family housing to rooming houses and using middle-men to create slum-like conditions. This time, however, organizers like John Sewell and John Whitelaw began to circulate in the neighbourhood to build popular opposition to Meridian. One of the goals of this movement was to force Meridian to cease renting their building through middle-men, a practice that effectively protected them from being labelled slum-lords. At one meeting with Meridian representative Philip Roth in 1970, local residents of Bleeker and Ontario Street demanded that Meridian eliminate the middle-man. Roth refused, but countered by saying he would allow resident ally John Sewell to act as landlord, and Sewell accepted.

Over the coming year Sewell and his tenants fought frequently with Meridian over rent costs and the conditions of their agreement. Then in 1971, Roth met with Sewell to demand that he return the houses. Sewell consulted with the residents association and refused. Over the next few months Sewell and his allies fought Meridian in the courts and occasionally on the streets. In the fall of 1971 a Meridian representative tried to forcibly enter one of the homes with a police escort, when they were confronted by neighbour Bob Sankey who told them to leave. A few days later, 30 police officers showed up to arrest Sankey on trumped up charges.

In the end, however, Meridian did not demolish the homes and most of the South of St. James Town tenants were allowed to stay put. Like in neighbouring Don Vale, however, the neighbourhood increasingly became a destination for "whitepainters" who renovated homes and increased the property values in the neighbourhood. Today, most rent prices are too high for low-income people to afford and have, effectively, pushed those same people who fought against Meridian out of the neighbourhood.

Kevin Brushett, "Blots on the Face of the City: The Politics of Slum Housing and Urban Renewal in Toronto 1940-1970" (PhD diss., Queen's University, 2001)

John Sewell, Up against City Hall (Toronto: James and Lorimer & Company, 1972)