From Field Trip to Walking Tour: Animals in the City

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This is the fifth in a series called “Get Outside!” about field trips and teaching environmental history outside the classroom. You can find the other posts here.

Name and School: Sean Kheraj, York University

Course: HIST 4530 Development of Toronto

This is an urban history course that examines the history of the city of Toronto from the early nineteenth century to the near present. In this course, we cover a range of topics including Indigenous history of the Toronto region, environmental history of the Don River, political economy of the early city, the role of the Orange Order in city politics, waterfront development, suburbanization, and more. You can read the syllabus here.

Trip destinations / types:

I organized a field trip for this course for the week that we discussed the role of domestic animals in the nineteenth-century city. This is one of my research specialities, so I thought it would make for a good opportunity to share some original research with my students while showing them how to connect urban history with urban geography.

The field trip took the form of a walking tour through parts of “Old Town,” the original city centre of Toronto, around the St. Lawrence Market and St. Lawrence Hall. The thesis of the tour is that domestic livestock animals were central to the political and economic development of Toronto.

We traveled eastward through the St. Lawrence Market district with stops at St. Lawrence Hall, once the heart of the cultural and political elite of the city, and the current market. The original market building and city hall were once part of the same building. This was common in North American cities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In a pedestrian city, proximity to fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats was crucial. Therefore, both the retail and political centres of the urban environment were embedded in the same space.

Moving eastward, we stop at a couple of historic buildings marked by Heritage Toronto plaques. One is a former street railway stable where hundreds of horses once slept and ate between shifts powering Toronto’s first transit system. The second is the original building for the William Davies Company, a meatpacking operation that would grow to become one of the largest businesses in Canada. Again, livestock animals play a central role.

On the furthest eastern part of the tour, we end up in the city’s Distillery District. Now a trendy neighbourhood of condominiums, bars, and restaurants, the area was Toronto’s first industrial district. Here, I tell the story of the Gooderham and Worts distillery and its swill milk operation. The industrial by-products of the distillery were once fed to cattle in a secondary business that sold swill milk and swill beef to the city’s poorer residents. The operation was notoriously malodorous and a source of neighbourhood conflict for years. Here too I draw from Jennifer Bonnell’s work on the environmental history of the Don River, and the river’s connection to the city’s industrialization as a sink for industrial waste products, including animal carcasses.

What was the rationale for the field trip? How did it fit in the course? What did you hope to accomplish?

Because one of the main arguments of the field trip was that domestic animals were at the heart of the pedestrian city of the nineteenth century, a walking tour embodies that argument as we walk from what was once the political centre of Toronto to its first industrial district. I distribute historical photos and illustrations of the different places we visit on this tour to help students to envision the urban environment and reflect on how it has changed over time.

I hope that this tour gives students a sense of some of the relationships between history and geography. Field trips are especially effective in introducing spatial thinking into history courses.

I also hope that this gives my students the chance to walk around the city centre. Many of my students live outside of Toronto in our sprawling suburban municipalities. Occasionally, I will have students who live in the metropolitan region of Toronto, but who have spent little time in Toronto itself. At least one student each year has never been on a streetcar. My field trips for this course have been the excuse for these students to experience the city directly.

What actually happened?

Due to the weather, the Fall and Winter semesters in Toronto leave a narrow window in September and early October when a walking tour like this is feasible. There is always the risk that winter might start early or you might get caught in the rain. Thankfully, each time I’ve offered this field trip, the weather has cooperated.

I ask students to meet me at the starting point for the walking tour downtown. Our main campus at York University is located in the far northwest quadrant of the city, about 45-60 minutes from the city centre by subway. It can be a trek to get into the city. This course is offered in a 3-hour block, so I can ask students to meet me in the city for a field trip that lasts about an hour. This gives them enough time to get to the field trip and return to campus.

We meet up at Berczy Park, a lovely new square that serves as an excellent meeting place. Its spectacular dog-themed fountain provides great context to start to discuss the changing role of domestic animals in urban life. The fountain is a monument to the role of dogs (and one cat!) as companion animals in cities.

From Berczy Park we proceed with the tour. At each stop, I speak briefly about the site and some of its highlights. I prepare questions for students to discuss and leave plenty of time for their questions and comments.

Since I started doing this field trip years ago, I’ve also been offering it as a walking tour for Heritage Toronto’s summer tour season. The tour has proven to be popular with a broader audience of Torontonians interested in learning more about the days when more four-legged creatures roamed our streets. Last year, we offered this tour as a historical dog-walking tour for the first time. I added a couple new elements to the tour that integrate dog history.

What would (or will) you do differently? What words of advice do you have about field trips for environmental history classes?

This is a short list of things I’ve done to revise this field trip based on past experience:

  • When designing the walking tour route, select stops that are set back from the street. Street noise can be loud!
  • At each stop along the tour, be sure to speak with your site to your back. That way, your students or tour participants can see the site and you at the same time.
  • Consider using some kind of sound amplifier so everyone can hear you. This is the one I got.
  • Keep your walking tour to 60-90 minutes.
  • If you are going to include a digital supplement of images (like the slide presentation above), bring a physical copy of large prints in plastic covers too for those who won’t use their phones to view your images during the tour.
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Sean Kheraj is the director of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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