Toronto Between the Wars: Life in the City 1919-1939

by Charis Cotter
ISBN: 1552978990

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A Review of: Toronto Between The Wars: Life In The City 1919-1939
by Greg Gatenby

Charis Cotter sagely remarks in Toronto Between The Wars that most of the buildings for which Toronto has been known for decades were built between World Wars I and II: the Royal York Hotel, Maple Leaf Gardens, the Bank of Commerce head office, Eaton's College Street, and Union Station. These buildings are of only modest architectural interest. Nevertheless they became symbols of the City because Toronto was so profligate in destroying its masterpieces from the Victorian era it had little better to offer. Those looking for plangent discussion of what WWI and the Depression meant to Torontonians will have to look elsewhere. This is a book of photographs with large captions-not a text-rich historical review on the interbellum years (for which Jim Lemon's Toronto Since 1918 remains the standard). Moreover, it has to compete with the dozens of extant books celebrating Toronto's past largely through historical photos, a field which Mike Filey dominates. What distinguishes Cotter's book from these others is its focus on a mere twenty-year window. Within that perimeter the book has merits and demerits. In its favour is the fact that it is attractively designed, with lots of white space on the pages allowing for easy reading and viewing-almost always now a feature of Firefly's original publications. Also noteworthy is the quality of the photo reproductions, printed with fine screens. The captions occasionally reveal information or anecdotes which previous books have overlooked but they are aimed mainly at those who know little of the city's past.
One striking revelation from such a concentrated look is just how ugly Toronto was after the Great War. The treed and wide streets of the Victorian era, and the houses and buildings made with that distinctive blonde brick, gave way, by and large, to functional monstrosities. Probably due to Toronto's inbred conservatism and Calvinist fear of splendour, no major edifice was constructed in this era whose exterior shamelessly bore the Art Deco style so prevalent elsewhere. New York got the Chrysler Building; Toronto got the Bank of Commerce made in a style already decades out of date when it opened. My main reservation about this volume is described by the author herself: "The choices of photos and subjects in this book are personal and, in some ways, arbitraryI let the pictures lead me to the stories." This may be an ideal way to show home movies to friends, but, as an organizational principle for a book purporting to be a history of a specific period, it is hopeless. The reader is bumped from topic to unrelated topic like a pinball. In other words, the book is best perused in short bursts where the photos, many of which have not been published before, can be savoured in small groups.

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