Toronto, along the 501 Streetcar Route – Corktown

By: Jim Bamboulis

Corktown is arguably one of the most underrated, least talked about neighbourhoods in Toronto. But as you’ll see, there’s a few notable sights to see on this part of the route.

There are many theories about how Corktown got its name. Some believe that it comes from the fact that many Irish immigrants settled here in the 19th century from County Cork. Others think it’s because this part of the city had many distilleries, breweries and cork-stopper manufacturers.

Regardless of where the name came from, Corktown is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Toronto. Sure, these days, it’s known for its thriving public art scene but there are also plenty of historical landmarks that residents here are very proud of.

Great for everyone

There haven’t been too many people that have said, ‘we’re going to Corktown for dinner’. The south part of Corktown is home to new condos and a brand new park, Corktown Common.  But Corktown is starting to sprout with new and exciting places to eat, including Corktown Kitchen. My suggestion is to get a coffee and an amazing pastry from Roselle and take a walk around the neighbourhood.


Photo Courtesy:
Photo Courtesy:

And although bright and shiny things are great, in order to truly know and appreciate the charm of old Corktown, you have to venture off the beaten path. Meander through its narrow side streets, see the cottage style homes and historical landmarks. And in these parts, walking under an overpass is encouraged. All these elements combine to make Corktown a must-see.

Unique, cottage-style homes

Sure, it has a rustic, even nostalgic feel today but 100 years ago, Corktown was a tough, run-down neighbourhood with slum housing scattered throughout. So rough and tough that there was a Roman Catholic institution (active since 1857) established. The House of Providence helped “the needy, the immigrants, the old, the invalid, and destitute”. Incredibly (and sadly), this majestic building was torn down in the 60’s to make way for the construction of the Richmond street off-ramp of the DVP.

The House of Providence. Photo Courtesy:
The House of Providence. Photo Courtesy:

During the 60’s, many homes too were wiped out. But if you know where to look, you can still see and feel Corktown’s old-school appearance and character. Its narrow side-streets and 19th century row houses are remnants of an era long ago.

Historical landmarks

Fortunately, Corktown still has several historical beauties still standing with loads of cultural significance. Among them is the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse.

Enoch Turner Schoolhouse

Enoch Turner was a local brewer who in 1848, both established and funded Toronto’s first free school. It was home to many poor immigrant children between 1849-1859. Since, it has been a Sunday school and Parish hall, a recruitment centre for the Boer War in 1899, a soup kitchen during the 1930’s and a concert venue in the 1960’s. This too was in danger of being torn down but the community pulled together, restored it and established it as a historic site and museum in 1972 (it’s free to enter the museum). If you love history, then exploring this building should be on your list.

Located around the corner from the School is this majestic gem. The first services took place here in 1844. The congregation consisted mainly of working-class families who couldn’t pay the higher pew prices at St. James Cathedral which was further west on King Street and in general excluded the poor. This church was built for all people. The Little Trinity Anglican Church is the oldest surviving church building in Toronto.

Up the street and around the corner from Little Trinity, we find St. Paul’s Basilica, which was established in 1822. St. Paul’s is the first Roman Catholic Parish between Windsor and Kingston, Ontario and is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Toronto. In the late-19th century, the Catholic population was growing in Toronto and with that, the Church understood the need to help with the spiritual and social needs of both immigrants and the poor. It continues to use an all-wood organ which was installed in 1898 and is the only one of its kind in North America. In 1999, Pope John Paul II elevated this Church to Basilica status.

Public art and Underpass Park

These days, people flock to Corktown to see how a community of artists can transform dull and grey concrete slabs into much-needed colourful works of art. Off-ramp pillars here are seen as a canvas. The King Street pillars are home to some of the best murals in Toronto.

Founded and co-directed by Elisa Montreal, a.k.a. Shalak Attack, the Essencia Art Collective has members in 6 continents who encourage artistic storytelling through public art and muralism. The projects in Toronto were funded by StreetARToronto, an organization that believes in the value of street art and what it adds to a community while at the same time understanding the importance of counteracting graffiti vandalism.

The Worker, reflecting Corktown's working-class roots
The Worker, reflecting Corktown’s working-class roots
The turtle represents Corktown's First Nations history while the ship depicts the travels of Irish settlers.
The turtle represents Corktown’s First Nations history while the ship depicts the travels of Irish settlers.

Corktown community officials have taken the public mural projects one big step further. Built in 2012, Underpass Park, is the first park in Toronto to be built under an overpass. This otherwise underused and usually ugly piece of land was transformed into a neighbourhood playground/art project. In fact, these mural projects have gained so much strength that expansion of more art is well underway, with new projects being approved on a consistent basis. 

For more information about Underpass Park including exact location and other public works of art, refer to this page. For more information about the goings on in Corktown, take a look at this site. It’s up-to-date and full of good details. 

Well, that’s it from Corktown. Hopefully, we’ve inspired you to take a trip to this part of east Toronto. As always, let us know if we’ve missed anything that we should have included from this neighbourhood.

Happy travels y’all!


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