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10.5: City Life

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  • A long building with three wings, a tall spire, and Roman-style columns.

    Figure 10.5 This grand structure embodies the neo-classical institution of the era. In this case, it is the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, opened in 1850.

    At the start of the post-Napoleonic era cities in British North America were mostly large towns. They were small in population and area, they served very local markets, and their people consisted mainly of merchants, artisans, physicians and lawyers, government and military officials, clergy, and not much more. Until the 1840s, Halifax, for example, was essentially a city built of wood; in the generation that followed, its centre would be largely rebuilt in stone and brick. By the 1860s, the most dynamic cities had grown significantly and were much more complex places.

    The Modern City

    Civic buildings became common and were a source of pride for the citizens. There was confidence and ambition in a young city that invested in stone buildings; the resident merchants and professionals located their mansions near the centre of town where they could be pointed to as evidence of community wealth; infrastructure like waterworks, board sidewalks, and a firehall were indicators of a commitment to the future and an enterprising attitude. The optimism of the age — the belief that a community’s citizens were building a glorious society with a long life expectancy — was embodied in the move to neoclassical design in these new public and civic spaces that suggested (not very modestly) a common and timeless connection with ancient Greece and Rome.

    Few of these small cities had rows of shops just yet — they typically had public markets where grocers, butchers, fishmongers, and bakers hawked their wares. There was space as well for farmers from the nearby countryside to sell cash crops to the growing town population.

    Michael Katz studied the people and patterns of life in mid-century Hamilton and he closely observed the transition that was underway there (and in many other cities):

    [B]y 1861 some men could see that the future lay not only in trade but even more in manufacturing. By that time advocates of industry had begun a campaign to persuade the entrepreneurs of the city that the future lay in the factory as much, or more than, in the countinghouse. At first their successes remained modest. In 1861 the Wanzers moved their sewing-machine factory to Hamilton from Buffalo; someone partially manufactured shoes which were finished by hand; there were a prosperous factory that made pianos, one that manufactured hats, and, of course, the yards of the Great Western Railway and the construction of locomotives. Overall, in 1861 Hamilton remained a commercial city, though the future already was clear to anyone who read the signs. The ambitious little city would become the Birmingham [England] of Canada.[1]