The vibrant neighbourhood that we see today had a very agitated start.

Toronto has earned the reputation of having one of the largest Pride festivals in the world. The celebrations spread beyond the downtown core, reaching places like Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke. However, the Church and Wellesley area is the true heart of Toronto’s 2SLGBTQ+ community. 

Church and Wellesley, or the Village, is home to Canada’s largest 2SLGBTQ+ community. Today, it’s a vibrant and colourful neighbourhood filled with unique shops, restaurants and houses. However, it wasn’t always this way.

You might remember hearing something like this in high school: “We study the past to understand the present; we understand the present to guide the future.” That’s what we’re doing today. To really get why Toronto Pride festivities are the way they are today and why the Village is the centre of the celebration, we need to look back at how Church and Wellesley developed over the years.

So, ally yourself with some popcorn – pun intended – and let’s dive into the history of the vibrant Church and Wellesley Village.

The early history of Church and Wellesley

Picture of Pride celebrations in Toronto.
Photo by Anita Cavalcanti via Unsplash

The history of this neighbourhood goes back to the early 1800s, when Toronto was still the small Town of York with a population of less than 10,000 people. It was around this time that York experienced a peculiar scandal.

Early in that century, Alexander Wood, a Scottish merchant and prominent magistrate, bought 25 acres of land at Yonge and Carlton streets, extending north to Wellesley and east to Church. In 1810, Wood found himself at the centre of a supposed sexual scandal – though it’s important to note that nothing was ever proven.

The magistrate received a report of a woman who was a victim of a sexual assault. While the woman claimed she couldn’t identify the assaulter, she said she had scratched the aggressor’s private parts. Wood then started to personally inspect the genitals of numerous “suspects;” he was later accused of misconduct during the investigation.

Wood became the target of discrimination for his suspected interest in men, even tagged with the nickname of “Molly Wood” – molly being a derogatory term for gay or lesbian. John Robinson, a young law clerk then, called Wood the “inspector general of private accounts.” Although nothing was proven, the scandal was enough to make Wood leave town to escape the controversy in October 1810.

He would later return in 1812 and live until 1844. His land wasn’t developed until the 1850s and was mockingly called “Molly Wood’s Bush” for many years.

It’s important to note that in 2022, officials removed a statue of Alexander Wood after revealing that Wood had been a founding member of an organization affiliated with residential schools. Residential schools represent a tragic chapter in the history of this country and Indigenous Peoples. IGNITE commits to supporting Humber College and the University of Guelph-Humber Indigenous students, who face unique barriers that date back to the early days of European arrival in this country.

From a low-quality neighbourhood to an international event

Picture of Pride celebrations in Toronto.
Photo by Ian Kirkland via Unsplash

In the late nineteenth century, the area around Church and Wellesley – Church, Jarvis and Sherbourne – became a fancy neighbourhood with mansions and prominent residents.

But when the Great Depression hit in the 1920s, the Church and Wellesley turned into a rundown area filled with cheap, low-quality houses. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the neighbourhood started to change again through gentrification.

Before 1970, the Church Street area had an underground gay scene centred around various bathhouses and bars. In the mid-70s, several gay-oriented businesses and clubs began to open west off Yonge Street around Wellesley.

In 1975, the City of Toronto purchased a building for the first time to create a community centre, the 591 Community Centre. Over the years, this location became a safe meeting place for many social groups and also became known as a 2SLGBTQ+-friendly space. A strip of gay bars opened along the street and many 2SLGBTQ+ people rented apartments, joined residential co-ops or bought condos close to Church Street.

The centre was a pioneer with many programs, including the first gay community program, a social club for gay seniors, self-defence classes and a parenting program for 2SLGBTQ+ individuals.

Pride Toronto celebrations started in the 70s and became an annual event in 1981. In 1984, for the first time, Church Street closed off and 5,000 people danced in the street.

From 2000 to 2005, the drama series “Queer As Folk,” with 83 episodes, was filmed in Toronto, including shots on Church Street and at nearby gay establishments like Woody’s.

Today, The Village continues to be a major hub for 2SLGBTQ+ communities. An event that used to attract fewer than 5,000 people each year, Pride Toronto now draws an estimated 1.2 million spectators annually.

The Village also offers many day and nighttime activities for you to celebrate Pride to the fullest.

Picture of Pride celebrations in Toronto.
Photo by Charlotte Butcher via Unsplash

The early days of Church and Wellesley may have been turbulent, but as time passed, the neighbourhood blossomed into one of the most vibrant and colourful communities in the world. It’s not just a safe space for members of the 2SLGBTQ+ but also embraces diversity.

Speaking of pride – if you’re a student at Humber or UofGH and identify as part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, you can apply for a scholarship today!

IGNITE understands the unique challenges faced by this community. That’s why, every year, we award five students with the $1000 IGNITE Pride Scholarship. Applications are open from Monday, June 3, to Wednesday, July 3. Don’t miss out!

Every trip to The Village is memorable. If you’ve ever visited the neighbourhood, share your experience with us on our socials @shareignite..

Feature image courtesy of Kyle Hinkson via Unsplash.

Speaking of neighbourhoods, did you know Toronto has diverse neighbourhoods? Check out Toronto neighbourhoods that will take you around the world!

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