Students spent 2 years searching for untold stories in SoHo. Here's a look at what they found

CBC News by Michelle Both, posted March 28, 2023

London's SoHo neighbourhood is in the spotlight for a local history project that will put decades of stories on display in the community. 

Public historians at Western University are wrapping up two years spent collecting stories that will be transformed into a dozen or so plaques displayed outside the Vision SoHo Alliance affordable housing project that's expected to be built by 2025. 

"These stories are going to be lost if they aren't told soon," said Michelle Hamilton, professor of public history at Western University. 

SoHo, or south of Horton, is one of London's oldest neighbourhoods and formerly called St. David's Ward. It borders the Adelaide Street to the east, railway tracks to the north, and the Thames River to the southwest, Hamilton said. 

Many stories aren't written down anywhere, residents told researchers after they put a call out to Londoners to tell them what they know about the neighbourhood. About 100 people came forward, some in their 80s, describing daily life, the make up of hospitals, schools, churches and factories in the neighbourhood.

'A sense of home through history'

The project will give new tenants at the housing development a sense of their home through history, Hamilton said. 

"It's really been an immigrant neighborhood," said Hamilton, reflecting the waves of immigration in Canada. Signs will reflect local Black, Jewish and Polish history, among others, she said.

London's fugitive slave chapel found its home on Grey Street in SoHo, along with Beth Emmanuel Church, the oldest surviving Black church in London. 

Indigenous histories are deep in SoHo, from the birthplace of the N'Amerind Friendship Centre to the home of Donna Phillips, one of the first Indigenous Women Justices of the Peace in Canada.

The neighbourhood was a mosaic, says researcher

"I think the beauty of SoHo is that it was really this mosaic," said Jessica Hugh, public history master's student at Western. "Everyone was able to...not only find their place, but share that with everyone around them."

Part of Hugh's research included the Labatt Brewery located at Richmond and Horton Streets. She learned about the Labatt's disaster services, a mobile service to aid the community in floods and fires, she said.

"It was so interesting to read about how this company became so much more than just a company," Hugh said. The project has been "an amazing opportunity to get a really cool glimpse into the community lives of different people."

About 15 graduate students in Western University's public history program have been involved in the project, along with two undergraduate summer students. 

For master's student Mackenzie Bodnar, who researched the former War Memorial Children's Hospital and Victoria Hospital School of Nursing, it's been a chance to hear stories of kindness. 

"There was just fabulous stories that came out about things that community was doing for the children," she said. 

In 1974, two of the children's hospital made a seven pound candy house for kids stuck in the hospital over Christmas, she said. "They built this house and they transported it to the hospital and the children devoured it."

'The housing is needed'

Bodnar sees a "direct correlation of care" between what the children's hospital was, and what it will become as part of the affordable housing project. 

"I believe it's going to allow the building to continue that history of caring for the residents of London," Bodnar said. "This housing is needed."

The Vision SoHo Alliance, a group of six affordable housing developers, will bring more than 680 housing units to the neighbourhood — about half of them affordable rentals on the former grounds of the old Victoria Hospital first built in 1875. 

Two heritage buildings will be restored in the project including the health services building built in 1932, and the War Memorial Children's Hospital built in the 1920s, preceding today's Children's Hospital. 

The public can get a sneak preview of more uncovered stories when graduate students share what they learned next Monday, April 3 at SoHo's Fascinating Stories at London's Wolf Performance Hall.