London, Ont.’s historic SoHo neighbourhood will soon be the site of a new residential district – a move aimed at providing more affordable housing for the London community while preserving the area’s rich history.
The development will be undertaken by Vision SoHo Alliance, which has partnered with Western University’s master’s program in Public History to research and highlight the history of the neighbourhood, as part of the restoration project.
SoHo, an area south of Horton, has been a distinct neighbourhood in London since the 1840s, and is home to the Old Victoria Hospital grounds. Five new buildings will be constructed, and two buildings will be restored – the Health Services Building, which housed the medical school from 1921 to 1965, and the War Memorial Children’s Hospital, which opened in the 1920s and was the forerunner of the London Children’s Hospital .
“We recognized from the start that this land is important to many Londoners, people were born, treated and died in these hospitals. There is a huge personal connection that a lot of Londoners have for this piece of land,” said Julie Ryan, community engagement coordinator of Indwell, a member organization of the Alliance.
“It’s also more than just this idea that this used to be a hospital or a medical school – the stories that will be uncovered by the students will really bring home how important this space was,” said Ryan.
The students in the 2021/22 MA Public History cohort will conduct archival research about the buildings and neighbourhood, and will collect stories from community members, including former doctors, nurses and patients, as well as those who lived in the area. Student in next year’s program will prepare the material for the location, including text panels, photographs, as well as audio clips from oral history interviews, to create a multi-dimensional approach for the audience. The project is intended to highlight the history of the buildings and create a sense of community for those who will use the space.
“There are things we don’t know about the buildings and the people who worked in the buildings,” said Michelle Hamilton, a professor in the Public History program. “Oral histories will help us to get to those.”
SoHo “was and is one the most diverse areas of London,” said Hamilton. Home to manufacturing, and close to downtown, it was a working-class neighbourhood, and made up of many ethnic populations, including African-American, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish and Syrian communities.
The Alliance is also interested in highlighting the Indigenous presence in the neighbourhood, to give greater depth to the history beyond land recognition.
The project will offer valuable experiential learning experience for the students, said Hamilton.
“It’s really important to do a project that speaks to working-class history,” said Keely Shaw, one of the students working on the project. “It will provide a sense of place and strengthen the connection to the community.”
For Emily Clink, working on the project “feels like righting a wrong.”
“It’s an amazing opportunity to get to know a part of London that is historically overlooked,” she said. “To have the opportunity to rectify a trend and to use research skills, it feels like righting a wrong to bring these voices into the present.”
“History teaches you how to care about people and is a way to say thank you to people who aren’t there anymore,” said Avi Shaver, an MA student. “The buildings aren’t there, and the people aren’t there, but we are still recognizing them.”
The project is seeking doctors, nurses, staff, medical students of the hospital and medical school, and any SoHo community member who live or have lived, work or have worked in SoHo, or whose family has lived or worked there in the past. Contact is Michelle Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org, 519-661-2111 ext. 84973, or @westernupubhist.