Historian of the city, politics, and society
Downtown is in the news today in 2021, as cities across Canada make plans for the post-pandemic recovery of the country’s suffering retail, entertainment, and tourism sectors. This is not the first that people invested in the commercial heart of the city have debated its future, and proposed rebuilding, revitalizing, or otherwise improving downtown’s built landscape and unique concentration of economic, cultural, and social capital.
My next research project, “Retail, Property, and the Making of Downtown: Eaton’s as an Urban Powerbroker, 1890-1980,” examines how one key urban actor, the department store, participated at pivotal moments in this process, including the formation of downtown as a distinct urban place (1890-1930) and postwar redevelopment and disinvestment (1955-1980). A cultural icon and one of Canada’s most successful businesses, at its peak in the mid-twentieth century the T. Eaton Co. (1869-1999) took in 7¢ of every consumer dollar and was Canada’s third-largest employer. Eaton’s was also an urban powerbroker, with a portfolio of stores, factories, and over 100 speculative properties in commercial districts coast to coast, and significant influence in civic affairs. Using a range of archives, including the rich Eaton’s fonds at the Archives of Ontario, this research project will trace how the company bought, sold, and developed property, and how those decisions helped create today’s Canadian downtowns. I am pleased and very grateful to say that it has been financed for three years by the Québec government through the FRQSC programme de Soutien à la recherche pour la relève professorale, allowing me to hire student researchers and develop several ways for presenting our findings.