Defined by its historic roots and indomitable spirit, London, ON’s Old East Village exudes a unique and timeless charm.
A short distance east of the downtown core, Old East Village has cultivated a distinct “front porch” culture over the years based around its emphasis on buying local and the palpable sense of community pride. Strolling past all the independent cafés, bookshops, and restaurants on Dundas Street, it appears that the area more affectionately known as OEV has a mind — and history — of its own.
Designated an Ontario Heritage Conservation District in 2006, it’s no secret that the area originally known as London East is home to some of London’s finest cultural landmarks. Whether you’re coming to see a performance at the Palace Theatre or catch a concert at Aeolian Hall (pre-COVID, but hopefully again soon), visit the Western Fair Market, or take in some public art, including Susan Day’s ceramic mosaic murals, you’re bound to feel a connection to the culture and the residents, both past and present.
Building an Economic Engine
The sense of community and entrepreneurial spirit found in OEV is ostensibly as old as the area itself. The area we call Old East Village was part of the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Attawandaron (Neutral), and Wendat peoples. In 1819, pioneer settler Noble English claimed ownership of the area, which later became known as part of “the English Survey.” The community began to take shape in the mid-19th century when Murray Anderson, the City of London’s first mayor, established the Globe Foundry Ironworks near Adelaide and Dundas — in the spot where the London Police Services headquarters can now be found. With the addition of Lilley’s Corners — a stretch of businesses founded by resident Charles Lilley — across the street in the 1870s, Dundas Street soon became the business corridor it remains to this day.
Old East is roughly bordered by the Canadian Pacific Railway corridor to the north, Adelaide Street to the west, the Canadian National Railway/Via Rail lines to the south, and the CN/CP feeder lines at the old Kellogg’s plant and Ashland Avenue to the east. Indeed, these borders reflect the area’s larger industrial history. When the Town of London East, an incorporated municipality, merged with the City of London in 1885, the community soon after became a major driver for the local economy due to its fledgling yet booming industrial pursuits in ironworks, oil, and railways.
From the late 19th century until the Great Depression, London’s population grew steadily each year. London East became home to the many artists, creatives, and immigrants working in the nearby manufacturing and retail industries. The area offered affordable land and housing close to their work, as the proximity to the factories made it a less desirable area to live. With this influx of people earning an income, the village evolved into a stable and prosperous community capable of sustaining the businesses cropping up on Dundas Street. The residential area was teeming with tradespeople and artisans — and those who supported them.
Developing an Artistic Side
A crown jewel of the area, the Western Fair District has been a fan-favourite amongst locals and tourists alike since it first arrived in Old East London, in what was then known as Salter’s Grove, in 1887. The not-for-profit agricultural association keeps visitors coming back for its year-round variety of vendors and community events — the most recognized being its annual agricultural fair. In fact, since its inception in 1868, the physical fair has only been cancelled on two occasions — from 1940-1947 during World War II when it was used as barracks and training ground by the military and in 2020 when it moved online due to the coronavirus.
Dating back to the outset of the 20th century, the fairgrounds have also been instrumental in developing London’s art scene; after all, the city’s first art gallery opened alongside the Queen’s Park site in the autumn of 1912. Charlotte Harris, whose father built London’s historic Eldon House, wrote in her diary at the time that ”in the little City of London … numbering less than fifty thousand inhabitants, there seems to be an art spirit far in advance of many larger cities.”
OEV’s artistic spirit continued to bloom with the development of theatres, concert venues, and other artistic spaces. Constructed in early 1929 by recognized contractor Harry Hyatt, the Palace Theatre was regarded as “London’s first high-class neighbourhood theatre” upon its debut. Operating originally as a silent movie theatre, the subsequent stock market crash and growing interest in “talkies” (or motion pictures with audible dialogue) meant that it was the last theatre built in London until the 1940s. While the building has undergone renovations, changed ownership, and borne different names, it has remained an operational theatre throughout its history. Now, it is a cultural staple capable of both screening films and mounting stage productions.
Pushing the Envelope
In 1983, a humbler arts incubator would carve out a space for itself in OEV — namely, in the back of the restaurant at the iconic Embassy Hotel. The Embassy Cultural House was a collaborative space established for artists, by artists. Founders Jamelie Hassan, Ron Benner, and Eric Stach modelled the space after establishments in Europe where creative minds could commune, collaborate, and inspire each other. With an espresso machine, a modest gallery space, and a commitment to addressing issues that mattered to the community on a local and global scale, the incubator’s central mission was to challenge London’s art community to go beyond “art for the gallery” and carve out a space where art and activism could intersect, unencumbered by bureaucracy.
The space welcomed performances and gallery showings of all kinds until its closure in 2009. Over the years, the Embassy Hotel also made a name for itself as a venue for alternative concerts and other live shows. For its part, the Embassy Cultural House brought together an eclectic audience of patrons and artists alike from around the world, across generations and disciplines—whether they had arrived there on purpose or by accident; it played an integral role in the movement toward artist-run centers in the city. The Embassy Hotel burned down shortly after it closed, and the lot remained derelict until recently.
Now, plans are in place to build a new community housing project on the land (aptly named the Embassy Commons)—a project that will continue to fulfill the former Embassy’s goal of servicing the community’s needs in a different way. In this same spirit of rebirth, the Embassy Cultural House lives on today as an online gallery, having debuted this past October with the help of Jamelie Hassan and Ron Benner, two of its founders. The exhibit reflects upon the corruption of the Trump administration—honouring the iconoclastic legacy of the original collective while reaching a whole new audience via the Internet.
Restoration and Collaboration
Another artistic collective rooted in Old East is the London Potters Guild, which has been nurturing the clay arts community in Southwestern Ontario since 1981. Known across the province, country, and beyond for its programming, the London Potters Guild operates out of the London Clay Art Centre on Dundas Street. Almost thirty years after it was founded, the charitable organization moved into the Victorian-era building in the heart of the OEV and soon after set about restoring and renovating their new home.
The London Clay Art Centre is one of—if not the only—guild-owned and -operated clay art centres in the country. Moreover, the centre is a prime example of commercial heritage restoration as the building, which dates back to 1896, has been retrofitted with accessibility measures to better serve the community and now runs its heating and cooling systems on renewable energy; indeed, it is the first geothermal retro-fit system in London.
The ceramic centre has done a lot for the OEV at large; between the allure of their community mosaic projects around the area, their support of the OEV Business Improvement Area’s revitalization efforts, and their involvement with several local festivals and fundraisers, the London Clay Art Centre is heavily grounded in and engaged with the surrounding community.
A Platform for the Unheard
The OEV has fostered community engagement and contributed to innovative movements throughout its history. In particular, the walls of the Aeolian Hall have borne witness to many remarkable moments from the city’s past. The 138-year-old building has served as everything from a town hall, fire department, and courthouse to a public school, workshop, and library before becoming a musical performance venue in 1969.
Most remarkable among them, perhaps, is the first convention of the Canadian League for the Advancement of Colored People, which was held in October of 1927. Founded in London in 1924, the League’s vision was to improve the health, education and social support of Black people in Canada; in fact, it was the only organization in Canada geared towards this aim at the time.
As the CBC reports, hundreds of people travelled that night from Toronto, Windsor, and the United States to discuss topics such as racial prejudice and unemployment of black youth at the East London music venue. While there is still much more work to be done in combatting the anti-black racism and discrimination that persists today, strides were made in the city that evening and in the years that followed towards a more equal society. For instance, the League’s leadership included both Black and White Londoners, and that the mayor in 1929 apparently pledged support on behalf of the white citizens of London to the cause.
Paying It Forward
The Aeolian Hall Musical Arts Association, founded in 2009, continues to serve this mission of social justice and community development through its art programs. One noteworthy initiative is the El Sistema Aeolian, a free, intensive after-school music program adapted from a Venezuelan program founded in 1975. The Aeolian Hall Musical Arts Association launched its chapter of the program in November of 2011, at first offering the opportunity to a few youths from the Old East Village community; since then, it has expanded its size and scope to welcome more students from different groups and areas.
Looking at the OEV today, it’s evident that the artistic and cultural character of the village does not just simply live on but actively contributes to the restoration and preservation of the community. To be sure, nothing made that more clear than when the Aeolian Hall and other local businesses in the OEV hosted fundraisers to support the survivors of last year’s devastating Woodman Avenue explosion.
While Baker’s Dozen, a fledgling arts and retail incubator situated in what was once Lilley’s Corners, closed earlier this year, there are other efforts underway to keep the OEV’s cultural momentum going. Such projects include City Rest which contains screen printing and glass art studios, Old East Village Business Association’s commission of murals from eight local artists create murals in the past five months, and the recently launched Somerville 630, a hub for local artisans and culinary creatives based out of the site of the former Old East Village Grocer.
In a historic yet up-and-coming neighbourhood such as this one, carving out a space for the next generation of artists is just one way to honour the building’s and community’s past while simultaneously investing in the viability of its future.
It’s a trick as old as time — to determine what lies ahead, it so often goes that we must first look back on where we’ve been.
Feature Photo of Susan Day’s Gateway Mosaic #1, courtesy of Old East Village BIA
The London Neighbourhood Histories series aims to highlight and chronicle some of the rich, layered heritage of many of London’s neighbourhoods, the diverse individuals who have lived within them, and the events that have impacted their development. The series is made possible by the Community Heritage Investment Program (CHIP) through the London Heritage Council and the City of London.