Thu, Jul
27
2006

To the True End of Yonge Street II:
At the Beginning

Previously


Queens Quay to Front

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Yonge Street begins at the water’s edge, with subtle fanfare. I arrive at the intersection of Queens’ Quay and Yonge with Lake Ontario on my right and road on my left. The first business on Yonge Street is Captain John’s Seafood Restaurant, located inside a permanently moored ship on a pier the city has renamed “Captain John’s Peer”. The restaurant has been there since my childhood and serves good meals, I’m told. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to try them out.

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Historic plaque on Yonge Street. Photo by Alan Brown of Ontarioplaques.com.

A historic plaque marks the beginning of Yonge Street. Toronto celebrates the location with an interestingly shaped barricade keeping pedestrians from falling into Lake Ontario, and a piece of public art consisting of brass letters, no bigger than a couple of inches tall, embedded in the concrete. “This is the start of Yonge Street” it says. Then follows a list of destinations and distances (you can see a two part movie I snapped on my cellphone here and here), finishing with “Yonge Street, the longest street in the world”.

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But despite the bold claim, Yonge starts inauspiciously. Although I know that crowds exist further north, I am the only person crossing Queen’s Quay. On my right is the Toronto Star building: 1 Yonge Street which, despite the spiffy address, is a somewhat faceless late-sixties-era building. Behind it is open space and light industrial business stock. The sidewalk along the west side of Yonge Street is wide, but I stride, not stroll. This is not a friendly place for pedestrians.

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A portrait of Sir George Yonge (1731-1812), courtesy the Canadian Heritage Gallery.

There is no doubting Yonge Street’s cultural and commercial importance to Toronto. It was established as a trail by the Huron Indians, and it is possible that Samuel de Champlain walked its length as part of his explorations. John Graves Simcoe turned the Indian trail into a military road named after his friend, George Yonge (former British Secretary of War and Roman road expert), in 1793, and it became the baseline upon which York County’s concession lines were drawn. The east-west addresses in Toronto and York Region all increase the further you are from Yonge Street, and Yonge Street is the site of Toronto’s first subway.

Despite all this, the section south of Front Street and the Gardiner Expressway are, quite possibly, among the newest sections of the road to be built. This area of Toronto is built entirely on land reclaimed from the Lake. Front Street in Toronto used to be lakefront property, but the shoreline has moved south by almost a quarter of a mile, since.

Yonge Street south of Front developed as an industrial road serving Toronto’s port, and because of an accident of geography, this section of Yonge has found itself on the edge of, rather than the thick of, the city’s urban redevelopment.

It’s telling that to access the start of Yonge Street, I had to walk east a block after taking transit. Rather than drive the full length of Yonge Street, I decided to park at the end of the subway line and walk and take transit through Toronto. Although the subway runs straight beneath Yonge Street, it curves west to meet the railroad gateway into the city, Union Station.

Established in the late 1920s as the railroad gateway into Toronto, Union Station’s influence as a transportation node has only grown, with GO Transit adding commuter trains, a bus station and thousands of daily commuters to the mix. When Toronto redeveloped its waterfront from a dying industrial centre into a vibrant mixed-use community, they focused on the section south and west of Union Station. The south end of Yonge Street was left out in the cold.

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Yonge and Harbour Street.

In the late 1980s, the refrain was that Toronto was cut off from its waterfront, thanks to the railroad tracks and the Gardiner Expressway. You can still see that separation while walking north on Yonge from Queen’s Quay. Harbourfront is almost a sea of condominium towers. That sea laps on the shore of Yonge Street, and the buildings seem to turn their back on me as I pass, looking towards the richer pastures west of Bay. The Toronto Star building, built in 1971, speaks of a planning ethic when pedestrian traffic was incidental, and the car was king.

It doesn’t help that to walk up this section of Yonge Street means crossing in front of a number of highway offramps. The intersections are wide, and pedestrians aren’t given a lot of time to cross. Still, there are interesting things to see: elements of Toronto’s industrial past can be seen, fading away. A low rise office building on Lake Shore Boulevard; a switchhouse on a railway embankment dating back from decades ago. Even the two-level Gardiner Expressway has something of a thuggish beauty to it.

Plans are in the works to revitalize Toronto’s portlands and Queens Quay East into a mixed-use community. There are even plans to take down the Gardiner and replace it with a grand avenue. The value of Toronto’s real estate is such that redevelopment cannot be held back, even if Toronto’s civic leaders wanted to. The Gardiner’s destruction is something of a pipe dream that’s looking less and less likely as the years go on, but the real barrier is the railway tracks carrying thousands of commuters between Union Station and points west, east and north. Yonge Street dives beneath these, into a long tunnel that’s dank and loud and a thoroughly unpleasant experience. So far, nobody has come up with a sound plan of fixing up this barrier, and it’s doubtful that any exist.

Emerging from the underpass beneath the railway tracks, I approach Front Street, and I can see the difference immediately. The first street on my right is the Esplanade, a street of former warehouses and the rapidly redeveloping St. Lawrence community. Without the barrier of the railway tracks and the expressway, it has developed more rapidly, and been more deeply integrated into the city’s urban fabric. High density condominiums abound. On my right, GO Transit’s bus terminal ferries passengers throughout the GTA, and provides easy access to Union station, one block west.

More importantly, I see traffic: foot traffic. The buildings are closer together, and even though it’s still mid-morning, people are lounging on restaurant patios. There is a greater sense of urgency, here. People have more places to go.

After a false start, Yonge Street is about to begin.

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Photo Gallery

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The Toronto Star building at 1 Yonge Street. Supposedly Superman worked here, although it was probably before when this building was built.

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The foot of Yonge Street, with the boat bearing Captain John’s Seafood Restaurant.

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The first Yonge street sign. The smaller sign announces “Captain John’s Pier”.

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View to the south.

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An art display marking the start of Yonge Street.

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The view of Lakeshore Boulevard, looking east from Yonge. The Gardiner Expressway is above.

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A switchhouse on the south side of the rail embankment leading to Union Station. Yonge Street dives into a long tunnel just north of here.

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A flatiron building on the Esplanade. I’m standing west of Yonge, looking east, with the railway tracks on my right. Note underpass entrance of Yonge.


Next: From Front to Dundas


Further Reading


Update: Infamy?

I’m just back from a whirlwind interview with Mike Wise of Toronto’s Canada Now. It seems that my first post on this series has attracted some attention. My mother-in-law says I’ll be famous, but perhaps I’ll be infamous… the next interview on Mike’s itinerary was with the Yonge Street Business Improvement Association. Gulp!

Well, I may be on the news tonight at six. I hope I come across as someone coherent.


On This Day

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