Finch to Newmarket
Even in its truncated state, the trip I had been contemplating was over 56 kilometres long, and I first had to come in from Kitchener. Of course I drove. I decided to park outside of Finch station and take the subway to the lake. Walking and transit are the best way to experience Yonge Street inside the City of Toronto, so leaving the car at the Finch park ‘n’ Ride not only gave me a chance to experience the heart of Yonge Street up close, it would also save me the trouble of having to park downtown.
VIVA, York Region’s first step towards rapid transit, dumps its passengers on Finch station. (Below) Only the streetsigns tell us that Newtonbrook was here.
Turns out, parking is not easy at the north end of the subway either. I arrived at the eastern parking lot just after ten in the morning and was confronted by a sea of cars. The northern terminus of the Yonge subway is, for many, the northern gateway to Toronto. Most of the buses from the northern suburbs funnel in here, and it’s a major terminal for the GTA’s commuter transit agency, GO Transit. And then, of course, there are the car drivers. Two large park ‘n’ ride lots sit on either side of Yonge Street, on scrub land running beneath a major hydro right-of-way, holding almost 3000 automobiles. Both are almost full on a Monday morning. As a result, I started my Yonge Street walk near Willowdale Avenue.
The Yonge/Finch intersection is where urban Toronto and suburban GTA meet, like breakers on the shore. The presence of the Yonge subway has encouraged the development of large office towers and condominium complexes, but little of this activity stretches to the north as Yonge Street takes on the characteristics of a suburban arterial. The buildings pull back from the street the further north you get from Finch, and pedestrian activity is reduced to a trickle.
(Above) The North American Centre, on the site of Lester B. Pearson’s birthplace. (Below) The corner of Yonge and Finch.
The new urban development and the suburban sprawl are both fairly recent — within the last twenty years or so — but there is evidence of some development that went on before. This is the site of the old village of Newtonbrook and you can see remnant two-storey commercial buildings between Finch and Bishop. Unfortunately, much of the area’s history has been obliterated. The North American Centre, a tall office complex, was built over the site of a manse wherein Lester B. Pearson was born.
(Above) The entrance to Centrepoint Mall. (Below) Car dealership announces Yonge-Steeles intersection after the fact.
Returning to my car after hours walking and taking transit, I head north, and I can tell immediately that Yonge north of Finch was built for drivers. I don’t have much of a chance to slow down. I glide past original farmhouses near Drewry Avenue, and I don’t see them. I pass Steeles Avenue, the northern boundary of the Toronto, and I can find no means of identifying this landmark, until a car dealership announces the intersection, one block later. The northern gateway to Toronto’s Yonge Street is guarded by Centreville Mall, hiding behind a hot and sticky sea of asphault.
Suburban development began in earnest following the Second World War, with Yonge Street’s turn of the century villages becoming catalysts around which development formed. In the mid-1960s, there were even plans to extend the subway all the way to Steeles, but the idea was scrubbed because it was felt that the townships of Markham and Vaughan would have died from the shock. Really, it was just jealousy, and it was a shame, for the presence of the subway at Steeles Avenue could have improved this key intersection at the exit of the city, or at least brought out pedestrians.
What is most discouraging about this section of Yonge is how similar everything looks. The buildings are boxes, with only colour schemes and ornamentation suggesting when within the last forty years they were built. Then there is the cutesy attempt to feign the very old country living that suburbia swept away — out of fashion, now, but you still catch snippits of it. Centrepoint Mall was opened in 1966 as the Towne and Countrye Square, so named thanks to an unexpected glut of ‘e’s.
(Above) The developments in the northern suburbs are depressingly cookie-cutter, but Yonge Street still bears a lot of history, including this house in Thornhill (Below)
Even development from the past five years, when we theoretically should know better, isn’t immune from this cookie-cutter affectation. Four kilometres north of Steeles, I pull off the road for some water, and enter a power centre containing a Silver City megamovieplex and an Indigo bookstore. Neither of these buildings face Yonge Street, and not only is the exterior of these buildings exactly the same as others I’ve visited, the interior of the Indigo is as well. I’m serious. I stepped inside the doors and for a moment, I thought I’d been magically transported to the Indigo branch in Burlington. The layout is the same, including the placement of subjects, and the big red “The World Needs More Canada” wall at the back of the store. From what I see, Indigo needs more variety.
But Yonge Street has been around for over two hundred years, and settlers used it to establish communities far to the north of old York. You can still see elements of those communities that the new development has clustered around. Consider Thornhill, where strip malls rub shoulders with Georgian manor houses. In Richmond Hill, an urban downtown pops out of nowhere. Although this community is now completely surrounded by sprawl, areas of this town were settled almost two hundred years ago.
Just after Major MacKenzie, Yonge Street tightens from a six lane arterial to a four lane road. The sidewalks widen and feature potted plants. More importantly, the stores are packed more closely together and aren’t pulled back behind parking lots. The buildings are old, and anchored by even older stone churches. Prosperous Richmond Hill is known for its beautification campaigns, but it is here, in downtown Richmond Hill and in the older neighbourhoods surrounding it, that enough history exists for beauty takes hold.
(Above) The likely location of 10000 Yonge Street. (Below) 10023 Yonge Street, at the southern edge of downtown Richmond Hill.
By now, the addresses on Yonge Street have entered the 10000s. Quintuple-digit addresses are almost unknown to Torontonians, so you would have thought that somebody would have taken advantage of owning the spiffy 10000 Yonge Street address to advertise themselves; I even get out of my car to go looking for it. But as best I can tell, 10000 Yonge Street is an empty lot at the southwest corner of Yonge and Major MacKenzie. Maybe there isn’t enough pedestrian traffic to make much out of this address. Here at the edge of downtown Richmond Hill, the cars rumble, but few walk. The town motto on the signs may be “a little north, a little nicer,” but that’s wishful thinking, and a little less clever than Vaughan’s motto: “the city above Toronto”.
North of Richmond Hill, the scenery changes again. Far enough north of the city to avoid major sprawl development until recently, and with the presence of the Oak Ridges Moraine lending government protection to certain undeveloped areas, we get our first instances of rural and natural scenery. Most of the development which has occurred has been centered around old villages and towns established long before the greenbelt. This separation lends these communities the feel of satellite towns, with identities distinct from the urban blob that has eaten Richmond Hill. The Town of Aurora, whose downtown dates from the turn of the 20th century, and which has its own beginning, middle and end on Yonge Street.
(Above) New development in Aurora tries to emulate new urbanist principles, but as it is surrounded by developments seen below, its effectiveness is limited.
And as the pressure to develop hit Aurora much later than Richmond Hill, Aurora’s new development has taken on some elements of the later urban fashions. Certain buildings try to emulate the New Urbanist design, with frontages built right to the sidewalk in scales addressing the context of the street. Unfortunately, these buildings tend to exist in isolation, surrounded by an odd mix of strip-malls pulled back from the street, and historic homes with lawns truncated by successive road widenings.
Travelling at high speeds on four lanes, cars still dominate Yonge Street’s ambiance, even in Aurora. Aurora’s downtown succeeds on an urban level, thanks to his historic buildings, its human-scale architecture, and such investments as a redeveloped library, but its stores are clearly suffering the onslaught of big box stores hovering at Aurora’s car-friendly fringe. The only difference here between Aurora’s hinterland and that of Richmond Hill, is that development ends, and rural scenery takes back over, at least until Newmarket when the cycle begins again.
Newmarket developed at around the same time as Aurora, but not on Yonge Street. Instead, it was centered around a railroad (The Metropolitan Railroad) that turned away from Yonge and curved northeast. Thus, driving along Yonge Street, you could be forgiven for thinking that Newmarket is all suburb, which it isn’t. The effect is still one of a town that seems about to materialize, but never quite makes it, and the cookie-cutter sameness is quite discouraging.
But one thing that has changed on suburban Yonge Street in recent years, however, is the arrival of businesses and families from various immigrant communities that settled in and around downtown Toronto a generation or two before. It is common to see signs in Chinese and Korean as you pass the City of Markham. Even in northerly Newmarket, it seems that one cannot go far without passing an Italian or Greek eatery. These businesses would not have been here twenty years ago, and they add considerably to the diversity and life of these communities.
The suburban municipalities around Yonge Street are trying to emulate the successes of Yonge Street in the City of Toronto. New development is trying to be pedestrian friendly, and as you can see from the shiny new VIVA articulated buses running back and forth, York Region is investing heavily in public transit. Maybe in twenty years, things will have changed again. Maybe Aurora and Richmond Hill’s downtowns will be thriving places. Maybe new transit-friendly cores will rise at such key intersections as Yonge and Highway 7, or Yonge and Highway 9. Yonge Street has changed so much in the past; there’s no reason to believe it won’t change for the better in the future.
Throughout my journey north from Lake Ontario, I’ve had the sense that I’ve been climbing. The Oak Ridges Moraine is the height of land between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe, and is the headwaters of all the rivers running through the City of Toronto. At the top of Newmarket, I ascend another hill as I pass the Green Line, and I sense that this is it. I’ve no way of proving this, but it feels as though I’ve reached a summit, the highest point of Yonge Street between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe, and possibly the boundary between the Greater Toronto Area and all points north. Even Newmarket ends abruptly here, with power centre parking lots giving way to scrub lands. What lies beyond on my long descent? We are far from Toronto’s influence, so what more awaits this street?
- Centerpoint Mall
- History of York Region’s VIVA
- Octagon Steakhouse at 7554 Yonge Street
- History of Thornhill
- Yonge Street Cairn: (at the entrance to the Summit Golf Club, on the east side of the highway about halfway between 19th Avenue and Stouffville Road. Roger Carlsen)
- The Road Through Richmond Hill
- Town of Aurora
- Town of Newmarket