Dundas Square and the Yonge Street Strip
I couldn’t help but notice, during Mike Wise’s news piece on my article, Toronto Councillor Kyle Rae’s comment in defense of Yonge Street’s title as the world’s longest street. He said (paraphrased): “I don’t know what the fellow’s problem is, Yonge Street is a state of mind.”
And he’s right, Yonge Street is a state of mind, and its heart, to mix my metaphors, can be found at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas. It’s no accident that Mike Wise of the CBC arranged to meet me here for an interview. Here, Yonge Street teems with people at all hours of the day. There’s even a piece of sidewalk art — a map of Highway 11 rendered in brass and stone — that provides an excellent backdrop for our conversation. Yonge-Dundas Square represents the biggest investment the City of Toronto has made to enhance Yonge’s stature as a tourist attraction. Of course the interview had to take place here.
Yonge-Dundas Square was built years after I’d left my home town. The goal was to create a public space that rivalled New York’s Times Square. However, for as long as I could remember, the Yonge-Dundas intersection always had a Times Square feel to it. Perhaps it was the flashy neon of the rough-and-tumble stores (including the iconic neon vinyl records of Sam the Record Man), or perhaps it was the intensity of the ads at the Yonge-Dundas entrance of the Eaton’s Centre. More likely, it was the people: the place was always full of teenagers and tourists.
Yonge-Dundas Square was designed to knock down a block-and-a-half of persistent urban blight. Mel Lastman, not one for understatement, declared “The approval of this $100-million Yonge Dundas Square means a revitalization of downtown Yonge Street and a project that will be bigger and better than Times Square. Yonge Dundas Square will quickly become a new downtown destination and a great entertainment centre for our City.” The land was expropriated, flattened, and a stage and a fountain set up. It opened to the public late in 2002, and received its baptism as a public space in February 2003 in the first protests against the oncoming American invasion of Iraq.
Yonge-Dundas Square works, probably because it takes the energy that was already in the area, and gives it space. South of Queen, the people on Yonge Street are in a hurry, heading to work, shops, restaurants, and not lingering. There is no place to linger south of Queen Street. As people approach Dundas, however, they start to slow down. Arriving during mid-morning of a hot summer Monday, I find dozens of people sitting at the tables set out in the square. I see people snapping pictures of the street fountains. The area always had its homeless, and you find them here too, along with a number of characters. I film thirty-seconds of an old man with a raspy voice singing karaoke while seated.
The designers of Yonge-Dundas Square seemed to have taken the Times Square addage a little too literally. The northern end is still unfinished, but already you can’t turn around without your eye catching sight of a large billboard. I’ve already been critical of the Metropolis proposal, which suggests lining the north side of the square with a four-storey building topped by a four-storey complex of advertising screens and billboards. Advertising chatter can be heard over the howl of traffic and the rumbling of streetcars on Dundas.
Standing here, I realize that holding back the advertising would be like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Yonge-Dundas Square succeeds on its own merits, and those merits include an auditory and visual onslaught. People! Cars! Conversations! The Hard Rock Cafe! Energy. The advertising chatter is a part of that. So long as there are other public squares with trees and areas of quiet, I suppose there is room for places like Yonge-Dundas Square. I certainly have a lot to add to my camera. And I think I’ll be back.
Heading north from Yonge-Dundas Square, I enter the Yonge Street Strip. The auditory onslaught continues, brought on by Sam the Record Man and its corporate franchise competitor, HMV. There are concrete chess tables on Gould, where I once saw an elderly man win a chess game by misdirection and showmanship. The World’s Biggest Bookstore isn’t, but it has a certain charm of having the selection of a Chapters/Indigo, but none of the new design chic. No Starbucks here; just the crisp smell of books.
This stretch of Yonge Street has resisted many attempts at civic improvement, and the city may be all the better for it. True, it may house discount stores and a strip club or two, but the street is full of life. Near College Park, planters in the middle of the street add a welcome touch of green, but the street is still open to traffic, despite plans in the 1970s to shut everything down for a pedestrian mall. The sidewalks are full of people enjoy the midsummer sun. I pass by street artists, small boutiques, and some hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
This portion of Yonge Street is unique, and thus far is resisting the corporate franchises. There are some wonderful used bookstores here, a fine Tex-Mex place, and some decent Indian. Somehow, despite Toronto’s hefty property values, Yonge Street between Dundas and Charles has avoided becoming a line of condominium skyscrapers, as Bay has become north of College. Most of the architecture remains either turn-of-the-century stock, or post-war, although there are some noteworthy demolitions. I remember having a milkshake at the Kresge & Company store at the corner of Yonge and Carlton; today, a rather faceless office-tower stands in its place.
True, some of the stores of the Yonge Street Strip have the lifespan of an Italian government. There is a wonderful stone building at the corner of Yonge and Charles that used to be a great toy store in my youth, and has since been a clothing store, a coffee shop, a McDonalds and a Wendy’s.
And, yes, you can expect to see a fair share of panhandlers, but the best streets are a true cross-section of the city they run through. Poor streets drive everybody away, but streets like Fifth Avenue or the Golden Mile of Chicago can be just as exclusionary. Yonge has none of that, here. It takes in the character of the neighbourhoods around it, the hurly-burly of old Chinatown, the flamboyance of the Gay Village, the youth of the University of Toronto, and the lunch crowds of the government offices around Queen’s Park. There is always something happening here, and if there is a message that civic leaders should take from all this, it is simply: don’t mess it up. Just give it space.
Walking up the Yonge Street Strip, one cannot help but notice the presence of twin office towers in the distance, marking the point where Yonge crosses Bloor. This is where the Yonge Street Strip ends, but changes to the character of the street start to appear as you approach. You see more suits among the shorts and shirt sleeves. The pace starts to pick up. A new phase of Yonge Street is about to begin.
Next: Midtown Toronto
Taken from the southwest corner of Yonge-Dundas Square. Activity is already apparent.
Watching people watching people at Yonge-Dundas Square.
Karaoke man singing in Yonge-Dundas Square. I shot a movie which you can see here.
Huge advertising display at the northwest corner of Yonge and Dundas.
The northern entrance to the Eaton’s Centre.
Another view of the street art celebrating Yonge’s status as the world’s longest street.
Yonge Street north of Gould (one block north of Dundas). You are now entering the Strip.
The Zanzibar club adds connotations to the term “Yonge Street Strip”. Actually, the street has been cleaned up from what I remember, but this “venerable gentleman’s club” has resisted the prudes. Here’s an Eye Weekly article on the club.
An ecclectic mixture of architecture on the east side of Yonge, approaching Gerrard Street.
The Yonge Street Mission has been caring for Toronto’s destitute since 1896. Some may say that the Mission’s presence contributes to the number of panhandlers you see on the Strip, but where else should these people go? In some ways, it’s good that the problem isn’t swept under the rug.
The intersection of Yonge and Gerrard. Turn of the century architecture with forties-style cladding compete with seventies-style office buildings.
This mysterious gothic arch (of which no information exists online that I can see) acts as the gateway to McGill Street. Two streets, McGill and Granby, were cut off from Yonge in the sixties and the seventies. In behind, the McGill-Granby Village exists, with townhouses isolated from the Yonge Street hustle.
College Park used to be the home of the Eaton’s flagship store. Built in the thirties and restored as a shopping/office/residential complex, it offers some excellent Art Deco architecture.
A street artist (billing himself as “a really starving artist”), consents to be photographed as he chalks up the sidewalk.
The clocktower belongs to Fire Hall Number 3, built in 1872. Though the clocktower remains, the original building was demolished long ago.
Note the large picture at the bottom of the article above. That’s the intersection of Wellesley and Yonge. Note the two and three storey buildings on Yonge, and the hotel and condominium skyscrapers behind, on Bay Street. This shot on the left is of a building under construction on Wellesley Street East. Property values may be too high to keep the condo towers away, and this might be a challenge that the Yonge Street Strip cannot overcome.
Addendum: Dark Heart
I debated what I should say about this, and decided that this subject was best served in its own section.
This section of Yonge Street, near Dundas, was where fifteen-year-old Jane Creba was caught in the crossfire between two rival gangs this past Boxing Day, and shot dead in a murder that shocked the nation. The website Yonge Street Peace remembers.
The Yonge Street Strip has always had a problem with crime, both in terms of perception and reality. I remember in the late 1980s, how Torontonians were shocked when gangs of bored suburban youth took up the violent practise of “swarming” unlucky passers-by. I also remember that it was on Yonge Street that somebody told me that the weird smoky smell I was smelling was somebody’s dose of weed. As a child, this section of Yonge Street always had an element of risk to it. Walk along it if you must, but keep your eyes open, and your hand on your wallet. This was one of the reasons the City of Toronto spent $100 million creating Yonge-Dundas Square.
I could quote you any number of statistics: like the fact that, on a per-capita basis Toronto has lower crime and murder rates than Edmonton, Calgary or Vancouver. I could tell you that violent crime is down from where it was in the early 1990s. But it wouldn’t matter. A tragedy is a tragedy, and any crime is one crime too many.
But it’s probably a good thing that we still had the capability of being shocked by Jane Creba’s tragic death. When we wring our hands and wonder what this city is coming to — just as we did ten, twenty and thirty years ago, we maintain that essential innocence that reminds us that Toronto still has something to lose. And that means we still have something to cherish.
Erin and I have walked up Yonge Street several times without being in fear for our safety. We should do what we can to ensure that these tragedies don’t happen again, but the expectation that we could stop it all is probably wishful thinking. We have done a lot to prevent Yonge Street from becoming a desolate location that people fear going to however, and we’ve done it just by being there, and owning the space. On a midsummer Monday morning, the sidewalks were thick with people, who are not afraid. We could try to whitewash everything, and we could retreat to our homes or our shopping malls, but in some ways, we’d be removing the colour from our lives, and retreating from life itself.
Yonge-Dundas Square did not succeed in curing the Yonge Street strip of its urban blight, but it remains a place where people stroll, interact, and have fun. It is the heart of Toronto, and it includes Toronto the Good, Toronto the Bad and Toronto the Ugly. It remains something to treasure. As I said during my interview, in a quote that wasn’t used during the news segment: so what if Yonge isn’t the longest street in the world? The Heart of Yonge is only a few blocks long, and I doubt that anything will take that away from the City. I hope that nothing takes that away from the city.