Bright Yonge Things
Where east meets west
There is a certain conceptual audacity about setting out to tell the story of a famed thoroughfare and its place — literal and figurative — in a broader urban history. Besides the basic factuality — its origin story, physical details, the landmark addresses, and so on — what exactly are we talking about when we focus on the life of Broadway or Fifth Avenue, the Champs-Élysées or La Rambla, or, in this case, Toronto’s defining arterial, Yonge Street? How do you build a narrative around something that is — by definition — fluid, porous, and ever changing?
The Université du Québec à Montréal historian Daniel Ross has opted to tackle this problem by placing brackets around his subject and focusing on a relatively short but highly important period, the 1950s to the late ’70s, and on that portion of Yonge that extends from Front Street to College. This particular time and space, he argues persuasively in The Heart of Toronto: Corporate Power, Civic Activism, and the Remaking of Downtown Yonge Street, reveals some broader lessons about how Ontario’s largest city operated and the fraught triangular relationship between private capital, public space, and conceptions of civic morality. “This book is about how cities change,” Ross explains in his introduction, “but it is also about who has the power to shape that process. Downtown politics were defined by their publicness and by wide participation, but they were never a level playing field.”
Yonge Street, the handiwork of late-eighteenth-century surveyors, was situated slightly to the west of the original Town of York and somewhat east of the garrison that would provide Toronto with its geopolitical raison d’être in the early nineteenth century. As such, it became — and continues to be — something of a continental divide. More importantly, by the late nineteenth century, Yonge was the area’s undisputed commercial hub, lined with shops, clogged with traffic, and eventually illuminated by the electric lights that brought a glow to an otherwise dreary scene.
The pebble in the pond in Ross’s tale is the historically random fact that two ambitious dry goods merchants — Timothy Eaton and Robert Simpson, facing off against each other at the corner of Yonge and Queen — both embarked on “aggressive expansion” efforts in the 1880s, which introduced Toronto shoppers to the phenomenon of the department store. “By the end of the decade,” he writes, “Eaton’s four-storey, fifty-thousand-square-foot store, employing three hundred men and women and equipped with new technologies including electric lights and elevators, was the most modern and successful in Canada. Simpson’s was not far behind.”
Small shops begat larger stores, which drew the crowds that, in turn, attracted the theatres, night clubs, restaurants, and all the other trappings of urban life. Decades before the Toronto Transit Commission began digging up the street in the late 1940s, municipal officials had pencilled in a subway line that would extend up Yonge from Front to Bloor. By then, Timothy Eaton’s retail empire encompassed a cluster of hulking factories that rivalled the heft of the city’s other industrial giants, Massey-Harris and Gooderham & Worts.
Ross’s tale focuses on the events set in motion by the T. Eaton Company’s decision, in the late ’50s, to modernize its operations and transform those aging warehouses into a hub of office towers. Set against the backdrop of a continent-wide push to redevelop urban regions to serve drivers and baby-boomer families, Eaton’s plan, in the view of government officials, ticked off all sorts of boxes: sweep away blight, introduce high-rise development, and fill municipal coffers with new tax revenue. Indeed, Toronto planners created a redevelopment blueprint, dubbed Project Viking, that tethered Eaton’s future to the construction of a new city hall.
Eaton’s, however, had its own ideas, which were inspired by Montreal’s Place Ville Marie, which started construction in 1958. The company proposed a tabula rasa approach to the historic buildings in its vicinity, including E. J. Lennox’s City Hall, completed in 1899, and the Church of the Holy Trinity, an 1846 Anglican chapel that was almost completely encircled by Eaton’s warehouses. After a few years of backroom negotiations, Eaton’s and the city settled on a plan that both erected a showpiece development at the centre of the retailer’s downtown landholdings and leveraged its brand to confer credibility on what was dubbed the Eaton Centre. That name, Ross points out, was specifically inspired by New York City’s Rockefeller Center, and it certainly revealed the scale of the company’s self-regard.
Through its newly formed real estate arm, Eaton’s hired consultants, planners, and architects and set about showcasing its project — visualized in large-scale models — to local politicians and the media. Those models revealed what Eaton’s had been negotiating behind the scenes: the purchase of Old City Hall, most of which was to be demolished to make way for office buildings (the clock tower was supposed to remain standing). “Building the city of tomorrow would be an act of creative destruction,” Ross writes of the conventional wisdom of the day, “forcing a significant break with the past.”
As it turned out, this scheme became Toronto’s equivalent of New York’s battle over Grand Central Terminal, with a local architect, Eric Arthur, cast in the role that Jackie Onassis played when she ignited the heritage conservation movement. Ultimately, neither Old City Hall nor the Church of the Holy Trinity fell victim to the wrecking ball. A grassroots activism coalesced, elbowed its way into the spotlight, and eventually succeeded in halting work on the Eaton Centre, by then a decade in the making. “The project’s failure underlined how ill-equipped Eaton’s was — good corporate citizen or not — to plan and finance a development on such a scale,” Ross writes. “It also demonstrated the potential influence of well-organized citizen groups such as the Friends of Old City Hall on the redevelopment process, which until that point had been a closed negotiation between experts, elected officials, and the private sector.”
Ross rightly characterizes this moment as a turning point in the politics of urban development in Toronto, as well as one that anticipates the far more mythologized “Stop Spadina” fight in the early ’70s. The next chapter is well known: Eaton’s and its development partner, Cadillac Fairview, hired the architect Eb Zeidler to reconceptualize the entire project. It would now incorporate a light-filled arcade, save the church, add public spaces, and abandon — by council decree — schemes to demolish Old City Hall.
While Zeidler and Cadillac Fairview were honing their plan, another dramatic shift was under way: the launch of the Yonge Street pedestrian mall, which seemed fully in step with the temper of the times. Its significance can’t be overstated: the British colonialists who founded Toronto didn’t think about squares or plazas or, for the most part, grand boulevards. Yes, there were parks, but the streets — then, as now — were for commerce and traffic. The notion of banishing cars from such a central location and giving it over to people on foot was nothing if not radical. Still, even the staid world of municipal government wasn’t immune. “By the start of the 1970s, the phrase ‘planning for people’ seemed to be on everyone’s lips, even officials at the business-friendly Development Department,” Ross writes. “No project was better poised to benefit from this shift than downtown pedestrian malls.” He goes on to describe the initiative as “the people’s freeway.”
(I was taken down there as a child, and I certainly recall the vibe — thick and generally festive crowds strolling in the middle of the road. On one such outing, my parents ran into a couple they knew — she worked in the hospital lab where my father was a pathologist — who invited us over to their nearby home. I remember a funky old house just off Yonge, with a pair of vintage barber chairs in a living room kitted out with ’70s grooviness.)
Ross does an excellent job demonstrating the early success of the Yonge Street Mall: how it drew all sorts of people (not just hippies); how it provided merchants who had lost business to suburban shopping centres with new customers; and how the media wrote approvingly of this social experiment. “Urban experts rejoiced at the creation of new public space in a downtown where virtually every empty lot was either allocated to parking or slated for office tower redevelopment,” he notes. “Within a week of its opening, the press and the project’s supporters were calling for downtown Yonge to be permanently off-limits to traffic.”
But, of course, Toronto is a town where no good deed ever goes unpunished. The car lobby didn’t stay quiet for long, nor did the self-appointed guardians of civic morals, who clutched their pearls at reports of scuffles and drug dealing. Egged on by downtown business interests that had soured on the mall concept, the police clamped down, harassing young men and generally discouraging people from lingering. The backlash had begun.
In what seems like a dizzyingly short span, three events set in motion the long-term fate of downtown Yonge. In 1975, the city pulled the plug on the pedestrian mall. Two years later, a local shoeshine boy named Emanuel Jaques was raped and murdered — a crime that triggered a massive backlash against the emerging queer community and hugely accelerated efforts by the city and the police to rid the street of its massage parlours and other dens of iniquity. That same year, Zeidler’s Eaton Centre threw open its doors, which, by no accident, were connected directly to the two subway stops at either end.
The building’s exuberance and novelty drained traffic off Yonge Street, turning the adjacent blocks into a commercial wasteland that didn’t recover for almost twenty years. “Malling Yonge brought its shopping culture and public life indoors, where they flourished but always within the limits of corporate control,” Ross points out. “Overnight, the Eaton Centre became one of downtown Toronto’s busiest shared spaces, drawing people from the urban region and beyond to shop, eat and drink, socialize, rest, gawk, and stroll.” As he aptly observes, “It was a private building that functioned like a city street.”
Taking stock of the heart of Toronto from the vantage point of today, almost half a century after these events, Ross is sanguine about what this piece of the city has become. He notes, correctly, that downtown Yonge continues to attract huge numbers of pedestrians, especially at the corner of Dundas Street, now one of Canada’s busiest intersections, thanks in part to the creation of Yonge-Dundas Square in the early 2000s and the expansion of nearby Toronto Metropolitan University. Ross makes an intriguing observation about the square, in fact. Like the Eaton Centre and the Yonge Street Mall, it is “also the product of the debates of an earlier era that established an obvious public desire for people space downtown and offered a new corporate model for creating and managing it.”
This construction strikes me as a bit pat and academic, yet it astutely notes that commercial interests continue to play a disproportionate role in Toronto’s halting debates around public space. Case in point: the city council recently throttled a COVID-era project that closed portions of Lake Shore Boulevard, a major arterial, to vehicular traffic on summer weekends in favour of cyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders, and the like. The reason? The congestion was upsetting to the Toronto Blue Jays, whose fans were coming to games at the Rogers Centre by car.
As for downtown Yonge, the future remains very much an open book. The city is plodding along with a plan to create a modified pedestrian mall in the vicinity of the Eaton Centre and Yonge-Dundas Square. And along much of the street, the historic buildings — mainly two- and three-storey nineteenth-century shops — are being replaced by tall condo towers sitting on podiums that incorporate their old facades. I point out the trend not as a comment on the aesthetics but rather to note that this most iconic Toronto location is in the process of becoming a dense vertical neighbourhood that will be home to tens of thousands of people living in apartments in the sky. Will Yonge evolve into a residential enclave anchored by a new linear park — taking over a stretch that was once reserved for the muscle cars that roared up and down it on Saturday nights? Worse things could happen.