Every Torontonian has a story about Yonge Street. For nearly a century it was the city’s unquestioned commercial and entertainment hub, the place to go for everything from window-shopping and people-watching to a Saturday night out on the town. Even in today’s diverse, dispersed Toronto it remains our most iconic street. Love it or hate it, like Montreal’s rue Sainte-Catherine or Manhattan’s Broadway, it is hard to imagine the city without it.
It makes sense, then, that there has always been public interest in celebrating (and sometimes criticizing) Yonge Street. In this post I introduce an exciting new public history project organized by the Toronto Public Library, called youryongestreet. Dedicated to bringing together Torontonians to tell their stories about Yonge, the project includes four public talks this fall about Yonge’s history, as well as the creation of a website where people can share their own memories.
First surveyed in 1794, Yonge Street has been the primary north-south axis for development in the Toronto area for more than two centuries. By 1900 it had emerged as the main street of a booming industrial city: important civic and commercial buildings dotted its downtown blocks, while to the north it pointed the way to a series of growing streetcar suburbs. For Toronto’s growing middle class, Yonge was the natural place to go to take part in the burgeoning consumer economy. And for those with less means, there was always window-shopping at Eaton’s and Simpson’s.
Over the next few decades, downtown Yonge Street became known as much for its bright neon lights, theatres and taverns as for its shops. Patrons of music halls and cinemas could stop into any number of fancy restaurants, not to mention Toronto’s first cocktail lounges. The area’s traffic jams were famous too. As Toronto’s population growth showed no signs of slowing—quadrupling to nearly 1 million by the 1940s—politicians and planners began to search for better ways of moving citizens in and out of downtown. Naturally their first choice for an underground transit route was Yonge. In the first youryongestreet lecture earlier this month, transit historian Jay Young discussed the construction of the Yonge subway from 1949 to its opening in 1954 and the important effects underground transit had on Toronto’s built landscape and the lives of Torontonians.
With the new subway, a number of areas north of the central core along Yonge were made much more accessible, expanding the downtown and giving the suburbs better access to it. Increased accessibility helped transform the neighbourhood of Yorkville, north of Bloor St. off Yonge, which in the 1960s became the centre of Toronto’s bohemian counterculture. For a few years, young people from across Canada congregated in Yorkville to “make the scene,” whether that meant demonstrating their rejection of mainstream values or simply searching for a good time. On November 7th at 6:30pm, historian Stuart Henderson will give a talk at the Yorkville public library about the politics and culture of this hip rebellion. Needless to say, Torontonians at the time — many of whom were nostalgic for the supposed respectable bustle and family orientation of Yonge Street of old — were opposed to the hedonism they saw operating in Yorkville during the 1960s.
One of the more far-reaching consequences of the new permissive morality espoused by 1960s hip youth was a relaxation of Canadian obscenity law. By the late 1960s the police and courts in Toronto to a large degree accepted—or at least tolerated—nude entertainment and the open sale of pornography. This change led to dramatic changes along Yonge between Gerrard and Queen, the heart of the city’s entertainment district. Taverns became strip clubs, bookstores branched into adult materials, and entrepreneurs opened erotic massage parlours and sex cinemas on the upper floors of run-down buildings. Landlords found attractive the higher rents these businesses could pay for unimproved properties, particularly since the growth of suburban entertainment and shopping complexes were more than ever giving downtown a run for its money. For a few years in the 1970s, Yonge was famous as Canada’s “sin strip,” a playground for heterosexual men, until public outrage led to a police crackdown. On December 4th at 6:30pm, I’ll be speaking at Deer Park library about the rise and fall of sinful downtown Yonge Street.
Attempts to use police powers to “clean up” the downtown Yonge Street area were not limited to body rub parlours and peep shows. In the 1970s, Yonge Street’s St. Charles Tavern was a gathering place for gay Torontonians, as were nearby bathhouses that acted as safe social spaces. In 1981, Toronto police launched “Operation Soap,” a series of massive police raids that took over 300 men into custody. On November 21st at 6:30pm, a panel discussion at the Yorkville Library featuring historian Tom Hooper will discuss Operation Soap and the protests it sparked from the gay community.
All four talks will be complemented by materials uploaded to youryongestreet.omeka.net. The site is an attractive, easy-to-use addition to the growing amount of user-generated web content that focuses on Toronto’s past. Naturally, Yonge has inspired more than a few. The Toronto Star’s “Oral History of Yonge” facebook page is one, although it seems to have lost momentum. On a more whimsical note, check out this exhilarating stop-motion tour of Yonge from Aurora to Lake Ontario. Along the way, there are vivid reminders of a number of historical processes, including the growth of the suburbs, the construction of the subway, and the continued development of the downtown entertainment zone.
Although it was launched just a month ago, youryongestreet is already home to dozens of photographs and memories shared by users. For example, just in time for Hallowe’en, one visitor has posted an image from 1856 portraying a human (ugh) dissection at the Toronto School of Medicine at Yonge and Richmond. As the site becomes better-known, we’ll be sure to see more stories and media appear on its handy Yonge Street map. Projects like youryongestreet confirm that, whether celebrated as the vibrant heart of city, or reviled for its associations with sex and danger, Yonge has always been an important part of Toronto’s sense of itself as a city.
Further links and information:
The schedule for the remaining youryongestreet talks is here.
Magel, Ralph. 200 Years Yonge; A History. Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 1998.
Meyers, Jay. The Great Canadian Road: A History of Yonge Street. Toronto: Red Rock, 1977.
Daniel Ross is a PhD candidate in history at York University. His research focuses on the 1960s and 70s, and he is currently studying Toronto’s attempts to remake, revitalize, and re-brand downtown Yonge Street. He blogs at historiandanielross.com.
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