“My feet tread a familiar path along Yonge, a neon circus of idling cars and roving packs of suburbanites here to enjoy something a little different. The sixties have come to Toronto two years too late, and so seven odd decades of being good atop a mud pile have left the citizens feeling antsy. I am no different from them, I suppose, as I stalk past the seedy bookstores and blue movie theatres, the orderly grid of the city giving way to unexpected pockets of life. The night wanderers peer into shop windows, and young lovers clutch at each other, scurrying from late shows into waiting vehicles, off to apartments to drink wine and make love.”
I’m going to miss Yonge Street when it is gone.
I’m going to miss the discount clothing stores, and the used bookshops, and the porn theatres. I’m going to miss bundling up in layers on a wintry night, and wandering past the spinning discs and the flashing lights and men handing out fliers beneath crumbling marquees. And I’m going to miss the characters – oh, Toronto’s weirdest and dearest. The crazy cat ladies and the faded seventies rockers and the old men who would talk your ear off about what TIFF was like before it sold out. (To a suburban kid working in an indie bookshop, they represented the height of urban living.)
I wasn’t alive to see the glittering marquees of the fifties, the musical taverns of the sixties, or the urban decay of the seventies. I didn’t see Jackie Shane at the Colonial Tavern, or grab a pint and watch a drag show at St. Charles Tavern, or catch a blue flick at the Elgin. I did see a few late shows at the Uptown Theatre, and get a (bad) haircut at House of Lords, and buy OK Computer at Sam the Record Man. At fourteen, I gathered up the courage to climb the massive flight of stairs that led to the second-floor location of the original Glad Day Bookshop and buy a rainbow sticker.
In my early twenties, I took tentative steps into adulthood at The Brass Rail, Remington’s, and Zanzibar, and spent countless hours pouring over books between the massive shelves of Eliot’s Bookshop. And I’ve wandered past the last-call crowds smoking and fighting outside of bars to stand on freezing cold corners and wait for the “Vomit Comet” to take me home.
You can’t compare Yonge to anything in New York, Paris, or London. Hell, you can’t even really compare it to any of Montreal’s main streets. Those cities are older, and have clearly defined identities that locals take very seriously. Toronto has always been malleable, insecure in its identity, and subject to different generations making their mark before quickly moving on once their financial circumstances improved. There simply isn’t the same kind of consistency, generational investment, or focus on neighbourhood planning. Toronto the Transient, perhaps?
What Yonge Street did have was a palpable energy, human scale buildings, and an organic collision of businesses that made it somewhat akin to those more exciting urban centers. There was an unpredictability to the strip, and a feeling that anything could happen because so many things had happened. So many stories, and so many memories.
And so much grime and grit. For as much as Yonge had evolved over the years, there was always residue left behind by each previous era. Business upon business, sign upon sign. A clocktower peaking out over an electronics store. Old marquees refashioned to sell new items. Superficial changes, but the bones remained the same.
But the last few years, Toronto has given way to a dramatic restructuring and, unfortunately, uniformity. Massive blocks are getting torn down to be replaced by towering glass condominium complexes. Municipal taxes have risen significantly, and so independent businesses are either closing or moving to other locations, and big box retailers are taking over ground-level retail spaces. For the first time in decades, large sections of the street are being drastically redeveloped, and the entire identity of Yonge is changing. Now walking in the neighbourhood feels like walking through a war zone.
And, look – Toronto is evolving into a world-class city, and so redevelopment makes sense. The city is more of an international destination than ever, with an influx of foreign investment and a significant population boom. Plus, younger generations are abandoning the suburbs in favour of living downtown and much closer to their workplaces. So while the city’s never-ending thirst for condos is definitely out of hand in other neighbourhoods, these types of developments make sense along one of the city’s busiest streets. It’s just part of the next stage in Toronto’s evolution. Nostalgia can’t compete with the shifting realities of 21st century urban life.
Still, as I watched the owner of Eliot’s Bookshop pack boxes of vintage magazines tonight in preparation for the store’s closing, I couldn’t help but feel like something very human is being lost in the shuffle. This had been his business for four decades, and I’ve grown used to seeing him sit in the window looking out onto the street for the better part of fifteen years. Now the window is full of closing signs.
“The neighbourhood has changed a lot in four decades,” he said. “And I have a lot of memories. Lots of ghosts.”
“But nothing in a city stays the same forever.”