Sublime and seedy – Goode Olde Yonge


Mason’s craft (top photo)

(As always – click the top photo, to see the whole series at more eye-friendly scale)  ;o)

Not long ago I walked Yonge St – from Davisville down to the lake, so I could take the pulse of the old spine of the city, and then see the tall ship festival along the waterfront. (while saving the subway-fare, for ice-cream)

Naturally, I played my usual mental game – saluting what endures, noting what has changed or been erased altogether, and then also superimposing those unique places long lost but never forgotten, just to keep the memory of them vital, and tied to place.

A lot of lovely old buildings with fantastic character have already been torn down – and a huge number have been or are now being in-effect flayed – so that their old charming and familiar skin can be wrapped around a monstrous commercial tower that we would otherwise despise without any reservation whatsoever. (Embarrassed to say Toronto architects were pioneers in this technique – yes, arguably better than absolute obliteration, but profoundly ghoulish in almost every case, all the same).

Very Important Ping-Pong

But when I got to the block on the East side of Yonge, running south from Gerrard, I encountered the preparation of a new mega construction site – soon to be a combination of flayed skins and deep blank holes, and soon after that something soulless and forgettable in steel and glass, that could belong to any other city in the world – and be just as profitable, pointless, and offensive.

My most vivid memories of the Yonge-Dundas area come from working as teenage late-shift soda jerk at a very popular fruit-drink restaurant right in the middle of it, as the 70s turned into the 80s. The most-of-a-block now coming down, was a big part of that incredibly chaotic, wildly energetic, and also rather seedy scene.

Last Lath – Raw Nerves

Back then, what we think of now as Yonge Dundas square was occupied by a ramshackle discount blue jean store, with a remainder bookstore (one of those trestle-table specials) an ice cream franchise and a more formal bookstore, all jammed-in next to it. Up and down Yonge were incredibly noisy video arcades (impossibly exciting, for those young at the time), with all the latest consoles, and imperious high-perched change masters supervising the sometimes rowdy play, and doling out the rolls of quarters, one tenner at a time. Pool halls, upstairs and downstairs, were also plentiful, and at least one subterranean black-light-lit place mixed both, along with huge rows of pinball machines. (Lot of creeps lurking, but great machines that no one else had – a clear overriding priority to a kid).

Vast and busy record stores like Sam the Record Man, Sunrise, and A & A, along with a huge diversity of hi-fi stores (some all about the price, and some dedicated to the finest quality audiophile equipment only), ranged up the block, and running down along Gould, there was a wild hand-made crafts market which was open very late into the night on the weekends, and many tables full of demonically competitive speed-chess players (money only). They’d (honestly) offer you five minutes on the chess-clock to their one, and still soundly trounce you! (tried and lost, repeatedly – and caffeinated those wonderful wild-man characters, every shift I worked).

Vacant Glaze

Some summers Yonge St was blocked off entirely and turned into a pedestrian thoroughfare – many have wonderful memories of what was then called the Yonge St mall.

When there was a hockey game or a big rock concert at Maple Leaf gardens, just off Yonge at Carlton, the crowds would stream down Yonge afterward, bringing a lot of rowdy excitement down the street with them, and usually, an extra hour’s worth of clean up, after a later than usual closing. I think the only folks who got slammed worse than us, were the crew at “The Big Slice” where Catherine and I were lucky enough to stop for one last nostalgic bite, just a couple of weeks before they closed for good. As much of a Yonge St staple as the sugary milkshake-sweet pina colada drinks I was serving up late into the night (gone for decades, now).

When we closed especially late, and the subway and Bay bus had both stopped running for the night, I had a long walk ahead (Christie and Dupont), so (winter especially) I often stopped into Ford Drugs for a coffee and a snack before the trek. It was a weird and not especially friendly-looking place up front – the whole pharmacy was walled-off by grimy scuffed opaque shields, with a tiny window for the pharmacist and cashier (no doubt for fair reason).

But it was open all-night and just behind that weird narrow plastic corridor pharmacy at the front, was a miniature soda fountain of classic vintage; a few soft-padded two-person booths and a couple of chrome-sided spinning stools, mounted by the counter – Hamilton Standard three-at-a-time milkshake machine, front and centre (easier to spot than their tiny grill). The menu was very basic, but the coffee was hot, and the hookers who congregated back there, almost like it was an unofficial clubhouse, were always really nice to me. They used to tease me for being such an egghead and not going to college, and they always enjoyed making me blush with language far beyond my naive comprehension of the time.

Mission’s end

Being a bit of a waif myself, I had more than one friend who was greatly lifted by the work of the Yonge St Mission – the Evergreen Street Youth program, in particular. Thousands of kids a year are still being helped by them – and while their new headquarters on Spadina is also sited in an area with long established and genuine problems, it was really sad to see them lose this irreplaceably perfect central location.

Always busy, always active, a beacon of sanctuary of great value. You could never walk by the place without seeing a group of kids outside who gave you hope, because you knew for-sure they were working on it, and displaying great courage, even getting that far.

The Yonge St Mission was first established in 1896, with a ‘gospel wagon’, continues to do very important poverty outreach of many kinds – (and could always use some more stalwart volunteers – they remind us) ;o)

All the years

You can see by the looming Ryerson cube just behind, exactly where this is – right in the middle of all sorts of sacred spots from the colourful low-rent past of Yonge St, which we’ve all known were thrice-doomed for quite some time anyhow (rent, fading retail trade, rapid tax increases).

But the wild and bedazzling array of street level stores were only ever a part of the story of weird Yonge St in its most chaotic (and arguably, alive) state, many decades ago. The other part was all of the walk-up residences above the stores (often third and fourth floor apartments, above two floors of busy retail).

Seeing all of these revealed walls at once, the mind boggles with the influx of story being obliterated, right before our eyes. Who proposed in that former living room, by the fireplace? Who sought consolation from the heavens, in that lonely bedroom? What baby was last washed in that claw-foot bathtub? What con-man last peered out the draughty front window, to check if the marks were biting?

Ghosts, memories, true loves, tragic losses – referents, rubble.

It is impossible to imagine that the buildings which replace these will ever host such down to earth chaotic humanity again. High-end retail and ultra expensive condos – inevitably. Scatter the ‘riffraff’ to the winds.

But without the ‘riffraff’ (myself very much included, in that oddball ‘other’ category) Yonge St would cease to exist in any useful, inspiring, scary, crazy-making, character offering, and ultimately deeply endearing way.

And that would leave Toronto without a genuinely electrifying spine or a vital beating heart (or, admittedly – a rather dubious looking mess on the stoop)

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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