A Motherly Sign

Originally published on Torontoist on June 19, 2008.

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Since it was built in 1887, the Alexandrina Block on College Street west of Spadina has seen numerous tenants come and go, including The Bagel music venue. Among its current elements is a 1970s-style sign promising over a dozen variety of submarine sandwiches. Those hoping for a retro experience will be disappointed as all that remains of the self-proclaimed “Rolls Royce of submarines” is the sign, fully intact and party covered by a tree.

The earliest media mention we can find for Mothers a dining guide in the June 3, 1972 edition of Star Week, which gave Mothers four stars out of four (tying it with the only survivor in the $5-$10 category, The Coffee Mill). “Mothers serves a Super-Sub sandwich for $1.35. It could use a little more oregano, but otherwise it’s the closest thing we’ve found in Toronto to the Philadelphia hoagie or New York hero. Hero-worshippers please take note.”

While Mothers may have been lacking in the oregano department, it did offer a unique delivery vehicle to back up its slogan: a Volkswagen Beetle modified to resemble a Rolls Royce. Such conversions were a fad during the period, with surviving examples including one owned by Liberace on display at his museum in Las Vegas. According to co-owner Howard Waxberg in a January 1974 interview with Toronto Life, “it cost us $450 to have the body work done, and then we had to get it painted—maybe $600 altogether.” The main problem with the car was finding suitable parts, especially after an accident damaged the first front grill. Waxberg felt that the vehicle “was the best advertising money we’ve spent. It’s fantastic to drive the thing. People look at you, laugh, point, stop you and ask questions, like ‘What is that?’”

A question now asked by pedestrians passing the sign.

UPDATE

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The Mothers sign gradually faded away. First one side was replaced by a sign for another business. As of July 2019, only the frame remains.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Mothers Sandwich Shoppes–note the fancier spelling–was revisited by Star Week circa November 1977. The following review, which gave it 2-1/2 stars (out of three I’m guessing, since all of the restaurants listed were given either 2-1/2 or 3 star ratings) ran for nearly a year-and-a-half:

Americans say Canadians have no idea what a submarine sandwich really is. That is with one exception–the owners of Mothers are reputed to make versions more than acceptable to even the sophisticated “sub” palate. Hot steak sandwiches and veal sandwiches are salso served.

At this point, there were also locations at 44 Eglinton Avenue West (at Duplex) and 826 Yonge Street (at Cumberland).

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Want some solitaire with your sub? Photo by Neil Graham, Globe and Mail, February 23, 1993.

By 1993, Mothers served up subs and computer parts. From the February 23, 1993 Globe and Mail:

Staff need a certain amount of versatility to work at Honson Computer Corp. and Mother’s Sandwich Shop in downtown Toronto. When the lunch hour hits, employees scramble back and forth between helping customers pick out computer systems and serving up tangy meatball sandwiches on thick, crusty rolls. The combination computer store and lunch counter is one of the more unusual manifestations of a trend in computer distribution and retailing: most people in the business of selling computers are looking for way to hedge their bets.

According to owner Peter Lee, the key to surviving in the computer business was finding a way to cover your overhead.

In Mr. Lee’s case that meant broadening into chicken soup, french fries, and corned beef on rye. Mr. Lee had operated Honson Computer near the University of Toronto’s downtown campus for six years when the recession hit. Looking for a way to cut costs he took over Mother’s Sandwich Shop next door and piled his computer boxes and demonstration models alongside the long, wooden booths and orange plastic tabletops. Mr. Lee said he makes less than $100 profit on a $2,000 computer system. A sandwich, on the other hand, yields about 100 percent profit.

Neon Narcissism

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This weekend, I checked out the pop-up neon exhibition in a condo sales centre in The Junction. Entering the space, my eyes should have been drawn to a lit sign rescued from a short-lived restaurant in Chinatown. Instead, the first thing I noticed was a woman sitting on the ground in front of the “Lucky” sign, posing for a long series of pictures. She attempted to cultivate a seductive mood, perhaps hoping that whoever saw the end result would feel as lucky as the neon message behind her.

Elsewhere in the small exhibition space, it was nearly impossible to read the curatorial material. Doing so interfered with the selfie-takers snapping endless pictures of themselves striking poses with little consideration that others might want a few moments to take in the displays.

My temperature rose.

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A moment for myself and others to take a regular photo. 

All I thought of was my honeymoon in Paris two years ago. The day we visited the Louvre, the city was under tight security after a terrorist threat that morning. After a long wait to get into the museum, my irritation grew as other tourists, armed with selfie sticks, blocked exhibits.

And walkways.

And staircases.

Trying to navigate the Louvre felt like an obstacle course, with every path blocked by those more interested in themselves than any of historical or cultural contexts surrounding them. I wanted to re-enact the scene in Airplane! where Robert Stack decks anyone in his way en route to air traffic control.

I felt less danger that day from terrorists than being accidentally knocked in the head or jabbed in the side by a selfie-stick.

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Back in the present I decided to move along. It was a relief when, after leaving the exhibit, someone who appeared to be a condo centre employee directed me into a model living room to check out one more neon installation. While it didn’t convince me to invest in a unit, it placed me far away from the selfie horde, allowing my temperature to lower.

Talking to others who visited the exhibit revealed similar frustrations. The pop-up was a great idea to provide exposure for a future neon museum downtown, but it felt like too many of the people I saw there were only present for narcissistic reasons. I imagined some of them moving on to whatever is this season’s version of Sweet Jesus, buying over-the-top food for a picture then barely eating it before tossing it in the garbage bin.

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POSTSCRIPT: Speaking of garbage, the block of Old Weston Road behind Junction House was full of debris. There was a comforting seat with its own shopping cart…

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…and the answer to “Where do Readers Digest Condensed Books ultimately wind up?”.

“We don’t want to become a city of moles”

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” online column for The Grid was originally published on May 22, 2012.

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Toronto Star, December 18, 1971.

To some, it provided a welcome respite from braving the elements on their lunch break. For others, especially those working in its retail outlets, it made them feel like a mole. The three kilometres of underground shopping malls and tunnels that 175,000 office workers passed through daily in May 1980 formed the spine from which today’s PATH system grew.

Since the opening of the Toronto-Dominion Centre’s sub-surface shopping complex in 1967, planners and developers envisioned an underground network connecting the core’s major business, shopping, and transportation facilities. One of the first reports commissioned by the city was 1968’s “On Foot Downtown,” which concluded that downtown pedestrians required a space that wasn’t impeded by industrial pollution, noise, traffic congestion, or too many of their fellow human beings. “We had reached the point where sidewalks couldn’t handle all the people,” former Toronto planning commissioner Matthew Lawson told the Star in 1980. “At the same time, all our forecasts said such conditions would only worsen because of the growth of the downtown work force.”

It was hoped that a climate-controlled underground route would avert these problems and provide protection from Mother Nature—as Toronto development commissioner Graham Emslie told the Star in 1971, “let’s face it, there are a hell of a lot of days you’d just as soon not walk outside.” The first major connection in the primordial PATH, which linked Nathan Phillips Square to the Richmond-Adelaide Centre, opened in January 1973. By May 1980, apart from a gap at Adelaide Street that became a haven for jaywalkers, one could wander underground from City Hall to Union Station.

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Toronto Star, November 17, 1973. Click on image for larger version.

While many users extolled the network’s conveniences, some urban planners and consultants were alarmed by the potential effects on surface life. An adviser to a planned revitalization of Yonge Street found it “worrisome” that in the future, people would take the subway downtown, shop at the Eaton Centre and other underground shopping complexes, then head home without ever setting foot outdoors. “We don’t want to become a city of moles,” noted Toronto planning and development commissioner Steve McLaughlin. To mitigate such a fate, a recently written central plan for the city encouraged developers to place higher priority on street-level retail in future buildings. According to McLaughlin, “we don’t want the downtown streets to contain nothing more than block after block of office lobbies.”

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Toronto Star, May 3, 1980. Click on image for larger version.

Back underground, Downtown Business Council president David Arscott provided the Star with a shopping list of improvements. Filling the gap under Adelaide Street was critical, as was a proper orientation system to give users a sense of which surface landmarks they were wandering under. Complaints Arscott received that required addressing included narrow walkways, poor lighting, low ceilings, and boring street entrances. “We are still in a primitive stage of the art,” said Arscott. “We have a lot to learn from experience.”

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Downtown Toronto underground pedestrian mall system, 1981. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 408, Item 5.

Within the next decade, some of those issues were resolved. The Adelaide gap was fixed in 1984, while a tunnel opened under Bay Street in 1990 that properly connected the Eaton Centre and Simpsons (now The Bay) to the rest of the PATH. Signage would long remain a problem, one caught between city politicians who wanted clear wayfinding versus landlords who didn’t want to create the impression that the network was a truly public space.

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“People bound for jobs in the financial district pour out of Union station into the underground mall section of the Royal Bank Plaza. It’s been described as an ‘environmental vaccuum’ by some due to the poor artificial lighting and the mechanically recirculated stale air.” Photo by Erin Combs, 1985. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library.

While a few people may have mutated into moles over the years, the surface streets remain filled with those seeking a breath of unfiltered air during the workday.

Additional material from the December 18, 1971, January 11, 1973, and May 3, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

A Gooderham Gallery

Originally published on Torontoist on October 13, 2011

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Gooderham Building, 1996. Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library.

An iconic image of Toronto: a photograph looking west from the intersection of Church, Front, and Wellington Streets, with the Gooderham Building (a.k.a. the Flatiron) as the focal point. The unusual skinny, triangular shape, which predated New York’s flatiron by a decade, was the result of the clash between Wellington Street’s adherence to Toronto’s square grid and Front Street’s looser paralleling of the 19th century shoreline. In the 120 years since George Gooderham first surveyed his business empire from his fifth floor office, the building that bears his family’s name has evolved into a Toronto landmark.

And it’s a landmark that theoretically could be yours. Current owner Woodcliffe started the bidding process this week to find the next custodian for the historical site, which provides an opportunity to look back at how it became one of Toronto’s most beloved buildings

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Coffin Block, Front and Wellington Streets, 1873. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7335.

Before the Gooderham Building was erected in 1891, another flatiron-shaped structure occupied the block. Consisting of three connected units, the structure was known as the Coffin Block due to its resemblance to the end of a funeral box. Among its tenants were a telegraph office, a stagecoach booking office, and additional guest rooms for the Wellington Hotel, whose main premises were located on the northwest corner of Church and Wellington.

Whoever archived this image determined that notes written on the side of the photo weren’t enough for future researchers.

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Gooderham Building, circa 1893. Toronto Illustrated 1893 (Toronto: Consolidated Printing, 1893).

Here’s a wealthy person the Occupy Wall Street movement might respect: when George Gooderham died in May 1905, he purposely left most of his fortune in the hands of the Ontario government. He decided against selling any of his stocks to anyone else due to his belief that it was unconscionable to evade provincial succession duties. The portion of Gooderham’s $25 million estate that the government received wiped out the provincial deficit.

Though Gooderham’s fortune was based on the Gooderham and Worts distillery, he built it through investments in banking, insurance, and railways. He was among the founders of Manufacturer’s Life (now Manulife), served as president of the Bank of Toronto (an ancestor of TD Canada Trust), and backed the construction of the King Edward Hotel. His philanthropic interests included key financial and managerial roles at Toronto General Hospital and the University of Toronto.

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Gooderham Building, 1890s. Photo by F.W. Micklethwaite. Library and Archives Canada, RD-000335, via Wikimedia Commons.

Architect David Roberts Jr. was no stranger to the Gooderham family when he was chosen to design the new building. Among his other commissions was Waveney, George Gooderham’s mansion at Bloor Street and St, George Street, which currently houses the York Club. To replace the demolished Coffin Block, Roberts designed a five-storey red brick office building trimmed with Credit Valley stone. Gooderham’s personal office was located at the top of the semi-circular tower in the front, where he could view of many of his business interests. Also included for Gooderham’s benefit was a tunnel under Wellington Street to the head office of the Bank of Toronto (now the site of Pizza Pizza).

The effect the building created was summed up by Patricia McHugh in her book Toronto Architecture: A City Guide (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989), “With a richly textured facade and kingly chateauesque towered roof that still dominates this busy corner, the building stands as an apt symbol of the Gooderham family’s powerful position in the community.”

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Gooderham Building, between 1966 and 1972. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 65.

Gooderham and Worts maintained offices in the building through the early 1950s. By the 1960s, despite its growing status as a local landmark, its future seemed in doubt. As plans evolved for a Centennial-related series of arts complexes in the neighbourhood, the buildings that occupied the rest of the Gooderham’s little island were razed for a temporary parking lot. By 1966, the orphaned building was the temporary headquarters for the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts rising to the west. As the 1960s, the Gooderham provided office space for arts organizations like the Mendelssohn Choir, the Shaw Festival, and the Folk Arts Council.

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Globe and Mail, September 19, 1973.

But the Gooderham Building managed to survive in an era when one aging downtown building after another fell to the wrecking ball. New ownership in the mid-1970s poured money into renovations. Instead of building arts schools or small concert halls beside it, the City of Toronto approved the public space that officially opened as Berczy Park in 1975. That same year, the Gooderham Building was declared a historic site.

Two attempts were made to dress up the west wall, which had actually belonged to a long-gone neighbouring building. A mural of clouds painted by Daniel Solomon during the early 1970s was eventually covered over—allegedly the wall was too poorly prepared to handle the piece. Attempt number two began with a suggestion from the city’s heritage agencies that any future artwork should incorporate the architectural stylings of the surrounding 19th century buildings. A combination of commercial donors and funds from the Wintario lottery provided artist Derek Besant with $80,000 to come up with a durable piece of art. The result: 49 panels of a polyethelene-based construction material called Alucobond that formed a trompe l’oeil special effect of a wall curling at its edges.

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Berczy Park looking east at the Gooderham Building, before and after landscaping. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 623, Item 5.

When Besant’s piece was unveiled on September 19, 1980, the Globe and Mail’s John Bentley Mays called it “an engineering masterpiece and an artistic triumph that will be flying high on the Flatiron Building for years.” Two restorations later, the piece is as much a Toronto landmark as the building itself.

The building’s landmark status has grown with time. As larger office towers filled the skyline to the west, it has provided photographers with an interesting contrast of past versus present. The site has consistently been one of the most popular attractions during Doors Open. Any new owner would risk a public outcry if they messed with the flatiron shape or the well-restored building’s other unique attributes.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

The building was purchased by Commercial Realty Group.

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Editorial on what would become Berczy Park, Toronto Star, August 8, 1972.

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Globe and Mail, September 19, 1980.

The Quest for More Pedestrian Space at Yonge and Eglinton in the Early 2010s

Squaring Off at Yonge and Eglinton

Originally published on Torontoist on March 30, 2010.

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On any given lunch hour, the plaza in front of the Yonge-Eglinton Centre is populated by office workers enjoying a sun-soaked lunch and smoke break, high school students heading toward the food court or other nearby fast food joints, and companies handing out the corporate sample of the day to pedestrians. The sculptures lining the plaza had slightly more company than usual yesterday thanks to a protest over whom the space should serve: its private owner or the surrounding community.

Depending on the media source, between fifty and 125 protestors showed up waving signs urging site owner RioCan and local politicians to “keep Yonge for the young” as they chanted “save our square.” Local media was there in full force, which must have pleased the organizers from the Yonge-Eglinton Square Coalition—at times it felt as if there were more cameras and microphones about than concerned citizens (a running commentary on Urban Toronto made fun of the size of the protest relative to the square). At issue is RioCan’s plan to redevelop the Yonge-Eglinton Centre by topping the two existing office towers with additions of five and seven storeys apiece and the encroaching three storeys of new retail space onto the square thanks to a four-thousand-square-metre addition that will include a rooftop garden.

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RioCan has set aside a gallery in the mall to show off its plans for the site. While the hours listed on the doors to the gallery indicated that it was open to the public yesterday, both of our attempts to take a look were met with unexplained locked entrances. It may be coincidental that the company’s official website for the redevelopment is under construction, though some sketches are still available for viewing.

According to its website, the Yonge-Eglinton Square Coalition represents four local residents’ associations that wish to preserve the lone accessible open space at the intersection. They hope that rather than build more retail onto it, the barren plaza be transformed into a people-friendly “welcoming oasis in the middle of the city.” Supporters were among the community members, city officials, and local developers who participated in a workshop last November [PDF] that examined ways to handle the redesign of the space and the intensification of the neighbourhood in general.

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As far as public space was concerned, the workshop concluded that:

The northwest quadrant is a commercial hub, a focal point, and a regional destination. However, this quadrant needs a refit in its mid-life, including added retail and redesign of the indoor plaza. As well, currently, the square is not a good quality and pedestrian supportive environment as it is: a windy space with bad grades; without appropriate programming; lacking in adequate street furniture; and is seasonally constrained with piles of snow and salt. Therefore, the square in this quadrant, which is one of the key open spaces in the area, should be redesigned and improved…There is a shortage of open space at or near the intersection of Yonge and Eglinton. It is recommended that all four quadrants abutting the intersection contribute to remedy this shortage. Issues related to quantity of open space should be balanced with consideration for high quality design, pedestrian vitality and interest.

As for whether an open public space is legally required at Yonge and Eglinton [PDF], disputes that there were any written guarantees in the land title or any references in contemporary planning reports and council minutes that “require the land to remain as open space in a quid pro quo arrangement for Starrett Avenue [which was closed off to build the complex].”

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Toronto District School Board trustee Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) listens to Lydia Levin of the Yonge Eglinton Square Coalition.

Organizers of the protest hope their efforts will encourage concerned residents to contact city councillors before a final vote is taken on the project on Wednesday or Thursday. So far, RioCan’s proposals have been approved by the North York Community Council. At least two of the neighbourhood’s councillors are divided in their opinion of the project. Strong support for the redevelopment plan from Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) has caused head-scratching among some local taxpayer groups, as she initially ran for municipal office on a wave of residential opposition to the construction of the Minto Quantum condo towers. A March 24 post on her website rebukes opponents of the plan by articling five points about the redevelopment, which include economic, aesthetic, and cultural benefits on land that is privately owned. As Stintz summarizes, “people are free to protest, but this application represents a fair balance for the community who wish to revitalize this corner and the property owners who wish to realize a benefit from their investment.”

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Neighbouring councillor Michael Walker (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) supports those hoping to prevent the encroachment on the space from going ahead. As he told CTV News, “We don’t want to lose it and we should say no. It’s easy to say and the politicians shouldn’t cave to another deal-making exercise. There’s a point where profit has to take second place to city building and it starts right here where we’re standing.” Toronto District School Board trustee Josh Matlow, who is running to fill the retiring Walker’s council seat, lent his support to the protestors. “The reality is that nobody wants the square to be the way it is,” Matlow told the National Post. “It needs some work. Our community wants this to be revitalized, not lost to a shopping mall. It’s not a lot to ask.”

A Pedestrian Square Grows in North Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on July 29, 2011. Images for this story no longer appear to exist.

North Toronto probably isn’t the first neighbourhood you’d name when listing off public space experiments in the city, especially when future development plans at its main intersection look likely to decrease street-level open-air stretching room. Yet walk a block north from Eglinton Avenue along Yonge Street and you’ll find a pilot project aiming to create pedestrian space on Orchard View Boulevard. At an intersection where pedestrians often had to deal with impatient drivers and delivery trucks, they now find planters blocking the road and umbrella-shaded tables providing a more comfortable spot to enjoy al fresco dining than the concrete ledges lining the side street.

Officially opened on July 14, the City created the pedestrian square by closing Orchard View Boulevard to traffic between Yonge Street and the driveway for the Canterbury House apartment building. Though concerns about the space have been expressed by the neighbouring RBC branch (impact on customers) and some local ratepayer groups (procedural issues), Councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) has received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the initiative she helped make a reality, along with ratepayer groups and RioCan. Besides providing a spot for residents and office workers to relax, Stintz joked that the project is “probably the cheapest park we’ll build in North Toronto,” which aligns it the Ford administration’s low-cost philosophy of government and may have contributed to the unanimous support the pilot project received at city council. Stintz also praised the support of RioCan, which operates the neighbouring Yonge-Eglinton Centre, through actions like maintaining the patio tables.

One of main beneficiaries of the pedestrian square is Apple Tree Markets, who moved their Thursday farmers’ market from a hidden space in Eglinton Park behind the North Toronto Memorial Community Recreation Centre to the pedestrian square. Higher visibility seems to be making market vendors happy: even with extreme heat last week and dreary conditions yesterday, they’ve seen increased customer traffic. The threat of rain hadn’t hindered activity when we dropped by around 4 p.m. yesterday—most of the tables were occupied and every market vendor saw several potential purchasers hovering over their fresh vegetables, coolers of meat, and other edible goodies. One vendor we talked to noted that customers indicated they preferred the market’s new home because they couldn’t be bothered to walk over to Eglinton Park, even if they lived mere blocks away.

After the tables are vacated for the last time on October 14, the pilot will be analyzed for its impact on the neighbourhood and for the possibility of making the closure a permanent seasonal attraction. (It’s not the first of its kind, exactly: the City has partnered with U of T and Ryerson on previous road-closure pilots.) There are also plans to test a second pedestrian square next year in the northern end of Stinz’s ward at Avenue Road and Dunblaine Avenue. Given that seating space is at a premium whenever we pass by, we hope that the new space will become a North Toronto fixture for years to come. Orchard View Square, anyone?

UPDATE

As of fall 2018, we can tell you this much: public space wise, Yonge and Eglinton is currently a disaster. Between construction of the Eglinton Crosstown LTR line and the erection of several condo towers, getting around the intersection by any means is complicated. What the future will bring in terms of increasing outdoor pedestrian space probably won’t be clear until the fate of portions of the TTC land on the southwest corner is decided.

The revamp of the Yonge-Eglinton Centre went ahead, shrinking the open-air space. Josh Matlow was elected to City Council in 2010 while Karen Stintz unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2014. The pedestrian pilot along Orchard View Boulevard did not endure, and a traffic light has been installed, creating a stronger traffic flow link to Roehampton Avenue. The farmer’s market spent this past summer near Davisville station.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Revisiting these stories has been a great example of how fleeting information is on the interwebs, as nearly all of the links that appeared in the original posts are kaput. I’m tempted to blockquote large sections of linked material in future blog posts to provide full context before those posts vanish. One of the worst offenders in the current Toronto media world are Postmedia’s Toronto properties (National Post, Sun), which have little online archival material thanks to website revamps.

An Afternoon Stroll Along Danforth Avenue, July 2018

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Two nights ago, just west of where I live, a mass shooting occurred. Moments after I learned about it, a friend texted to ensure my wife and I were OK. While we had spent a quiet night in, the possibility of either of us being in that area at that time was not inconceivable as I often stroll over to Greektown for evening stretches.

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This afternoon I walked over to see how things were. Activity appeared normal for a Tuesday afternoon, with plenty of locals doing their errands. Many businesses put messages of community strength on their sidewalk sides, with hashtags #danforthstrong and #torontostrong.

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The boards covering up the renovations at Ouzeri were covered with messages of love and requests to remain strong.

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There was a time I thought such behaviour was excessive. When Jack Layton died in 2011 and my partner at the time wanted to pay respects at his home, I resisted. Based on personal experience with death, I felt that maybe the family wanted to be left alone. She pointed out how much was left outside their door, that it hadn’t been removed, and that it was probably appreciated both by the family and those wishing to honour his memory. She was right. Unless explicitly told not to by relevant parties, some people need to work out their grief after a tragedy or a major passing in public ways. Ideally these displays demonstrate how communities come together.

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The public worked out their feelings, for better or worse, on the boards and the sidewalk. The occasional reference to terrorism crept in, along with complaints about psychiatric drug makers. Most avoided the hatemongering pursued by certain elements and Toronto’s daily tabloid newspaper.

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Flowers filled the plaza at Danforth and Logan, left by the community and local politicians. It was also filled with cameras waiting for something, though I didn’t stick around to find out why. I suspect it was an announcement of a vigil for the victims, as I later saw flyers about the vigil distributed by the BIA to stores.

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At least one person promised to attend Taste of the Danforth.

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Churches offered space for quiet grieving, reflection, and coping.

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It was refreshing to see regular customers check in with businesses to see how the employees were holding up. Watching a couple shake hands with a man outside a convenience store. General demonstrations of caring and concern. Relief from the endless daily stream of cynicism, populist hate, and selfishness.

Shaping Toronto: Centennial Projects

Originally published on Torontoist on February 24, 2016.

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A mark of the centennial at the fountain at Rosehill Reservoir.

From neighbourhood tree plantings to the international spectacle of Expo 67, Canada proudly celebrated its centennial. The stylized maple leaf logo graced everything from historical sites to reservoirs. Cities and towns applied for governments grants to spruce up parks, restore historical sites, and build attractions to last long after the centennial spirit faded.

Across Toronto, many legacies remain of, as Pierre Berton’s book on 1967 termed it, “the last good year.” There are the community centres and parks in the pre-amalgamation suburbs with “centennial” in their name. Celebratory murals lining school walls. Caribana and its successors celebrating Caribbean culture each year.

Many of these projects received funding from programs overseen by a federal commission, whose work sometimes felt like an Expo footnote. “They felt like poor cousins,” Centennial Commission PR director Peter Aykroyd (Dan’s father) observed. “Expo was so big, so appealing, so clearly headed for success that it discouraged those who were plodding away on the less focused, something-for-everyone program of the Commission.”

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North York Centennial Arena (later named in honour of Herb Carnegie), 1967. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 27, Item 7.

As is our habit, Toronto wanted spectacular major centennial projects. As is also our habit, they were mired in bureaucratic squabbles involving penny-pinching city councillors, politicians and pundits who swore delays embarrassed us in front of the rest of the country, and bad luck.

Discussions over marking the centennial began in earnest in September 1962 when the Toronto Planning Board proposed a $25 million cultural complex. With financial pruning, this evolved into a $9 million centennial program focused on the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, which included a repertory theatre, arts and culture facilities along Front Street, and a renovation of the decaying St. Lawrence Hall. Proponents also tossed in an expansion of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO) and refreshing Massey Hall. Mayor Phil Givens supported the project wholeheartedly—during his re-election campaign in 1964, he said “I have never been so sincerely convinced in my life that something is right.”

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Sketch of a proposed theatre inside the St. Lawrence Centre, Globe and Mail, March 20, 1965.

A key opponent was councillor/former mayor Allan Lamport, who believed the city couldn’t afford the project, and was only willing to support the St. Lawrence Hall rehab. “He is barren of ideas concerning what the city might put in its place,” a Globe and Mail editorial criticized. “It is this sort of negative approach which could find Toronto celebrating the nation’s birthday with nothing more impressive and enduring than a pageant in the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand.”

The fate of the St. Lawrence Centre see-sawed over the next few years, as council battled over the budget. When it was clear the project wouldn’t be remotely ready for 1967, the city switched its focus to St. Lawrence Hall. When the 1960s started, the site was split among several owners, and there was at least one proposal to replace it with an office building and parking deck. Under the leadership of a committee of local architects and construction officials, the restoration of the hall appeared to be on track as 1967 dawned.

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“Searching for bodies; city firemen comb through the rubble of the east wing of St. Lawrence Hall which collapsed yesterday while being restored as a Centennial project. No one was injured and no bodies were found. Credit for this is given foreman Jack McGowan who cleared the building and sent men to stop traffic only minutes before the four-storey section crumbled in a cloud of dust.” Photo by Dick Darrell, originally published in the March 11, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0000233f.

On March 10, 1967, the northeast portion of the building collapsed. The press offered unanimous support to keep the project going, such as the following Star editorial:

The restoration of the old St. Lawrence Hall was one centennial project upon which everyone in Toronto was happily united. Today, when a section of the building lies in rubble, we can be sure the determination that it will live in its former glory is stronger than ever…it wasn’t until the report of the collapse that most of us realized how much the restoration of the historic old hall was coming to mean in this centennial year, troubled with apathy and dispute over other projects…Our appetite for history has been whetted and we need the completion of the St. Lawrence Hall to satisfy it. So light the torches and beat the drums, we’ve got a building to raise.

While the restoration endured further delays from a series of city-wide construction strikes (which prompted the city to sneak in concrete via the back entrance), the refurbished St. Lawrence Hall celebrated its rebirth when Governor-General Roland Michener officially re-opened it during a December 28, 1967 gala.

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Globe and Mail, April 28, 1965.

The St. Lawrence Centre finally opened in February 1970, several months after another delayed centennial project. When the province announced a science museum in 1964, it chose 180 acres of parkland at Don Mills and Eglinton. The city opposed the suburban location, preferring the CNE grounds, where Givens felt there were better connections to highways and transit. Unless the province provided compelling reasons regarding the CNE’s unsuitability, he threatened to hold up the transfer of the Don Valley site. The province wasn’t moved. Initially known as the Centennial Centre of Science and Technology, the project suffered numerous construction delays and bureaucratic bickering before opening as the Ontario Science Centre in September 1969.

Other local centennial projects had smoother rides, even if they occasionally ruffled egos. Leaside was the first to complete theirs, a community centre in Trace Manes Park which opened in September 1966, mere months before the town was absorbed into East York. The latter unveiled their major project, the restoration of Todmorden Mills, in May 1967. Mayor True Davidson scornfully called Leaside’s project “a change house for tennis players,” while touting Todmorden as “one of the most ambitious projects in Metro.”

The work on St. Lawrence Hall and Todmorden Mills demonstrated what Pierre Berton later called the true legacy of the centennial: recognizing the value of local heritage.

In 1967, the idea of preserving something of the past by restoring old buildings and preserving historic landscapes was a novel one at a time when local governments were still applauded for bulldozing entire neighbourhoods in the name of “urban renewal.” The Centennial marked the beginning of the end of that philosophy. “Heritage” had come into its own when Victorian mansions that had once seemed grotesquely ugly began to be viewed as monuments to a gilded age. Old railway stations, banks, even 1930s gas stations would be seen as living history lessons.

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Globe and Mail, May 20, 1967.

So far, the upcoming Canada 150 celebrations show little of the fervour associated with the centennial. An August 2014 city report recognized that the influx of legacy projects associated with the Pan/Parapan Am Games made it unlikely there would be similar scale construction to mark the country’s 150th birthday next year. A more recent report promotes marking the occasion through cultural festivals and community heritage programs. Unless an enduring celebration like Caribana/Caribbean Carnival emerges, it’s likely the reminders of 1967 will outlast those of 2017.

Additional material from 1967: The Last Good Year by Pierre Berton (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1997); The Best Place To Be: Expo 67 and Its Time by John Lownsbrough (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2012); St. Lawrence Hall (Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1969); the December 27, 1963, September 2, 1964, June 17, 1965, and May 23, 1967 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the March 11, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star.