Past Pieces of Toronto: The Mynah Bird

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on May 20, 2012.

Entrance of the Mynah Bird, 1971. Photo by Leo Harrison. Toronto Telegram Fonds, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University.

In an August 1967 article, the Globe and Mail’s Blaik Kirby set the scene for anyone curious about entering one of Yorkville’s oddest coffee houses.

The Mynah Bird is a fetid room in a former Victorian home, with a tiny triangular stage behind bars in one corner. There are two other rooms in reserve if needed. You enter through a hallway, passing the piranha and the caged mynah bird after which the place is named. Hanging rushes conceal the high ceiling. The walls are red flecked wallpaper. The lights are low, with candles on each table. One of the two friendly go-go girls ushers you to a seat, and soon reappears on the stage. She is slightly plump, with long dark hair and a pseudo-leopard-skin minidress looking like something out of Tarzan. She is succeeded by a slimmer and slightly more talented girl, dressed in a modest mod outfit, who dances under black light.

Ads for the Mynah Bird from the Toronto Star (April 22, 1966) and the Globe and Mail (July 26, 1967).

The hint of titillation helped the Mynah Bird during its decade-long run at 114 Yorkville Ave., along with the crazy publicity schemes hatched by owner Colin Kerr. Never at a loss for colourful stories, Kerr claimed that he acquired his beloved mynah bird Rajah on a trip to India in 1956, where he was participating in a golf tournament. He was told Rajah had magical good luck powers that could only be used on others for the next 40 years, which sometimes manifested themselves through droppings left on celebrities. When Kerr returned to Toronto, he opened a shop on Bloor Street devoted to selling mynah birds. It wasn’t a surprise when he launched a coffee house in 1964 that it was named after his favourite creature.

While the Mynah Bird initially offered folksingers and go-go dancers as entertainment, Kerr devised an endless series of gimmicks, such as pie-throwing to ring in the year of 1966. He managed the Mynah Birds, a group fronted by singer Ricky Matthews (later known as Rick James). Their first single, “The Mynah Bird Hop,” was written by Kerr’s brother Ben, who later achieved fame as a street busker and perennial mayoral candidate. The group rebelled against Kerr, rejecting ideas like shaving their heads to resemble Rajah, and struck out on their own. Among the members following the group’s involvement with Kerr was a young folkie named Neil Young.

In August 1966 Kerr offered the press and the police morality squad a sneak preview of the topless dancing he planned to introduce. The cops declined the invitation, but the press showed up to see what the hype was about. The show was a disaster; according to the Globe and Mail, reporters “cramped 60-strong in a dark, stuffy 12-by-15 room for half an hour, threatened to walk out before the act went on.” The star attraction, described as a 21-year old girl of Swedish extraction, went on 40 minutes later than scheduled. Housed in a wrought-iron cage in the Jungle Room (a second floor lounge carpeted in grass), the masked dancer was to be presented under a black light, slightly shrouded by a dry ice machine. The equipment spewed out too much smoke, choking the audience and making it impossible to tell if she actually was topless. A minute into her dance, the reporters walked out amid cries of “fake,” “fraud,” and at least one politically incorrect term for “ripoff.” The Globe and Mail advised Kerr to “restrict his exotica to the chocolate-covered ants and bees on his menu at $17.95 a plate.”

Wyche, billed as “the world’s first topless folksinger,” demonstrates her musical talents in front of news photographers, December 1967. Photo by Richard Cole, taken for the Telegram. York University Archives, 1974-002 / 132.

For the next few years, the Mynah Bird tried topless anything. In December 1967 Kerr introduced Wyche, “the world’s first topless folksinger,” whose guitar covered her from armpits down. The following spring silent nudie movies from the UK were screened in the Jungle Room, which consisted mainly of busty women slipping off their tops and into sudsy tubs. In May 1971, Kerr placed a classified in the Globe and Mail for a “nude chef.” Applicants were interviewed by Kerr’s mother-in-law, who he claimed was a chef and dietician. Apart from wearing a legally-mandated chef’s hat, the cooks served up sandwiches and drinks in the buff. Kerr’s increasing obsession with nudity led Mynah Birds bassist Bruce Palmer to later call him “the Larry Flynt of Yorkville.”

Business was perfectly fine when Kerr sold the building and closed the Mynah Bird in February 1973 to pursue more ambitious plans. A couple of months later, Kerr relaunched his business as a nudist club in a King Street East warehouse. Despite the possibility of titillation, the club offered quaint activities like checkers, darts, and rope skipping—the nude chef wasn’t retained. The business didn’t last long.

But the demise of the Mynah Bird didn’t keep Kerr and his beloved bird out of the headlines. There was a failed attempt to run Rajah as a mayoral candidate in 1978, and a short-lived attempt to win the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative party in 1983 (we suspect brother Ben had better odds for landing either position). The pair appeared at pet expos and shopping mall events. Even in the 21st century, Kerr and Rajah toured the world to pass along their good luck.

Sources: Before the Gold Rush by Nicholas Jennings (Toronto: Penguin, 1997), and the August 11, 1966, August 12, 1966, August 3, 1967, December 19, 1967, July 22, 1968, May 26, 1971, and February 5, 1973 editions of the Globe and Mail.


In his book Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s, Stuart Henderson describes Colin Kerr as “an untamable schemer.” That scheming revolved around grabbing as much publicity as possible, no matter how ridiculous or tawdry it might be. As I rolled through one cheap, cruddy, exploitative incident after another, preparing this reprint became a depressing experience, and I put it aside several times.

Low-grade titillation aimed solely to earn attention gets old fast.

Globe and Mail, August 12, 1966.

In his autobiography Glow, Rick James describes an incident that was among the breaking points the Mynah Birds had with Kerr.

Colin sent us to do a teeny-bopper TV show in Hamilton, Ontario. I was excited. The studio was filled with screaming girls – all hired by Colin – and, as a gimmick, I was supposed to sing to a blind mynah bird. I went along with the program. I let them put the bird my hand as I sang this dumb-ass song. The girls loved it, but I didn’t, especially when the bird started shitting in my hand. When I tried to push him off, he dug his claws into my skin. With shit and blood all over me, I nearly bolted. Somehow I got through the song.

The Telegram, March 26, 1971.

While searching for fresh images, I found several in York University’s Telegram photo collection of a protest held outside the Mynah Bird. Sure enough, there was an accompanying story.

Cynical question: given everything else Kerr did to drum up attention, was this a legitimate protest or, given there was a performance that night, yet another publicity stunt?

The Body Politic #10, 1973.

An ad from the King Street era, pitched to the city’s gay community. Note attempt to make Rajah queer.

Richmond Hill Liberal, May 3, 1978.

Over the rest of the 1970s, plenty of ink was wasted in newspapers across North America over Kerr’s efforts to promote Rajah. The bird was supposed to be married in Las Vegas…then on the Tonight Show…then in Toronto. The bird was a psychic. The bird sold lucky medallions that he personally bit for good luck. The bird recorded records. I gave up tracking these stories, as promised events failed to happen and the tales grew increasingly name-droppy.

Maybe, as some newspaper columnists suggested at the time, Kerr did this to bring a light touch to a dark era. It didn’t have that effect on me.

Ottawa Journal, October 8, 1976.

Colin Kerr and Rajah. Photo by Doug Griffin. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0059584f. This photo accompanied the story below, published in the February 8, 1985 Toronto Star.

Three months later, the Star reported that Rajah found a new mate, also named Rani. According to Kerr, who gave the birds bee pollen he used to boost his own virility, “within an hour they started making love like crazy.”

One Fine Long Weekend Walk in Toronto (COVID Stage 3 Edition)

The midsummer long weekend began on a beautiful note – sunny skies, comfortable temperatures, life stirring back to a semblance of normal. The perfect day to walk around central Toronto and reacquaint myself with things I haven’t done or been able to do over the past year-and-a-half.

Since Louisa had some business errands to do, we decided to enjoy our first meal together on a patio in eons, brunch at the George Street Diner. The complete Irish breakfast is perfect fuel for a day of walking.

The first pre-COVID habit I was reacquainted with: navigating stairs to reach a basement bathroom.

While Louisa ran her errands, I wandered in and out of the Eaton Centre. The fountains were in full bloom in Yonge-Dundas Square. Nearby, a tour bus waited for passengers, a sign tourism is slowly returning.

Wandering through the Eaton Centre Indigo, I noticed that several bookcases, including these in the history and current affairs sections, were empty toward the bottom. A slow restocking process., or are they carrying less inventory due to the cycle of openings, closings, and restrictions?

(This picture does not endorse books written by Fox News hosts.)

After taking Louisa home, I hopped on the subway and headed to Bloor and Yonge.

If you’ve been to any Hudson’s Bay stores outside of their top locations, you might notice that they look forlorn. The company has been in downsizing mode over the course of the pandemic, though, like many struggling large retailers, its problems predate COVID. From refusal to pay leases and shrinking several of its larger stores, to small locations full of empty space, poor product presentation, and discount racks, the department store giant isn’t looking robust these days.

Case in point: its former flagship store at the Hudson’s Bay Centre.

If you’re going to spotlight your house brands, and you’re welcoming back shoppers who are slowly returning to stores, you might want to fill shelves with merchandise.

Unless head office doesn’t give a damn anymore.

I’m voting the latter.

There were portions of the men’s department, especially on the first floor, where you could shoot a cannon and not hit anyone.

These portions are also looking dated, and not in a good way.

The escalators between street level and the 2nd floor, along with those between the 2nd and 3rd floors, have become staircases. Customers paid no attention to the intended direction, leading to two-way traffic in a space too tight to handle it.

The 5th floor’s main concession to the present was this “room of the season” display.

The true attraction of the 5th floor is some fantastic 1970s retail flooring. The earth tones form a nice pairing with nearby Cumberland Terrace.

I know I saw white flooring like this in malls when I was a kid – thinking parts of Devonshire Mall in Windsor looked like this? Or am I thinking of other places?

Overall, this store feels like death warmed over. There have been rumours about its demise for years, including an unrealized plan to convert it into a Saks Fifth Avenue store when the Bay’s sister chain was introduced to Canada.

This time, it feels like the end is imminent. The removal of the classic yellow logo from the top of the adjoining office tower is not a good sign.

Anyone want to place odds on how long this store remains in operation?

If walking around The Bay left me feeling slightly depressed, going into the Toronto Reference Library raised my spirits. With library services gradually reopening, I wanted to check if the newspaper microfilm library in the basement was back in business.

It was.

The porcupines were equally excited to be back, quickly digging into a reel of late-period Telegram.

At Queen’s Park and Bloor, I noticed a wider-than-usual Heritage Toronto plaque commemorating Taddle Creek.

Next up on the things I haven’t done in months bucket list: visiting a museum in the city. The winner was the Gardiner Museum, where artist Jun Kaneko’s giant head welcomes visitors.

While only two exhibition floors are currently open, the Gardiner is offering free admission for the rest of the summer.

In the Delftware section, these plates honouring King William III and Queen Mary II stood out, mainly because I remember seeing similar ones in the History of the English Speaking Peoples partwork series I loved flipping through as a kid.

Qwilly was impressed by this notice on the way into the second floor galleries.

Continuing west along Bloor, the redevelopment of Mirvish Village carries on.

All this wandering builds an appetite, so the porcupines and I settled on a cuisine we hadn’t enjoyed for eons: Korean. Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu had a full patio, and is one of my favourites along Bloor’s Korean strip, so it was an easy choice.

First a trio of banchan (which they’re more than happy to refill)…

…and my usual Korean meal, hot stone pot bibimbap.

I burned off dinner by continuing west along Bloor. Around Dufferin I saw this van spreading disinformation pass by a couple of times. A few blocks on, I noticed it pulled over. The driver wasn’t around.

I briefly fantasized about knocking the sign off its perch or slamming it over its owner’s head to knock some sense into them.

Nah, not worth it. Instead, I walked to Lansdowne station and enjoyed a peaceful ride home.

Bonus Features: Why 1971 Was a Big, Boozy Year for Ontarians

Before diving into this post, read my TVO feature on the lowering of the age of majority in Ontario in 1971.

Cartoon by John Yardley-Jones, the Telegram, July 13, 1971.

This post marks a major milestone for me: yesterday, for the first time since COVID restrictions first went into place in Ontario in March 202o, I spent time scrolling through microfilm in the basement of the Toronto Reference Library. While I have cranked out plenty of work over the -past year-and-a-half thanks to improving online resources, there were many times when I wished I could access material locked away in archival resources for different points of view and the little details you never expect to find.

It’s a major professional boost, and a psychological breakthrough that is helping cut through my COVID-era brain fog.

So here are a few sources and stories that weren’t available when I researched this story. Let’s start off with an editorial from the Telegram

The Telegram, July 29, 1971.

The Telegram, July 28, 1971.

The Tely‘s roundup of Toronto bars that evening found that, as in other places, the crowds were modest. One exception was the Mynah Bird in Yorkville, which continued to deny entrance to anyone under 21, allegedly because the owner hadn’t told staff what to do. “None of the new adults,” the paper reported, “were making any efforts to storm the establishment’s ramparts.” Perhaps the kids were wise to the Mynah Bird’s constant efforts to grab attention through titilating means such as racy movies and nude performers.

Over on Yonge Street, Colonial Tavern manager Robert Steele suspected it was only a matter of time before the newly legal drinkers would fill his beer garden. “It’s summer after all and a lot of the youngsters are away.” One patron, 18-year-old Peter Martin, told the Tely that when he bought beer at Brewers Retail for the first time earlier that day, it “really seemed strange.”

On the Tely‘s opinion pages, columnist Dennis Braithwaite wondered if the new age of majority would shake up the labour force, allowing workers to retire earlier and their younger peers to advance sooner. “Give youth all the power and the headaches,” Braithwaite concluded. “Give the rest of us a little time at the end to find contentment, peace, and maybe even God.”

And now a word from our sponsor…

The Telegram, July 29, 1971.

Let’s go west to Hamilton…

hs 1971-07-29 taverns welcome mature youths

Hamilton Spectator, July 29, 1971. Click on image for larger version.

…and further on to London.

lfp 1971-07-29 young drinkers

London Free Press, July 29, 1971. Click on image for larger version.

And now back to material I previously collected for the piece…

Barrie Examiner, July 20, 1971.

There were plenty of streeters among the age of majority coverage, including this sampling of public opinion from Barrie.

Cartoon of Stephen Lewis and William Davis by James Reidford, accompanying an editorial in the July 13, 1971 edition of the Globe and Mail.

Toronto Star, July 13, 1971.

Windsor Star, July 14, 1971.

Note the John Robarts bookends on the desk.

Globe and Mail, July 29, 1971.

Windsor Star, July 29, 1971.

Toronto Star, July 29, 1971.

Excalibur, October 7, 1971.

From that fall’s provincial election, an ad targeted at the youth vote. Groovy, man.

The Varsity, September 27, 1971.

One element I left out of the article was concerns regarding where newly eligible post-secondary students would vote. Initially, the province wanted them to cast ballots in the riding that was their permanent address, which generally meant wherever their parents lived.

The Varsity wondered if part of the government’s hesitation in allowing students to vote where they attended school had to do with the fact that two cabinet ministers – Attorney-General Allan Lawrence and Minister of Trade and Development Allan Grossman – represented ridings with large concentrations of University of Toronto students who might boost other parties. “To deny students the right to vote in their university home,” an editorial observed, “is to deny any idea that students and the university are a part of the community.” There was further confusion when Chief Election Officer Roderick Lewis issued a letter indicating that enumerators should take students at their word as to where they considered their home to be. In the end, Lawrence easily retained his seat in St. George, while Grossman had a narrow win over NDP candidate/future Toronto city councillor Dan Heap in St. Andrew-St. Patrick.

Toronto, The New Great City (According to Fortune Magazine, 1974)

Fortune, September 1974.

Clean subways. Safe streets. Cosmopolitan atmosphere. Good government. Friendly cops. Ethnic restaurants. Boutiques everywhere you look. Downtown revitalized. Suburbs that work. Amazing schools. Neighbourhoods restored. This is the litany you’ll hear over and over again in Toronto, not only in the media, which have a vested interest in civic preening, but from people, especially newcomers…The newcomers tend to be the city’s most vocal enthusiasts and, at the same time, the people who make the city something to get enthused about.

from the introduction to Toronto Guidebook, 1974.

By 1974, for the reasons just outlined and more, Toronto was basking in raves from across North America. In a decade where American cities struggled with declining populations in their cores, suburban sprawl, urban crime, and financial difficulties, the perception of Toronto as a place that had its act together led to many articles focusing on our pros and cons.

Among those pieces was a 12-page feature in the September 1974 edition of Fortune written by Edmund Faltermayer, which opened like this:

The travail of American cities in recent years has given rise to doubts about their long-range future. As old neighbourhoods have turned into blighted and dangerous expanses of abandoned dwellings and boarded-up stores, many Americans have wondered whether the metropolis in its traditional form is not essentially obsolete. True, the old “walking city” lives on in Europe, but isn’t this a consequence of special factors such as a scarcity of land and a totally different way of life? Doesn’t the automobile, coupled with the middle-class push to the suburbs, make the decay of American cities inevitable?

Well, no – just look at Canada. With a way of life much like our own, Canadians have seen their metropolises become better than ever. The most stunning improvement has taken place in Toronto…where a formerly tedious provincial capital has emerged as the world’s newest great city.

Below this introduction was a two-page spread of the city’s waterfront. “The skyline is emboldened by a new radio-television tower,” the photo caption noted. “When completed, it will rise 1,805 feet and be the world’s tallest self-supporting structure. Ontario Place is an unusual new lakeside complex of restaurants, theatres, playgrounds, and marina.”

Faltermayer felt that any great city needed to “stir the enthusiasm of at least three categories of people: businessmen, tourists, and residents.” The first group would be satisfied by an area where a third of Canada’s purchasing power lay within a 100-mile radius, while the rapid post-Second World War population boom made it ideal for anyone looking to set up a factory or office.

Scenes of Mirvish Village (top) and Yorkville (bottom). Fortune, September 1974.

As far as tourism was concerned, “Toronto passes a simple test that most U.S. cities flunk: your wife might beg to accompany you there on a business trip.” Three cities were cited as failures in this regard (“unless, of course, her college roommate happened to live there”): Cleveland (still living down that time the Cuyahoga River caught fire five years earlier), Dallas (which was apparently super-boring during this era), and Detroit (hit hard by the post-1967 riots atmosphere and exodus to the suburbs). By comparison, in Toronto “your spouse could pleasantly kill an entire week without knowing a single local resident or venturing very far from a downtown hotel.” Recommended activities included a stroll through Yorkville (“one of North America’s most agreeable concentrations of boutiques and sidewalk cafes”), trying one of the city’s many ethnic restaurants, and sampling the local theatre scene.

Children’s attractions in Toronto. Fortune, September 1974.

For residents, Toronto had transformed from a city that was “so dull that a good time was a weekend to Buffalo” to “a new sort of Fun City without angst or affectation – a place where the residents feel wondrously spared from the urban troubles to the south.” One could argue that feeling “wondrously spared” may have led to the feelings of smug superiority that periodically bubble up when it comes to our views of Americans.

Faltermayer felt the city and its suburbs were “remarkably livable” thanks to medium population density that led to “short commuting distances without unpleasant crowding” (pre-pandemic 21st century commuters might debate that one). He also felt that our mix of good housing stock was superior to American cities, allowing people in homes, town houses, or high-rises anywhere from downtown to the top of the DVP. Downtown was hailed as “a successful, heavily used work-and-play environment” compared to American equivalents which had turned into “little more than vertical office parks, standing isolated amid the surrounding freeways and slums and deserted after 5:00 P.M.” The secret to downtown’s success was having a strong middle class who lived in or near the core with plenty of discretionary income that could keep stores, restaurants, and culture afloat.

Sights of mid-1970s Toronto, from the emergence of bicycle commuting to the controversial Yonge Street Mall. Fortune, September 1974.

Toronto was hailed for reversing the typical North American pattern of suburban migration, though this came with its own set of problems that still sound familiar.

Toronto may be the first North American city where citizens wonder whether too many middle-class people are returning. Between the whitepainters offering top dollar for town houses to refurbish and apartment developers seeking to knock down old homes for new projects, many working-class people are being displaced.

Fortune, September 1974.

Neighbourhoods were hailed as one of our strengths.

Any American who grew up in the old neighbourhoods of eastern or midwestern cities would find a stroll through these areas like a time machine journey into his own past. Everything is still there and in good working order, from the commercial arteries with their countless specialty shops and eateries, to the shade side streets with row houses and single homes on narrow lots. Even the streetcars still run; Toronto has hundreds of them, and has put in a big order for replacements.

The provincial government was praised for urban policies that hindered post-war sprawl, such as forbidding suburban septic tanks and only building where sewer connections existed, and establishing the metropolitan system of governance during the 1950s.

The copy I used for this piece cut off two other trendmakers on this page: publisher Jack McClelland (described as “an ardent nationalist”) and novelist Robertson Davies, then serving as master of Massey College and just coming off winning a Governor General’s Award for The Manticore. Fortune, September 1974.

As for transportation…

Toronto has created the best of two worlds. There are a goodly number of expressways, including one 12-lane monster where the prevailing speed outside of rush hour is 75 mph [120 kph]. But these roads all go around the old urban core. Torontonians have seen the havoc wrought by inner-city expressways in the U.S., a land which they regard as an early-warning system against overly hasty change. The region’s compact but uncrowded pattern of development has made possible an elaborate and growing public transit network of the type that would never be feasible in a more diffused metropolitan area. Toronto’s subway system, begun in the early 1950s, proves that neither space-age technology nor award-winning station design is needed to get motorists out of their cars. The trains are immaculate, quiet, and frequent, and the subway stations have well-planned connections with feeder bus and streetcar lines. With fares subsidized at 25 cents and transfers free, the average citizen rides the region’s subways, buses, and streetcars 158 times a year. On a per capita basis, transit use is almost as high as in New York, and is rising faster than population.

The article then summarized the anti-highrise sentiment in the city, and the municipal election of 1972 which gave reformers control of city council. “The whole skyscraper debate has transformed Toronto into a sort of laboratory for research into alternatives to high-rise domination,” with solutions such as conversions of industrial buildings and warehouses into living and working spaces. The delay of the never-to-be-built Metro Centre was mentioned.

Housing along Monteith Street and in St. James Town. Fortune, September 1974.

A major fear about housing seems extremely relevant today.

Horrific inflation of housing prices is the one big blot on life in Toronto. If this goes on for many more years, it could destroy the whole metropolitan area’s social diversity by driving the non-affluent out of the suburbs as well as the inner city.

Out in suburbia, the policy of having an adequate supply of serviced land ran into its own problems.

Time-consuming environmental review procedures have proliferated at various levels of government, and the financially pinched suburbs, caught up in the same new anti-growth mood that is spreading in the U.S. are in no great hurry to provide their share of new community facilities. As a result, serviced single-family building lots that would have cost only $13,000 two years ago have recently sold for $30,000. Belatedly, the Ontario government is offering various financial incentives to induce the suburbs to open up land faster.

Fortune, September 1974.

Faltermayer suggested that the constraints might soon curb Toronto’s boom, encouraging employers to look at other cities. A real estate consultant felt that unless restrictions on high-rises and suburban growth were eased, places like Atlanta or Montreal might steal Toronto’s mojo as North America’s next great city. Keep in mind that, in Montreal’s case, we’re only two years away from the Parti Quebecois’s first provincial election victory, which would escalate the westward exodus along Highway 401.

That prospect seems almost exhilarating to Torontonians who are groggy from growth. For such citizens, the old “cult of moreness,” to use the coinage of local luminary Marshall McLuhan, has been supplanted by a new mood of enoughness. “Enough” means that Toronto may never reach the size of “world cities” such as Paris or New York. But it has nonetheless won a secure place in the big time.

Fortune wasn’t the only magazine spotlighting Toronto with full-colour spreads that year. Gourmet featured the city as a holiday destination in its October issue, while Modern Bride called us “a honeymoon city like no other you’ve visited.” The Metro tourist bureau was flooded with requests for information after profiles in summer editions of Glamour and Redbook. Overall, tourism officials estimated that around 65 travel writers from around the world visited Toronto in 1974 to sing its praises.

Simpsons Ad, 1974

Globe and Mail, October 8, 1974. Click on image for larger versions.

The piece also made its way into advertising. Simpsons referenced it while promoting its “The Room” women’s department, while Globe and Mail advertorial writer Mary Walpole mentioned the story was “rather thrilling to read” in her profile of Noodles restaurant.

In his conclusion, Faltermayer felt that Toronto showed central cities could, under the right circumstances and leadership, continue to support cores that were attractive to the middle class.

Toronto has accomplished something else. In an era of much doubting, it has proved that the basic form of the inner city still makes sense. With the right government actions, and with sensitive alterations and additions here and there, the urban core can become a place where middle class people will turn up in great numbers to work, enjoy themselves, and even vie for living space. For until something better comes along, the civilized city is still where many of the world’s civilized people prefer to be.

Sources: Toronto Guidebook, edited by Alexander Ross (Toronto: Key Publishers, 1974); the September 1974 edition of Fortune; the September 28, 1974 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the October 10, 1974 edition of the Toronto Star.

Thoughts After a Saturday Night Drive Downtown

From another time…Dundas Street looking east to University Avenue, circa 1980. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 177, Item 16.

In the before times, downtown Toronto was a hopping place on a Saturday night. Streets filled with traffic, sidewalks loaded with pedestrians, bars and restaurants filled with patrons. An area that might drive you crazy from people enjoying themselves too much. A place filled with the elements that give cities life.

Even before COVID hit, there were troubling signs on some downtown streets. More “for rent” signs. An increasing monotony in storefronts, leading to a slow loss of character. Blocks where it was clear landlords hoped for chains and other high-income prospects to fill their spaces.

And then COVID hit. While last summer offered a brief revival of the regular rhythms of Toronto’s core, health and safety restrictions have quieted things down.

Apart from necessary errands and a Boxing Day stroll, I have spent little time downtown since the current lockdown began in late November. Even on night drives, I’ve generally gone into quieter areas, to see what Christmas lights remain or how neighbourhoods are coping, making sure my exploring is done safely and avoids others as much as possible.

(Before anyone gets too indignant: night drives for me involve staying in the car unless I need to relieve myself or have a pre-set destination such as a grocery store. I bring full facial protection in case I need to get out of the car. If I see something photo-worthy, I avoid human contact if possible. This is a way of protecting my mental health when many of my traditional stress-relief methods are unavailable)

Last night, I drove downtown, partly to see how it looked, partly to take my partner-in-crime out of the house in the safety of our car. Both of us felt discouraged by what we saw.

We began in Yorkville, where she used to work. Plenty of empty spaces, though I wondered how much was due to the pandemic or developers assembling land for future projects. Behind Cumberland Terrace, we passed a man clearly having a rough night, tweaking as he played with a construction pylon. Food delivery vehicles drove erratically and frequently pulled the unannounced traffic-blocking U-turns that drivers poorly execute throughout the city.

Heading down Yonge, we noticed a lineup around the block for Chick-fil-A, which felt like a downer given the company’s mixed reputation and the other local options people could choose (or maybe I miss the appeal of their fried chicken sandwiches). The few clusters of pedestrians we passed as we headed south violated every COVID recommendation imaginable. Maybe they’d hit the COVID wall. Maybe they’ve never given a damn or shrug it off as just another theoretical risk to their existence and are determined to enjoy life regardless. It’s not a hard feeling to give into, especially when lockdown-induced despair hits hard. Yet it also fuels frustration that despite all you’ve done to follow the protocols and recommendations to enjoy life at an unknown future date, others don’t share your sense of moral responsibility.

Having had enough of increasingly aggressive drivers and locked-down storefronts along Yonge, we headed west, zig-zagging to Queen West. There, the depression really hit. While the stretch between University and Spadina lost its soul long ago, the high volume of empty spaces hit hard. Driving along made it clear how much the combination of landlord greed, departed chains, and inadequate replacements had hollowed out the strip. The increasing volume of cannabis stores feel like the last resort, becoming a depressing joke. We talked about how, when the pandemic eases, there should be great opportunities for creative, inventive people to launch new businesses to revive areas like this. But will those possibilities be allowed to take flight if old habits, tax dodges, and dreams of landing high-paying tenants that add little to the fabric of neighbourhoods carry on?

By Portland Street, we’d had our fill. A car behind us was filled with flashing light displays and music cranked up to 11. More poorly executed U-turns from other vehicles. More theories people were going to parties they probably shouldn’t be. Questions as to whether concern and fear over COVID was turning us into old cranks. I turned down Portland and fled toward the quiet of Exhibition Place.

Perhaps we chose the worst streets to drive down to see the state of deep downtown. And there is the traditional cycle of neighbourhood decline and revival to consider. The drive lent some credence to pre-pandemic suggestions that the character of North American cities that have long had pulling power (such as New York and San Francisco) is being extinguished, and that maybe it is time for smaller, more affordable places to take their turn in the spotlight.

On the other hand…

If parts of downtown feel like they’re toast, other parts of the city don’t. Despite the lockdown restrictions, my neighbourhood along the east Danforth feels alive. The mix of businesses remains diverse (fingers crossed). You can see and feel the support locals are giving our high street, from online discussions to weekend lineups. Errands in similar neighbourhood provide similar feelings. These are the places that may have the infrastructure ready to take off in the post times.

We may come out of this with a renewed sense of appreciation for the areas we live in, a sense that will allow them to thrive and prosper. And we may start thinking about experiments to revive areas that, with or without the pandemic, have lost their way.

A Pandemic Day’s Wanderings: My First Subway Ride in Three Months

The last time I took a subway ride was back in March, either returning from the airport or on one last set of downtown errands before COVID-19 shut down the city. Needing to shoot some photos for some personal projects and not feeling like driving downtown on a sunny Monday afternoon, I decided to reacquaint myself with the subway after a three-month separation.


Greenwood station has one of the city’s new wayfinding pillars, which include maps and historical tidbits about the surrounding area. I had forgotten I contributed to several pillars that would be installed downtown – more about them in a future post.


Once past the Presto barrier, hand sanitizer was available.


This vision of mouth sores is not the most encouraging ad to see in the subway at the moment.


On the train, many seats were blocked off to promote social distancing. Some of the signs looked worse for wear.

There were three other people in my car when I got on, none of whom were wearing masks. Who knows if they’ll comply if the TTC’s proposal to make wearing masks mandatory goes ahead. I felt a little uncomfortable until Pape, when nearly everyone who boarded was masked.


Given the current protests about policing, and controversies around fare enforcement, I’m surprised this ad hadn’t been replaced by the TTC or ripped out by an angry rider.

Overall, the ride was fine. It was very quiet, and everyone observed the spacing suggestions. My comfort level grew, and I suspect I’ll use the system when convenient during the week.


The Bloor platform was eerily quiet.


Who wants to solve an online mattress company puzzle?


Hopping off at Queen, I noticed that the Bay was open, but, in compliance with current COVID regulations, you couldn’t enter from subway level.


Inside the store, sanitizing stations were set up on each floor by the escalators. Few people were walking around. Fewer appeared to be tempted by the merchandise, possibly from a combination of closed dressing rooms in the clothing sections and underwhelming discounts throughout. It was hard not to feel like I was walking through the ruins of a lost civilization, who had left their mannequins behind.


That feeling hit even harder at Nathan Phillips Square, which should have been full of life at 3:30 on a sunny Monday in June. I was curious if any messages supporting the anti-racism protests had been scrawled in chalk. Unless they had been scrubbed or washed away, there weren’t any. The ground was a blank canvas waiting for something, anything, to liven it up.

There were people sitting on the benches lining the outside of the square, mostly eating food truck hot dog and fries, or adjusting their cameras.


The shady sidewalk alongside Osgoode Hall was a good place to process my thoughts, letting the affects of pandemic on the city sink in.



An amusing mural on Duncan Street by Camilla Teodoro celebrating the usual experience of walking through the city felt extra comforting.


A message of love drawn on the plywood erected by the entrance of the Michaels at John and Richmond. Given the lack of other graffiti, I’m guessing this was installed to protect the store in case any protest-related problems arose.

They didn’t.


Commercial plug department: the Spacing Store is open to pick up orders. Plenty of great stuff is displayed in their windows, including a few books I may have contributed to…


Wandering up Spadina, a banner at Chinatown Centre encouraged silly walks. Nobody took up this offer…


…least of all Sun Yat-Sen. Maybe his doppleganger in Chinatown East would be more enticed to join in.


Commentary on the current discussion on race, found in Kensington Market.


An existential question asked by a garage door on Croft Street. It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot lately about any number of things, from the value of my work to how the world functions. So much soul searching these days…

Did I mention this was a contemplative walk?



Two of the brighter examples of the murals currently along Croft Street.


An ode to Harbord Street…


…and the city’s lost rivers, a little difficult to appreciate on garbage day.


Up on Bloor Street, buckets of cheap fondant at Bulk Barn, ideal for anyone who had “learn cake decorating” on their pandemic to-do list.


Heading back to Bloor-Yonge station, there were long, snaking lines outside stores in Yorkville, primarily Artizia, Sephora, and Zara. Many mixed feelings about this, including the effects of fast fashion on people and the environment, the desire to return to anything resembling our individual senses of normalcy, and Toronto’s love for long lines under any circumstances.

Epitomizing that last point was a family I saw standing in the queue outside the Gap at Bay and Bloor. They were gorging on Chick Fil A, which I bet they also spent plenty of time waiting for.

Yorkville, Through Rochester-Coloured Glasses


Some celebrity tourism in mid-1970s Yorkville. “The star of The Snoop Sisters does some snooping of her own. While character actress Helen Hayes was strolling down Yorkville Ave., she discovered a shop that specializes in Canadiana furnishings and spotted a china platter that she said she would like to add to her collection.” Photo by Doug Griffin, 1974. Toronto Star Archives, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0054027f.

By 1976, Yorkville had shed its image as a haven for music venues and wayward youth, as it gentrified into a high-end residential and shopping district. The neighbourhood’s new image made it ideal for newspaper profiles touting its charms for tourists.

Take this five-page piece, published in the April 18, 1976 edition of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle‘s Sunday magazine Upstate.

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“Scollard Street is where you’ll find most of Yorkville’s art galleries, including the Marianne Friedland and Evans galleries.”

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Ending with a Wizard of Oz reference? Sheesh.

Hazelton Lanes opened later that year. The writer wouldn’t have many more opportunities to criticize the Riverboat, as it closed in June 1978. The Yorkville branch of Hy’s lasted until 1982, while the Book Cellar remained a hive of literary activity until 1997. The Coffee Mill served its last goulash in 2014.

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This ad appeared on the last page of the article. Note that neither of the Metro Toronto HoJo locations listed here (Airport and Scarborough) for a bubbly-filled weekend were anywhere near Yorkville (though the chain eventually occupied the old Regency Towers Hotel on Avenue Road).

Making and Remaking Hazelton Lanes

Originally published on Torontoist on August 26, 2013. As the original post placed its images in gallery format, this version will sprinkle them throughout, along with additional ads and photos.


Hazelton Lanes under construction, 1976. Photo by Harold Barkley. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0109033f.

When it opened in 1976, Hazelton Lanes offered a combination of luxury condos and tony retailers set amidst a cluster of former homes. Hailed as a great example of how developers and surrounding residents could work together, the mall’s fortunes later declined because of its confusing layout and an ill-timed expansion.

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Rendering of the proposed new entrance for Hazelton Lanes on Avenue Road, 2013.

Recently released renderings of proposed renovations depict a 21st-century makeover that the complex’s owners hope will draw foot traffic.

Hazelton Lanes’s roots can be traced to real estate developer Richard Wookey’s decision to purchase a number of Yorkville properties during the late 1960s. For a time, he catered to the counter culture. In one instance, he allowed a biker gang to use a Hazelton Avenue property as long as it didn’t bother the neighbours. The gang soon departed, complaining that Wookey had “domesticated” them.

Domestication was the goal of developers like Wookey, and boarding houses and coffee houses gave way to pricey boutiques. Wookey bought homes cheap, gutted the interiors, and added Victorian-style archways and windows. He was a proponent of adaptive reuse, hiring architects Jack Diamond and Barton Myers to transform a cluster of houses at Avenue Road and Yorkville Avenue into the York Square retail complex in 1968.

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Richard Wookey, March 1974. Photo by Frank Lennon. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0090040f.

With Hazelton Lanes, Wookey did something unusual. Rather than seeking immediate City approval, he consulted local residents. Three members of the Avenue-Bay-Cottingham Ratepayers’ Association (ABCRA) were invited to his home to review the plans. Despite having concerns about increased traffic, they were impressed by the sketches and suggested that Wookey hold a public meeting. “I think that Mr. Wookey has gone about this matter in precisely the right way,” ABCRA member Jack Granatstein wrote to aldermen William Kilbourn and Colin Vaughan in a March 1973 letter. “I hope that what we can all accomplish here will become the model for future development in the city.”

When the meeting was held the following month, most of the 120 people present voted in favour of the project. “Ratepayer groups don’t always oppose development,” ABCRA vice-president Ellen Adams told the Globe and Mail. “We just oppose the bad ones.” Also impressed by the meeting was Vaughan, who a quarter century later praised Wookey for ensuring that his projects were “woven into the fabric of the city, so that older buildings and site features are enhanced.” The consultation process helped the project gain council support for an exemption to a bylaw that capped development height at 45 feet.

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Hazelton Lanes rink, 1976. Photographer unknown. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0109032f.

Designed by architect Boris Zerafa, the complex consisted of a series of eight former homes topped by a series of terraced condos. In the middle was a courtyard, which would be used as an ice-skating rink in the winter.

A potential roadblock emerged when Ursula Foster, who resisted attempts by Wookey to buy her home at 30 Hazelton, asked the City’s buildings and development committee to delay submitting the project to the Ontario Municipal Board. Foster, who had lived in Yorkville for 50 years, feared her sunlight would be blocked, and that therefore her garden would be ruined and her winter heating bill would rise. She met with the City’s planners, Wookey, and Zerafa in May 1974 to find a solution. All agreed to a revised plan that would move the complex’s first two storeys back 10 feet and relocate the upper-level condos to the Avenue Road side.

Apart from gripes from alderman John Sewell about the “very chi chi” project’s lack of affordable housing (condo prices initially ranged from $72,000 to $500,000), the remaining approval process was smooth. When the mall opened in October 1976, it was clear that the average Joe would be out of place. “Most of the shoppers have dressed up to walk the stores,” observed the Globe and Mail. “Several of the shop owners, exquisite in cashmere and costly boots, look like they would eat you alive if you wandered in wearing your old trousers.”


Toronto Life, December 1984.

Under numerous owners—including William Louis-Dreyfus, father of Seinfeld actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus—the mall portion of Hazelton Lanes has had problems. A major north-end expansion in 1989 designed by Jack Diamond was affected by the recession. At desperate moments, rents were slashed in half. Existing tenants moaned about having to help customers negotiate the mall’s confusing layout. None of the marquee names touted as potential anchors during the 1990s—Neiman Marcus, Pusateri’s, Saks Fifth Avenue—materialized. The ice rink was scrapped during the late 1990s. Whole Foods opened its first Canadian store inside Hazelton Lanes in May 2002, but the mall continued to be criticized for its vacancies and its aging appearance. “Though this dreary complex has somehow managed to become synonymous with wealth and beauty,” observed Star architecture critic Christopher Hume in 2004, “it’s really about kitsch.”



Rendering of south escalator area.

Current owner First Capital bought Hazelton Lanes in 2011, promising to add a broader assortment of tenants for the mall’s well-heeled customers. A company official admitted that there was “no easy fix.” The current renderings by Kasian Architecture show a mall whose appearance matches current shopping-centre styles, with a new gateway to Yorkville Avenue. The proposed renovations, which have yet to get underway, appear to tie into plans to replace York Square with a condo tower, wiping out the pioneering retail space. It remains to be seen if a revamped Hazelton Lanes can draw a major new anchor store.

Sources: the April 5, 1973, November 4, 1976, and September 27, 2011 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the April 5, 1973, March 22, 1974, May 14, 1974, March 11, 1976, July 20, 1998, October 5, 2002, and March 27, 2004 editions of the Toronto Star.


First up, bonus material I prepared at the time this piece was originally written…


Toronto Star, April 5, 1973.

It was nice for a change to read about a development project where the nearby residents weren’t convinced the sky was going to fall. Unless there’s a secret back story missing from both the media coverage and the personal correspondences I leafed through while researching this article, it sounds like the developer did everything right to reassure the community that all would be well.

Besides the Avenue-Bay-Cottingham Ratepayers’ Association, the neighbouring Annex Ratepayers’ Association (ARA) was consulted. In a letter to alderman Ying Hope, an ARA representative wanted to “commend the process of community association consultation in the development of the project.”

Not that there weren’t opponents. In a letter to the city clerk, Hazelton Avenue apartment building owner Mohsen Djelweh complained about the potential traffic bottleneck along his street. He also worried that granting an exception to the 45-foot building height limit would cause Yorkville to “slowly die and convert into a canyon” instead of remaining a “highly regarded, highly attractive low-rise development” which drew tourists.

The loudest opponent to Hazelton Lanes appears to have been alderman John Sewell. When you dive into 1970s Toronto, you can create a drinking game around predicting what Sewell will rage against in the midst of the story you’re trailing. Besides the height issue (which he was only one of three councilors to vote against in February 1974), Sewell complained that the project offered no provisions for affordable housing. He claimed that developer Richard Wookey “doesn’t want to have to touch people who aren’t in a fairly high income bracket.” Sewell’s attempt to promote mixed income housing in Yorkville didn’t gain traction.

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Globe and Mail, September 25, 1976.

An example of an early Hazelton Lanes ad campaign. A different batch of tenants was profiled each week. Note the references to the mall’s hard-to-find location, which didn’t always serve it well.


A colour view of the rink. Toronto Life, January 1980.

Here’s how Hazelton Lanes was described in The Best of Toronto 1980, published by Toronto Life:

Toronto’s most exclusive , multi-purpose structure is a spectacular complex incorporating shops, restaurants, offices and luxury condominium apartments. The courtyard is a skating rink in winter and an outdoor extension of the Hazelton Lanes Cafe in summer. You’ll find everything from delicious imported chocolates at Au Chocolat to designer fashions at Chez Catherine. It’s elegant, exclusive, expensive and not to be missed.



Yorkville Village, January 27, 2020.

With the renovations came a new name. So long Hazelton Lanes, hello Yorkville Village. The entrance to Yorkville Avenue was completely revamped.


Yorkville Village, January 27, 2020.

As for the effect of the renovations…on a recent walk, the place felt utterly soulless. The old brick might have been dated, but it had a certain warmth. While it’s nice to have bright light flowing in, the overall look is just sort of there. I felt like I could have been dropped into any generic recently-refurbished suburban shopping mall.


Nearby advertising on Yorkville Avenue.

The Book Cellar

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on June 24, 2012.


Books in Canada, May 1971.

According to veteran Star books columnist Philip Marchand, the test of a good bookstore was simple. “Take a real reader, a habitual browser of books. Imagine that person walking by the bookstore en route to somewhere else. Can he or she resist the temptation to enter the bookstore? To while away a few minutes—well, half-an-hour—instead of attending to business?” The Book Cellar in Yorkville met his criteria, especially its magazine room: “Facing away from the from the Hazelton Lanes courtyard, the room is both quiet and cheerful. To stand there in the afternoon sun, browsing through magazines, listening to strains of Vivaldi or Billie Holiday, is to experience peace.”

Despite the implication of its name, the Book Cellar only spent its first year in a subterranean space, underneath a record store at 363 Yonge Street. Launched in 1961 by Bruce and Vivienne Surtees, an Australian couple who came to Canada on their honeymoon and stayed, the store quickly made its mark as the place to find obscure magazines in the city. Within a year, the store moved to a small home on Bay Street near Bloor, where it drew the attention of Star columnist Pierre Berton. While browsing the magazine shelves in April 1962, Berton counted around 850 magazine titles on display, ranging from literary journals to the Journal of the Institute for Sewage Purification. When he asked about the store’s worst seller, he was pointed to an obscure entertainment publication called TV Guide.


Globe and Mail, July 14, 1967.

While other retailers in Yorkville quickly scrubbed off graffiti left by “hippies,” the Book Cellar encouraged free expression by installing a ceramic tile wall. “With felt-point pens and grease pencils,” the Globe and Mail noted in June 1967, “the young non-conformists scribbled slogans political, literary, religious, philosophical, irreligious and mostly funny. They left tokens of their way of life—if that’s what it is—on the tiles.” The wall was a wise investment—“Some Book Cellar patrons have been visiting more frequently, just to keep up with the Big Beard. Some hippies even buy books.”

In 1968 the store moved to 142 Yorkville Avenue, which was later incorporated into the Hazelton Lanes complex, and ran a second location for a time at Charles and Yonge. Both were included in a 1970 Toronto Life roundup of the city’s best bookstores. “If you’re under 30 and moving with the times,” the article noted, “the Book Cellars…will most likely have what you want.” Two typical customers were depicted: “a woman who asks for Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (sold out) and, apologetically, for Diary of a Mad Housewife (“It’s for a friend”)” and “a young man who checks the price of The Joyous Cosmology and reappears ten minutes later, having panhandled $1.95 to buy it.”

The store attracted various literary types among its staff over the years, including future Conrad Black amour Barbara Amiel, playwright John Krizanc, newspaper columnist Joey Slinger, and writer/musician Paul Quarrington. Several legends surrounded Quarrington’s tenure at the Book Cellar, including hustling Desmond Tutu out of the store when the Nobel Peace Prize winner was found autographing copies of his own books and ticking off action movie star Charles Bronson.

When customers planning to phone in their holiday orders reached the Book Cellar in November 1997 they were notified that the store was closing. While some reports indicated that competition from Chapters’ recently opened flagship on Bloor Street ate into profits so much that the store couldn’t make its rent, owner Lori Bruner cited other factors. She noted that foot traffic had declined by the store, and that strict credit limits imposed by publishers following the bankruptcy of the Edwards Books & Art chain had affected her ability to stock the shelves. The store’s closure meant that browsers who found the Book Cellar as serene as Philip Marchand did had to find other peaceful corners of the Toronto bookstore universe.

Sources: the June 14, 1967, January 14, 1998, and April 12, 2008 editions of the Globe and Mail, the May 15, 1970 edition of Quill and Quire, the April 30, 1962, September 26, 1996, November 27, 1997, and October 26, 2009 editions of the Toronto Star, and the November 1970 edition of Toronto Life.


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Quill and Quire, May 15, 1970.

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Quill and Quire, August 1974.


“Linda Lovelace, star of the widely-banned porno film, Deep Throat, is in Toronto to promote her new movie, Linda Lovelace for President, an above-ground comedy which opens tonight. Here she autographs copies of the book of the same name in the Book Cellar.” Photo by Boris Spremo, 1975. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0063850f.

Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: Potter’s Field

As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life.

During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This piece was originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on October 29, 2011.


Bloor and Yonge: subway junction, pedestrian scramble, long-term construction hoarding, gateway to Yorkville’s high-end shopping. While waiting on the northwest corner for the traffic light to turn, you may notice a silver plaque on the side of 2 Bloor West. Long before the beautiful people entered the neighbourhood, this was a site where the city’s pioneering outcasts received a respectful final rest. As the first cemetery in Toronto that wasn’t tied to a particular religious faith, it set the course for future burial grounds where almost anyone could be buried.

By the mid-1820s, burying the dead was becoming an issue in “Muddy York.” As people moved into small dwellings, graves on personal property grew rare. Cemeteries existed, but only for particular faiths. If you were a good Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, there wasn’t a problem. But if you didn’t subscribe to those branches of Christianity, suffered from mental illness, embraced a dissipated lifestyle, or had committed murder, your remains were bound for rejection out of fear they would foul consecrated ground.

This raised the ire of prominent local figures like the ever-fiery William Lyon Mackenzie. “We think that to perpetuate sectarianism even beyond the grave,” Mackenzie wrote in a December 1825 edition of the Colonial Advocate, “is very preposterous in a Christian country, and are sure that the majority of the liberal and well-informed throughout the earth, think as we do on this subject.” Mackenzie urged the government of Upper Canada to create legislation so that in “some convenient part of each township” of the colony, land would be set aside for a publicly operated non-denominational burial ground.


Grave of Thomas Carfrae Jr. in the Necropolis

Mackenzie was among those present at a meeting held the previous month for “inhabitants of York friendly to the purchasing of a public burial place for all classes and sects.” Another attendee was merchant Thomas Carfrae Jr., who shared Mackenzie’s Scottish background but not his radical politics. Carfrae’s campaigning for a petition to support an open cemetery resulted in a parliamentary act approving the creation of such a site in January 1826. Five months later, six acres were purchased for 75 pounds by Carfrae and four other men, all of whom served as the new cemetery’s first trustees.

Sadly, the first burial was Carfrae’s infant daughter Mary, who was laid to rest on July 18, 1826. Four more members of his family joined Mary in the cemetery over the next seven years. Despite these many causes for grief, Carfrae was a busy man—besides his role in establishing Potter’s Field, he was also involved in the founding of the York Fire Company, St. Andrew’s Church, and the York Mechanics institute (the forerunner of the Toronto Public Library). He served as an alderman on Toronto’s first city council in 1834, was appointed customs collector in 1835, and was named harbour master in 1838. He reunited with his family in Potter’s Field following his death from a stroke in June 1841 at the age of 44.


One of the surviving Potter’s Field tombstones at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Throughout its existence, the cemetery was known by a variety of names. The official name was the York General Burying Ground (which was changed to Toronto after the city renamed itself in 1834), but was alternately known as the Strangers’ Burying Ground, as those tended to be the types who made up the early burials. The name that caught on, Potter’s Field, was a biblical reference to the fate of Judas and his blood money in Matthew 27:7, which was used to buy a “potter’s field, to bury strangers in.”

Burials were light during the early years, until a cholera epidemic hit during the summer of 1832. Besides the heavy toll that disease claimed, burials increased as the new village of Yorkville grew around the cemetery. When compiling the causes of death for those buried in Potter’s Field, genealogist Elizabeth Hancocks was struck by “the nature of the bare-fact entries, many of which seem to possess an eloquence that carries well beyond the grave.” Among the frequent forms of death that caught her attention: “felled by tree.”


The original tombstone for hanged rebels Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews. A larger memorial was built beside it in the Necropolis in 1893.

By the end of the 1840s, the cemetery neared capacity. As the population grew in Toronto and Yorkville, there was concern that Potter’s Field would run out of space for future burials. The trustees successfully lobbied the colonial government for legislation that widened their ranks and allowed the purchase of more land. The Necropolis, which had been established independently of the trust in 1850, relieved the pressure on Potter’s Field, but not enough for the residents of Yorkville. Just as bohemians and hippies were redeveloped out of the neighbourhood a century later, the dead were given the boot in 1855 after the government honoured a petition to close the cemetery.

The trustees were given the power to sell the land once all 6,685 people buried there were moved elsewhere. Families of the deceased were offered the choice of moving their loved ones’ remains themselves or having the remains transplanted to new plots in the Necropolis. Among those moved east were the Carfrae family and 1837 rebellion martyrs Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews.


Plaque at the corner of Sumach Street and Winchester Street noting the move of remains from Potter’s Field to the Necropolis.

One problem: there were plenty of remains that nobody claimed. To the consternation of Yorkville residents, and presumably those eager to redevelop the land, the cemetery sat for two more decades. By 1874 everyone’s patience had run out, so the Ontario government gave the trustees the right to remove any remains that were still in Potter’s Field 20 years after it had officially closed. When the anniversary passed, the unclaimed were moved to both the Necropolis and the new Mount Pleasant Cemetery. As the Globe noted when Mount Pleasant officially opened in 1876, “In a mound here lie the bones of about 3,000 persons which could not be identified. The remains of old and young persons of every Christian denomination, coloured and white people alike, here rest together in one common grave.”

By 1881, moving was finished and the site was soon built over. “Where the marble columns once stood, and the house to receive the departed was once erected,” wrote the anonymous scribe of an early 20th century guide to Toronto’s cemeteries, “now stand the splendid villas of the living.” Though the silver plaque is the only reminder of Potter’s Field’s existence within Yorkville, grave markers survive in Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the Necropolis. The trust that operated the cemetery went through numerous name changes before adopting its current identity as the Mount Pleasant Group. Some graveyards that had been strictly denominational, like the Anglican-run St. James, gradually began permitting burials of those who didn’t subscribe to the operator’s faith. Though sectarian cemeteries continue to exist, the inclusive visions of Thomas Carfrae Jr. and William Lyon Mackenzie that created Potter’s Field were realized throughout Ontario.

Additional material from Historical Sketch Toronto, Canada 1826-1905 (Toronto: Toronto General Burying Grounds Trust, 1905), Potter’s Field Cemetery 1826-1855 otherwise called The Strangers’ Burying Ground compiled by Elizabeth Hancock (Toronto: Generation Press, 1983), the December 8, 1825 edition of the Colonial Advocate, and the November 6, 1876 edition of the Globe.


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Colonial Advocate, December 8, 1825.

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York Commercial Directory, Street Guide, and Register 1833-4 (York: Thomas Dalton, 1833)