Dead Zellers, Dead Sears, and Dead Factories…But Hopefully Living Memories

Have I just had more of an eye for it or has there been quite a string of places announcing their closures lately? Chapters Runnymede (which actually did close recently), The Annex Book City (done in the spring), and The World’s Biggest Bookstore (over on March 23)…coincidentally all book shops, all neighbourhood landmarks, all ending.

Sunday evening, I made unintended stop at another place that is part of that list: the Eaton Centre Sears. I knew about its closing since the announcement, but was not yet able to get down there before it closed up shop for good. Fortuitously finding myself on Yonge Street, I decided to go for it. I didn’t plan on it happening in such a fashion, but I was also there during its final minutes open to public.

Sears Eaton Centre Empty 2

And I admit: even though my personal attachment to that store was not that strong, being there really got to me.

Whether we choose to make a big deal out of it, the closing of Sears does mark the end of a retail era and dynasty in Toronto and a change in the city’s retail landscape – just like the end of Eaton’s before it and the beginning of Nordstrom’s after it. Yes, I realize Sears is not Eaton’s and does not begin to match its iconic status. Regardless of the sad mismanagement that led to its demise, Eaton’s holds an undeniable place within the city’s (and country’s) commercial and retail heritage. Can we claim the same for Sears? Definitely not. But it is still worthy of recognition.

As I walk through the barren space, I am reminded of the Bridlewood Mall Dead Zellers I passed by a few months ago. So empty. The pillars without anything between them is – as odd a choice a word it may be – very unsettling.

Dead Zellers Bridlewood Mall 1

Dead Zellers Bridlewood Mall 2

The ‘Everything Must Go’ signs throughout the Sears mean, well, everything – even all the makeup fixtures – must go. I get shivers thinking about the retail ghosts on each level, between each column. I think about the hordes of shoppers that have wandered its floors and traveled its escalators over the years.

Sears Eaton Centre Fixtures For Sale

But even more so, I consider the employees. Some of them currently work the counters for the very last time, ringing in the last few sales ever. I think about their stories as insiders. They knew the store better than anyone. If someone in 10 or 50 years were to ask ‘What was the Eaton Centre Sears like?’, they would be able to tell us. What would they be able to tell us?

Sears Eaton Centre Shoppers

And then I think about them, as the store’s final occupants, having to see and experience its operations wind down. What are they feeling? This Toronto Star article highlites some of it. Sadness, lament, nostalgia, surrealness, disbelief, uncertainty, perhaps new opportunity? I suspect any combination of these. Because I too feel it in my life.

I consider all this because I am currently experiencing it first hand at an east end factory that is in its last days as well. Like the Sears, it is the end of era – for manufacturing in Toronto, for the near century year old building, and in the individual lives of its workers.

As a soon to be former employee of Weston Foods, I have been thinking a lot lately about my tenure in the plant. A month ago,  I cleaned out my locker. It was an odd experience to say the least. Having been there longer than I should have been, I was glad to close that chapter for good. But seeing the plant emptier and quieter than I had ever seen it and employee morale not overly high, it just felt weird and sad. I was and am very attached to that place and its people. The end was near and that got to me.

Weston Bakeries Eastern Avenue 2

On that day, I reminisced with friends and coworkers about the great, stupid, funny times we shared together. We talked about the weird cast of characters that have come and gone over the years. We talked about all the changes in management, employees, jobs, machines etc we’ve seen. Like a considerable chunk of our time spent working, we just told stories. These personal anecdotes will live on with us as long we can recall them.

But I wonder about how others we see this plant after it is converted into a mixed use space – its legacy. Actually, I wonder more about if people will look at it. We, as insiders, are the caretakers of its stories, memories, and legacy.

Weston Bakeries Development Proposal

I often look at the nearby converted factories on Carlaw Avenue and think about what they were like once upon a time: who worked there, what was a work day like, how did that change over time etc.. I wonder if people in the future will think in the same way about our factory on Eastern. They will have the (modified) physical structure still to consider, but what of the things they can’t get from gazing at the brick facade – the intangibles inside its walls? We, as workers, know those intangibles. We can tell stories about mechanization, race, sexual orientation, immigration, gender, management-worker relations, unionism – all as they played out in this 20th century manufacturing plant. As a student and follower of local history and Toronto’s industrial legacy, these inside stories become extremely fascinating to me.

Weston Bakeries Eastern Avenue

Back at Sears, I hear a three minute warning for shoppers. I wonder if it was a hard announcement to make. The giant doors have been closed save for one. I, along with the last few shoppers, pass through it, wondering about the next chapter in the building’s life.

Related Links

Toronto Star – Eaton Centre Sears closes its doors

Toronto Star – Chapters Runnymede closing, with Shoppers Drug Mart moving into heritage premises

Toronto Star – Book City’s flagship Annex store to close after almost 40 years

Toronto Star – World Biggest Bookstore closes February, sold to developer

A Love Letter to Toronto

Inspired by the opening line to Walking Woman’s I Heart Winter, this is my Love Letter to Toronto.

This is a love letter to Toronto. To its parks and buildings, its public art and street art, its laneways and throughways, and its suburbs and downtown.

To a city where neighbourhood and ravine, developed and natural, converge within its expansive boundaries to create a dynamic that is truly complicated – yet somehow defining. A dynamic that is Toronto.

To a city that moves past its dense metropolis and into its boroughs, where outlying farming communities grew to become cookie cutter subdivisions. Where ghosts of pre-amalgamation still remain, creating something so distinctly Toronto.

To a city where its streetscapes and natural formations become an opening into its short yet storied past and vast layered cultural makeup. A look into the identities of the peoples that have called this place for thousands of years. From the aboriginals who once employed its deep waterways and vast forests, to the generations of immigrants that have built and shaped to the metropolis into what we experience today. A city that was built on its diversity. Diversity is Toronto.

To a city that is seemingly under perennial construction, a constant work in progress, where some say an end goal is questionable and nowhere in sight. Where its converted factories and movie theatres alert us to a different past and changing present. Where lost establishments evoke nostalgia while new ones provide opportunity to add to the layers. A city where heritage and modernity and progress and preservation struggle all the same as ideals. A city that is made and remade by those who offer their conscious and unconscious stamp. We are the authors of Toronto.

This was a love letter…a love letter to home.


Coxwell Eaton's

Evergreen Brickworks Toronto Ravine Map

Finch Ave East

Gibson House owers

Mechanical Tree


Monarch Park

Montgomery's Inn

Queen Street East

Riverdale Park East

Smythe Park Willows


Scenes From Greenwood Avenue

Note: These travels were made in late November 2013. It was a pleasant day. No snow on the ground, and although it is now alive and serving the community, the Brickyard Grounds was not ready then.

Greenwood Avenue is a curious little throughway in Leslieville. OK, perhaps not so little – it runs from  O’Connor to Queen Street, a distance of 3.6 kilometres. I, however, tackle the street from the Danforth southward – a fortunate choice because northbound Greenwood is built on an incline.

Greenwood south from Oakvale

I deliberately walk on the west side of the street because my first sight/site of note will be the TTC’s Greenwood Subway Yard. Looking far into the distance , I can see the faint outline of the downtown skyline fitted inside the chain link, highlighted by the giant toothpick-like structure. Gazing down at my immediate surroundings, I see a massive facility devoted to housing and servicing subway cars. The Bloor-Danforth subway doesn’t come around until the 1960s, so it begs one of my favourite questions: what was this area before?

Of course, I already know the answer going in.

Greenwood Yard (1)

Greenwood Yard (2)

Greenwood Yard (4)

My interest in Greenwood Avenue arose while researching this east end neighbourhood for a walking tour of Little India for Heritage Toronto. One of my goals was to get an understanding of what Gerrard Street and the surrounding community was like prior to the creation and growth of the Gerrard India Bazaar in the 1970s and 1980s.

One of the most fascinating tidbits that came out of this was that Greenwood Avenue south of the Danforth was lined with claymines and brickyards once upon a time. This intrigued me because looking at the neighbourhood today, I would have never guessed this. It’s a quiet, unassuming residential street. It’s this hidden history that gets me. We think of the Don Valley Brickworks as the place that built Toronto, not where this residential neighbourhood now lies.

In some ways, it reminded me of my travels along Carlaw Avenue a few blocks to west. Both streets hold an industrial past. Both streets are now largely residential. The difference is the majority of the factories on Carlaw still remain, giving us at least an obvious glimpse into the past.

Greenwood Avenue c. 1913. Note the now buried-creeks. Vital to any clay deposit.

Yes, the Greenwood Subway Yard was once a giant clay pit. As this Transit Toronto article tells us, the TTC purchased the 31.5 acre site, which, after the clay beds were depleted, was being used as a garbage dump.

The 1913 City of Toronto directories tell me of a few enterprises that were once on the site: Standard Brick Co. at 500 Greenwood, Isaac Price Brickyard at 420-430 Greenwood, Bell Bros & Co. at 386 Greenwood, and A H Wagstaff Brick Co. at 362-368 Greenwood.  I have pinned them on my map of Toronto’s Industrial Heritage which you can see here (do check it out, it’s fun!).

Aerial of Greenwood Subway Yard, c. 1953. Still a pit.

Across the street is a nicely coloured residential complex. I do not imagine them being in existence for a long time, however.

Greenwood & Felstead Apartments

I was aware of the yards on the other side of Greenwood as well: just north of the tracks was the John Price Brickyard (335-405 Greenwood), further up from that and south of Felstead Avenue was the John Logan Brickyards (471 Greenwood). The latter of these is significant because John Logan’s enterprise later became the Toronto Brick Company, which was the last of the brickyards on the street.

Logan's Brickyards, c. 1912
Logan’s Brickyards, c. 1912
Logan's Brickyards 2
Logan’s Brickyards, c. 1917.
Toronto Brick Company Walpole and Felstead
Toronto Brick Company, south of Felstead, c. 1952. Right around the time of its closure.
Greenwood & Felstead
Greenwood & Felstead, 2013.

There is a Torbrick Road! Not only that, but as I walk down Torbrick Road, I can see that houses are very modern. Toronto Brick Co. outlasted until the 1950s, which makes this all come together. New area, new houses. I wonder how the residents feel about living on what was a dirty pit.

TorBrick Road (1)

Torbrick Road (3)

Passing an apparent staircase to nowhere that’s actually a remnant entrance to the former brickyard, I elect to travel to Gerrard on the west side of the street. I go under the CNR tracks and pass by another marker.

Wagstaff Drive (2)
Mr. Wagstaff ran the yard near the GTR tracks.

In my previous visit to the southwest corner of Greenwood and Gerrard some months ago, the gallery housed in this building ceased operations. Now, I walk by it and I see that a “Brickyard Grounds Fine Coffee” is ready to take over its space! What a tribute to the local heritage!

I make a giant note of it and vow to return when it is up and running (which, since this exploration, has happened). If Gerrard Street East is undergoing a bit of an identity shift with art galleries and coffee houses springing up, The Brickyard Grounds fits right in there!

Brickyard Grounds (1)

Brickyard Grounds (2)

Series 372, Subseries 58 - Road and street condition photographs
SW corner Greenwood and Gerrard, c. 1934

On the wall of the Grounds is a spectacular public art piece. There are so many great ones in the city. Doing a little digging, this one is entitled “Bricks and Wagons: A Greenwood Allegory” and looks to be a ‘throwback’ to the days of old days in the community. My favourite part are the street signs with the names of all the former brickyards.

Greenwood Mural (1)

Greenwood Mural

Greenwood Brickyard Signs

Greenwood Brickyard Signs (4)

Greenwood Brickyard Signs (3)

Greenwood Brickyard Signs (2)

Then, of course, I encounter Greenwood Park – notable for its size, hills, and view of Toronto. It looks a bit ‘dug in’, and that’s because it was once the site of the Joseph Russell Brickyard. In 1920s it was opened as Greenwood Athletic Field, but as local historian Joanne Doucette’s Pigs, Flowers, and Bricks: A History of Leslieville to 192o tells me, the feeling to turn the abandoned clay pit into a park was not as obvious as one might expect. Some Councillors felt that creating a park would encourage the working class population in this blue collar area to loaf around. Interesting.

Greenwood Park (1)

Greenwood Park (3)

Greenwood Park 1922
Baseball in Greenwood Park, c. 1922.
Greenwood Park Opening 2
Greenwood Park Opening, 1920.

Greenwood Park has several baseball diamonds, a dog park, and recently added a skating rink.

Greenwood Park (6)

Greenwood Park Baseball Diamonds (1)

Greenwood Park Baseball Diamonds (2)

The area south of the park is intriguing. Dundas Street is one of the most peculiar streets in Toronto because of the manner in which it snakes through the city. This is because it is an amalgamation of previously existing roads as well as the creation of new paths altogether. This portion of Dundas doesn’t come into existence until the 1950s.

Greenwood south of Gerrard, c. 1913. Doel and Applegrove Avenues both eventually get absorbed into the new Dundas Avenue, with a new road constructed to connect them.
Curvy Dundas
Winding Dundas, south of Greenwood Park
Greenwood Avenue and Dundas Avenue East
Greenwood Avenue and Dundas Avenue East, looking southeast

On Dundas, I head east to Billings and then up to Athletic Avenue, noting the near century houses along the way. Before its creation, the site of Billings Avenue once housed Morley and Ashbridge’s Ashbridge Brick Co., addressed in the 1913 Directories at 119 Greenwood Avenue. Ashbridge of course is a famous name in the east end, and his partner also had a street named after him. We know it today as Woodfield Road.

Athletic Avenue, by the way, remains as a final tribute to the stadium which was torn down after WWII. At the end of the street, a set of stairs present themselves to me. Curious, I descend them and find myself on another residential street. This is post-war Hertle Avenue.

Althletic Avenue Stairs

Hertle Avenue Postwar House

I tour through the street until I hit Highfield road. From there, I conclude my journey by walking up to Gerrard, where I catch the eastbound streetcar to Main Street Station.