Note: This article is the first piece in a two-part series. The second article can be found here.
When Toronto’s New City Hall and Square opened in 1965, there was a problem. While Ontario’s Capital was looking to move into a new era, the commercial strip across the new civic centre did not fit into those plans for modernization.
“Redevelopment Area” or “Commercial Slum”?
In 1958, Toronto was in the midst of an international design competition to construct a new city hall and square. The winning entry had not yet been chosen, but the jury — a panel of architects and town planners — had a particular recommendation. For the new landmark to be better situated, Toronto needed to redevelop the downtown area all around the site to better complement it, including the street directly opposing the civic centre. They proposed:
“City action to replace the unworthy buildings on Queen St., between Bay and York Sts., with a continuous facade, not over 90 feet high, with an open arcade under the building for the whole length.”The Globe and Mail, May 15, 1958
The Globe and Mail agreed with the report of the jurors, citing “it would be a disgrace to leave a stick of it standing as a backdrop to the expensive – and, we hope, beautiful – Civic Square.”
In September, Toronto Planning Board was instructed by the Board of Control to make proposals on the Queen St. frontage. The board recommended the city buy the site and then sell or lease it to a developer. The Globe and Mail also called the south side “a hodge-podge of small, old buildings in various states of repair” and the shops “remain as reminders of that former area, bearing little relation to present surroundings.” The land was divided into separately owned lots and it was estimated $7,000,000 would be needed to buy them.
On October 27, 1958, the city passed a bylaw formally calling the strip a ‘redevelopment area’ and “giving the city expropriation powers over all but one of the properties.” The Toronto Daily Star was blunter in its characterization and advocacy of the fate of Queen Street West:
“Nearly everyone agrees that our handsome new city hall – when and if it is built – should not have to tolerate a commercial slum in front of it. And Queen St. between York and Bay is a tawdry hodge-podge”Toronto Daily Star, October 31, 1958
The Daily Star and its editorial page in particular were very aggressive in their advocacy. It quite frequently enployed the phrase ‘commercial slum’ in the 1960s when reporting about the state of the site, including a December 1962 ‘Special Report’ boldly entitled “Our New City Hall Will Face a SLUM”:
“The rising towers of the new city hall look across Queen St. W. to a shabby vista of beer parlors, pawnshops, second-hand stores, a closed-down burlesque house.”Toronto Daily Star, December 29, 1962
Still, the conservative outlet was interestingly weary of using public power to transfer property from private hands to private hands, i.e. the government moving shops from smaller, independent owners to larger, independent developers.
Whether the Queen Street row was euphemized as a ‘redevelopment area’ or disparaged as a ‘commercial slum’, urban renewal and slum clearance were certainly in the psyches and goals of governments of all levels in Canada and the United States of America for several decades in the 20th century. For Toronto, several lower-class neighbourhoods with ‘uneconomic uses’ were identified as requiring clearance and renewal. Regent Park became the first social housing project in Canada in 1947. The southern half of The Ward itself was voted to be expropriated in 1946 for the new city hall and square project, an area centred around Elizabeth Street once known as the first Chinatown in Toronto; the dense “slum” as a whole had calls to be rebuilt going back to the 1910s.
At work was the need to also rejuvenate Toronto’s historic downtown retail districts. Historian Daniel Ross wrote the city created its “pro-development Plan for Downtown Toronto” in 1963 with Yonge Street as a central part. After World War II, the rise of the automobile and urban sprawl impacted the central core, “emptying out” of its historical commercial districts as the suburbs developed their own retail and residential nexuses. A large part of the downtown plan was the Timothy Eaton Company’s Project Viking. First conceived in 1958, it was an endeavour which would reimagine the commercial empire’s ageing downtown holdings of mainly early 20th century warehouses as a post-war shopping centre. The project would become The Eaton Centre.
The Queen Street West Strip in History
In the early 20th century, the near three hundred-metre stretch of Queen between Bay and York Streets was characterized by hotels, restaurants, second-hand goods shops, barbers, butchers, jewelers, pawnbrokers, billiard shops, grocers, and fruit shops. Located on the southern edge of The Ward, a working-class immigrant enclave in the heart of Toronto, it also had East European Jewish and East Asian owned and ran-enterprises, such as restaurants, shops, and clubs.
First, the 1920 Toronto City Directory offers an interesting snapshot of the prominence and variety of Chinese businesses and organizations on the street. In this small zone, there were six Chinese restaurants (sadly all un-named as per the style of the directories in this period) and two tea-related businesses. Two organizations were on the street: The Chinese National League and The Chinese Reform Association. There was also a gentleman’s furnishings shop and possibly a photography shop. Yet Chong Lung Co. is referenced at 117 Queen, although it is unclear what type of dealings it entailed.
105 Queen Street West was a curious address in 1926. The city directory for the year divides the building into 105 — Tighe Lee, billiards — and 105 1/2 — Chinese National League. A picture from the year shows a sign above the door possibly reading “Pool Room”. The sign above that is written in Chinese with an illegible English caption underneath, roughly translating to “Kuomintang Office” or “Republic of Taiwan Political Party”. The smaller third sign on the third floor roughly translated to “World Mirror”, an arts society set up by the Kuomintang.
113 Queen Street West was an intriguing case in that at different points it hosted a Chinese restaurant, the Jewish Daily Eagle, and the Union Ticket Office. In the 1910s, the address was listed in the city directories as hosting a Louis Gurofsky, Joseph Gurofsky, and Samuel Gurofsky at differing times. They were also characterized as ‘insurance agents’. By the 1920s, it was listed as The Union Ticket Office — a steamship ticket business.
Steamship ticket agents were common professions for Jewish-Torontonians and there were several competing businesses in The Ward. The enterprises played a role in the immigration process for Jews abroad. Historian Jack Lipinsky wrote “steamship agents, as their name indicates, originally concentrated on issuing boat and train ticks, mostly to immigrants.” Agents were landsmanschaften and “remittance agents” who worked with the Jewish Immigration Aid Services to bring Jews to Toronto. Lipinski notes that some agents were “dishonest” and defrauded prospective immigrants, including a David Gurofsky. It is unclear if this is the same or related Gurofsky(s) who operated at 113 Queen Street, but the damage done to the industry by him was enormous. The director of Canada’s Immigration Branch, Frederick Charles Blair, was “permanently suspicious” of the Jewish community because of Gurofsky’s dealings, a development which would later impact fleeing European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Gurofsky office seemed to play roles in the First World War. In 1916, the steamship office was responsible for enlisting “Hebrews”. The Globe reported it expected “at least fifty men” in Toronto to sign up for the great war and that over 1,100 had already joined across Canada. In 1917, Louis Gurofsky, at the delegation of the Russian consul, was tasked with “rounding up” prominent Russian Torontonians to return to their home country at the request of the new Russian Provisional Government who were “honeycombing” for “former friends — revolutionists and socialists” who had left Russia. Finally, The Daily Star reported in July 1917, a Mischa Bedler of 113 Queen Street West, a 24-year-old Jewish inventor handed over “a very valuable discovery in wireless telegraphy” to the Canadian government and was promoted to a lieutenant and instructor in the Royal Flying Corps.
Some of the businesses were mainstays on Queen Street for much of the 20th century. Simon Simonsky (occasionally spelt ‘Simonski’), a pawnbroker, was in business since at least the 1890s, settling at 121 Queen and then 107 Queen, where he would stay for at least sixty years. Historian Ellen Scheinberg wrote the family may have been peddlers originally: wandering street salesmen pushing carts of goods. A common professional trajectory of peddlers was to raise enough capital to open a shop, which Simonsky seemed to accomplish. According to a 1954 obituary for Mrs Annie Simonsky, the Simonskys were a “family long active in Jewish communal circles in Toronto”. By 1964, with forced closure looming, the shop moved to 115 York Street.
Harry Stein, a Russian watchmaker, landed on the Queen Street strip in 1932 at a shop at 63 Queen named Henry & Co (in the city directories, it was originally listed as ‘Harry Stein, jeweler’; the business also started as a watch repair shop on Yonge Street in 1909). In 1945, the jewelry business moved to 113 Queen — the former site of Gurofsky’s steamship ticket office. It later added other products and electronics to its offerings, most notably cameras, making it the first Henry’s, as we know it today. Henry’s later resurfaced at other locations, including 119 Church Street near Queen Street East in the 1970s. Henry’s announced in 2022 it would be leaving this location and a condominium is proposed to take its place.
Palaces of Sin
Two cinemas also were huge presences on the Queen Street row. The Broadway Theatre at 75 Queen Street West was on the strip since 1919, opening as the Globe Theatre. Historian Doug Taylor wrote the theatre started playing “‘Girlie Shows’ as well as vaudeville and B-movies”. In the 1930s, it was briefly the Roxy and changed to its final name in 1937. In 1935, the manager of Broadway was found murdered in his office; the killing was never solved.
The Casino Theatre at 87 Queen Street West was an “infamous” burlesque house built in 1936, according to Taylor. He pointedly described the movie house: “Throughout the theatre history of Toronto, other than perhaps the Victory Theatre on Spadina, there is no entertainment venue that has elicited as much praise, raunchy stories, condemnation and newspaper coverage as the infamous Casino Theatre.”
The theatre had reputable architects, Kaplan and Sprachman, who were famed for many of Toronto’s beautiful art deco theatres. The owners of The Casino partnered with the owner of the neighbouring Broadway to open the venture. But a foul reputation followed the Casino itself, which “was famous for its raunchy comedians and risqué burlesque” and “decent citizens” called a “sin palace”. In 1961, the Casino was renamed ‘the Festival Theatre’ as a failed attempt to clean up its image. In the final year of its existence, the theatre was playing a Russian Film Festival, perhaps as a means to that end.
Two hotels — the bar beer parlours referenced by the Star – were (in)famous on the south side of Queen. The Municipal Hotel stood at 67 Queen Street West since at least the late 1890s. The Municipal seemed to have a rowdy reputation throughout its history with fights, arrests, and fires plaguing its life. In 1946, Toronto Police prepared a report on hotels to send to the Ontario Liquor Board and had this to say about the hotel:
“Municipal Hotel, 67 Queen St. W.:The Globe and Mail, February 4, 1946
‘The chief complaint against this hotel is thefts from drunks who are permitted to become inebriated on the premises. It is also a rendezvous for prostitutes, and a number of girls have been removed from the premises by the police. This hotel is poorly managed and there is much room for improvement.'”
Several doors down, at 71 Queen Street West, there were several versions of a hotel at this location since the early 1900s: the Aberdeen Hotel, Lennon’s Hotel, the White’s Hotel, and finally the Union Hotel/House. The Union had a similar seedy reputation to the Municipal. The 1946 report wrote:
“Union Hotel, 71 Queen St. W.:
‘This place appears nothing more than a pickup place for prostitutes, and it is amazing to find how many girls in the downtown area will give their address as the Union Hotel. Plainclothesmen have removed many girls from the premises, and only recently they arrested two teen-agers who had stayed at this hotel three nights with different men each night. A number of girls arrested in this hotel were found to have venereal disease. Improvement by the management in regard to the conduct of this hotel is long overdue.'”The Globe and Mail, February 4, 1946
Interestingly, The Union and Municipal played notable roles in the history of Toronto’s gay community after World War II. Of the 1950s and 1960s, historian Christine Sismondo wrote the bar rooms of both hotels became places where the gay and lesbian communities were patrons, so much that the area around Queen and Bay was known to the groups for “cruising” as “The Corners” or “Queer Street”. The Municipal in particular was “known for its cheap beer by the glass and transient clientele” in this period and “received far more surveillance” than other establishments along higher class lines. It was known to be a “rough” bar, patronized by hustlers and ex-convicts.
Given this overall history and characterization, it is easily conceivable why the Queen Street frontage held such little value for Toronto decision-makers. Fire, assault, murder, sex, and more all found homes on the street. The shops and professions themselves were of inconsequential business value, the two theatres were ‘sinful’, and the hotels were cheap establishments with questionable management and clientele. Even including the impressively designed Broadway Theatre, the built form of the street was not of any notable architectural significance. Taken together, the row was simply expendable for a city looking for “progress”.
3 thoughts on “The ‘Commercial Slum’ That Once Stood Across Toronto City Hall”
Astounding to look back, and see how cavalier we were about sweeping whole neighbourhoods and living communities from the face of the earth, because they’re not pretty enough. I always enjoy the secret code within the Yorkville Park that in its footprint honours five of the homes bulldozed out of existence when the east-west subway went through.
This was a really fascinating article. In thinking about the hotels on Queen Street West, what comes to mind is the Rex, still going strong on Queen a short distance west of University, having transformed itself from a seedy “hotel” into a well-regarded jazz club. But older family members tell me stories of the place in the 1960s and 1970s, when one could find drunks passed out in front of the front door pretty much any morning of the week.