Category Archives: Downtown

A Grand Geographic Timeline of Toronto History?

This is just me trying to get down some ideas. It may be rough and unclear, but hopefully something to build on.

As a follower of Toronto’s history, I come across a lot of dates – when something was built, when a town is incorporated, when a park is founded etc.

What’s interesting, though, is I’ve started noticing how certain years come up in different stories across the city.

Take the year 1858 as an example. A storm splits Toronto Peninsula to create the Toronto Islands. 26 km to the northeast John Hill founds a post office in Agincourt which signals the start of that community.

It’s fun to think about what was happening in different parts of the city at the same time. You have communities with no formal connections to each other growing alongside each other. Communities that eventually form the modern City of Toronto.

Wikipedia’s page on the History of Toronto has articles on History of Neighbourhoods, Historic places, Oldest buildings and structures, and Timeline of Toronto History. It would interesting to combine these into a giant timeline of events in Toronto’s history. More than that, because this relies on displaying information tied to places, I’d like to see the information displayed on a map (because really, who doesn’t like looking at maps?). I imagine being able to look at map of a given year and clicking on different nodes placed on that map. Then, being able to explore the map from the following year.

I imagine being able to draw observations about how the city developed, what was settled when, what areas were industrializing/de-industrializing, when and how natural landforms were shaped (think the burial of creeks) etc..

In all, it would be another way to capture the story of Toronto. Just an idea.

A View of York (Toronto) Upper Canada, 1820

Edmund Wyly Grier’s “A View of York (Toronto) Upper Canada, 1820” Credit: Toronto Public Library

Scenes From St. Lawrence Neighbourhood

I begin at St. Lawrence Hall, the famed 1850s building that impressively mans the corner of King and Jarvis. It’s become a habit to stop and look up at things I pass, including the archways above doors. Much of the story, allure, and yes, even seduction lies in them. As a civic building, it appropriate contains Toronto’s former coat of arms, which deciphered alludes to the city’s colonial and aboriginal foundations. Above that is the stern visage of an Olympian-like caricature. Glory, mystique, and fear. That’s how I feel.

1. St Lawrence Hall Door Toronto Coat of Arms

Shallow puddles provide distorted reflections of the towers above. It’s a drizzly one in Toronto, but that’s OK. Hopefully the falling rain will help eliminate the black half snow, half ice banks for good. I turn onto Market Lane  heading to Front Street. With the exception of a portion of the Hall, the buildings lining the way are relatively new. But I’m reminded from a past heritage walk that the lane itself isn’t. A sign of that is the watering station – explained to me as a gas station of yore for horse-drawn travellers. There’s a fountain for people and one for non-human beings below it.

2. King Street East at Jarvis

3. Market Lane Fountain

Across Front, the lane continues on as Market Street, recently made to be exclusive to pedestrian traffic. Beside that of course is St. Lawrence Market, itself a former city hall. Beyond the great assortment of tasty foods, it is also a house of culture. The Market Gallery on the upper floors stands where the old council chamber  was located. Without a dedicated Toronto museum, the Market Gallery is a favourite place to indulge in the city’s past. Right now the space houses a Toronto Black History exhibition which I admittedly have not seen yet. The previous one, however, on Art Deco in Toronto was masterful.

4. St Lawrence Market

The south side of Front is lined with a row of heritage buildings, all now food franchises. “New ideas meet old buildings”, to put a spin on Jane Jacobs. The street leads up to the most photographed landmark in the city, the Flat Iron Building. I have to think of an old photo of the intersection featuring the Coffin Block, the building’s predecessor. It’s a reminder how layered the city is – that even some of the oldest structures in the city were not the first  on their respective sites. The quirkiness of the Front-Church-Wellington intersection which allows such a quirky building disspells the dominant fantasy that Toronto is a perfect grid.

5. Front Street looking to Church

Coffin Block, Front and Wellington streets. - 1873

The ‘nose’ of the Gooderham Building is the entrance to a Firkin pub chain, but the entrance to the structure itself is on the south side. Like the St. Lawrence Hall it is marked with a great arch and decorative ornaments. I wonder if it’s all original, but it nonetheless looks really well done.

6. Gooderham Flat Iron Building Entrance

Passing Pravda, next I come to Leader Lane. Although the naming of lanes is a curiosity, I don’t follow the lane (get it?). It’s a shame because through further research it is part of a relatively hidden network of narrow streets.

Outside the Vagabondo restaurant (great name) I see a sculpture featuring a bowl-like platform and a spherical thing. Although I have not idea what UV Ceti is or represents, the ball look like a celestial body of some sort. Turns out I was on the right track. A UV Ceti variable, also known as a flare star, is a dwarf star whose temperature and brightness drastically in a span of minutes. Pretty cool, eh? A thank you to Mr. Andrew Posa for his creation!

7. Leader Lane and Wellington

8. U.V. Ceti on Wellington

Over my time of studying streetscapes I’ve  developed a theory: the greatest structures in terms of grandeur are, in order, churches, government buildings (city halls, parliaments etc), banks, and post offices. Considered under its original incarnation, the Irish Embassy Pub falls into the third category. With its arched windows and doorways and mansard roof, the design is spectacular. There is even ornamental faces – this time of lions! Looking up though, it’s apparent the wears of history and the elements have left their marks.

9. Irish Embassy 1

10. Irish Embassy 2

I cross Yonge and then Wellington to head southbound towards Front. Along the way I pass beautifully restored and coloured historic facades. My destination and terminus on this walk is a new building,  Brookfield Place. The centre has been on my list of places to visit, so this was a treat. I enter into Sam Pollock Square, named for arguably the smartest man in hockey (at least, according to Don Cherry in an interview with Nardwuar the Human Serviette). The famed roofed is the main attraction with arches and criss-crossing wires.

11. Yonge Street south of Wellington

12. Sam Pollock Square Brookfield Place

I move into The Allen Lambert Galleria and am greeted by a photo exhibition: George Steinmetz’s Desert Air. It’s a fabulous little showing of unique natural landscapes running until April 17. No pictures from me, but it’s worth a look. Beside them is a restored heritage facade to a bank building. The appeal here is obvious – old with the new.

13. Heritage Archtecture Brookfield Place

The main attraction, though, is the atrium. The tall atrium. Someone once described to me as a forest – a tall, symmetrical, sterile forest. I personally would not have seen it if not pointed to me, but I see where the comparison comes in. Steel trucks row by row, branches high above with little peeks of the sky between them. Just as I began the walk, I end by sticking around a while to just look up. Yes, definitely a habit.

14. Allen Lambert Galleria Brookfield

Satisfied, I am tempted to take a tour through the Hockey Hall of Fame – it would be my first in 15 years. Alas, I nix the idea, reasoning it would be better under more social circumstances. I do hit the store briefly for some browsing. No whim purchases though – everything is nearly above what I’m willing to shell out. After that, I exit and walk up Yonge Street for lunch and coffee, courtesy of Dineen Coffee.

Sam The Record Man Sign Belongs in a Yonge Street Museum

Sam the Record Man Sign

Credit: Shane S. Flickr stream

I have never stepped inside Sam the Record Man, and I shamefully admit my memories of walking by the famous neon signs at Yonge and Gould are vague at best. My experience is limited to exploring my father’s record collection which he purchased at the store in the 80s, and sifting through what would be become new favourites like Bowie’s Let’s Dance and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. With this said, personal memory and collective memory are separate yet connected ideas, and while my own past does not directly intersect with the life and times of Sam the Record Man, I feel part of a collective whose past indeed does – even if those memories aren’t mine.

The issue to me is not losing the store itself. Business is a tricky endeavour, and recent high-profile examples unfortunately show that even the most profitable and high profile enterprises can fold. There are many that would like to see it in existence, and I am not diminishing those sentiments. But since it is gone, we are faced with a ‘now what?’ situation.

Well, the ‘now what?’ is what do we do with the giant neon signs. The signs are the most tangible remnants of that store, along with perhaps the records purchased from the record shop that still exist in the collections of its former patrons and the auctioned memorabilia distributed in the store’s final days. The issue is commemorating, through the signs, the importance of Sam’s and its owner Sam Sniderman in the narrative of our music and cultural history.

Many assign Ryerson University – a rapidly expanding institution and the current owners of the former site of the store – as the villains in this saga. Many lament the loss of the Yonge Street Entertainment Strip (located between Queen and Gerrard Streets), of which Sam’s was a big part of, and dismiss its current incarnation as a soulless commercial and educational strip filled with an upcoming Ryerson student buildings and a mix of big and small name shopping destinations.

Sam The Record Man, Steeles Tavern, A&A

A&A, Steeles Tavern, & Sam The Record Man ca. 1971
         City of Toronto Archives           Series 1465, File 312, Item 51

For me, times change and there should be no qualms about new epochs coming into fashion. That’s fine. The fascinating thing about Toronto is its layered history. Different occupants, one after another (or sometimes at the same time), move into an area, set up their establishments, and in doing so they transform the character of their locale. This is perhaps no better manifested than in Kensington Market.

As these transformational processes take place and time, the altered urban landscapes have the power to reveal and conceal the layered history of their use. From the 1960s to about the 1990s, The Yonge Street Strip was for the most part a music and entertainment epicentre in Toronto. The sites which have contributed to this characterization have largely disappeared. Some buildings currently employ different uses (like Friars Taven at Dundas), others have been demolished completely (like the Colonial Tavern at 203 Yonge St). The loss of Sam’s and the Empress Hotel (which has quite the history itself) were the latest in this episode. The only visible reminder is Zanzibar’s, although even that has shifted identities from a music club to a purely adult entertainment establishment. Take this further and one hundred years ago the history of the Yonge Street Strip comes a bit full circle with how we might see it today. In 1912, for example, Sam’s was Curtis-Wilson Furniture Co. and Byers Albert Jefferies, Ltd., furries. 349 Yonge – Steeles Tavern, which Sam Sniderman eventually took over – was Hele’s Ceramic Art. Co. A&A at 351 Yonge was owned by Walker Frank, a man in the clothing business. In other words, this was a retail strip in its own right.


Today, the site of Sam is occupied and owned by Ryerson Univeraity – a booming educational institution that has seen tremendous growth since its days as a polytechnic. One has to guess that growing levels of enrollment within existing programs and the addition of new programs has necessitated its spatial growth, so as much as we might curse the ‘takeover’, perhaps we cannot fault that from occurring.

So the question remains: where do the signs end up? They are doing no favours to anyone stored in a North Toronto trailer.

The original plan was to have them mounted within the new student centre as a part of the deal struck by the Ryerson-Sniderman deal. Much fuss has been made about a broken promise on Ryerson’s president who has said that signs would clash with the modernist style of the new building.

Recently renewed talk has called for the need of a Toronto Museum. Whether we have the site and leadership to finally execute such a needed endeavour is another story. It does remain, however, that the neon signs would be ideal artefacts within such as a space. This would help in telling the musical and cultural narrative of Toronto as well as the role of Yonge Street.

Ideally, I’d like to see them back a part of the street, which also was the proposal put forward by Councillor Wong-Tam and supported by Mayor Rob Ford. The signs are best preserved and presented in context. Sam’s was an important part of a certain era of Yonge Street, and its signs should be displayed at its historic intersection. In doing so, in the end, we are putting them in a museum – albeit one that lacks physical plant and invites the components of the urban landscape to be the artifacts themselves.

Urban landscapes as museums are not a new idea. The Textile Museum’s mobile app TXTile City turns the city of Toronto into a museum whose artifacts are the sites – the built forms and their related oral histories — themselves. A recent TedTalk promoted the idea of the built and natural forms of Indianapolis – the city itself – as a science museum. A Toronto Star column has outlined the importance of Yonge Street. This is our Saint Laurent Boulevard of Montreal fame. Like The Main, Yonge Street, our spine, bisects the city, connects neighbourhoods, serves as cultural and commercial epicentre, and has a very layered past. In other words, it is important in the historical, geographic, cultural, natural, economic, sociological development of Toronto.

Fortunately, we already have something like what I’ve been proposing already underway. Youryongestreet is an online crowdsourcing initiative, launched by the Toronto Public Library, aimed at celebrating the history of Yonge Street. The potential age range of participants (and backgrounds in general) allows for exactly what I’ve been talking about: the presentation of the diversity of Yonge Street. The exhibits collection features a range of images, videos, audio accounts, and written tales about Yonge Street.

Youryongestreet and the urban landscape museum I have presented are two parts in an grander museum that showcases Yonge Street’s past. No doubt the Sam the Record sign should be an artefect in that museum, too.

Random Scene: McGill Street Arch

McGill Street Arch (8)

McGill Street Arch (1)

McGill Street Arch (2)

McGill Street Arch (5)

Related Links

Urban Toronto – Then and Now: Yonge & McGill
Toronto Public Library – Scott, Jonathan, house, Yonge St., s.e. corner McGill St.
Coppermine Photo Gallery – Cubeman – Historic Toronto – Yonge and McGill 1914
Toronto Life – McGill Street Arch