Where: Yonge Street from the Lake to Eglinton
Duration: about 2 hours
Weather: Sunny and -4C, with a chilly north wind
Yonge Street runs from Lake Ontario north through middle of Toronto and continues onwards north of the city to Barrie on Lake Simcoe, more than 100 km in total. The portion within the City of Toronto is roughly 18km long, and I decided to walk a chunk of that, from the start of Yonge down at the harbour north to Eglinton Avenue. To shorten the trip, I took the subway to Union Station and then walked south along York Street to get to Queens Quay and the official start of Yonge, right at lake.
From there, I headed straight north all the way up to Eglinton, about 7.5km or so.
Yonge is to Toronto what Broadway is to Manhattan – it connects the city north to south, and it forms the centre not just of the city but of much of its history. It’s the main east-west dividing line, with many streets having East and West sections based on Yonge. It’s also a cultural divide – you’re an east-end person or a west-end person, and often you hardly cross Yonge but stay in your respective half of the city.
As you go north from the lake, you travel through time. Some of the oldest parts of the city are along Yonge, and some of the newest as well if you all the way up to Steeles. If you are standing at Queens Quay, you would have been under water a 100 or so years ago. About a km north of what is today’s lakefront is Front Street, and it’s called “Front” because it was at the lake’s edge when the City was laid out back in the early 1800’s. Decades of construction have built not only the tall buildings which line Yonge today, it’s also created excavated soil used to backfill the harbour to create new land. In 1900, my walk would have been shorter than it is today.
Continuing north, you start to pass the subway stations to measure your progress – King, Queen, Dundas, and onwards north. Between Queen and Dundas is the Eaton Centre, which reminded me of the years when I worked for the Eaton’s department store chain in their headquarters at Yonge & Dundas back in the late 1980’s. That store is long gone, replaced by a Nordstrom’s, but the shops of the Eaton Centre are still there, and the corner still has a preacher on his soap box sermoning, a few hot dog vendors, and a drummer guy pounding away. What is new is Dundas Square, the plaza the city decided to build because that corner has long been a focal point for celebrations – when the Toronto Bluejays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993, the intersection was closed for a spontaneous street party.
Keep going north from Dundas and the stretch of Yonge up to Bloor is a bit grittier and shabbier than the rest of Yonge. It’s been like that for decades – there were head shops, strip clubs, and dive bars here from the 70’s and despite repeated attempts to “clean up Yonge” it’s still resisting gentrification. And yet gentrification is a tidal wave that broaches no resistance, evidenced by the scaffolded caves you must pass through along the way, where yet more condominiums are shooting up – I think I went through at least 5-6 of these along the way.
Once you get north of Bloor, you pass through Rosedale, one of the wealthiest areas of Toronto. The shops, bars, and restaurants reflect that upscale feel. It’s all very familiar to me though, because we lived on Yonge north of Davenport for several years in the mid-1990s. There used to be a series of shops known locally as the 5 Thieves – a butcher, a fishmonger, a greengrocer, a cheesemonger, and a bakery. This was Rosedale’s local market, and while the shops weren’t much to look at from the outside, their products were top end and well out of our price range back then. Today there are 3 Thieves left, and the shops are cleaned up, but the tradition of quality continues. You can often spot local chefs picking up things as you browse.
Just north of the Thieves, you pass one of the flagship stores in the LCBO chain, the former Summerhill Canadian Pacific Rail station. It was built in 1916 and yet only lasted as a train station until 1930. It sat empty for years until a tasteful renovation turned it into a retail outlet in the early 2000’s, complete with the former ticket windows and mosaic tiled floor.
Continuing up the street, you notice that while you have been climbing continuously since the lake, you’ve come to a section where Yonge rises more steeply between Summerhill Ave and Rosehill Ave. This slope occurs because thousands of years ago, at the end of the last ice age, this was the shoreline of a much larger lake called Lake Iroquois that later shrank to what is today Lake Ontario. This slope runs east-west roughly north of Davenport for several km, and is the height of land which gives Casa Loma its views and provides the excuse for the Baldwin Steps.
Crossing St. Clair Ave and continuing north, you pass the entrance to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. It’s one of my favourite walking areas in the city, an oasis for reflection and calm. I always think of my friend Paul when I pass here. Cheers mate.
Just past the cemetery entrance, Yonge Street dips between Heath Street and Merton Street – that’s because you are passing through what was once a ravine formed by Mud Creek. That dip means that, for my son, his route to school near St. Clair is uphill in both directions from our home.
When you arrive at Davisville, you enter our former neighbourhood. We lived in the area for 13 years and the shopkeepers are old friends who wave as I keep going north. Visit Carlo the Pasta Guy (as we called him) at Pasta Pantry for homemade sauces and pastas, and Carlo Celebre (the Cheese Guy) at La Salumeria for sandwiches, cheeses, salamis and much, much more. Together they kept my son in pasta and cheese, no mean feat.
From there it’s only a few more blocks to Yonge and Eglinton. My first apartment was just a block from here, back in the mid 1980’s, and then the area was known as Young and Eligible. My soon-to-be-wife and I had an early date a place called Daiquiri’s on the corner of Yonge & Eg. Today that bar is gone, replaced by the inevitable condo, and the intersection itself is, to be blunt, a mess – Yonge & Inexplicable. The Eglinton Crosstown rail link will, supposedly, someday, with luck, we think, I hope, finally be finished. Until then, the intersection is a vast construction zone.
Thinking about it, in walking Yonge today I walked through 40+ years of personal history. In the late 1970’s my family visited Toronto for the first time in my life, and as a teenager from hicksville southern Ontario, Yonge was an explosion of commerce, colour, and chaos. In the 1980’s, Yonge and Eg was my backyard and local neighbourhood. In the 1990’s that was Yonge & Davenport. In the 2000’s and 2010’s, home meant Yonge & Davisville. I worked at 200 Yonge Street for years, rode then and ride now the Yonge subway line, and have continued to shop up and down Yonge. It’s all there, on one long messy stretch of road.
On my walking bucket list, I have a plan to walk the length of Yonge Street, from the lake to Barrie. Today was just a small taste of that. It’s still the heart of the city, and it’s still gritty and slushy on a February day when a wind from the north will freeze your cheeks – but walk it. Yonge is the backbone of Toronto – east and west of Yonge are the neighbourhoods where Toronto lives, but Yonge is how the city travels, where the city shops, and where it celebrates..