TO Streets – Yonge

Part of a series, walking the main streets of Toronto

If I am going to write a series of posts about walking the main streets of Toronto, of course I have to start with Yonge Street. My centre point for these walks is the intersection of Yonge & Eglinton, and there’s a certain anchoring that Yonge provides to Torontonians – you’re either an East-of-Yonge or a West-of-Yonge person. And then again, there’s a personal attachment to the street, having lived in a condo with a Yonge Street address, worked at an office on Yonge, and walked parts of it many, many times over the past 40 years.

Back in 1970, a film called Goin’ Down the Road was released, and it’s become an iconic statement of, in part, how the rest of the country sees Toronto. Back in the early 1980’s, SCTV did a spoof of the film (“We’re going to Yonge Street!”), and it’s still funny today – wow do John Candy & Joe Flaherty look young! – and I couldn’t help but recall it as I started out on my walk.

The street starts at Queens Quay at Toronto Harbour, and on a cold January day there was ice to remind me that there’d be a wind-chill as I walked north. It was grey overhead, and hardly more inviting as I stared north towards the underpass below the Gardiner Expressway.

Walking north along Yonge from the lake isn’t really a pleasant walk, given the traffic, the gloomy underpasses, the noise, and on this day the mud and slush. It’s uphill of course, as the city rises away from the lake. In fact over the length of my walk, I climbed from about 76m above Mean Sea Level at Yonge and Queens Quay to almost 200m MSL at Yonge and Steeles.

That led me to think that for Torontonians, “downtown” literally means “down” town. If you ask the average person, they’ll probably say that Downtown is between Front and Bloor. MidTown is roughly around St. Clair up to Eglinton. Uptown is more variable – to me anything north of Sheppard is above the tree line, but if you live up at Cummer then Sheppard is probably like your downtown. And all of this is measured, for the most part, based on where you are along Yonge. You can be on King Street, for example, but if you’re more than about 500 m east or west of Yonge, then you’re not “Downtown” – you’re in the Entertainment District maybe or Corktown, but that distance from Yonge is the key.

One of the things you notice as you walk north is that, downtown, the subway stations are only about 5-6 minutes walk apart (King to Queen, Queen to Dundas), but as you go north they get farther and farther apart, so that by the time you are at Lawrence, you’re a good 30 minutes walk to get to York Mills. That compression of distance is, I suppose, appropriate – it’s more densely packed and there’s that big-city-downtown feel you get.

I couldn’t help but notice how much is changing along Yonge. We have a thing in Toronto for faux preservation, where new buildings retain a portion of an old one as a facade, to give the illusion of preservation. At Yonge and Alexander there’s a good example, where the venerable clock tower of an 1870’s fire station will be incorporated into a new condo.

I noticed, as I continued along, that one of the things that contributed to that gloomy feel, besides the grey skies and slushy streets, was the fact that most people seemed to be walking with their eyes cast downwards. For every person looking straight ahead and catching your eye with a twinkle, there would be several either looking at their feet or looking at their phones. In any big city, people scurry about lost in their thoughts, but when the sun is out and there’s a warmth in the air, people seem to look up more. They’re more engaged in their surroundings then. On this day, the gloomy skies equalled gloomy expressions. Oh, for spring to arrive.

Another thing I noticed is the street numbers. I started at #1 Yonge Street, and walking north, the climbing numbers mounted with my steps. In fact, if you pay attention moving about the city, over time you’ll get to know roughly how far north along Yonge an address is based on the numbers. Anything below 1000 is south of Bloor. St. Clair is at about 1600 Yonge, Eglinton is at about 2400, Sheppard is around 4000, and all the way up at Steeles you’re at about 6400. The numbers keep climbing north of Toronto, and go up into the 12,000’s by the time you get up to Richmond Hill. As you’re walking up Yonge, if a cold north wind is in your face then it feels like the numbers equal the icy heights you’re ascending.

Walking north, while you are mostly climbing the whole way, there are some dips as well. Between St. Clair and Eglinton, then Eglinton and Lawrence, and finally between Yonge Boulevard and Sheppard, you cross the ravines of Mud Creek, Burke’s Brook, and the West Don River. The latter is especially steep,

descending almost a 100m into Hoggs Hollow as you cross the Don,

and then climbing fairly steeply towards Sheppard.

I’ve walked lower Yonge before, between the lake and Eglinton, and living in mid town means I’ve ranged up as far as York Mills. I’ve never done the upper part of Yonge however, north of York Mills, so it was new to me to walk through here. I was surprised to find, at about Cummer, that there is a small cemetery on the east side of Yonge, that dates back to the mid 1800’s.

When I looked it up after my walk, I learned that this was established by the Cummer family, who settled in this area in the 1820’s. It was a reminder of how this area was the market garden that fed Toronto, right up into the 1940’s, back when it was known as Willowdale.

Today, however, it’s about as far from a pastoral setting as can be – it’s just a wide canyon of condo towers, designed for cars and packed with fast food restaurants.

That said, it’s interesting to see Toronto’s melting pot expressed in those fast food restaurants. I passed Italian, French, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian, Persian, Indian, American, and of course the uber-Canadian Tim Horton’s along the way. As you go north, the residents change from multiple-generations-in-Canada near Rosedale to just-arrived-and-sinking-roots above Sheppard.

When you do get to Steeles, there’s a bit of an anticlimactic feeling, because it doesn’t look any different on the north side of Steeles, in Markham, as it does on the south side, still in Toronto.

It’s a car’s world up here. There are some people walking around, but mainly this is laid out for cars. How it will evolve over the next 20-30 years will be interesting. I’d love to see the sidewalks widened, bike lanes expanded, street furniture and trees installed, and an actual pedestrian feel introduced. Whether we get there soon or not is up in the air. This area is, like it or not, more representative of Toronto than, say, Dundas Square. Turning the downtown into a walker-centric space is one thing, but I’m not holding my breath that areas like Yonge & Steeles will look like that any time soon.

Still, breathing in scents of auto exhaust mingled with BBQ duck, flavoured vape, and frying onions; reading shop signs written in Korean, Mandarin, Persian, and Hindi; overhearing snatches of conversation in a dozen languages; feeling the energy – it’s what makes Toronto dynamic. We are a melting pot, and people still want to go down the road to Yonge Street. We look different today than in the 1970’s, let alone the 1870’s, and in 50 years time the 2070’s will probably still see the energy of Toronto expressed along Yonge.

Walk Journal – Feb 18, 2019

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.

Looking south over the harbour at the bottom of Yonge Street

From there, I headed straight north all the way up to Eglinton, about 7.5km or so.

Looking north straight up Yonge from Queens Quay

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.

At Yonge & Front, there is the Hockey Hall of Fame housed in a former Bank of Montreal branch that’s reputedly haunted by the spirit of a teller who worked there.

The Hockey Hall of Fame at the NW corner of Yonge & Front.

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.

Dundas Square – desperately channelling Times Square and coming up short

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.

The cave-lined streets formed from the scaffolding around yet another construction site along Yonge

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.

The former Summerhill CN Rail station, now an LCBO outlet

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.

Yonge & Eglinton, not so much Young and Eligible as Yonge & Restless-to-be-Finished

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..