For years, the roof above the Zanzibar Tavern has served as a peaceful escape for servers and strippers alike. But its days serving as such may be numbered.
In the early morning hours of July 23, 1984, Yonge Street at Elm was a scene of complete pandemonium. Properties around the Zanzibar Tavern were ablaze, and as firefighters were charging into the club, fifteen “striptease dancers” were charging out. According to a Toronto Star article from the time, an intentionally lit fire in a neighbouring business forced employees to run for their lives.
Many of the fleeing dancers were originally from Montreal and spoke no English. Rob Kaarto, the club’s bouncer, told the reporter at the scene: “All the French girls here were running around and screaming, but I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Then I smelled smoke and got out of the building.”
As a result of the blaze, one firefighter was injured and several businesses were lost. Fortunately, there were no fatalities. Though Zanzibar suffered extensive smoke damage, a firewall had prevented flames from destroying the property.
Today, a firewall of sorts continues to surround the bar. The neighbourhood is being tidied. As new commercial, residential, and academic tenants move in, Yonge Street is starting to shed its fun street image.
Zanzibar, however, resists change. That’s not to say the club isn’t doing its part to keep up with the neighbours—its Yonge Street façade hasn’t looked better, and the interior is tiptop. It has also been a member of the Yonge Street BIA since the association’s founding in 2001. Business is booming and regardless of how gentrified the community becomes, the club intends to stay put.
There is one change that Zanzibar may be forced to concede, though, and it has nothing to do with anything inside the club—rather, it’s what happens on top of it.
Brian Cameron is a Digital Initiatives Librarian at Ryerson University, who works across the street and several storeys up from Zanzibar’s rooftop at 359 Yonge Street. By email, he told us that for years it has been common knowledge among library staff that Zanzibar’s dancers and servers routinely venture onto the strip club’s rooftop. After moving offices a year ago, Cameron glanced out his window to discover his new work station afforded him a (slightly obstructed) view overlooking O’Keefe Lane and the rear of the strip club. Cameron, who is also a talented photographer, is continuously on the lookout for unique cityscape scenes; staff of the Zanzibar in repose fits this genre nicely. Over the course of a few months, Cameron photographed employees soaking up rays, catching up with co-workers, making calls, having a smoke, or just enjoying a break.
Back across O’Keefe Lane, when asked about staff taking breaks on the top of the club, Zanzibar management said that the women have been venturing on to their “rooftop patio” (their words) for years. Rooftop patio? Really? Between the lack of comfortable seating, the dilapidated fencing, stench pipes, and plank walkways surely treacherous for anyone in heels, we would hardly refer to this area as a patio. Considering patrons frequent Zanzibar in order to enjoy the talents of those performers, Torontoist wonders, would it be too much for management to provide lawn chairs for employees?
To date, Zanzibar have never received a single complaint regarding the women’s rooftop lounging, they say. In fact, they are of the opinion that, considering the layout of the roof and the configuration of the surrounding buildings, it’s impossible to glimpse the rooftop at all.
Cameron has not heard complaints from his co-workers, either—even when, at times, Zanzibar staff appear topless. That may change in 2013, when Ryerson University is scheduled to open their new student learning centre a few doors down from the Yonge Street club on the former site of Sam the Record Man, A&A Records, and World of Posters. When the multi-storey building is completed, the minimal privacy that Zanzibar staff are currently enjoying will be reduced even further.
The Zanzibar Circus Tavern—the club’s official name as stated on its operating license—has been in business nearly six decades. Before Zanzibar was Zanzibar, it was known as the Rosticceria Tavern. Billed as a dining lounge, it promoted after-show meals, booking nightly entertainment in its Elixir Room. As far as we can gather, Rosticceria staff was clothed. However, besides a menu of French and American cuisine, the restaurant also offered male patrons something they referred to as a businessman’s lunch.
Early in the 1950s, the Rosticceria went under. Zanzibar opened in its place, continuing to offer a dinner menu and live performances, though these were not nearly as racy as they would eventually become. In addition to performers like this, the Zanzibar also booked a variety of other talent, including jazz trios, lounge singers, and comedians.
Go-go dancing came to Zanzibar in 1965. In the 1970s, with Yonge Street at its raunchy best (or worst, depending on your point of view), the club boasted that “every bench was a waterbed” and promised that “the girls never stop.” From time to time, placard-waving protesters gathered on the sidewalk in front of the establishment.
In spite of the change in season, Cameron continues to see Zanzibar employees on the roof. As for where they go for smoke breaks in the depth of winter, Cameron was unsure. Last winter, he says he paid no attention to the goings-on outside his window.
Photo by Brian Cameron.
When it was first published, this article featured ten of Brian Cameron’s photos of women who worked at Zanzibar, as they took breaks on the building’s roof. In several of those photos, their faces were visible; in almost all of them, they weren’t wearing much clothing. Sex, though, was far from the photos’ focus and far from ours in writing about them. We featured the photographs, instead, because they were compelling and unexpected—even beautiful—portraits, ones that complemented our story about Zanzibar’s history and what would come of what management called the “rooftop patio” once more neighbours moved in.
Most importantly, though, we featured those photographs thinking that the women depicted in them knew they could be seen.
While Zanzibar’s owner, Allen Cooper, mentioned to Torontoist that he didn’t think the roof was visible from nearby buildings, several other employees we’d interviewed for the article said otherwise. (“Who complained?” one male employee asked, half-jokingly, when it came up.) In short, we never thought that the women who were being photographed thought, themselves, that the roof—with buildings like Ryerson’s library overlooking it, and Yonge Street surrounding it—was private. But we don’t know for sure: we made a mistake, and didn’t speak directly to those women before featuring photos of them in which they could potentially, against their wishes, be identified. If we had spoken to them, and they had objected, this article would have been very different, if it was written at all.
Out of respect for those women and their privacy, then—privacy that they deserve, and that we did not for a moment intend to violate, but that we are very sorry if we have—we have removed all but one of Cameron’s photos from the article above.