Historicist: Toronto for Tourists, 1979
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Historicist: Toronto for Tourists, 1979

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Scene from Eglinton West subway platform, opened 1978. The Traveller’s Encyclopaedia of Ontario, 1979.

How to introduce Toronto to tourists, 1970s style:

A combination of good luck, good management and good timing have given the people of Toronto a city that’s a positive pleasure to live in. They intend to keep it that way because they remember when it wasn’t…Toronto today looks out and, by doing so, learns. What to do and, especially, what not to do, to avoid the demoralization of many of the world’s once-great cities. The lessons have sunk in. Ride the subway, walk the streets and you’ll emerge with your skin and your wallet intact. You can go shopping without a car. Find a public telephone that works. Stroll in parks with “please walk on the grass” signs. Toronto is clean but not sterile, new but not uncaring for the old, big but not intimidating, different but with a familiar feeling. You’ll probably like it a lot.

So opens the chapter on Hogtown in the inaugural edition of The Traveller’s Encyclopedia of Ontario, published by the provincial Ministry of Industry and Tourism in 1979. The city merits a baker’s dozen–worth of pages that praise its virtues and highlight attractions eager to draw in visitors from across the province and beyond.

Wraparound cover depicting the 1978 edition of the Scottish World Festival Tattoo at Exhibition Stadium. The Traveller’s Encyclopaedia of Ontario, 1979.

The wraparound cover showcased a summer night scene in the city:

What may appear to be a photographic collaboration between Walt Disney and Buck Rogers on our cover is in reality an actual summer night scene at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition Stadium. The castle is merely a stage set. But the toy soldiers are a real part of the World Scottish Festival pipe band performances held here annually…Those whirling discs in the background are part of the huge Exhibition midway, as thrilling and loud and magical as any you’ll find in the world. And, in the background, the profile of our city, dominated by the science-fiction silhouette of the world’s tallest freestanding tower, with its revolving restaurant and observation pod commanding a sizable chunk of the southern part of the province!

The writer may have been slightly off with the name, but the Scottish World Festival Tattoo was a major element of the CNE for a decade. Billed as “a two-and-a-half hour spectacle unmatched in the world” (a claim doubted by visiting Scottish journalists), the event typically featured more than 1,300 performers over a four-night run. The first edition was introduced in 1972 with a parade through downtown Toronto to mark the opening of that year’s fair, though the actual tattoo drew criticism for including acts that weren’t Scottish enough. Despite some misgivings, local Scots supported the event. As Lorimer Annan of the Glasgow Skye Association told the Toronto Star, “over there [in Scotland] this is an average thing. Here it’s a spectacular and of course we don’t have it on the scale of things here. So we see all the Scots come out. If they were still in Scotland, they probably wouldn’t bother at all.”
By the time the cover photo was likely taken in 1978, the event was teetering on the brink of extinction, as CNE officials debated whether the ever-increasing cost of bringing in Scottish performers was justified by ever-decreasing audiences. After a $150,000 loss in 1981, the axe fell. Tattoo founder Colonel Clifford Hunt had refused to participate after officials indicated they wanted to save costs by hiring only Canadian bands, which he felt would lower the quality of the show. While the CNE claimed the hiatus was temporary, the event wound up being like a storefront that claims to be undergoing renovations when you know it will never reopen.

Map of the major roads in Metropolitan Toronto—note freeways under construction or not yet on the radar. The Traveller’s Encyclopaedia of Ontario, 1979.

The Toronto chapter highlights the usual suspects among local attractions. The recently opened CN Tower is described as having replaced City Hall as the city’s most famous landmark. In hippie-free Yorkville, “seemingly, a newly renovated shop or sensitively designed new complex opens its doors every week, and the area becomes even more pleasant for strolling, shopping and dining.” Massey Hall earns praise, despite “showing its age.” Those planning to take a ride on the subway were offered a map that included approved extensions at both ends of the Bloor-Danforth line—visitors would have to wait until late 1980 before they could use Kipling and Kennedy stations. For those who preferred a more leisurely form of transit, horseback riders intending to use the public stables in Sunnybrook Park were warned that “the police stables are there too, so no reckless riding!”

China Court, 208 Spadina Avenue. The Traveller’s Encyclopaedia of Ontario, 1979.

Among the highlighted attractions that no longer exist is China Court, which merited the following description: “Constructed and decorated by craftsmen brought in from Hong Kong, this sparkling assortment of authentic oriental pagodas, gardens and Chinese boutiques makes a new focal point for the Chinese community in Toronto. China Court is located on Spadina Avenue, south of Dundas Street.” Opened with great fanfare in August 1976, the three-million-dollar attraction had a fleeting existence. Within five years, operator Manbro Holdings was planning to replace the “modest restaurant and boutique mall” with a massive condo/retail complex that formed part of a grand plan by developer Tim Man to revitalize Spadina. By 1986, the pagodas and gardens were razed to make way for the grey concrete of Chinatown Centre.
China Court demonstrates one of the most interesting things about reading old tourist literature: seeing how temporary must-see attractions can be, even if they are classified as “cultural assets” alongside enduring institutions (AGO, ROM, etc.) and mothballed venues (McLaughlin Planetarium). In the end, the mix of expected and surprising city highlights while flipping through the encyclopaedia leaves a modern reader with one promise fulfilled—you will view Toronto as different, but with a familiar feeling.
Additional material from the August 17, 1978, May 18, 1982, and April 8, 1985 editions of the Toronto Star.