Historicist: A Village Grows on Markham Street
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Historicist: A Village Grows on Markham Street

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.

Markham Street with Mirvish Village signs, circa 1982. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 6, Item 11.

In one of his autobiographies, “Honest Ed” Mirvish noted that he “never intended to install an artists’ colony on Markham Street….Like most things I’ve gotten into, it just happened.” What was a lower middle class residential street at the start of the 1960s became a destination for art connoisseurs, comic book enthusiasts, diners, and shoppers by decade’s end. If a saying for what would become Mirvish Village had been posted on the side of Honest Ed’s, it might have read “Honest Ed’s no teacher, but he sure knows how to Markham!”

And it was all due to a parking lot.

Lineup outside Honest Ed’s, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 465.

The early success of Honest Ed’s necessitated expansion to handle ever-increasing crowds, so Mirvish purchased his first property along Markham Street in 1952. By the end of the 1950s, it became clear that, especially during special store events, traffic along Bloor Street and surrounding side streets was nightmarish as customers looked for precious spots to leave their vehicles. Following a seventy-two hour dance marathon in 1959, Alderman Harold Menzies pointed out to Mirvish that it had taken forty minutes, and fifteen traffic cops, to drive from Spadina to Ossington while the contest was on, and that his office received a steady stream of complaints from nearby residents. Menzies suggested that Mirvish should buy the homes along the east side of Markham from Bloor to Lennox and knock them down to make way for a glorious parking lot. By October 1960, Menzies persuaded City Council to adopt a report that requested Mirvish build a two-hundred vehicle lot.

Throughout 1960 and 1961, Mirvish dispatched childhood friend Yale Simpson to convince the residents of the targeted properties to sell. Several homeowners believed that, due to his last name, Simpson was connected to the department store, which caused them to inflate their asking price. Not that the homes were in top condition, as Jack Batten outlined in a biography of Mirvish:

The houses were not in first-class shape. [The homeowners] had filled up the rooms on the second and third floors with boarders. The boarders came and went, not loving the fine old houses, drinking whiskey in their rooms, cooking on hot plates, and covering the walls with layers of sad smells. What else did they have to do? But $28,000 for a house not loved in such ways was a fancy price in 1960.

603 Markham Street (house with brown railing), circa 1982. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 50, Item 7.

The toughest to win over were the owners of 603 Markham (currently Central), which happened to be the home next to the store. Brothers Norman and Roy Stuart were temperamental fifty-something bachelor horse-trainers who were in no hurry to sell their dwelling. As Batten described them, “They hardly ever smiled, and their conversation consisted mostly of grumbles and complaints. They were champion complainers. They were lonely, mean, silly old men.” Simpson visited often and gradually, if grudgingly, won their confidence when he revealed his interest in horses. The brothers finally sold the home in August 1961 for $52,000. When one of the Stuarts died shortly after the sale closed, Mirvish and Simpson felt obliged to attend his funeral. Only three others attended the service, which led the pair to be asked to carry the casket.

By the time Mirvish had assembled all of the necessary properties, he ran into new roadblocks. Menzies’s fellow Ward 5 alderman, Joseph Piccininni, was more receptive to complaints from residents along the west side of Markham Street and Palmerston Boulevard about the proposed lot and other beefs with the store (mostly light pollution from its sign). Mirvish also discovered the council motion that supported the lot held little legal sway and the zoning along Markham remained strictly residential. Where the City once convinced him to buy properties and a laneway it owned for a parking lot, now its Building and Public Development committee was prepared to combat it. After a tense public meeting in July 1962, two other aldermen worked out a compromise where the lot could go ahead under strict conditions, which included the preservation of the houses.

But what would Mirvish do with the dozen or so properties he was now saddled with? One problem was solved when his wife Anne sought out new studio space to work on her paintings and sculptures. She chose 581 Markham (now Victory Café), which had been the last house to sell. Mirvish soon ran into gallery owner Jack Pollock, who had space problems of his own. Pollock was among the businessmen who were soon to be displaced from “The Village” strip along Gerrard Street between Elizabeth and Bay due to…get ready for it…a parking lot (in this case, required by Toronto General Hospital). Pollock looked into Yorkville, but found rents there up to seven times what he paid down in the Village. Mirvish offered Pollock space along Markham. With other soon-to-be-exiled artisans looking for space, it dawned on Mirvish that a classy street of boutiques, galleries, and artist studios would improve the look of the neighbourhood and, less altruistically as he admitted frequently, attract shoppers who would never set foot in Honest Ed’s.

Advertisement, Toronto Life, November 1966.

Throughout 1963 and 1964, the homes were renovated to accommodate new tenants, including a gallery run by Mirvish’s eighteen-year-old son David. Anne suggested that the buildings be painted in pastel colours ranging from yellow to robin’s egg blue. Exiles from Gerrard Street were welcomed with, as Mirvish told the Globe and Mail, the stipulation that “they are really doing something.” One day, as he surveyed the changes, Simpson noted to Mirvish that “a one-sided street doesn’t look as good as a two-sided street.” By the end of 1964, all but one of the homes on the west side of Markham had been purchased (the holdout was a carpenter who refused to sell his boarding house at 586). As the street changed, Mirvish floated ideas ranging from a series of internationally-themed restaurants to turning Markham into a Venetian-style canal, complete with gondoliers.

But problems with neighbours and the City wouldn’t go away. It turned out that Mirvish went ahead with the conversion of the homes to commercial use without waiting for the zoning to change. As he later noted, “If I had waited for them, I would have been an old man. In those days, when I had an idea, I did things right away.” A group of residents along Palmerston complained to the city in 1964 that “Markham Street has taken on a carnival atmosphere. It’s a sickening deterioration of the district.” Despite Mirvish’s statements that he was improving the neighbourhood, city officials, including Piccininni, criticized him for steamrolling ahead with little regard for municipal regulations. The boiling point was a basement restaurant on the west side called the Onion Pot, which frequently served as a venue for opening night parties for productions at the Royal Alexandra Theatre that Mirvish had recently acquired. The restaurant was forced to close several times—one shutdown in February 1965 was celebrated with a sign on the door which read “Opened by Mistake. Closed by City Hall.” After a series of hearings, both the city and the Ontario Municipal Board allowed the zoning to be changed to commercial with one major condition to placate Palmerston residents: no restaurants or theatres were allowed on the west side of Markham.

Advertisement, Toronto Life, November 1969.

Occasional conflicts flared up throughout the rest of the decade. Palmerston residents petitioned City Council in 1968 with a complaint that noise and traffic, especially from concerts and movie showings in a paved garden behind their homes, were “a deliberate attempt to affront the residents or force them from their homes.” Mirvish cut these activities (later maintaining the complaints were really spurred by a desire of the residents to sell their homes to him) but continued to support events such as an annual fair along the street. Issues with parking came full circle in 1969 when Works Commissioner Raymond Bremner recommended that the businesses on the east side be torn down for a larger parking lot. City planners recognized the value of protecting the new character of the street instead of paving over it, and Bremner’s proposal went nowhere.

Additional material from Honest Ed’s Story by Jack Batten (Toronto: Doubleday, 1972), How to Build an Empire on an Orange Crate or 121 Lessons I Never Learned in School by Ed Mirvish (Toronto: Key Porter, 1993), and the following newspapers: the July 6, 1963, February 18, 1965, and February 22, 1969 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 9, 1962 and June 11, 1964 editions of the Toronto Star. Thanks to David Topping for the Honest Ed’s-inspired line.