Historicist: Making Yonge Street More of a Fun Street
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Historicist: Making Yonge Street More of a Fun 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.

Sketch of proposed streetscape along Yonge Street, looking north from Gould, circa 1982. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 1.

“Yonge Street is Fun Street” boasted the sign that long graced the Funland Arcade at Gould Street. But during the 1970s, the Yonge strip seemed like anything but fun for many Torontonians, unless getting out your kinks was your kind of fun. By mid-decade, media, police, and politicians decried the number of adult cinemas, dirty bookstores, prostitution dens, and rub-and-tug parlours that had set up shop along Yonge, especially south of College. The combination of a police task force and public outrage over the murder of shoeshine boy Emmanuel Jaques in 1977 led to a decline in adult-centric businesses. Around the same time, the city commissioned a report to propose streetscape redesigns that would improve Yonge in ways that previous attempts like a pedestrian mall had faltered. Though many of the ideas never progressed beyond models and sketches, many improvements were made to Yonge Street during the late 1970s and early 1980s with varying degrees of longevity. Photos taken by the City of Toronto Urban Design department documented the construction and provide a time capsule of Yonge during this time period, especially between Dundas and College.

Music World store at southeast corner of Yonge and Gould. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 18.

Our trip begins at Yonge and Gould, where several record store chains reigned. On the southeast corner, the one-time Empress Hotel was years away from a wall collapse when it housed Music World. Of the record labels shown on the side of the building, the one that wasn’t considered a major is Pickwick, which was primarily known for its budget reissues (it wasn’t unusual for tracks to be dropped from the original release) and soundalike recordings. Given Yonge Street’s reputation for cheapness, Pickwick fit right in.

“Yonge” canopy along Gould Street. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 9.

Across the street was Sam the Record Man, which hadn’t yet expanded into the neighbouring Bank of Commerce. Added alongside the bank was a “Yonge” canopy designed to protect purveyors of jewellery, watches, and other street goods.

Chess match outside Sam the Record Man. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 59.

Besides the canopy, chess tables were added to the sidewalk along Gould. The corner became a mecca for chess players partly due to the reputation of Josef Smolij. The Polish native earned himself a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s fastest chess player, often destroying hopefuls who paid fifty cents to take him on within fifteen minutes. After being fired from a machinist job because he wasn’t allowed to set up a board next to his post, Smolij set up his board on the streets of downtown. His initial hangout was Allan Gardens, where he quickly drew crowds entertained by his skill and antics. As a 1978 profile in The Canadian noted:

Seldom does he lose (maybe once a week, more likely once every two weeks) and with each gambit and eventual checkmate that occurs, he unleashes a barrage of Polish-accented bravado that infuriates his opponent and entertains those who have stopped to watch. When the opposition makes a particularly bad blunder, Smolij lets him have it. “In Russia,” he will boldly state, “they send you to Siberia for that one. Yes, is true. Player scared to make bad moof [sic] in Russia.”

Chess in the shadow of Funland. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 41.

Smolij moved from Allan Gardens to Yonge Street after police noticed the crowds he drew and assumed that so many people couldn’t be fascinated by chess—the man with the massive grey beard had to be a drug front! By the early 1980s, Smolij set up his board every night from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Gould Street, ready to take on anyone, though inflation caused his games to rise to a dollar. The games provided his sole source of income, which scarcely fazed Smolij, whose motto was “I am poor in the pocket but rich in the mind.” He failed to miss a single game of street chess from April 1978 until February 1985, when he was admitted to Wellesley Hospital suffering from severe gall stones and hyperthermia. Some brain damage resulted, but he scarcely lost his ability to speed through chess matches. After spending several years in a city nursing home, Smolij was reunited with a sister he hadn’t seen since World War II and moved to Berlin in 1992 to live with her. Chess matches continued on at Yonge and Gould, which was named Hacksel Place in honour of another enthusiast, until 2003.

A&A Records & Tapes, Thrifty’s, and the Great Chocolate Chip Cookie Machine viewed from Elm Street. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 20, Item 15.

Taking a look from Elm Street, we see Sam’s long-time rival A&A. The store was founded by Alice and Mac Kenner in 1946—according to Mac’s obituary in the Toronto Star, he chose the name so that the store would be listed first in the Yellow Pages. The rivalry with Sam’s began after the Record Man moved from College Street in 1961. After the Kenners sold out in 1971, the company went through several owners over the next two decades, including Columbia Records. By 1991, the combination of over-expansion, recession, increased competition, and poor business decisions led the by-then 260-location chain to declare bankruptcy. New owners slimmed down A&A, but the flagship was among the casualties of a second bout with bankruptcy in 1993.
Also visible is the Great Chocolate Chip Cookie Machine, a short-lived chain which claimed to be the creator of the cookiegram. A lucky recipient would be greeted with a twelve-inch-wide chocolate chip cookie with any (non-vulgar) message. By the time parallel street improvements on Elm Street were done…

A later view from Elm Street. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 20, Item 23.

…so was the Cookie Machine. While this pedestrian would be denied a treat, he could figure out how to spend his evening by consulting one of several City Nights information kiosks rolled out just off of Yonge.

Northwest corner of Yonge and Elm. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 20, Item 7.

Before leaving Elm Street, let’s pause and look at the northwest corner and take in several business long gone from this location.

McGill Street before it was closed off at Yonge. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 36, Item 98.

One long-lasting decision was the closure of McGill and Granby Streets at Yonge.

Model of proposed redesign for Granby Street. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 36 , Item 6.

Models were built featuring archways bearing each street’s name.

Proposed archway for McGill and Granby streets, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 36, Item 53.

Only McGill Street received an arch, and it wasn’t a freshly-built piece of architecture. The structure that was used was salvaged from St. Andrew’s United Church on Bloor Street after it was demolished in 1981.

Sketch of proposed streetscape on Yonge Street looking north toward College Street, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 21, Item 8.

Up at College Street, the improvements included the island in the middle of Yonge Street shown in this design sketch.

College Park Shops. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 21, Item 13.

The physical landscape wasn’t the only thing to change at Yonge and College as the 1970s drew to a close. Two years after Eaton’s closed its art deco department store to consolidate its downtown operations at the Eaton Centre, the structure reopened on March 22, 1979 as College Park. A consortium led by A. E. LePage realtors determined that the store could be converted into a mixed-use facility with a retail emphasis on mid- to high-end furniture (tenants in the first phase included DeBoers and Roche-Bobois). While most of the building had been rented by opening day, the fate of the Eaton Auditorium and Round Room on the seventh floor was left up in the air—both spaces fell into disrepair and were threatened with demolition before the spaces were restored and reopened as the Carlu event space in 2003.

S. S. Kresge store, southeast corner of Yonge Street and Carlton Street, circa 1979. Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 21, Item 36.

On the southeast corner, the Kresge five-and-dime store soon passed into history. This location closed around the same time the Canadian division of the Kmart Corporation (which had recently changed its corporate name from S. S. Kresge) celebrated its fiftieth birthday in 1979 by moving its head office from above this store to Brampton.

How the scene shown at the beginning of this column turned out. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 20.

Despite the efforts at physical improvement, the Yonge Street strip remained a sore issue among civic officials. When the sex shops faded away, their low-end bargain store replacements did little to alleviate the street’s image as a tacky place to be. Shoppers stayed inside the Eaton Centre. More plans to revitalize the street came and went, resulting in projects such as Dundas Square and 10 Dundas East (which many thought would remain an eternal monument to the hoarding industry). Despite all the complaints, we continue to recognize Yonge as our main street and, even in tiny ways, recognize it still has potential to live up to Funland’s boast.
Additional material from the June 28, 1978 edition of The Canadian; the March 24, 1979 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the March 23, 1979, October 5, 1979, January 9, 1980, October 10, 1982, September 14, 1985, October 21, 1988, and November 11, 1992 editions of the Toronto Star.