A brief 1970s experiment turned our main drag into a pedestrian-only zone.
For Globe and Mail columnist Bruce West, the debut of the Yonge Street Mall in the spring of 1971 offered Toronto “an enjoyable thing that used to exist only in small towns on a Saturday night. I refer to the simple pleasures of ambling up and down Main Street meeting your fellow residents eye-to-eye and even venturing to bid them good evening.”
The good feelings didn’t last. After an initial wave of euphoria for a permanent pedestrian zone in downtown Toronto, four years of seasonal experiments ended amid accusations that the mall enhanced the deepening sleaziness of Yonge Street and the province’s refusal to grant the city key exemptions from potential liabilities.
Such concerns were far from the minds of local pedestrian mall advocates as the 1970s dawned. The concept spread across North America following its implementation in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1959. In 1963, shoe store proprietor Herbert Lowe proposed a midday pedestrian mall along Yonge between Queen and Dundas as a way to revive business. Lowe believed Yonge Street suffered from a combination of competition from suburban shopping centres, inadequate parking, and the decision to build direct links between the subway and the two major department stores at Queen Street (Eaton’s and Simpsons).
By August 1970, the will was present among city councillors who believed the city’s streets required reorientation toward its citizens. Council’s public works committee unanimously established a subcommittee to plan a temporary pedestrian mall along Yonge. The guiding force was Alderman William Archer, who was once described as “a man deliriously in love with the city.”
The inaugural zone, scheduled to run for a week starting on May 30, 1971, stretched from Albert Street (now the Eaton Centre entrance next to Baton Rouge) to Adelaide Street. Amenities ranged from tree planters to a honky tonk piano anyone could play. While most merchants looked forward to increased foot traffic, there were exceptions. Simpsons, which never fully warmed to the concept, feared the mall’s effect on business and car congestion.
The mall was an immediate hit. Up to 60,000 visitors were estimated to walked through on day one, many ready to sing the mall’s praises. “People pollution is better than car pollution,” an Anglican minister told the Globe and Mail. “Trees are growing in Yonge St. and there’s not a negative sigh to be heard,” the Telegram observed, “except perhaps from several thousand first-day visitors to Toronto’s four-block mall who kept wondering: ‘Why not up to Gerrard… Why not all the way to Bloor… Why not forever?’”
Visitors especially embraced the novelty of drinking beer on a sidewalk patio. “Believe me,” Bruce West observed, “it’s going to take a while before every customer sitting right out having a drink in a Toronto sidewalk café is going to be able to really relax and enjoy himself without vaguely resembling one of those wartime Londoners trying to look nonchalant while keeping at least one ear cocked for the sound of buzz-bombs.” The opportunity to drink in the open drew lineups deep into the night at the Colonial Tavern. Due to restrictions requiring the serving of food, Colonial management had to bring in meals from Shopsy’s Deli to stay open. Though Diana Sweets closed early on the first day when it ran out of food, mall traffic produced the most profitable day in its 45-year history.
Lunchtime diners who couldn’t score a patio seat could order a takeaway box lunch or pizza from Eaton’s, or enjoy a “Monte Frank” (a hollowed-out French stick filled with a giant hot dog) from Woolworths. “It may never take the place of the Sunday picnic,” the Telegram reported, “but the work week is being enlivened for most Yonge Street workers who are following a city-wide trend toward outdoor eating.” Meals on the run could be accompanied by a stop at the fashion shows outside Eaton’s, where the crowd urged swimwear models to strip all the way down.
Adjusting to the absence of cars took time. “It’s funny to watch the people still cross with the lights in the pedestrian lane and in many instances sidewalks, even though they have the freedon of the whole street,” observed police constable Robert Peddie. “I guess it’s force of habit.” City workers and merchants noticed the lack of litter, as if visitors ensured the manicured street stayed in good condition for all to enjoy. “This kind of open air setup seems to bring out the best in people, “ Loblaws produce supervisor Brian Keho noted after checking the pristine state of his outdoor fruit display. “Even banana peelings and apple cores were carefully put in receptacles.” Loblaws was among the merchants who enjoyed one benefit of the crowds: less shoplifting. Merchants appreciated increased foot traffic, though results varied—some reported a tripling in sales, others saw little more than extra window shopping.
Cyclists embraced the mall, with more than 500, including future governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, staging an opening day ride from Queen’s Park. According to the Telegram, the cyclists “exchanged tips on cycle styles, looked down sanctimoniously at passing cars and discussed ideal weather and equipment for their non-polluting sport.” Throughout the week, Pollution Probe sponsored a free pancake breakfast to riders who dropped by Yonge Street.
The convenience of an already closed-off street made the mall ideal for celebrations when Premier William Davis announced the cancellation of the Spadina Expressway on June 3, 1971. That day, Davis praised the mall for the opportunity it gave Torontonians to take control of their streets. That night, a snake dance wound through the crowds on Yonge amid shouts of “You can beat City Hall” and “We’ve won.”
As politicians and the press praised the mall, cautious voices emerged. While Mayor William Dennison was pleased by the compliments he received while strolling the mall, he downplayed suggestions to make it permanent. He doubted proper legislation to close Yonge year-round would ever be approved by Queen’s Park, which controlled the ability to create such zones via expropriation rules under the Expropriation Act. He preferred to look at nearby side streets like Lombard or Temperance. He also wondered if enthusiasm would dim when the novelty wore off. Dennison also believed that the underground mall system under development would suit pedestrian needs just fine. Police chief Harold Adamson feared the mall was the “tail of a tiger” that would persuade merchants elsewhere downtown to request further street closures, producing traffic chaos. Metro Toronto traffic commissioner Sam Cass reminded people the mall was an experiment, and wanted to wait until it was over to draw conclusions regarding its effect on traffic.
On the mall’s final day, an impromptu parade was led by city councillors William Kilbourn (playing harmonica) and David Rotenberg (accompanying on trashcan lid). “The mall concept is the best thing that ever happened to Toronto,” Kilbourn noted. “We’ve just got to have another mall next year—only for a month or more. Just look what it has done to the downtown core of the city.” The Globe and Mail agreed with Kilbourn’s sentiments. “The mall’s total effect was greater than the sum of its potted trees, benches, outdoor pubs and open space,” the paper reflected. “It showed in little things like the way people walked…Once on the mall, they slowed—a bit of euphoria.”
Newspapers agreed with Kilbourn, though they also suggested other streets better suited for permanent pedestrian zones. The usual suspects on these lists included Yorkville Avenue (existing retail base, too narrow to handle cars well, decreased hippie population), Markham Street (growth of Mirvish Village, though problems with nearby residents irritated by its development were foreseen), Elizabeth Street (the heart of the era’s Chinatown), and Kensington Market.
Merchants and politicians quickly pressed for a second Yonge Street Mall that summer. Despite his pride in the first one, William Archer felt there wasn’t enough time to plan another without rushing. He was nearly alone among municipal officials in objecting to the approval of a pedestrian zone in the heart of the Yonge strip between Dundas and Gerrard. Scheduled to run for a week starting on August 13, 1971, the second mall would tie into a new Mardi Gras-inspired downtown festival, Carnival Toronto.
Archer’s concerns were justified. Problems with set-up delayed its opening. Visitors complained the park-like atmosphere of the first mall was replaced by a rowdy midway vibe of blaring speakers, crass commercialism, panhandlers, rowdies, and overpriced beer. In many ways, the problems of this incarnation foreshadowed what eventually doomed the concept.
A week after the second mall closed, another week-long pilot project launched. Elizabeth Street between Dundas and Nathan Phillips Square was transformed into Dragon Mall, a celebration of the local Chinese community. With proceeds funding a seniors residence, the streetscape included phone booths remodelled to resemble pagodas and a “Teahouse of the Celestial Dragon.” Regarded as positively as the first Yonge Street Mall, plans were made to install semi-permanent fixtures for future editions.
Despite complaints from suburban Metro councillors about their carnival atmosphere being embarrassing to such a prim and proper region, both the Yonge Street Mall and Dragon Mall returned for longer engagements in 1972. On Yonge, the mall was split into two sections (Albert to Adelaide and Dundas to Gerrard) which would join together during the August long weekend. Archer hoped to tone down the commercialism and the overwhelming amount of entertainment deployed the previous year. “We allow food, but that’s all,” he told the Star. “If you have people hawking sunglasses and whatever on the mall, you change the whole character of the place… The purpose of the mall is people.”
While requests to physically extend the mall increased, Archer listed reasons why this wouldn’t happen. Though some merchants wanted to run it up to Bloor Street, Archer noted hurdles like additional approvals from Queen’s Park, availability of landscaping materials, and a more complex street grid. As for a permanent Yonge Street Mall, no one figured that would be possible until construction of the Eaton Centre finished.
By 1973, signs pointed to the novelty factor wearing off. Members of the Downtown Business Council wanted merchants to make compulsory financial contributions instead of voluntarily, which had spurred accusations of freeloading. Pamphleteering by groups ranging from religious cults to body rub parlours was deemed a nuisance and banned for a year. Visitors complained about excessive panhandling from buskers and vagrants. A report by 52 Division recommended that the mall not operate north of Shuter Street to avoid the increasing sketchiness of that stretch and its related policing issues.
Criticisms gathered momentum throughout 1974. “This summer,” a Star editorial stated, “may be the critical time for the experiment. If the begging and pestering and brawling increase, the pressure to discontinue the mall may become irresistible.” The mall’s opening was delayed by over a week due to footdragging from Queen’s Park. When the province finally gave its approval, it declared that 1974 would be the last year it would exempt Ontario cities from claims of damage or lost business due to pedestrian malls from businesses and individuals. It also denied permission to maintain limits on pamphleteering.
“It is keeping with our policy of strengthening local government to assume that the municipal corporation should be held responsible for its actions,” read the letter Mayor David Crombie received from Minister of Treasury, Economics and Intergovernmental Affairs John White. Apart from Ottawa’s Sparks Street Mall (whose exemption was built into the City of Ottawa Act), this discouraged other cities from running pedestrian malls. Later speculation pointed some of the blame for the province’s action on the influence of those behind developments like the Eaton Centre.
Soon after the Yonge Street Mall opened, Dragon Mall was scrapped after $20,000 set aside for it was transferred to Yonge. Budget Chief Art Eggleton claimed that the Chinatown Business Association preferred investigating permanent pedestrian solutions for Elizabeth Street instead of temporary malls. As the heart of Chinatown moved west to Spadina Avenue, this idea never came to fruition.
Back on Yonge, the bad press continued. Merchants fretted about crime affecting their business. Some stories published at the time stretched the credulity of later studies on the mall, such as a Star piece declaring an invasion of American prostitutes. Hare Krishna adherents were arrested for being a nuisance. A drunk driver nearly killed several pedestrians during a wild ride through the mall. Police hinted the situation was growing out of control, the limited access affecting their patrolling ability. As 52 Division head Thomas Cooke put it, the mall was a great idea, but its location was “a headache before, and the mall just compounds it.”
The Sun’s Bruce Blackadar visited one Friday night to investigate the claims. He found buskers playing Mozart on French horns, a Frisbee competition, and a choir praising Jesus. “The thought hits you that you’re more likely to be saved on the mall than lured into damnation,” he observed.
Star columnist Dennis Braithwaite also tried to remain positive about the humanity of the mall:
The Yonge St. Mall at 3 o’clock in the morning may be the final scene of our fretful civilization; but at least something’s happening there. The decadence is real, not contrived by an ad agency. That, I believe, is why our square civic politicians instinctively vote for a mall year after year in the face of police warnings that thereby they are sponsoring Sodom and Gomorrah, downtown.
A York County grand jury disagreed. In early August 1974, it ruled “the Yonge Street mall is a blot on Toronto.” As it had become “a crime centre for drug pushing, prostitution and a myriad other illegal activities,” it recommended it be killed.
The Globe and Mail was also ready to see the mall die:
It wasn’t just that some of the mall’s denizens were sleazy this year, the mall itself was. After all the debate over whether the mall would even continue, no one seemed very interested in trying to repeat the thoroughness of the first two years. Dumping a few tawdry trees and some dirty benches on a street does not constitute a mall. The wrangle between the provincial and municipal governments over who controls littering and soliciting hasn’t helped much either…The unpleasant characteristics that parts of the street have developed over the past few years were bound to have some effect on the experiment—you can’t have Eden in front of a pornographic movie house.
Everyone breathed easier when a TTC strike became the pretext to shut the mall down on August 13, 1974, two weeks ahead of schedule. Alderman David Smith, the mall’s coordinator, admitted that the closure was more psychological than practical: “Most people feel that the time you have a TTC strike is not a time when you have a mall.” Archer, still championing the project, felt city administrators had panicked.
Several months later, in November 1974, a feasibility study compiled by a group of consultants and planners called City People offered 13 recommendations. It called for a permanent Yonge Street Mall, initially stretching from Wellington to Queen, then up to Dundas upon the completion of the Eaton Centre. A “semi-mall” was proposed between Dundas and College so that two lanes were available to emergency vehicles to head into the most problematic portion of the strip. The report argued that, unlike cities where pedestrian malls failed, Yonge Street had the right mix of offices, shopping and transportation to make a mall viable. It could also protect what remained of commercial businesses, which faced the problems of blockbusting (landlords forcing out established merchants, bringing in adult businesses while sitting on land ripe for future projects) and the construction of the underground pedestrian system which evolved into PATH. Levels of crime weren’t as high as other pedestrian malls that were studied, and it was felt both press and police were careless in spreading negative notions about Yonge Street (though the report also declared that “the place for sex merchants is not on the main street of Toronto”).
In February 1975, Eggleton and Smith announced the Yonge Street Mall would not return, noting it was too late to plead with the province for the proper legislation. While proposals for a permanent pedestrian zone periodically appeared, the city’s focus shifted to investigating methods of cleaning up the seediness which increased after the Yonge Street Mall’s demise.
The notion of a partial or full pedestrian mall along Yonge Street or other major arteries lingers on, through the work of groups like Open Streets TO and summer lane closures. “Yonge is quintessentially the street—not a road—that belongs to all Torontonians,” John Barber wrote in a “Big Idea” piece for the Star in 2014. “It is our original public space and rebuilding it from the bottom up will become the signature project of a new, green Toronto.”
Additional material from The Yonge Street Mall: A Feasibility Study (Toronto: The City People Community Planning and Research Inc., 1974); the May 31, 1971, June 4, 1971, June 7, 1971, July 17, 1971, August 17, 1971, February 22, 1972, July 7, 1973, September 3, 1973, July 27, 1974, August 6, 1974, August 13, 1974, and April 15, 2004 editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 31, 1971, June 1, 1971, August 13, 1971, August 21, 1971, August 28, 1971, August 1, 1972, November 9, 1973, June 29, 1974, July 19, 1974, August 3, 1974, August 8, 1974, and April 20, 2014 editions of the Toronto Star; the July 19, 1974, July 25, 1974, July 28, 1974, and August 15, 1974 editions of the Toronto Sun; and the May 31, 1971, June 1, 1971, June 2, 1971, June 3, 1971, and June 7, 1971 editions of the Telegram.