Motels Along Kingston Road Tell The Story of Scarborough
No Vacancy exhibit shows the evolution of Toronto.
If you’ve ever driven along Kingston Road in Scarborough, you’ve probably seen them. Motels, dotted between the small restaurants and big box stores that line the street. For many Torontonians, they may blend into the background of the area, part of the everyday suburban landscape. But these motels hint at the rich history of Kingston Road and the ways that the city’s built heritage is being adapted for current needs.
No Vacancy, an art exhibit at Scarborough Arts held as part of Myseum of Toronto’s 2017 Intersections Festival, tells the story of Kingston Road, of the motels, and of Scarborough itself.
The exhibit is a combination of archival images and contemporary works by local artists curated by Alyssa Fearon. Fearon grew up near Kingston Road and says some of her earliest memories are of the motels on the strip flashing by as she sat in the backseat of her parents’ car. Scarborough Arts approached her with the idea of focusing on the Kingston Road motels for an exhibit. With the help of long-time Scarborough archivist Rick Schofield, Fearon started digging into the history of her childhood neighbourhood. What she found was a fascinating microcosm of the evolution of the city.
When Toronto was still a small city by the lake, Kingston Road was the main travel route from the city to Kingston and beyond. In the 1830s, taverns and inns were built along the road between Toronto and the then-separate city of Scarborough for people moving goods back and forth. As the road was improved and eventually covered in gravel, more hotels popped up to accommodate travellers.
As cars became the dominant mode of transportation in North America, the old hotels were torn down and replaced by modern motels. Post-war, family vacations and road trips became more common, and the motels on Kingston Road were bustling. But then came the 401 and the Don Valley Parkway. By the 1980s, the traffic on Kingston Road had dwindled and the motels weren’t drawing in tourists.
Since then, the motels that have remained have been used as overflow from the city’s shelter system or as transitional housing for newcomers to Canada. Sex workers also frequently rent rooms, and the occasional tourist still spends the night. Fearon says many people from Scarborough may be familiar with the names of the motels, but not know their history or what they are still doing on what is mainly a local road today. “In part, I’m demystifying, but also just showing how the space has evolved and how it serves many purposes for many different types of people,” she says.
Alongside archival photographs of the old hotels and old postcards of the motels in their heyday, Fearon has also displayed pieces from Sandra Brewster, Curtia Wright, and Nadijah Robinson. She chose these three because their work touches on themes of migration and displacement, and because they were all women of colour. “There aren’t always spaces for women of colour to show work and I really wanted to prioritize that,” Fearon says.
On Saturday, March 18, Myseum organized a bus trip out to the Bluffs Gallery to get a tour of the exhibit. Fearon explained the history of Kingston Road and introduced a video, which included footage of the motels and of an interview Fearon did with a local poet who used to accompany sex workers to the motels to make sure they were safe. One of the visitors, Diana Opolski, accompanied by her dog, Spike, had a personal connection to the exhibit. Her parents used to own the Merry Macs motel on the strip and she had fond memories of growing up there in the 70s. “I had four bathing suits, because I swam in the pool so often,” she says, describing the motel and grounds of her childhood as a “personal Disneyland.”
The exhibit space also featured a map of the area painted across a whole wall. Visitors wrote six-word stories (although some participants chose a different word count) and stuck them to the wall, as part of the My City My Six project. Some were simple (like, “This is home,” or “I work here”), while others were more enigmatic (like, “Memories here with you last summer”).
Curtia Wright, one of the artists included in the exhibit, spoke to the visitors on Saturday about her paintings. Her pieces in No Vacancy were painted in 2015, but feature neon motel signs. She says she was inspired by the beautiful signs and pastel colours of the motel era, but also by the mystery of these spaces. She juxtaposes them in her work with Black faces in the foreground. The people look uncomfortable, shaded, or deformed, she says, because it’s a reflection of how “your assumptions make them an alien body.”
The exhibit runs until March 31 at the Scarborough Arts Bluffs Gallery, Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be a panel discussion on March 30 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Torontoist has recommended other must-see Intersections events and exhibits, including a film and a storytelling event that highlight queer history in the city.