Yonge Times Square

New York City’s Times Square of the 1970’s, up until the 1990’s, was – in a word – seedy.

It was a place of peep shows, adult book stores, bars and various other transitive businesses. It was a place families avoided, wanting to avoid awkward questions which were inevitably forthcoming from young children. Times Square was one of the final bastions of ‘dirty old New York’; standing defiantly like the Alamo of midtown Manhattan.

Around the 1990’s, initiatives began to ‘clean up’ Times Square, and ‘undesirable’ businesses were pushed out, important landmarks were reclaimed, and flagship stores began to emerge.

Today, Times Square is a wholly different place. No longer bathed in the guilty neon glow of adult theatre marquees and head shop windows, the area is now a tableau of urban bustle, blinding LED light so ubiquitous that even darkness has been priced out of midtown. The city that never sleeps possesses an omnipresent nightlight.

But what is Times Square now really? A monument to urban renewal, or a gaudy altar to consumerism?

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Photo: Instagram (@casty18)

Yonge/Dundas Square has been seeing a similar pattern, as has much of Yonge Street through the downtown core. Gone is the kitsch of the spinning neon records atop Sam the Record Man, now replaced by a glass and steel monolith . The square itself perpetually bathed in 15-storey tall brand messaging.

Walking north on Yonge Street, just past College, one cannot mistake the number of boarded up storefronts and scaffoldings which have popped up in the last few months. In one case, an entire city block (Alexander Street to Maitland Street) is completely boarded up, and slated for demolition. The 1960s built split level retail/office which had for so long been home to businesses which seemed to change monthly, will simply no longer be.

What is largely absent from Times Square is what is also largely absent from Yonge/Dundas Square: something unique to the city. While Times Square was a celebration of New York City, now it is a celebration of advertising agencies and international brands; the rents are simply too high for the average independent business, so few (if any) local businesses get to participate in the white-light bazaar.

Now, Yonge/Dundas is facing the same reality, and the creep north along Yonge Street is well underway. Once it reaches Bloor Street, and Yorkville, Yonge risks losing anything resembling a unique identity, as what was drowns in a sea of logos. Yorkville, once a bustling and unique artist area, has seen eclectic and funky shops replaced by Cartier and Prada along the famous ‘Mink Mile’.

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Photo: Yonge Street at Bloor. Instagram (@casty18)

The reality of Yonge Street, between Dundas and Bloor Streets, is that it is experiencing the last gasping breaths of whatever made Yonge Street Yonge Street. Future generations will never know it as anything but a long strip of sushi restaurants, boutiques and ‘for lease’ signs.

Is Yonge Street beautiful presently? Yes. The patchwork of businesses and architecture styles create a quilt that tells the story of Yonge Street over the years, and does so without prejudice. Remnants of decades past adorn Yonge Street like medals of honour; it is where weathered brick and polished glass can – and should – exist harmoniously to tell the story of Toronto then, as well as Toronto now.

What few jewels of century architecture remain will, once the renewal is complete, be too expensive to be enjoyed publicly, and less of downtown Toronto will be public than ever before. Bit by bit, we are losing our connection to our architectural history as the old gives way to the new.

As a result, Toronto loses a little more of what makes it unique as it becomes ‘the same as everywhere else’, and less of it becomes accessible to everyone else.