May 18th, 2022
Beaches Living Guide Fall/Winter 2016

Yonge Street

Fun Fact:
Neither the city (or Upper Canada) had a “highway department” when land was first cleared to make so Governor John Graves Simcoe asked that settlers spend 12 days a year to clear the road of logs and forced convicted drunks to remove the stumps!


Toronto’s First “Hot”

Music Hub Ask a teenager about Yonge Street and they might tell you about a concert they attended at Yonge Dundas Square. For everyone older, they might tell you how they used to buy “records” at Sam the Record Man during the famous boxing day sales, or when they visited the area even though their parents warned them about its moral dangers!

A Very Long History

Without a doubt, Yonge Street has had a colourful history. At its beginnings in 1796, John Graves Simcoe, founder of Toronto and Provincial governor of Upper Canada, built the initial portion of Yonge Street as protection against war. There was fear of an American invasion and a road would give troops access to the northern Great Lakes. The street was named after Sir George Yonge, British Secretary of War.

The street continued to grow in length. Yonge Street reached Muskoka by 1850. In the 1950s, it was linked to the Trans Canada Highway and after 1,896 kilometres; it ends at Rainy River at the US border. The Guinness Book of Records used to list Yonge St as the longest street in the world but the record was dropped in 1999 because of the turn the road now takes at Highway 11.

From Dry Goods Shop to Retail Hub

As Yonge Street developed, so did the city around it. In 1869, a young entrepreneur Timothy Eaton revolutionized Canadian shopping by setting up a small dry goods and haberdashery shop at 178 Yonge Street, where Starbucks is located today. The store had a refund policy and no credit haggling policies that were unknown at the time in retail – making Yonge Street a new commercial hub for the city.

Yonge Street also became home of the city’s very first subway line, the biggest collection of neon lights in the city, the famous Yonge Street Arcade, and today, one of the most spectacular indoor malls – the Eaton Centre.

Our First Music Hub

In many ways, Yonge Street has always represented the diversity and acceptance of Toronto. The St. Charles Tavern, for example, was known as one of the city’s first gay bar in the 1960s, which helped hasten the development of gay social life. Black rhythm and blues groups from the U.S. used to come up in the 60s to do a few gigs, some suggesting it not only provided an added chance to perform but also an escape from the racial tensions back home.

Yonge Street also accepted the new musical artists of the time, and thereby, played a major part in the development of Toronto’s pop music industry. Gordon Lightfoot, David Clayton Thomas and Neil Young got their start on stages on Yonge and a short walk away in Yorkville.

The Blue Note (northwest corner of Yonge and Walton) became the hotspot for the local R&B scene and performers, such as Stevie Wonder, would show up at Yonge Street bars after playing at big venues such as Maple Leaf Gardens. It’s also not surprising that Canada’s largest music retailer, Sam the Record Man, had its main store on Yonge Street for over 48 years, as well as A&As, another iconic record store.

Scrubbing Yonge Street Clean

By the early 1980s, efforts were underway to “scrub Yonge Street clean”. Adult shops and massage parlours, were closed and steps taken to address the litter, drug dealers, safety concerns, illegal vending, etc. Around the same time, plans began for a new indoor shopping mall – the “new” Eaton Centre.

The Time Square of Toronto

At the same time plans were underway to create Yonge Dundas Square to host community celebrations, theatrical events, promotions, and concerts. Opened in 2002, today it is one of the city’s newest urban spaces, with a raised stage and 22 computer-programmed fountains. Yonge Street south of Bloor still creates an exciting vibe, with bright lights, edgy shops, the latest in music, fashion and technology in the many shops – both large and small. Dundas Square has become a definite gathering place and the Eaton Centre no longer feels imposed on the area. You can still spend a day, shop for thigh high leather boots, see a movie, enjoy a burger, attend a rock concert or the theatre, and still have time to browse the many shops on this marvelous – and still dramatic and colourful street!

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