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The story of the first Yonge Street pedestrian mall

Posted by Guest Contributor / March 18, 2011

Yonge Street Pedestrian Mall 1970sAs we wrote about yesterday, there's talk of bringing a pedestrian mall back to Yonge Street. If such a plan materializes, it'd mark the second time that the street has been used in such a capacity. So what happened with the first experiment? Originally submitted as a geography assignment at U of T, Astrid Idlewild and Duncan Taylor tell the story of the time "When Queen's Park smothered Toronto's Yonge."

In summer 1971, the City of Toronto conducted a public spacing experiment: close Yonge Street to vehicle traffic and open it to pedestrian access, open-air caf├ęs, street musician performances, and independent vendors. Under Mayor David Crombie's municipal government, City Council expressed concern with the lack of "open spaces" inside the "Core," or central business district.

Unlike other North American cities contemplating street malls, Yonge Street Mall wasn't intended as an economic stimulus (Yonge was doing quite well already). Rather, given high pedestrian activity in a just completed Commerce Court Square (at King and Bay Streets), the City identified a need to increase the ratio of open public space in the Core; the most affordable way to do this was to open a street Mall.

The Mall was a summer-only space: it premiered for two weeks in 1971; expanded to eleven weeks in 1972 & 1973; and eight weeks in 1974.

It varied slightly each year, but it was generally the 1.3-kilometre stretch between Wellington St. (on the south) and Gerrard St. (on the north). Each major intersection enabled east-west vehicle traffic to cross.

Bay St., Yorkville Ave., and Elizabeth St. were evaluated, but Yonge Street won out in 1970. It was chosen due to its ready TTC subway accessibility and its familiarity to both residents and tourists.

Acclaim for the Mall in 1971 was emphatic. The Mall Project found in their year-by-year surveys that 78 percent of proprietors along the corridor rated it "good for business." 93 percent supported keeping the Mall running from two weeks to year-round -- broken down, approval was 88 percent of retailers; and 100 percent of eateries, financial services, entertainment, and personal service businesses.

But time tempered that cheerful timbre. By 1973, increased pedestrian activity drew greater awareness to criminalized activity -- namely, public intoxication, panhandling, prostitution, gay bashing, and leafletting for sex-related activity. Crombie's office recognized the need to manage municipal ownership to discourage these activities along the mall and prepared a request to the province to allow for that leverage. By 1974, merchant approval had dropped by half.

2011318-Yonge_Street_pedestrian_mall_in_Toronto.jpgIF SO SUCCESSFUL, THEN WHY DID THEY STOP IT?
Yonge Street was a road contained within an incorporated Toronto. For the Mall to become a permanent fixture, the Mayor's office first required approval from three tiers of government: City Council, Metropolitan Council, and the provincial legislature at Queen's Park. In 1974, both councils approved the Mall's permanent installation. Crombie then approached the province to request two minor, but pivotal exemptions from the province's Municipal Act: one, to protect the City from being sued by shopkeepers for liability damages related to the Mall; and two, to give the City authority to limit leafletting on the Mall without a municipally-issued permit.

As holder of that city corporation and favouring the interests of well-moneyed objectors (such as the Simpsons' and Eaton's families), Queen's Park declined to grant Crombie these exemptions from the Municipal Act. Without provincial support, the Mall was relegated to dissolution after 1974. Despite its shortcomings, the Mall enjoyed continued public support. Queen's Park, by asserting its constitutional control over Toronto, enforced how municipalities were beholden to the province, making them unable to assert leverage without first seeking approval. It vetted the notion that cities, even Canada's
largest, were still "creatures of the province".

2011318-yonge-mall.jpgWHERE DID THE STREET ACTIVITY GO?
Once the Mall closed, foot activity shifted slowly to the PATH underground tunnels (devised by property owners to create real estate in unused basements) and the Eaton Centre.

The Mall offers a comparative lesson to contrast against a modern-day, public-private partnership like Yonge-Dundas Square. At first, it seems unusual that the City scrapped the Mall idea entirely. Acquiring private space is a costly, protracted process involving approvals by multiple parties, expropriations, and pending real estate deals. Securing approval for razing buildings to construct a Square needed several years and political dealings; by comparison, the Mall was prepared in a short period of time.

But as Queen's Park's decision demonstrated, a public-driven, publicly-spaced initiative -- even when it smartly demonstrated a potent economic, social, and cultural engine for Toronto -- was off the table if they so chose, forcing the city to explore other measures that would not require provincial approval.

Writing by Astrid Idlewild and Duncan Taylor.

Photos (in order) from the Toronto Archives and Wikimedia Commons.



W. K. Lis / March 18, 2011 at 03:35 pm
I have been reading a book "Fighting Traffic, The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City" by Peter D. Norton. Roads were originally the playground for kids and thoroughfares for the pedestrian (sidewalks were to get up over the mud). Speed limits in the city for the few automobiles averaged around 10 mph up to before the 1920's. Jaywalking was an unknown word. If there was a collision between pedestrian and auto, the auto was always considered at fault. Over the decades, the automobile took over the roads and the pedestrians are now considered at fault when cars collide with them.
(.)(.) / March 18, 2011 at 03:38 pm
If car-centric cities like Calgary and Ottawaaaaaa can do this successfully, so can we.
Greg / March 18, 2011 at 03:45 pm
Fantastic post. I've wondered about this for years, but was too lazy to do the research. Can you imagine if the province hadn't acted so foolishly. Toronto's pedestrian culture might be very different today.
hendrix / March 18, 2011 at 03:55 pm
South Beach Miami has a permanent mall like this and it's amazing. The restaurants come "out" of their regular shops and have fenced in patios (not on the sidewalk, but in the middle where the road used to be -- waiters pass through pedestrian's walking along to get to the patios). They too still have crossover streets, but they don't prove to be much of a problem (and the lights are timed well for crossing). It's great.
Greg / March 18, 2011 at 04:02 pm
Really great post.

Lets hope the city decides to bring it back in some form. I think it would be a fantastic addition to downtown Toronto.
Bonk / March 18, 2011 at 04:42 pm
I have very vague memories of Yonge St. just days away from becoming a one way street south of Bloor in late summer 1988. In fact the signage was delivered along the route but something squashed it in the eleventh hour. Anyone else remember this?
scottd / March 18, 2011 at 04:48 pm
I remember this mall and pinning it on the Province is kind of lame myth making. The reality is that by the time it ended my family refused to let us go there as they deemed it dangerous and tawdry (parts of Yonge were already pretty gross). Of course there were turf battles and interests but the reason it died was because it lacked vision and became crappy. I also doubt the idea that everybody went to the dark dismal PATH (which was at that time not near) a place that most people did not know existed. By the way, of course I snuck back because it was bad ass not like the bland docile corporate shill fest that is Dundas Product Placement Square.
Astrid Idlewild, co-author / March 18, 2011 at 05:50 pm
scottd, while I will allow that the Mall's original incarnation in 1971 had by 1974 lost some of its lustre, a careful reading of the report prepared by The City People Community Planning & Research, Inc., will put this argument to rest. City People's book was published in November 1974 as <i>The Yonge Street Mall: A Feasibility Study.</i> The Toronto Reference Library might have a copy in their stacks, and the UofT is known to have one copy. The reading list used for this research is cited at the end of this comment.

What stuck out in that report was an electrostat page of a letter written on Queen's Park letterhead by a mid-level provincial bureaucrat (the name and rank were forgettable). It was addressed as a reply to Mayor Crombie, who had brought forth the proposal to amend two parts of the Municipal Act to help the city manage the control it had wanted from the onset of the Mall's public space park experiment.

While the decision meted by the province was a categorical rejection, it was impossible to ignore from the letter's wording and tone that no due respect was paid to Crombie as Toronto's mayor or municipal bearer of City and Metro Council's joint approval for these amendments. Rather, the bureaucrat spoke down to the mayor of this nation's largest city in a tone reminiscent of a school headmaster scolding a nine-year old child. It was something along the lines of, "Now Davey, you really should know better that your municipal request to regulate and issue licenses for leafletters is against our country's constitution for freedom of expression!"

As you read it, you get the aching sense that this was an "only in Canada" moment, and it was so succinctly emblematic of the failing of the "creature of the province" framework that hobbles our cities from exercising a regulatory authority over city limits otherwise enjoyed by American, European, Australian, and even many Asian cities.

The public's migration to the PATH was a slow and steady one. This did not occur overnight, but the privately invested ends of its creation was later validated by the Eaton Centre's development. As mentioned in the article, the Eaton and Simpson families objected to the explicitly <i>public</i> nature of the Mall from even before it was first tried in 1971. Their opposition alleged that it would both take away their own business and also attract a clientèle they did not want to see. Associations with <i>public</i> being equated with "dirty" is not new. So it makes sense that merchant surveys revealed during the first couple of summers that everyone but Eaton's and Simpson's were on board.

With the Eaton Centre and with Yonge-Dundas Square today, the "public" is controllable and regulated privately, because neither qualify as <i>public</i> spaces the way a park might. The Yonge Street Mall, by contrast, was simply a low-cost way to add a city park and give office workers a place to go outside for lunch or happy hour when no land to build a traditional park — like Berczy Park later became for the eastern core — was available.

[1] City People. (Nov. 1974). The Yonge Street Mall: A Feasibility Study. Toronto: The City People Community Planning & Research Inc.
[2] Harrold, David, et al. (1971). The Mall Project. Toronto: Allister Typesetting & Graphics.
[3] Turner, Peter & Swaine, Linda. (1974). East of Bay: A Report to the City of Toronto Planning Board. Toronto: East of Bay Working Group.
rosanne keen / March 18, 2011 at 06:02 pm
i loved this mall...i worked at bloor and yonge and thought it was the way a downtown should be,,,no cars allowed...
Kevo / March 18, 2011 at 07:28 pm
It'd be nice to see this come to fruition, even if not for the entire summer, for certain busy weeks - say the Canada Day/Civic Holiday long weekends in July and August. There's high pedestrian traffic and both times are generally well attended by out of town folks who, I'm sure, would appreciate the street like that.

On a side note, you'd think as one of the most decentralized federalist governments in the world the same would be true of the provincial government's relation with their cities, but it seems to be quite the opposite.
bob / March 18, 2011 at 09:39 pm
ah, the the provincial government was screwing us over even back then.
Adam Sobolak / March 18, 2011 at 10:50 pm
I'd wonder if a sinking conviction among urbanists that the 60s/70s craze for "malling" urban streets wasn't working out as planned also played a role--think of Sparks (and later Rideau) in Ottawa, or Granville in Vancouver, or St Joseph in Quebec's St-Roch district, or any number of US equivalents. And also consider a certain Jane Jacobs school of thought that advised against these self-conscious urban-mall conceits, i.e. let streets be streets...
Sean / March 19, 2011 at 07:27 am
Why not use the DVP?
Astrid Idlewild, co-author / March 19, 2011 at 08:37 am
Adam Sobolak, you raise a valid question. "Malling" as you put it was a "trend" in that period, and it can be seen in those places as well as Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, Westlake Square in Seattle, and so on. Part of this was attributed to revitalization as many central business districts were closing up while more people lived further away. The urbanist impetus for "malling" then was probably also attributed to the William Whyte study in 1971 regarding the use of public spaces in city cores as much as it was Jacobs.

Jacobs urged against self-conscious urban design interventions, yes. I think, however, it is safe to say in hindsight that the Yonge Street Mall was not any more self-conscious than that of cheaply and quickly opening a place for people working in offices. It wasn't accompanied by permanent or landscape "starchitect" interventions, nor was it sponsored by private interests. It was a convertible public park.

Sean, we should probably not use the DVP, because the DVP is not a short walk out of any downtown office building for grab a break, a coffee, or a lunch and going al fresco. The creation of a green way park on the DVP, at least for now, is not a place where people at work can quickly step onto and then return to their origin. This is, I think, the fallacy of that idea. It might work in an American city where elevated pierced through a core's centre, such as New York or Boston. The Gardiner technically would be a more viable candidate, but making a green way of it would be most beneficial to those office and condo towers within a 2–3 minute walk. That would probably limit anything north of King.
sanford / March 19, 2011 at 12:10 pm
that looks amazing! it would be great fun and good for local business for sure.
Adam Sobolak / March 19, 2011 at 07:56 pm
As you say, malling was a trend--but the *failure* of malling was also a trend; though a lot of that was due to deeper changes in retail and urban-decorum habits. So, the end of the Yonge St Mall experiment might have been seen as a preemptive measure, perhaps fueled by what Yonge was actually becoming in the 70s--maybe it's a chicken-and-egg situation here. (In this context, it may also be worth examining the crypto-mallesque street improvements along Yonge a decade later: the concrete information pylons, the chess tables and canvas shelters at Yonge + Gould, etc)
greg / March 26, 2011 at 09:53 am
I remember going there as well. There were a lot of Hari Krishna
kids wandering around and as I was only 11 or 12 I found them somewhat intimidating....
But we tried to avoid them and have some fun.
Great post. I've posted a link to your site on my site.
Elfie replying to a comment from Astrid Idlewild, co-author / March 29, 2011 at 05:52 pm
I really enjoyed this piece I feel Yonge Street is really losing its once charming downtown. Perhaps bringing the mall back could revitalize it. I spent two years reseaching Yonge Street. If you'd like to have a look here's a link:
fahFaimahor / March 30, 2011 at 01:00 pm
All the same blog design is important, and here's how not cool, but even with fiziologichskoy terms agreeable to read text on a white background, surrounded by a pleasant path. Of course, the brightness is needed, but that person comes to a site not in order to spend the 5 seconds, since he wants to read something - someone new, who comments on blogs to view. I too sometimes because of comments back. to look to what the people there draw some. There are so develop the theme that the sheet obtained. Swing. Sorry. yet.
B. Ross Ashley / August 10, 2012 at 11:16 pm
For a couple of months in 1973 I was night manager at Time Square Books, and I can tell you that parts of the mall were really sleazy ... but the sleaze did not come from the fact of the mall, and it did not go away when the mall did. Ah, the memories: drunks, shoplifters, pervs, underage hookers; selling borderline porn, military history, science fiction, mysteries and Westerns ... it was an interesting place and time to work.
Oleg Alec Bachlow / August 16, 2012 at 05:27 pm
Those warm nights..Rick and Cliff...and I would set up in "The Hole" - My big jumbo guitar and Cliff with his harps..most of the time were were a trio - pumping strong ballads and a tough no nonsense blues...We got down into this basement store front ...which was like a huge natural speaker and play...The money would rain down.

There was enough to pay the rent- eat and have a wonderful time being young...Later Cliff went on to lobby the TTC- for the right to play in the subways...That was the start of live music in the subway system...Yes- The Mall...sometimes we played ground level and a hundred American tourists would gather.....WE WERE STREET GODS....
George / October 19, 2013 at 08:45 pm
I was in Toronto in 1972 to see the Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens and for the Mariposa Folk Festival out on the island. Yonge was a pedestrian mall and for the forty years since I have always remembered it that way. This website is Toronto's history and my link to a very cool and exciting time in my life. Nineteen was the fucking shits for a Western New York small town hick in a big foreign city. I'll treasure the memories forever.
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Citizen13 / April 13, 2014 at 07:32 am
I remember fondly the Younge Street Mall, my buddies and I came up from Windsor a couple years in a row (probably 73/74) just to be part of it. As young hippies it was a chance to "party down" in the big city. Loved the atmosphere, the music, the food and the sense of freedom. Also remember it brought out some crazy people and it felt like it was getting dangerous in some areas as night fell.

Would it work now? Times were different then, and I'm sure it would never be the same, too regulated, too commercial, and Toronto is a darker place theses days. Our spaces have been taking over by cars, and far future generations will wonder how we could have lived like this. Sigh.
MH replying to a comment from Citizen13 / July 25, 2014 at 05:04 pm
"Toronto is darker place these days"? Hardly. What about the infamous Emanuel Jaques murder on Yonge Street in 1977? Have you forgotten that Yonge Street in the 70's was a stretch of body-rub parlours, strip clubs and porno theatres? If anything, a pedestrian mall like this would likely work better today since Yonge is nowhere near as seedy as it was back then.
Eve Lyons / July 28, 2014 at 04:36 pm
In the early 1970's they did this in Ottawa to Sparks Street. It is still closed to traffic but is also close to being a ghost street. Few businesses are there and nothing is open on weekends.
MH / August 18, 2014 at 01:41 pm
Short clip of Burke Street pedestrian mall in Melbourne. So much for the argument that these pedestrian zones are damaging to business or create a "ghost street". Quite the contrary in fact. As anyone who has experienced these areas in a major city, they add tremendously to the character and quality of life of the urban core.;
MH / August 18, 2014 at 01:43 pm
Bourke Street mall.
Stephen Colley / May 30, 2015 at 12:50 am
I was 21 in 1974 and was working at a summer job in Pennsylvania far from my Texas home. We would take extended weekend trips and the best one was the one where we went to see Toronto. It was the first visit to Canada for me and my wife and we soon found Yonge Street mall. A city help line found us a room at a dorm at a college there that was renting rooms much like a hotel during the summer break. Yonge Street was an unbelievably amazing place. The bars and massage parlors added a certain touch of danger, but mixed in with the music, street performers, restaurants, gift shops, and very friendly and fun loving people all about, it was an experience I'll never forget and have not been able to experience anything quite like that since. I had no idea I was experiencing something that was about to come to an end. I'll always remember Toronto as Yonge Street summer 1974. It was really something else.
Erik / October 3, 2015 at 08:37 am
Ah, back when Yonge St still had character. It is such a cold and desolate place now compared to the 70's and 80's. It used to be a big street party every weekend, with stores open past midnight, and crowds of people just on the street having fun. Yes, there was ONE porn theatre, 3 grind houses, and a couple of strip joints. But there was clubs and bars and tons of live music. Lots of great restaurants. No end of cool stores or trendy boutiques. It was THE destination in Toronto back then to just go walk around and enjoy the energy of the city. Sadly, Yonge Street is pretty well dead now, and nothing has replaced it.
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