10 ways Toronto used to be more seedy than it is today

Seedy Toronto can still be seen in certain corners of the city, but on the whole this is a place that's been highly sanitized over the last 30 years.

The motels are mostly gone, pawn shops are dying and the strip club's days are numbered. Will anybody mourn these soon-to-be-extinct species? Not so much. Perhaps we can agree that the character they provided our streetscape will be missed.

Here are 10 ways that Toronto used to be more seedy than it is today.

Strip clubs could be found everywhere

Toronto isn't bereft of strip clubs, but you used to find a whole lot more of them around town and in areas you might not expect. T

he wonderfully named Cheaters drew the ire of Yonge and Davisville residents throughout the '80s, but it was just one of hundreds of adult bars littered across the city. Today there are fewer than 20.

toronto seedy history

Everything was filthy

I mean this quite literally. When the city was run on coal, our buildings were covered in a thick layer of soot that made red brick appear brown and that gave Toronto a generally gritty look, particularly downtown.

The TTC featured a lot more graffiti

Back in the early 1980s, the state of some TTC stations was surprisingly poor. I know we tend to complain about the littlest things these days, but when the original Vitrolite tiles were coming apart at downtown stations back then, the platforms seemed like prime places for spray paint. Broken windows, they say...

toronto seedy history

Porn theatres were still a thing

The Metro Theatre, Toronto's last movie house dedicated to pornographic films, shut its doors for good at the end of 2013, drawing to a close a period when people would actually leave their homes to watch such things. Well, in fairness, it was never really just about watching.

Rumours of the Cherry Beach Express abounded

This was a powerful urban legend, most likely because it was founded in reality. According to the anecdotal accounts (and more than one song), the Toronto police would take perps down to Cherry Beach to rough them up.

Then in 1996 Thomas Kerr, a homeless man, alleged he was assaulted by police here. He ultimately won a $750,000 settlement from the force.

toronto seedy history

Yonge St. was alive with sex, drugs, and music

While not all the seediness has been extinguished from Yonge St., the process is very much underway. Between the 1950s and '80s, however, the sinful strip experienced its heyday. Littered with hotels, live music venues, movie theatres, sex shops, and strip clubs, it was a den for sleaze and illegal activity.

It was actually dangerous to walk around at night in some neighbourhoods

The flip side to Yonge Street's seediness is that it was legitimately dangerous, a fact dramatically and tragically driven home by the death of Emmanuel Jacques in 1977, but it wasn't the only area of the city that was overtly dangerous.

Both Moss Park and Regent Park had terrible reputations in the 1970s, but a far longer list could be written.

toronto seedy history

Grindhouse theatres were dens of iniquity

In addition to porn theatres, Toronto's grindhouse cinemas were places where all sorts of people down on their luck could while away a day drinking wine that tasted like pure ethanol, getting high, and (maybe!) watching B-movies of the most kitschy kind. We shall never forget the Rio.

There was neon everywhere

The relationship between neon and seediness requires little explication (from late night diners to strip clubs to shimmering rent-rooms-by-the-hour hotel signs), and Toronto sure had a lot of neon up until the mid 1980s. This is one bit of seediness that I dearly miss.

toronto seedy history

Motels could be found in plentiful supply on the outskirts of the city

I couldn't write a post on seedy Toronto without offering a reminder that motel culture was once alive and well in this city. While a few of these remain in Scarborough, their pure seediness has been eclipsed by the survival instincts of those who call them home.

Not so in the 1970s and '80s, when they were havens for extramarital affairs, criminal plotting, and drug deals.

Lead photo by

Jack Landau

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