The 225th birthday of Yonge St. is just around the corner, which brings with it the opportunity to look at the history and people of Ontario’s oldest Yonge St.
While the exact age of Yonge is hard to determine, John Graves Simcoe arrived in what is now Toronto’s harbourfront sometime in October of 1793. This date was determined by letters gathered by F.R. Berchem in his book The Yonge Street Story.
The idea that Yonge was the longest street in the world came from what seemed to be a continuation of Yonge on Highway 11. If Yonge and Highway 11 were one and the same, the road would be more than 1800 kilometres long.
This, however, is not the case. It is not quite clear where Yonge ends, but it has been conclusively said that Yonge and Highway 11 are not the same, making Yonge St. just a little over 80 kilometres long. Until 1998, the Guinness Book of World Records held Yonge as the longest street in the world until this was pointed out, and it has since been removed.
A street as old as Yonge can be described in many ways. When asked how they would describe Yonge, some of the people who live, work and play on the street described it like this:
Before diving into the interactive timeline and map below, take a trip from Toronto's Harbourfront up to the edge of Yonge St. in Newmarket. The first video explores the urban sprawl of Toronto's downtown core on Yonge while the second video shows the more rural and suburban side of Yonge.
Trip from Harbourfront to Eglinton
Trip from Eglinton to Newmarket
Click to travel through an interactive map exploring some of the most important pieces of Yonge's history as well as important events today.
225 years after its inception, Yonge has become a hub of cultural activity. While it is often thought of as Torontonian, the other towns and neighbourhoods it runs through have their own bustling sections of Yonge. The village of Richmond Hill’s section of Yonge is cozy and small. The town of Aurora has a busy hub of businesses, and the traffic on Yonge in Newmarket can be worse than it is in Toronto.
The Yonge of today is very different from the Yonge of yesterday. Resident Toronto expert Mike Filey moved to Toronto in 1950 and spent much of his time along Yonge.
“In high school you’d have your break at noon, and rather than going home you’d wander over to Yonge,” said Filey.
Filey's memories of Yonge St. in Toronto sounds more like a small town than the busy metropolitan centre it is today. He remembers doing deliveries for a small drugstore and using his wage to buy greasy fish and chips from a restaurant called Model Fish and Chips, a family owned restaurant.
“We used to go in there on Halloween and they would hand out what they called fish scraps. It was a cone full of batter that fell off the fish, and you’d just lace it with vinegar and salt and that would be your treat from the fish and chip people. There used to be great lineups for them,” he said.
Today, downtown Yonge is dotted with skyscrapers and buildings, but it wasn’t always like this. Filey said “the biggest building I remember from then was when they built the Yonge-Eglinton centre… and the condos along Yonge weren’t more than four-stories.”
Although much has changed since his childhood, Filey said “the one thing that’s remained [the same] is street traffic.”
While in Filey’s day large buildings were few and far between, there is one structure on Yonge whose cultural size dwarfs even the tallest building: the Toronto Eaton Centre. The Eaton Centre originally opened in 1977 and has served as a focal point for Toronto’s shopping district.
Former Toronto mayor David Crombie oversaw the construction and opening of the Eaton Centre during his time in office from 1972-1978. He describes the Eaton Centre as “a gorgeous building,” and “a temple to retail merchandising.”
The original plans for the Eaton Centre involved demolishing Toronto’s old city hall as well as the church of the Holy Trinity, an Anglican church that has been in Toronto since the mid 1800’s.
These plans were put on hold, and while Crombie was in office they were revised to keep the church and old city hall in one piece.
Born and raised in Toronto, Crombie has his own memories of Yonge.
“We used to have what was called the Yonge St. mall,” said Crombie. The old Yonge St. mall blocked off all traffic between Gerard St. and Queen St. for an entire summer in an attempt to reclaim Yonge as walkable turf.
“We put out tables and chairs and people just had a good time… that was one of the attempts to bring [in] a new Yonge St.,” said Crombie.
Crombie said he would sneak out of class with his girlfriend, and future wife, to catch the subway to downtown Toronto. He remembers going downtown to explore the new pubs when liquor laws began to change. Crombie remembers Christmas and how “every kid who was raised in Toronto knew that [downtown was] where Santa Claus would be. [Its] where everybody would shop for Christmas and its where you discovered escalators… It really was quite nice.”
Crombie has always loved walking on Yonge because “Its always been a place of adventure… If you were downtown, you would see all kinds of interesting stores and interesting people… People were coming from all around the world, and that made it exciting as well,” he said.
This diverse collection of people seems to be another constant in Yonge’s history.
Yonge is one of Wayne Wu’s favourite places to take walks. He enjoys strolling through Yonge's many neighbourhoods while playing Pokemon GO. “There are certain places on Yonge that always feel nostalgic to me, so its always fun to walk down.”
Just outside of the Eaton Centre at Yonge-Dundas square, animal rights group Anonymous for the Voiceless staged a demonstration featuring television screens that showed graphic images of violence against animals.
Ray Cruzzola, a member of the group, said Yonge is “a place filled with so many different types of people, so many belief systems, that you can come here and feel more open to express your beliefs.”