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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Saving our souls on the sidewalk

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As a lifelong atheist, it came as quite a shock when I witnessed what appeared to be the Resurrection of Christ a few years back.

Yet there he was, clad in a white robe, sporting his crown of thorns (complete with trickle of blood), and dragging a wooden cross up Yonge Street near Dundas. Onlookers and passers-by gawked as Jesus wordlessly pulled his holy burden northbound.

It turned out that he was in fact an affable guy named David Peever who worked with a Christian theatre group, and regularly walked Yonge Street to promote his faith. Ideal for its heavy pedestrian traffic flow due to the subway line and retail density, the southern section of Yonge has long been the venue of choice for those looking to spread their holy word in Hogtown.

Peever is part of a lineage of street evangelists working the tail end of The Longest Street In the World that stretches back to seminal Toronto preacher John “Hallelujah” Davis. Davis founded the still-active Yonge Street Mission in 1896. After eight years at Yonge and Shuter, it moved to 381 Yonge Street (just south of Gerrard), where it has since resided for a century. Renamed Evergreen in 1979, it now serves as a drop-in for street youth.

The Mission had flamboyant beginnings, starting out as a bus dubbed the “Gospel Wagon” that cruised the street distributing food and clothing to the needy. Mike Filey’s “Toronto Album 2” has a photo taken circa 1920 showing the bus parked in front of the Mission, its five rows of seats filled with hymn singers while Davis is perched at a pulpit in a small balcony-like box jutting out the side. One of the placards placed against the bus reads “Come and Get A Blessing.”

The spirit of the Gospel Wagon has endured — the Yonge and Dundas intersection has long-served as the city’s mecca for public evangelism. Souvenir vendors and sidewalk drummers have shared the concrete in front of the Eaton Centre with a myriad of religious messengers; Bible-toting fire-and-brimstone types, bow-tied Nation of Islam members, Hare Krishnas, and “freelance eccentrics,” all promoting their spiritual wares amongst the hustle and bustle of foot traffic and street noise.

One such pavement apostle is Richard Corbit, a 9-year vet with Potter’s House Christian Centre, who send out a proselytizing posse to Yonge and Dundas a few times a year. Corbit and his merry band of sidewalk saviours gather in a circle and alternate between singing hymns and “testifying.” The group also break out some new-school sermonizing techniques by way of rapping their message to the masses. Corbit said the religious rappers would often collaborate with the street drummers that used to be common fare at the Eaton Centre corner of the intersection. That changed in the late 90s, when construction making way for Dundas Square downsized the action. When it opened on the southeast corner in 2002, the Square’s ad-laden wall spaces and giant TVs altered the dynamic of the intersection.

“There used to be drummers all the time. But they?’re not there as much anymore,” said Corbit. “There’s a lot of competition now that wasn’t there before. Big screens are attracting people’s attention. Now sometimes they just walk by and don’t even notice you.”

Recalling Sidewalk Jesus stumping his way up one of our prime commercial boulevards past fashion outlets and hot dog stands, it’s hard not to dramatize the symbolism. The writing was on the wall (literally): consumer culture was the new saviour on the block. Cathode tube rays, neon signs, and billboards too big to ignore were assuming the role of sermonizing to the congregation of the streets.

These days, Yonge and Dundas is dominated by the Square’s ad-covered “media tower.” High atop this Tower of Babble, a giant flashing red electronics company logo of an outlined face with one swirly eye omnipotently keeps watch over passers-by, as if to infer: “We’ve always got one eye open. Are you learning what we’re preaching” Beside it, an ad for an SUV exhorts that it is “for evolving lives.” Can you get to heaven any faster in a chariot with 4-wheel drive?

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