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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Cities for People — Main Square

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View into the space between the towers at Main Square.

This is part of a series of posts by students in OCAD’s Cities for People summer workshop (click the link to read a bit about what the class was about). This Main Square post was researched and written by Michael Caton and C. Pete.

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Main Square is located at the TTC hub of Main and Danforth. It is a 3 min walk from Main Subway station and the Danforth GO station, and has several bus and streetcar stops within a short hop. Main Square was built in 1972 as a partnership between CMHC (Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp.), a government entity, and a private company. It was envisioned to be integrated housing similar to the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood. CMHC manages the renowned Granville Island in British Columbia as well as many other neighbourhood enterprises that encourage integrated and creative communities, supporting artists and diverse incomes.

Currently, streetcars and buses run up and down Main St. In 1923, streetcars also ran East and West along Danforth.

Currently, streetcars and buses run up and down Main St. In 1923, streetcars also ran East and West along Danforth.

The corner of Main and Danforth, viewed from within Main Square. This intersection is a TTC hub, with various bus routes, and the Main St. subway station just a few steps up Main St.

The corner of Main and Danforth, viewed from within Main Square. This intersection is a TTC hub, with various bus routes, and the Main St. subway station just a few steps up Main St.

In 1998 CMHC sold out their share in Main Square and the buildings were bought buy Talisker Corporation, a private enterprise.  It appears that CMHC may have pulled out due to the quality of the buildings, perhaps due to the incredibly high power needs that may exceed normal conditions. Apparently the sale went with a mandate that a certain percentage of subsidized units must be available. Unfortunately, most of the relevant documents are housed in Ottawa.

Property manager Realstar's promotional photo.

Property manager Realstar’s promotional photo.

One person that we interviewed describes the population at Main Square as a mix of people with all different cultures, backgrounds and income.  She claims that residents must be employed to live there.  On further questioning, it appears that subsidized housing entities are contacted when too many apartments remain un-rented. While we were talking a couple was turned away in the office because as they were newcomers to Canada and the man had only had his job for one month.  They say new renters must have had steady income from the same source for one year, a common requirement from many landlords, but another hurdle for newcomers or students or the underemployed.

The interviewee thinks a lot of people get together around religion.  A group of Indian women wait in the lobby together weekly for a bus that picks them up for church.  There is a small mosque functioning downstairs in one of the buildings in a room on a lower level.  There is also a bingo in a room on a lower level that seniors attend regularly.

Marcella (mentioned below) enjoys meeting with friends in the square, they get Tim Horton’s coffees every day and sit on “the wall.”

Marcella We interviewed Marcella, a 78 year old resident who has lived at Main Square for several decades and has been in the area much longer. Marcella is from Cape Breton and says there are a lot of people from “back home” in the neighborhood — which may explain the fish and chips restaurant across the street! She moved to Toronto alone to get work while her mother cared for her children in Cape Breton, then her mother sent her two sons to her. She worked as a grinder at a factory, at a restaurant, and at the post office. Marcella describes herself as having been a “real go-getter”, if she had time off she got another job. She does not currently feel secure at Main Square because rent increases every year.

We also spoke with Lou, who sped off before we could get a photo! Lou is in his 90’s. He uses a walker.

Lou is from Saskatchewan, where he first had to leave due to the Depression, and spent some time hopping freight trains. He eventually moved with his wife to the Beaches. They relocated up to Main Square first year it was opened. Lou still lives at Main Square with his wife, and has seen many changes, including who is coming to Main Square. He amiably says it has taken time to adjust to the many new cultures that are now present, but does not voice any complaints about his neighbours. Lou managed several stores at different locations around the city and found Main Square more convenient for travel to his places of work. Lou had a difficult time getting up to his walker after sitting on “the wall” in the main square.


Generally speaking, people are busy at Main Square. The square itself is a bustling transit zone as residents bring groups of children to school, head for various transit stops and get on the subway.During  the day the old timers and others (including pigeons) use the square as a meeting and recreational space. At night the square and areas surrounding the buildings bustle again as residents return home and children use the available space to play outside.

There is no playground or area designated for child’s play. As well, there is relatively little seating besides the low walls that line raised planting beds. Despite this lack of designed accommodation, at night Main Square is hardly deserted as families gather outside to socialize and watch the groups of children running, laughing and growing together. It is no wonder that in the summer the ice cream truck visits this rich community every evening!

Click here to see a larger version of this psychogeographic map.



  1. “Unfortunately, most of the relevant documents are housed in Ottawa.”

    Oh no, Vogons!

  2. I had to look that up (my nerdness ends somewhere before Hitchhikers Guide) but not a bad way of describing Ottawa bureaucrats.

  3. Did ‘Cities’ consider the proposed new development for this site?

    Talisker got approval about 2 years ago to build 2 more towers, one where the office building on stilts is, towards the Canadian Tire at the east end; the other on the site of the current public square which would be entirely removed.

    This latter point is a sore issue in the community where the square was a promised ‘public benefit’ of the original development, but was not secured for the longer term.


    The development was developed by CMHC because the bulk of the site was part of the massive East Toronto Rail Yard. There were several tracks on both sides of the current Danforth GO Station. I believe 11, to the north (Main Square) and 16 to the south, where a new subdivision now stands.

    At the time of the development, CN was a crown corporation, and the north yards were being de-commissioned.


    The glass building on the south of the development is the City-Owned Recreation Centre. It was built in the late 1990’s, one of the last projects approved under the old City of Toronto council.

    Sadly, while it gave the neighbourhood a pool; it is the only community centre I know of built without a gym! St. Jamestown’s Rec. Centre, which was approved around the same time, got the gym, but not its pool!


    One potential change for the area is the re-expansion of rail. Upcoming plans for GO Transit show this section of rail corridor at six tracks, rather than the current three.

    I assume (but don’t know) that this will necessitate the removal of the current self-storage facility located between Main Square and the GO Station. This may also trigger a rebuild of the Main Street Bridge, which I don’t believe can clear six tracks under it.

  4. I recall we discussed the proposed developments in class a bit — but the focus here was on what’s-there-now (and how to make it better). I think the team also commented on the self storage area — imagine if all that was a green roof, or put underground, so much room for new community above.

    Thanks for the additional info, James.

  5. Don’t worry Shawn: “my nerdness ends somewhere before Hitchhikers Guide.” That just means you are not forty, unlike me.

    The article appears well researched but you forgot to mention one thing: it’s really ugly and uninviting. It’s a value judgement, of course. Danforth becomes properly Scarbirian from Main Street. With any luck the area will improve for pedestrians and residents as transit improves, however long that takes…

  6. “It was envisioned to be integrated housing similar to the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood.”

    Actually, that’s putting the cart before the horse: not only is the St Lawrence Neighbourhood several years younger, it was conceived as a deliberate antidote to the disavowed high-rise urbanism embodied by Main Square.

    That said, while the towers are generic enough for their time and place (as opposed to Main Square’s more self-consciously “architectonic” west-end counterpart, The Crossways at Dundas West), I think we’ve become too adaptively acclimatized to such stuff for the “ugly and uninviting” epithet to have much bearing anymore. Maybe the fact that such urban-aesthetic issues don’t seem to have arisen in the above post is telling something about how peripheral they truly are, even for the locals–Main Square certainly doesn’t sound like a hellhole…

  7. I think this neighborhood has a lot of potential. The reason I think this is because of the really good transit infrastructure in place. The subway station, served by a number of bus routes and a streetcar and the subway train of course. The station itself is nicely designed with a center sheltered platform allowing a reasonable comfortable place to wait for a bus or streetcar. Their is also the GO station on the south side of Danforth as well. Maybe a pedestrian tunnel could be built from the GO Station to the Main Street subway station so the two transit systems would support each other. The neighborhood itself is a little rundown in certain areas but I think that is going to change as more people start turning to public transit.

  8. A few comments from a local resident

    The fish & chips place, Duckworths, has been around for decades. Also, before the redevelopment the south side of Danforth was a mix of coal and lumber yards. Both of these points are shown in this photo from 1936
    from the Toronto archives

    A pedestrian tunnel between the GO & TTC stations would be overkill, but putting a roof over the sidewalk between the two to keep off the rain might be a good idea.

  9. I grew up near Main Square and can add a few factoids. My great Aunt Lil lived there. The property was actually a giant lumber yard until the late ’60’s when a huge fire burned it to the ground. I was a young boy then and was saddened that my mother wouldn’t let me join the neighbourhood kids going to watch the blaze.

    Also, the fish and chip shop across the street, “Duckworths” has been there for eons. It and a sister shop further east on Kingston Road speak to the Scots and English demographic that settled much of Scarborough. There also used to be a “Scottish Bakery” on the same block that served all manner of delicious baked goods including the now hard to find “fern tarts”. Mmmmm

  10. Interesting about the coal/lumber yard. I took for granted the rail yard didn’t go all the way to Danforth. I think it was also phased out gradually.

    Found this tidbit.

    “This entire area used to be called the Village of East Toronto. Just up the street were the largest freight yards of the Grand Trunk Railroad which included marshalling yards, coal storage facilities and a roundhouse.”

    The info is courtesy a local Beach historian named ‘Gene’ (can’t remember his last name at the moment).

    The roundhouse was gone long before my time.


    On the subject of other area memories; I can’t say much has changed in the 30 odd years I remember the area, a few stores have changed names or touched up the exteriors etc. I remember when Sobeys was IGA and before than Food City. I remember the old Canadian Tire, and when Shopper’s World; the nearby mall was painted blue & white and had an Eaton’s.


    It strikes me what the area as a whole needs most is a reinvigorated streetscape along the Danforth, particularly the addition of trees. This is one the few streets I can think of in the City without any (for the most part).

    I believe the new BIA is looking at fixing that.

    Main Square itself, all other things being equal should be torn down, as it just does not function all that well.

    However, assuming we have to work with what we have….

    Aside from basic repairs yada yada, I would suggest that the private roads and spaces snaking through the development need to somehow be made public as this would make them feel safer and the whole development more integrated with its surroundings.

    Its not a complete catastrophe by any means; just not what it could or should be.

  11. “Main Square itself, all other things being equal should be torn down, as it just does not function all that well.”

    You mean, the whole complex? Now, *that’s* overkill. It’s hardly a Pruitt-Igoe or Robin Hood Gardens situation we’re dealing with here…