EDITOR: It’s circa 1973. Bert Xanadu is the Mayor of Toronto and owner of the Imperial Six cinemas on Yonge Street. Mayor Xanadu has been governing from his twitter account over the last two years. Here at Spacing we thought if Josh Matlow can write columns for the Toronto Star, Mayor Xanadu can and should have a place for his long-form thoughts. So begins a regular series of posts straight out of 1973 and into the Toronto fray. With plans afoot to revitalize Yonge Street again, his first column is especially timely.
I am, if nothing else, a reasonable man.
When I was first approached, in 1970, by several erstwhile hippies, a consortium of mobile popcorn vendors, a purveyor of concrete tree planters, three down-at-their-heels jazz flautists, and the president of the Toronto Sandwich Board Advertisers’ Association, all beseeching me to temporarily close lower Yonge St. to cars, and to designate it as a pedestrian-only ‘mall’, I was intrigued but skeptical.
Motor vehicles represent much of the hustle, and most of the bustle, of any thriving downtown’s hustle and bustle. Cars, trucks and buses ‘drive’ much of the economy of the Queen City, in a way that a scrawny paperboy, or a permanently scuffed shoeshine man simply cannot.
So, when this harebrained scheme for a car-less main street was presented to me, I thought first of those whose very being would be disenfranchised! What of the jovial, barrel-chested driver of the TTC’s Yonge bus, whose many years of seniority in his union-backed sinecure have entitled him to unvaryingly drive the same route, the 97X, from Gerrard to King and back again? What of the burly but genial operator of the Kitchener salted meats truck, whose livelihood depends on his ability to deliver his tasty and well-preserved goods to Yonge’s many eateries? What of the Ladies of St. Clair and other northern parts, whose delicate natures prevent them from entering the damp egalitarian environs of the subway system? What of the haughty Bay St. captain of industry, whose chauffeur drives him ever so slowly to his magisterial Toronto-Dominion Centre office via Yonge St., so as to delay the inevitable fit of rage?
But, as the frequently-proclaimed Mayor of The Citizens©, I must, at times, make some difficult, if obvious choices.
And so I did, and the rest is geography.
The Yonge St. Mall came alive in the summer of 1971, jangling, gyrating and expectorating to the beat of a different drummer, with tantalized tourists, liberated locals, motivated merchants and malleable millionaires (well, two of them) mingling, strolling, supping, window-shopping and perhaps even actually shopping, to the delight and surprise of many – me included!
Over those first weeks, Torontonians exulted in their new-found asphalt freedom (“Phyllis! — we’re standing where the cars usually go!!!”), a feeling that was exhilarating, but, inevitably, flat.
And, yes, the sheer novelty of being able to purchase and then immediately consume on the tarmac your choice of pickled eggs, sugared doughnuts or Italian ‘spaghetti’ brought a rush of civic conviviality and mercantile pleasure.
(As is well known, in addition to being mayor, I am also the proprietor and showman of the shiny new Imperial Six cinemas on Yonge just south of Dundas, so I recused myself from any municipal decisions regarding the inclusion in the mall of any of the 25 linear feet of street frontage the movie palace occupies).
But, just as night follows day, and nightsoil follows what happens during the day, the Yonge St. Mall brought out the worst in us, or rather, the worst of who and what lived and worked on the second floors of its establishments.
Soon, the innocent frolicking and pedestrianizing was darkened by those for whom Toronto is just a folding card table, meant merely to hold a ‘Lazy Susan’, if you will, fully stocked with their baser instincts.
For many Torontonians, your typical prostitute, pimp, biker, con man, card shark, drug dealer, thug, bunko artist, circus freak, tattooist, anti-war protester or gigolo are seen, if they are seen at all, only on such television channels as WBEN-TV Buffalo or WKBW-TV Buffalo.
But here they were, in all their grisly glory, standing, stumbling, coughing, smirking, carousing and sometimes even lying down on the very same Yonge St. that we have all been so proud of, the Yonge St. known everywhere as The Longest Street In The World! (In fact, its temporary closure almost robbed it of that honorific, as it is only barely longer than Europe’s notorious Boulvard Of Broken Dreams).
And so, my hand forced, I have decided to end this pedestrangulation of the city’s most vibrant thoroughfare. I should have trusted my well-honed instincts as a zoning expert, an expertise which rests on my philosophy that some things are best kept apart. Like meat-packing and lawn bowling. Sex and conversation. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Politics and conversation.
And cars and pedestrians!
I therefore proclaim, as your Chief Magistrate, that commencing July 30, 1973 (or as soon as we can finish tearing up the sidewalks between Bloor and Front), pedestrians and bicyclists will be banned from Yonge St., its ribbony efficiency reserved solely for motor vehicles. Individuals wishing to alight from cars along this route may do so, but with all due haste, or face ticketing, and my wrath. But then, who would wish to tarry, with all the bewitching and bejewelled delights that Yonge Street’s merchants and restaurateurs have to offer? C’mon in! It’s cool inside!!