In our quest to be a “World Class City” we’ve been spending far too much time on comparison and too little time taking a hard look at the places and things to which we compare ourselves. The best example currently is Yonge-Dundas Square, the north side of which is finally taking shape. I am constantly hearing people refer to Yonge-Dundas as “Toronto’s Times Square”, a place of light and action that will serve as hub for the city. But what are we emulating? Is Times Square the heart of New York City? And even if it is, is Toronto similar enough to New York that we should have a similar heart?
Let’s be definite right out of the gates and say that the answer to the latter question is a big NO. New York City has a cultural heritage that we’re still a few hundred years away from matching. That’s not a stroke against Toronto, just a simple truth that we shouldn’t try to soar to high well before we’re ready. That’s a healthy caveat when considering any comparisons, doubly (or quadruply) when comparing Toronto to European cities. But we’re talking about Times Square here…
Finding the heart of any city, especially one as complex and diverse as New York City is a little like finding a needle in a stack of needles. A healthy city is a collection of healthy neighborhoods, each with a unique central area and by extension, a unique heart. In Toronto, such places can be found in Kensington, the UofT campus, my beloved home of Parkdale, the Indian Bazaar, Little Italy and on and on. Times Square is no more the heart of New York City than any other and very likely less than most others. It’s a gaudy monument to consumerism created by the odd convergence of streets in the lower and older part of Manhattan. Certainly it’s impressive upon first viewing, but a second look will show you that the more impressive thing about Times Square is how it isn’t really a square at all. It’s certainly not a public square. Compare Times Square to the Zocalo in Mexico City and it’s found truly lacking. So there’s the question of the day: Why would we want to use a place that’s at best a tourist attraction as the inspiration for our own gathering place?
As Metropolis (or whatever it’s going to be called) reaches completion, we’re going to feel the full effect of what having a significant intersection devoted to commercialism can do for Toronto. I’ll give you a preview…it can do NOTHING. Go to the site of the old Forum in Montreal to see what an AMC/Future Shop combo can provide. Sure, it’s a movie theatre and you can buy an XBOX there but that isn’t a real contribution to the betterment of a city, is it? We’re going to have a place that people visit, in the “heart” of our city that contributes nothing it’s overall well-being or heritage. It makes the Eaton Centre across the street seem culturally relevant by comparison.
There was a good idea buried amongst all the filth that is now Yonge-Dundas Square. The idea of a vibrant public place in the shopping heart of Toronto was both important and culturally correct. Why not give people a gathering place in a location where they are likely to spend their leisure time. It plays off our consumerist nature for a positive result. Tragically, layered on top of that good idea is the now defunct Olympic Spirit, the embarrasing super-billboard on the northwest side, the “improvements” to the Eaton Centre and the crown jewel of badness: Metropolis. I would have preferred to see the blue hoarding that long covered the northeast corner of Yonge and Dundas stay forever rather than be subjected to this architectural abomination. Who can look at the picture at the top of this article with its massive golden arches and see progress? That picture must have come across Kyle Rae’s desk at some point. Could a liberal minded man such as he have looked at that and thought “Good for me, look what I’ve done.” Rather I should think he would look at the picture and think “My God, what have I done?”
That’s what I think when I see Metropolis and it’s counterpart Best Buy/Canadian Tire down the street. Sure they’re all shiny now, but what about 10 years from now when all the signs are half-busted and the god-awful steel-esque exteriors are stained and the store fronts dirtied. One can only hope that the grim ugliness of what we’ve created will allow a new sanity to reign.
So we’ll get our Times Square but let’s hope we avoid it’s evolution. Remember that it was once one of the more dangerous parts of New York with thieves and petty crooks causing havoc for tourists and citizens alike. But we have CCTV cameras, we should be fine.
Here’s to you Yonge-Dundas Square! Take your place on the world stage. Don’t pay too much attention to the snooty Europeans (especially the Nordic ones) as they laugh at us for Americanizing (read: ruining) our quaint little city. And don’t listen to the Americans as they howl at our pathetic attempt to match their idols of capitalism. Also, don’t pay too much attention to Torontonians as they grumble at you existence. And finally, be a gracious host and don’t rub it in their noses when Christmas comes and despite themselves they fill your halls and ring your registers.