York Mills

Yonge Street at York Mills in 1936 and 2013

Yonge Street at York Mills in 1936 and 2013

I never had this problem while blogging about the any of the communities from Rainy River through to maybe Richmond Hill.  For those communities, it was simple.

But as this blog started making its way into Toronto, a new issue arose –how do you title a blog post about a relatively amorphous and randomly selected portion of a big city?

What’s in a name?  Some neighbourhoods get named after their first settler.  Or are titled by their original developer.   Some names get adopted organically over time.  Or are imposed, directly or accidentally, by the powers that be.

And I think that’s the case here.  The local TTC subway station is named York Mills, but I’m not sure that everyone who lives in this area would actually say that they live in York Mills.  (Certainly not those that live close to Lawrence Avenue.)York Mills - North Yonge Street Neighbourhood MapYonge Street between Highway 401 and Lawrence Avenue is a confluence of different neighbourhoods.  But when you’re blogging the world’s longest street, you can’t have a separate entry on every intersection.

When the even the “wrong” side of the tracks is still really really good

Driving north up Yonge Street, once you hit Lawrence Avenue building heights drop and empty spaces widen.  Lawrence is the signal that you’ve made it into some of Toronto’s first suburbs.

The story of this part of Yonge Street is one of west vs. east.

The area west of Yonge was developed in the early 1900s with the intent of attracting middle-class families whose breadwinners were professionals that used the Yonge streetcar (and later subway) to go to work downtown.  Take York Mills west (York Mills becomes Wilson Ave once you cross its bleak intersection with Yonge Street) and things will become less fancy as you approach Avenue Road and very working class once you hit Bathurst.

The east side of Yonge Street, however, had plans for big things.  Early developers set out to attract Toronto’s rich and wealthy, and boy did they ever succeed.

This is a house in York Mills on Old Toronto Road.  It's so expensive that they don't even list the price in the listing!

This is a house in York Mills on Old Toronto Road. It’s so expensive that they don’t even list the price in the listing!

The area is chock full of private schools like Havergal, Crescent, and Toronto French, and is home to both the Rosedale and the ultra-private Granite Country Clubs.  There’s a specialty York University Campus and the Canadian Film Centre nearby.

Despite Hearst’s claims, this stretch of Highway 11 likely has the most millionaires per capita.  There is a stretch of road east of Yonge Street called Millionaire’s Row and the average family income in York Mills hovers around $657 000.  The not-exorbitantly-wealthy-but-still-pretty-wealthy parts of York Mills have boomed – house prices have risen nearly 100 percent since 2001.  Local neighbourhoods have become synonymous with money, like Lawrence Park, the Bridle Path and Hoggs Hollow.

And no, Hoggs Hollow is not a derisive political or populist commentary on the rich and wealthy gathering in one place, as has happened in the neighbourhoods east of Yonge Street, just south of the 401.  It’s named after Joseph Hogg who first settled the area in 1824 and set up a distillery.

The part of Yonge Street near Lawrence started off much more middle class than it is today.  With middling rents and lots of space, some of the art deco apartment buildings are great places to rent near Lawrence.

The part of Yonge Street near Lawrence started off much more middle class than it is today. With middling rents and lots of space, some of the art deco apartment buildings are great places to rent near Lawrence.

Despite its more downmarket beginnings, however, the west side of Yonge Street rapidly gentrified and is now home to one of Toronto’s most solidly upper-upper-middle class neighbourhoods.  (I’m not sure if there is such a thing as an upper-upper-middle class.  Maybe people with big salaries and hefty RRSPs but are still a few missed paycheques away from poverty like the rest of us?)

A neighbourhood dominated by detached houses and really nice semis, Yonge Street north of Lawrence Avenue is one of those neighbourhoods where you wouldn’t expect homes to nearly reach the million dollar mark.

Unless you live in Toronto.  If you do, you immediately understand the appeal of a place like Yonge and Lawrence, even if you’re not keen on living amongst the almost-rich and not-so-famous.

Park at Yonge and Lawrence

Park at Yonge and Lawrence

“I don’t’ get it…what’s so great about this place?”

Walkable access to the Yonge subway has made getting downtown quick and easy.  The housing stock is well kept and just a bit more spaced-out than communities further downtown.  It’s not dominated by rental apartments like Yonge and St. Clair.  Condos have squeezed in, but they are not as ubiquitous or as imposing as they are at Yonge and Eglinton. There’s a community feel to the main drag along Yonge Street north of Lawrence, in the sense that although some of the stores up here are fancy, by and large they’re still pretty useful.

And it’s that last point that is such a big deal.  Because if you live in Toronto, you’ll know that the main drags of residential neighbourhoods fall into one of four categories.

  1. Grotty, storefronts either empty or full of things like cash for gold places and flea markets.
  2. Grotty, but full of useful stores that you need to run your everyday life like cleaners, fruit stands, drugstores, hardware stores, flower shops, etc. (I need the latter to get out of trouble.)
  3. Gentrified, but full of useful stores like above.
  4. Gentrified, and full of useless crap like art galleries and copper-plated kitchenware stores and gluten-free cupcakeries and $45-a-chicken butchers.

I know this, because right now I live in an area that’s a solid Stage 2.  And you wouldn’t believe how quick things can change in a place like Toronto.  I know this, because I used to rent in an area that went from Stage 3 to Stage 4 in less than two years.

Yonge and Lawrence

Homey, everyday but upscale retail along Yonge just north of Lawrence

Some of the city’s most desirable residential neighbourhoods are served by a main streets that are downright beautiful but, unless you find yourself needing an eco-friendly feminist pharmacy once a week, are absolutely useless and require the worst of both worlds – car-based living in the big city.

So the people that live north of Lawrence have it very very good.  Particularly when compared to those who live just seven or eight kilometres east of west on Lawrence – out in Weston or in Scarborough – where neighbourhoods around Lawrence are some of Toronto’s poorest.

Toronto.  Ontario.  Both are always a land of contrasts.

Dog park just south of the 401 at Yonge and York Mills / Wilson

Dog park just south of the 401 at Yonge and York Mills / Wilson

A beacon of modern design amongst the parks, ravine and gas station at Yonge and York Mills, the Blue BUilding has a subway stop, a GO bus terminal, and a small and lonely main-level mall

The sleek glass office complex at York Mills and Yonge Street is the most noticeable part of this windswept, lonely intersection. Even inside the building feels well-kept but forlorn – the GO Bus terminal, the York Mills subway station and the mini mall on the main floor nearly are always nearly vacant unless it is rushhour or lunch time.

Five Italian workers were killed in a tunnel fire in 1960 at York Mills.  They are commemorated in this tapestry on display in the York Mills subway station.

Five Italian workers were killed in a tunnel fire in 1960 at York Mills. They are commemorated in this tapestry on display in the York Mills subway station.




Willowdale.  Riverdale.  Rosedale.  Bracondale.  Parkdale.  Rexdale.  Armadale.  Bendale.  Keelesdale.  Bloordale.  Erindale.

I was hanging out at the Pacific Hotel in Wiarton one rangy Halloween night, when one of the locals we were talking to mentioned that he had grown up in Willowdale.  “Oh, that’s the part of Toronto that had a soap-opera named after it?”  I said.  No, that was Riverdale.  “Or is that in Mississauga?”  Still no.  “Is that that Rexdale?” another non-Torontonian amongst us asked.  No.

“Is it kinda grotty?”  someone else chipped in?  No, that was Parkdale.  “Is it really fancy?”  I asked.  No, that was Rosedale.  We gave up.

There are so many ‘ales’ in the Toronto area that I get mixed up.  To be clear, Willowdale is the one at the north-central end of Toronto.  For the purposes of this website, I’m going to define Willowdale as everything north of the 401 up to the border with York Region at Steeles.

(Oh wait, there is Maryvale.  And Cedarvale.  And Meadowvale.  Ale.  Ale.  Ale.  Hank Snow could do a whole song just using GTA neighbourhoods. )

Willowdale settler cemetery, Yonge Street, Highway 11

Juxaposition of the old and new in Willowdale. Settler cemetery surrounded by glass and concrete. (Credit: Simon P, Wiki Commons.)

From carriages to condos

Lansing was the first community developed in this area of Yonge Street whilst Willowdale, if I am correct, was actually located a bit to the east.  The first person to settle Willowdale was Joseph Cummer, the son of a Loyalist Germans from Pennsylvania.  Another returnee from America, David Gibson, helped develop Willow Dale village after he was pardoned by the Upper Canada government for his role in the 1837 Rebellion.  Gibson House still stands on Yonge Street to this day.  It is a museum now.

Willowdale-Yonge 1920 leona driveOne of Toronto’s inner burbs, Willowdale was once a pretty sleepy bedroom community just north of the limits of the Old City.  People moved to Willowdale because they didn’t want to live downtown, or in a semi-detached, and/or couldn’t afford Don Mills.  Willowdale from 1950-1970 was your pretty standard family suburb: a bastion of single-family homes, relatively anglo-saxon with a smattering of Jews and Italians.  David Clayton-Thomas and two-thirds of Rush are from Willowdale, as are comedians Howie Mandel and Gerry Dee.  Dee, the son of Scottish immigrants, has a great bit on growing up in Willowdale next door to an Italian family.  (I’m not normally into ethnic comedy.  It is not terribly hard to mine stereotypes for worn-out laughs.  But some comedians have the talent and analytical ability to poke fun at different groups in an inoffensive but still critical manner.  Gerry Dee does this.  That clip is great because it is funny yet respectful, and there is a subtle critique underlying its kernel of truth that is hard to miss.)

Today, Willowdale is drastically different.  Yonge and Sheppard has boomed upwards.   First came the institutional development – The Toronto District School Board and the City of North York built head offices there.  Today, Mel Lastman Square (named by the former mayor after the former mayor) is home to a theatre, offices and a pile of public events.  The plazas and strip malls of Yonge street have been replaced by condos north of the 401.   The side-streets have not escaped unscathed; the old ranches, bungalows and sidesplits are being bought up for their large lots and replaced with massive infill homes covered in stucco and fake stone.  Just east of Yonge on Leslie big box stores have gone in, like IKEA, Home Depot, and a massive Canadian Tire.

Mel Lastman Square, Yonge Street, Ontario

Rob Ford makes Mel Lastman look like a statesman. But who goes to Mel Lastman Square? Nooooooooooobody! (That’s not true, but I had to do it.)

Willowdale home transformation, highway 11 yonge street

Out goes brick veneer, in goes another floor and textured concrete veneer. (Credit: Simon P at Wiki Commons.)

Part of this change is due to changes in local governance.  Like most Toronto neighbourhoods, Willowdale has been shunted around a bit between different municipal administrations.  In 1922 it was incorporated into the Borough of North York, in 1953 North York was integrated into the Metro Toronto, in the 1970s North York became a city, and in 1998 North York ceased to exist thanks to the forced municipal amalgamation program pioneered by Premier Mike Harris.  This has opened some communities to greater influence from central planning, and reduced the influence of to plan according to the wishes/needs of local residents.

The Stubway

But the biggest part of it is the subway.  The TTC expanded to Sheppard and Finch in 1974.  North York Centre was added in 1987.  More stations were planned, but were never built.  And then came the subway to suburbia.  The line to nowhere.  The stubway.  Aka – the Sheppard Subway.

The Sheppard Subway line was one of four lines proposed by the government in 1995.  When it fell, the Conservatives took over and cancelled all but Sheppard – which was strange, since it was the least useful of all the lines, but not-so-strange, given that the local area was Conservative-voting and Conservative-inclined North York mayor Mel Lastman was elected the first mayor of the megacity.  The Sheppard Line was so unpopular that they even filled the existing tunnelling underway for the Eglinton line, because the Conservatives knew that the City would vote to continue building Eglinton if it wasn’t filled with rubble.

Today, Sheppard is the least used subway line in the city, with a lower ridership than some bus or streetcar routes, so much so that in 2008 there was a proposal made by the city to shut it down entirely.  One can only imagine how different the city would have been if the Eglinton line had proceed instead of Sheppard.  Hi-rise development has followed the subway all throughout Toronto, and the Sheppard line is no exception.  Sure, house values went up as developers sought land for condos and residents sought subway-accessible lots to build megahouses, but driving a subway through a suburban neighbourhood has essentially fractured the nature of the area.  The Leona Drive Project documents this.  As one website puts it, Willowdale is uptown living at downtown prices.

Sheppard Line, Highway 11 Yonge Street highway11.ca

Honestly, what were they thinking? That they were playing Sim City?

Highway 11 subway Sheppard, Yonge street

Platform at the Sheppard subway station, beneath Yonge Street / Highway 11

Yonge Street, Condos, Willowdale Ontario Yonge Highway 11

Condos in Willowdale on Yonge Street