Moxy Fruvous Thornhill highway 11 yonge streetMore than just “north of Steeles” or the name of a Moxy Fruvous album, Thornhill is the first in a number of suburbs that straddle Yonge Street as you move north of the City of Toronto.

Thornhill is pretty old for a town on Highway 11.  First settled in 1794, the development of Yonge Street up to Holland Landing helped fuel growth to include the usual industries associated with a colonial stagecoach stop, including a mill, a hotel, a tannery, weigh scales, and coopering and wagon-making facilities.  Eventually, there was even a water bottling plant and an opera house.  But it wasn’t until the Toronto and York Electric Railway expanded up to Newmarket in the late 1800s that Thornhill found its modern purpose – as a home for Toronto commuters.Thornhill, Ontario, Highway 11 Yonge Street

Thonhill continued on as a separate village until it was cleaved by the province in 1971.  West of Yonge Street became part of Vaughan, and east of Yonge Street went to Markham.  Today, approximately 100 000 people live in Thornhill, with more on the Vaughan side than Markham Side.  Condos and other higher-density developments are starting to creep up Thornhill due to its proximity to last stop on the Yonge Subway Line.

This is where I learned to pronounce Manischewitz

Though less diverse than Richmond Hill, its neighbour to the north, Thornhill’s ethnic mix is pretty notable.  There are about 15 000 speakers of Chinese-related languages in Thornhill, largely on the Markham side.  Thornhill’s not super whitebread.  If you had to classify it, you could Thornhill say it’s a bit matzomeal.

Thornhill, power centre, condo, highway 11 yonge street

Power centres and condos, coming to every community near you

Toronto’s Jewish immigrants were pretty much the first non-anglosaxon group to settle heavily in Toronto.  The next group to arrive, Toronto’s Italians, worked their way north by settling east-west streets like College and St. Clair and Eglinton before hopping up to Woodbridge.  That’s largely because Toronto’s Jewish community had already started their move upward through the city by hugging the north-south streets like Spadina and Bathurst.

A drive up Bathurst (often considered Yonge’s twin) north from St. Clair all the way to Thornhill will be notable for the sheer number of Jewish or Kosher or Hebrew or Judaica related-buildings.  That Jewishness continues up into Thornhill, which is home to a Hebrew newspaper, 10 private day-schools, almost 20 synagogues or shuls, and about 40 000 people that profess to be Jewish.  It’s so prevalent that you easily forget that outside of Toronto, Montréal and maybe Winnipeg the Jewish population of Canada isn’t really that large.  There are more Jews in Boston or Buenos Aires than in Toronto but you’d never guess that when you frequent this area.  It’s kind of neat.

In the last twenty years Thornhill has increasingly become a destination for Russians, so much so that there is Russian-Canada Club, a Russian Martial Arts Centre, a Russian Library and about 15 000 Russian speakers in town.

Thornhill, Odessa Restaurant, Restaurant Melody, Yonge Street, Highway 11

Chef Igor vs. Sonya the Sailorwoman? The Melody and Odessa websites make it hard to choose…

And of course, like any good Highway 11 / Yonge Street town, there is a local restaurant rivalry afoot.  In Gravenhurst, you’re either an Uptown Diner or a Rombo’s person.  Timmins, you take your poutine from Chez Vous or Chez Nous, but not both.  In Toronto, you like your Hungarian from the old hippie place (The Coffee Mill), the old ethnicky place (Country Style), the new upstart (The Europe Bar and Grill Hungarian Kitchen), or the hole-in-the-wall (Paprika).  In Thornhill, it’s the same story.  Either you like your Russian food from Restaurant Melody, or you like it from Restaurant Odessa.  People who like one always swear the other is inedible.

Beware the Seder Supper Traffic

Otherwise, Thornhill is one of these places that’s hard to write about without making this travel blog sound like a wikipedia entry.   If you’re driving up Yonge Street through Thornhill the chances are good that you’re not on a pleasurable Sunday drive or a crazy road trip with friends.

Maybe you’re headed to Cayne’s, hands-down the best kitchen, small appliance and housewares store in the Toronto area.   You may be headed to the Promenade or Centrepoint Malls.

Or you’re stuck in Friday-night Yonge Street traffic.  If that’s the case, you’re screwed, as you’ll be inching along for ages with what seems to be every other Jewish family in Toronto driving up Yonge (or Bathurst) to get to their seder supper before sundown.  I once got caught in Friday-night traffic on Yonge headed to Thornhill driving a very insistent distant-step-grandfather up there for a supper with some once-removed in-laws.  Let me tell you it was one of the longest drives of my life.  And this from a guy who has driven almost all of Highway 11.  Multiple times.

Cayne's, Thornhill, Ontario, Yonge Street, Highway 11

Cayne’s Housewares – maybe better known for its ads featuring cheesey hand-drawn portraits of people’s pets

Thonhill is the home of Milos Raonic, Canada’s top male tennis pro ever, as well as Steve Moore, the Colorado Avalanche player whose career was ended by Todd Betuzzi’s attack from behind.

Highway 11 Yonge Street Judy and DavidSoul group The Philosopher Kings, Toronto indie-rock legends By Divine Right, and Hayden, my favourite musician, all come from Thornhill.  As did Moxy Fruvous, the acapella group that long did topical news-related shorts for local radio stations.  CBC host and yuppie darling Jian Ghomeshi was once in that band.  But, most importantly to the son of a kindergarten teacher whose job it was to cue his mom’s cassette tapes each night for her classes the next day, Thornhill is home to Judy and David, children’s musicians with albums like MathJam 2 and my favourite Rock n’ Roll Matzah Ball.

That’s all I really have to say.  I’m not trying to give Thornhill short-shrift but once you get north of Lawrence in Toronto everything becomes very suburban until you hit Holland Landing in the north.

Richmond Hill

I was into maps as a kid.  Anytime I came across place that I hadn’t heard of before, I always took time to find it on a map.  But I remember this one place that I could never find, long before the time of Google Maps or GPS.  I subscribed to a magazine whose offices were in this town, or was it a hamlet, or a village, or whatever it was?  I could never find it.  It was Gormley.

Now I understand why.  Because, like so many southern Ontario municipalities, Richmond Hill is more of an agglomeration of former communities rather than a town gone big.  R.I.P. Gormley.  And Langstaff, Dollar, Carville, Headford, Elgin Mills, Jefferson, Bond Lake, Lake Wilcox, Temperanceville, and Richvale.  While I’m sure there are some that continue to self-identify as residents of those former hamlets, today they’re all part of Richmond Hill, a city of almost 200 000 people in the Region of York.Richmond Hill on Yonge Street / Highway 11Not your average suburb

Another in a string of wealthy suburbs that straddle Yonge Street north of Toronto, Richmond Hill is a largely suburban bedroom community.  Fueled by reasonable house prices, pretty big lots, and the GO Train, Richmond Hill was Canada’s fastest-growing community in the 1990s.  (They passed the crown to Barrie in the 2000s.)  Today, Richmond Hill is having to grow up a bit, figuratively and literally.

Figuratively, as Richmond Hill isn’t the brand-spankin’-new suburb that it used to be.  Nothing stays new forever.  Richmond Hill’s had to deal with the decline of some of its more urban areas in ways that other GTA towns haven’t.  For a while there the main drag started to get a little grotty, with Richmond Hill being the home to the first strips clubs on appearing on Yonge Street north of the famous ripper’s-strip in Toronto.  The presence of adult businesses on the main drag can really empty out an area, particularly when coupled with the rise of the suburban mall and later the suburban power centre.  One strip club burned down, and the other(s) eventually packed up and hid elsewhere.  Today, Richmond Hill is revitalizing the streetscape, including new residential development and a fancy arts and entertainment centre.

Richmond Hill, Emerald Isle MOtel, Highway 11 Yonge Street

The Emerald Isle Motel puts the old in ‘old school’, harkenening back to the Yonge Street of auld. So much so that they’ve filmed movies here. (I got these photos from the internet.)

Richmond Hill has also had to grow up and deal with a decline in homogeneity.  Those affordable houses aren’t so affordable anymore.  A friend of ours bought a house in Richmond Hill in 2007 and we couldn’t believe how much she paid.  Now, we can’t believe how much she’d get if she sold it but even if she did, she wouldn’t be able to afford anything else in the area.  Though the average household income is 34 percent higher Richmond Hill versus the province at large, 15 percent of Richmond Hillers qualify as low income, more in-line with the provincial average than with communities to the north, where that rate is half.

And most notably, Richmond Hill is the most ethnically diverse community north of Toronto on Highway 11 / Yonge Street.  Whereas 85 percent of residents in Newmarket and Aurora are white, in Richmond Hill, one community to the south, this number is 53 percent.

And this means that, if you can get past the sprawl, Richmond Hill is kinda cool.  Twenty-five percent of residents are Asian.  More than fifteen percent are either Jewish or Muslim. Richmond Hill is still home to a smattering of Italians that left Toronto’s three Little Italies in the 1960s and 70s before all the Italians decided that Woodbridge was the place to be.  Ten percent of the population speaks Farsi.  Five percent speaks Russian.  Places like Richmond Hill can easily look homogenous to outsiders.  Considering the tendency of Toronto suburbs to take on a very ethnic-specific bent (I’m looking at you, Woodbridge and Brampton) there is a level of diversity here that’s not replicated in other Toronto sattelite towns.

Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada, Chinese Food, Highway 11 yonge street

There is normal Chinese food, there is Northern Ontario Chinese Food, and there is real Chinese food. Richmond Hill has some of the best real Chinese food in the country, with restaurants from all regions of China.

Richmond Hill is also having to grow up – literally, up – as the community approaches build-out.  Much like Willowdale and Thornhill before it, Richmond Hill is not immune to the pressure to find places for residents both fleeing Toronto house prices and coming from elsewhere.  Condos are being built on Yonge Street in Richmond Hill, and can be found dotting other areas of a community largely known for its plethora of single family houses.

Except Richmond Hill has it a bit different.  Willowdale is part of the City of Toronto and Thornhill is split in two between Markham and Vaughan.  Richmond Hill, on the other hand, is its own municipality.  This means that Richmond Hill has pretty unique opportunity to make some decisions as to how they’re going to handle the onslaught of hi-rise residential development that’s now jumping off the Toronto subway lines and into the first ring of outer suburbs.

Observatory, David Dunlap, Richmond Hill, Yonge Street

If the Observatory becomes a condo they’ll have a bunch of out-of-this-world names to choose from.  Maybe they can ship it to Moonbeam or Nipigon?  (Photo taken from

Despite these developments, Richmond Hill is still very much dependent on Toronto for employment.  It was once known as a flower town like Brampton (the greenhouse industry left Richmond Hill in the 1970s and 80s for the Niagara region where land is cheaper and development pressures slightly more subdued) and later for the David Dunlap Observatory, at a time the largest telescope in the world, recently shuttered and sold by the University of Toronto.

These are a few of my favourite things

Today Richmond Hill is home to Apotex, one of Canada’s largest drug companies, and the head office of my favourite store in the world, The Bulk Barn.  If you’ve ever worked at the Bulk Barn, please accept my apologies.  I’m one of those customers that buys about twelve grams of sixteen different candies.  I really don’t mean to make life hard for the staff, but I just can’t help it.  I can’t make up my mind when presented with a selection like that.

Harvey's burger Richmond Hill, Ontairo, Highway 11 Yonge Street

Mayo?  This ain’t a sub.  All you need is ketchup, mustard, lettuce, onions, banana peppers and extra-extra pickles, plus a few more pickles on the side if they’re willing.

Richmond Hill is also home of the first ever Harvey’s restaurant.  If you have been navigating this site for a while, you’ll realize that I’m a fan of Harvey’s.  Well, of any fast-food, particularly the second- and third-tier restaurants that aren’t available in every mall or plaza.  Sadly, the first-ever Harvey’s no longer stands.  Like seemingly everything in Toronto, it’s been razed for a condo development.

I’ve never understood why chains don’t develop their “first stores” into tourist locations.  I’d been to the Tim Horton’s on the corner of Ottawa and King in Hamilton probably twenty times before I realized that this was the first-ever Tim Horton’s.  Why not make it a tourist trap?  Why not make it a restaurant-slash-museum?

Why not restore it to make it look like it did when it first opened in 1960-whatever?  It’s not like having one store deviate from the bland overarching brand design will get everyone all confused.  Who wouldn’t want to sip a coffee sitting at one of those super-low counters on a tangerine-cushioned stool from a Tim Horton’s circa 1983?  I mean, think back to those terrible photos of teens, awkwardly staged hanging out on the woods or a tire-swing that every Harvey’s used to have on the walls?

Harvey's, Ontario, Highway 11 Yonge Street, Richmond Hill

Now this is an old school Harvey’s. I can only imagine what they looked like when they were founded in 1959.

Newmarket / Aurora

Newmarket, Ontario from Yonge Street Highway 11 looking south,…oh, this may not go over too well.  Yes, despite having webpages for places that aren’t settlements (The Temiskaming Ottawa Highland Trail), or that no longer exist (Lowther), or that I thought no longer existed (Kitigan), I’m going to profile the communities of Newmarket and Aurora, total population around 130 000, all in one go.

I have nothing against either town.  One of my favourite coworkers lives in Newmarket.  Or is it Aurora?

But that’s just it.  It is not that towns like Newmarket and Aurora aren’t important.  Quite the opposite, Aurora is home to the head offices of State Farm Insurance and Frank Stronach’s autoparts giant Magna.  Newmarket seems to have produced so many pro athletes that it’s giving Thunder Bay aka The Staal Family a run for its money.  It’s not that the towns aren’t nice.  More people live in these two communities than live along the 700 kilometres of Highway 11 that arches through Ontario from Matheson to Nipigon.  They both seem like great places to live.  Newmarket was ranked the 10th best place to live in all of Canada in 2013.

But in the context of profiling the quirks of Yonge Street / Highway 11, it’s more difficult to uncover the unique and the memorable when you’re dealing with a place the size and type of Newmarket or Aurora.

Yonge Street motel, Newmarket, Ontario, Highway 11

To think that all regional highways used to be dotted with mom-and-pop motels like this one, found at the north end of Newmarket on Highway 11 / Yonge Street

I’ll come clean – though I’ve driven Yonge Street in both of these communities, I’ve never completed any drive of Yonge Street between Barrie and the Toronto city limits all in one go.  Each time that I give it a try I end up giving up and heading to one of the 400-series highways on either side of both towns.  It’s not their fault that these towns hug the northernmost edge of Toronto’s sprawl, however, suburb fatigue starts to hit once you’ve left Thornhill.

This part of Yonge Street is messy urban driving.  It’s chock-full of stoplights.  You get stuck behind every third car turning right into a plaza or power centre.  It’s hard to stop to take photos, or to know what to take photos of.  It’s impossible to make u-turns.  In sum, it’s not conducive to exploration and discovery.  Ok, that sounds cheesy, but I think you know what I mean.

Aurora, Ontario, Yonge Street, Highway 11 train station GO

Aurora’s Old train station is now a GO Transit station

Newmarket was first settled by Quakers from Vermont and Pennsylvania.  Surprisingly, the local community was a hotbed of political discontent, eventually serving as the starting point for the ill-fated 1837 Rebellion march down Yonge Street.  Aurora’s beginning was as Machell’s Corners, an intersection on the newly extended Yonge Street, that eventually grew into a small industrial town.  The railway brought prosperity to both rural towns, but even back then their focus was largely southward.  Both were served by the Toronto and York Radial Railway up to the 1930s, which provided service with something like a big slow streetcar.  In the 1950s highways and the 1970s GO Trains cemented their status as bedroom communities of Toronto.

HIllary House, Ontario, Highway 11 Yonge Street, Aurora, historic

Historic Hillary House in Aurora, home to the area’s first doctors (Credit: User Fralambert at Wiki Commons.)

Both are affluent, with household incomes approximately 20 percent higher than the provincial average.  Both have arts, culture, entertainment, and sports facilities and all the services you could need, including the Upper Canada Mall in Newmarket.  Both towns have kept some of the built heritage alive.  Newmarket’s can be found on Main Street South, while Aurora has the Northeast Old Aurora Heritage District and the historic Hillary House at 15372 Yonge Street.  Both have produced their fair share of Canadian hockey players and other celebrities.  Canadian soccer player Jim Brennan, Indycar driver Scott Goodyear, comedian John Candy and bands Glass Tiger and Tokyo Police Club are all from Newmarket.  In addition to the Stronachs, former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Olympic skiier Brian Stemmle, the guy who oversaw the construction of the Empire State Building, and China’s most famous western television personality are all from Aurora.

I hope I haven’t done either community an injustice.  But with towns like these, anything you need is right at hand, anything you wanted to see you’ve probably already seen, and anything you wanted to know you could find easily online or in Wikipedia.  I’d be happy to live in either one of these communities – I grew up in one just like it – and I think that’s the best thing anyone can say about any place.

Yonge Street Highway 11 Town Hall Newmarket, Ontario

Historic Newmarket town hall (Credit: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)