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




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 highway11.ca

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 spacing.ca.)

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, highway11.ca…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 highway11.ca

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

Holland Landing

Crossed by the railway, a river, and bordered by a marsh, movers and shakers always had big plans for Holland Landing.

Highway 11 Yonge Street Holland Marsh highway11.ca Landing

Holland Marsh, undrained, at the north end of Holland Landing and the end of Old Yonge Street

In the 1790s Holland Landing was to be a shipping port that would facilitate the transportation of goods across Lake Simcoe, linking the northernmost part of Yonge Street with the Penetanguishene Road.  But heavy boat traffic never materialized.

Holland Landing was then to be used as critical point to transport shipbuilding supplies during the War of 1812.  But the war ended before Holland Landing could play a major role.

Then, in the early 1800s Quakers from Pennsylvania settled the area.  But they ended up building their big temple in nearby Sharon.

The late 1880s saw plans for a re-settlement of Manitobans fleeing from conflict with the Métis.  But Sir John A. MacDonald ended put troops on the new railway and snuffed that out to his political benefit.

In the early 1900s Holland Landing was supposed to be the site of a canal that would link Lake Simcoe with the Trent-Severn canal system.  But with the canal almost complete, it was cancelle by Sir Robert Borden.

The 1920s saw the draining of the Holland Marshes for agricultural use.  But most of those drained areas are actually west of town, closer to Bradford.

Holland Landing, East Gwillimbury Ontario, Yonge Street

So there is an East Gwillimbury to Bradford‘s West!

Today, Holland Landing an agricultural town and bedroom community that is home to about 40 percent of the Town of East Gwillimbury’s residents.  There are a few restaurants in town, most notably a Subway, a Country Style, and a few independents; in this case, the Sunshine Café, Dragon Kind Chinese, and Santa Fé Pizza.  But being so close to Bradford, and now bypassed by the modern Highway 11 (Holland Landing is at the terminus of Yonge Street, a bit north and east of the highway) most of the traffic ends up in Bradford.

Yonge Street in Holland Landing, Ontario

Yonge Street in Holland Landing (Credit: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Yonge Street, Holland Landing Ontario

It’s still called Yonge Street, even way up here

Holland Landing, Yonge Street, Highway 11 marsh wetland

More marshy goodness in Holland Landing, Ontario

Holland Marsh

Holland Marsh, Canal Road farmer's market, Highway 11

The Canal Road farmers market has a direct exit from the 400

Although it’s not immediately apparent when you’re driving on Highway 11, you can’t miss the wet, black fields and the plasticky, arching growtunnels of the Holland Marsh when you’re on the 400.

Stretching from Highway 400 to the outskirts of Holland Landing in the east and Innisfil in the north – with Bradford right in the middle – the Holland Marsh is one of central Ontario’s most productive agricultural areas.

The area was first settled in the 1880s when local mattress companies set up shop in order to harvest marsh reeds for stuffing and bedding.  By the mid 1920s the marshes had largely been drained, leading to the founding of a small Dutch settlement of 15 families in 1935.

Today the Holland Marsh is a mix of corporate farms, veg processors and family farmers that largely grow market garden crops for local consumption, particularly onions, carrots, and lettuces.  During the summer months, there is a farmer’s market open on Canal Road, just off the 400 as you get ready to drive up the big hill.

Carrots from Bradford, Ontario, Holland Marsh, highway11.ca

Holland Marsh veggies, in my fridge!

Holland Marsh, highway11.ca Ontario Holland Marsh, Ontario, highway11.ca


Bradford, Ontario GO train station, highway 11 yonge streetI’m from the burbs, from a family of commuters.  But Bradford to Toronto on the GO Train?  That’s one heck of a commute, without even thinking about the mention inevitable track delays or having to transfer to the TTC.  Needless to say, if it has a GO Train station then it’s a real town.  Bradford is not a village or a hamlet or a siding or a corners.

Another Victim of the Southern Ontario Squeeze

Bradford is one of those southern Ontario towns that is at a cross-roads.  It’s still small, rural, and agricultural enough to be surrounded by farms, have a big feed elevator siding the railway, and host a goofy festival like the Marsh Mash every May.  But it is not so rural that it is immune to the pressures of urbanization that have slowly seeped into its cracks.  Bradford is close enough to the big city to be constantly affronted by its demands, but may be just too far away to reap its full share of the benefits.  These are the sort of towns that are pinched between two realities, and that are too often never given the choice between one or the other.

Bradford, Ontario, Yonge Street, Highway 11

Highway 11 heading south into Bradford

With ten thousand people or so it has the usual amenities, including Tim Hortonses, a McDonalds, etc.  This is not the kind of place where you need to worry about getting gas.  Or getting anything.  It even has a 7-11.  (So if you’re into slushies – my favourite is Schweppes Ginger Ale, hard to find but worth it – Bradford is a good place to stop.)

But Bradford is unique in the sense that it is not so small that it can only support a couple of third-tier fast food joints, but also not so big that the economies of scale are sufficient to support those generic, sit-down dining franchises like Kelsey’s and Boston Pizza that seem to be infecting every southern Ontario community from a secret mist of spores wafting from some suburban power-centre nerve HQ.

It was refreshing to see the number of independent restaurants for a town this small and this rural.  There is old-school greasy roadside fare like BBQ King, two diners, a Portguese bakery, an English chip shop (Cook’s Bay), a Dutch tea room, Bangkok Saigon Noodle, a Mexican restaurant, a souvlaki place, and a couple of independent pizza parlours.  And, of course, there are the standard old-school sports bars you’d expect of a rural Ontario town.

ENV305:  Informal Travel Blog Training at the U of T

I lose most of my inhibitions anytime food is involved.  I’ll eat almost anything, anywhere, with anyone.  I’m not particularly big on small-talk, I generally keep to myself, but I don’t have much of a problem strolling into strange restaurants, whether it’s for coffee at a francophone diner in Kapuskasing, a midweek lunch at Sister’s in Englehart or a bustling Sunday morning post-church congregational brunch at The Roosteraunt in Smith’s Falls.

Downtown Bradford, Ontario, Yonge Street, Highway 11

When you’re alone and life is making you hungry you can always go downtown

I attribute this fact to the specialized training I received at university: ENV305 Ecosystems of Ontario.  The course description was a complete yawn.  The fact that it was only offered in alternating years made it seem unpopular.  But the lucky few who enrolled were all surprised when, during the third week of class, we received a syllabus that seemed nothing like the description.  It became obvious – the course was made to sound so dry as to attract only the die-hard, and offered only every other year in order to derail word-of-mouth.  Because, reading that syllabus, it become clear that the course would have been more appropriately titled:  “Drive around Ontario, go hiking in the bush, wolf down greasy diner food, identify rare flora, end the day at a sadsack sportsbar in some tiny rural Ontario town, and then find a way back to your camp to freeze your ass off in a tent.  Repeat biweekly.

So, when you’ve closed the Halloween night party at the Pacific Hotel in Wiarton, scoured Norfolk County for a place that was open after last-call, traded your pita for entry into The Beer Store five minutes after close in Huntsville, bought every last cinnamon bun in the bakery on the last Saturday morning of the cottage season in Bala, and gotten propositioned by cougars whilst dancing to karaoke in your yellow rain coat and rubber boots in Ridgetown, stepping into a local restaurant for lunch is nothing to speak of.

Usually.  Joe’s Restaurant and Bar was a bit of an exception.

Just a Little bit Chickens**t

I was about to settle for Subway – it was 11.30 am on a Monday, and most of the aforementioned restaurants were closed – when I saw it.  Scribbled hastily in magic marker on a whiteboard in a dark window of a non-descript hole-in-the-wall on the north side of town:  Portuguese  Chicken  Dinner.

Not that there was anything wrong with the restaurant at all.  It was fantastic.  (Actually, if you want to skip the over-written anecdote below, the food was the best meal I’ve ever had on Highway 11 / Yonge Street.  Province-wide.)

Bradford, Ontario Yonge Street Highway 11 court house

Council chambers and courthouse, in Bradford

I waited in the vestibule to be seated.  I could see that there was no-one in the dining room or at the bar, but I could hear noise coming from the back.  It was still technically morning so I knew I’d have to take a little initiative.

I headed to the kitchen, at the far back of the restaurant, where I found an aproned woman ladeling steaming stews into painted terra-cotta dishes.  Seven or eight huge guys huddled around her, all of whom were staring at yours truly.

It’s at times like this that being a guy with a preference in footwear isn’t necessarily a cool or quirky touch.

I have never heard my boots sound louder than they did when I walked across the restaurant.  (Do the Portuguese tile everything?)  I probably sounded like Mr. Ed.  From the sound of my steps maybe those guys expected me to be wearing a sheriff’s costume.  Or chaps.  Or maybe they wondered if the owners were about to get a shakedown.

Whatever they thought, me in my cowboy boots and jeans and sideburns and my foam trucker hat (it’s not a fashion accessory, I swear, they’re the only baseball caps that fit my huge head), well, when compared to the guys with their plaster-stained t-shirts and steel-toed boots and heavy-gauge jeans sagging under the weight of their tool-belts…I felt like a member of the Village People.

Bradford, Highway 11 Yonge Street mural, Ontario

It is Highway 11 here … so there’s gotta be a mural!

I waited my turn and asked the woman what the lunch options were.  She responded to me in Portuguese.  (My best guess was: something fishy, something else fishy, and something beefy and fishy.)  Normally I’d just make a blind choice and chalk it up to ‘an adventure’ if it didn’t turn out.  But today, sticking out like a phoney cowboy in an ethnic restaurant, I was off my game.  Thankfully my local bank has a “We Speak Portuguese” sign in the window.  And I’ve spent years scrolling foreign websites for soccer stats.  So after a quick mental translation, I managed to cough out a weak “Falamo ingles?”

She turned to her side and removed the lid off an aluminum tray that was being warmed beside the main dishes.  She took its contents to the back.  She checked over her shoulder and seemed surprised that I was still waiting.  “You?Chicken.Sit.

I didn’t know whether to be relieved or offended.  I’m not used to being the mangiacake.  But damn, was it ever a good day to be the mangiacake!  That was hands-down the best Portuguese chicken I’ve ever had.  Crispy skin gave way to succulent chicken that was cooked just right so the fat had melted into the meat.  And the potatoes?  Wow, soft, sweet, they yielded to your bite like little pillows of Portuguese potatoey goodness.  The piri piri sauce was tangy and spicy but didn’t blow the tastebuds out of your mouth.  The rice was, well, let’s just say I’ve never understood why Portguese chicken comes with potatoes and rice.  The second is just an unnecessary starch.  Give me a veg or something.  Anyway, it was the best meal I’ve had travelling all of Yonge Street or Highway 11.

Bradford, Ontario's windmill hosts the Classic Car Restorers Guild, on Yonge Street, Highway 11

Not only does this windmill contraption count as Bradford’s “big weird thing”, but it also houses “The Guild”, a killer classic car restoration showroom.


Coulson’s Hill

Highway 11 Ontario Coulson's Hill highway11.caAs you travel on Yonge Street / Highway 11 from Bradford, you’ll pass through two hamlets, both home to two churches, sitting atop a hill.

Churchill is one.  Coulson’s Hill is the other.

On the way up to Coulson’s Hill you’ll pass three farm stands, a garden centre, and a farm with a sign advertizing “Nonna’s Firewood.”

The town site for Coulson’s Hill is actually just off Highway 11, one turn west.  That’s where you’ll find the two churches – one Anglican, one Presbyterian – a cemetery, and a few houses.  I know that these churches draw from the surrounding farm country, but with a swath of churches 10 minutes south, in Bradford, another two churches up in Churchill, maybe ten minutes north on Yonge Street, you can’t help but wonder how big their congregations are.  What keeps these churches going?

There is also a really big Garden Gallery just north of Coulson’s Hill, possibly in Fennell.  Fennell was was a dot on my map but I never saw a town sign for it.

Coulson's Hill, one of two churches in town, Highway 11

Church #1

Church in Coulson's Hill, Ontario off Highway 11

Church #2

Apple farm stand, Highway 11 Ontario near Coulson's Hill

Driving along Highway 11 in northern Ontario, almost each town has some big weird thing on the side of the road – sometimes a snowman, sometimes an animal, sometimes a curling rock. I don’t know if this apple counts.

Kernel Simpson's Farm Stand, Coulson's Hill, Ontario, Ontario Highway 11

For a while I was into wearing baseball caps with minor league baseball because the logos were so often so bad. This corn dude reminds me of the Cedar Rapids Kernels hat I wore proudly for age.


As you travel north on Yonge Street from Bradford, you’ll pass through two hamlets, both home to two churches sitting atop a hill.  One, is the very aplty named Churchill.

Churchill, Ontario, Curling Club, Highway 11

Who knew curling was even invented in 1878?

Churchill is pretty tiny.  There isn’t a gas station and there might have been a variety store, although I don’t recall one.  But with its two churches and a couple of old buildings, it’s kinda quaint.  There is a curling club, a store named Steeples that sells home decor, fudge, and pies, a garden centre (gotta love those multi-faceted Highway 11 stores), “Skydive Toronto” (isn’t that a bit misleading?), and, most importantly, a cowboy boot store.

Yes, you read that correctly – a place that sells western boots.  In a town that doesn’t even have a gas station.  If that doesn’t scream Highway 11, what does?

Churchill, Ontario, Wild Wild West Western Wear on Highway 11

Does this medium-sized replica of a cowboy boot count as Churchill’s “big weird thing”?

I had to do a double-take.  I couldn’t believe my luck.  I pretty much pulled an immediate u-turn on Highway 11 – this is a big deal because there was traffic and when driving I’m cautious to the point of anal.  (You don’t know how many cool photos I’ve missed because I’m unwilling to slow down, pull over or pull a u-ey.  I missed going into Eagle Canyon in Dorion simply because I missed the turn and then didn’t feel comfy u-turning til I hit Thunder Bay, and by then I was too far away!)  I couldn’t believe that there would be two western boot stores in between Toronto and Barrie (the other is in Innisfil.)  I had dreams of finding a form-fitting pair of Tony Lama Regal Americanas in Antique Peanut or a pair of 11 EW Dan Post Justins in Cognac.  But sadly for me, I was driving on a Monday afternoon.  And in the off-season, Wild Wild West (which seems to run out of someone’s home) is only open on Saturdays from 11-5.

If you’re looking to venture off Highway 11, turn east onto Killarney Beach Road.  A ten minute drive will take you to Lefroy, a cute little beach town (with a great fish and chips shop) that reminds me some of the little shoreline towns on Lake Erie.

Highway11.ca my western boots

A few years back I needed to buy riding boots for a ranch vacation. They wouldn’t fit in my luggage so I had to wear them on the plane. Despite being the cheapest boots I could find they were the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. Not to mention the coolest looking too. So I’m a convert. I even have a fancypants pair for work!

Farms near Churchill, Ontario, on Highway 11

Although Churchill does have its modern subdivision just north of town at the crest of the hill, by and large it’s still an aggy community

Churchill, Ontario, St. Peter's Anglican Church on Highway 11

This is church #1 in Churchill when driving north up Highway 11. I did not get a photo of church #2.  It probably would have made more sense to put this photo up at the top where I refer to the churches.