Daniel Ross

Historian of the city, politics, and society

Yonge Street

On March 2, 2017 I successfully and very happily defended my  PhD dissertation, entitled “Remaking Downtown Toronto: Politics, Development, and Public Space on Yonge Street, 1950-1980.” It is the work of years of research and writing under the supervision of Marcel Martel, Marlene Shore, and Colin Coates. Harold Bérubé and Roger Keil provided insightful commentary as my external and internal/external examiners. The next step is the book!


Chuckman’s Toronto


This study explores the history of Toronto’s iconic downtown Yonge Street and the people who contested its future, spanning a period from the 1950s through to 1980 when the street was seldom out of the news. Through detailed analysis of a range of primary sources, it explores how the uses and public meanings of this densely-built commercial strip changed over time, in interaction with the city transforming around it. What emerges is a street that, despite fears for its future, remained at the heart of urban life in Toronto, creating economic value as a retail centre; pushing the boundaries of taste and the law as a mass-entertainment destination; and drawing crowds as a meeting place, pedestrian corridor, and public space. Variously understood as an historic urban landscape and an embarrassing relic, a transportation route and a people place, a bastion of Main Street values and a haven for big-city crime and sleaze, from the 1950s through the 1970s Yonge was at the centre of efforts to improve or reinvent the central city in ways that would keep pace with, or even lead, urban change.

This thesis traces the history of three interventions—a pedestrian mall, a clean-up campaign aimed at the sex industry, and a major redevelopment scheme—their successes and failures, and the larger debates they triggered. The result is a narrative that ranges widely in theme: planning, automobility, and youth culture; vice, moral regulation, and citizen activism; capitalism, corporate power, and urban renewal. Engaging with the North American and international historiographies of these topics, it places the politics of downtown in Toronto in larger historical context. It offers an account of urban transformation that emphasizes complexity in the interaction between ideas, structures of power, and the often idiosyncratic decisions of a range of downtown actors. An increasingly interventionist local state, dynamic capital investment in retail and real estate, and diverse citizen mobilizations all contributed to transforming Yonge Street, helping to create the modern, globalized downtown shopping street and public space we know today.


Since the first half of the twentieth century, Yonge Street has had a special status in city planning and the public imagination in Toronto. By the mid-1900s it was Toronto’s “Main Street”, its shopping mecca, and its centre for entertainment and tourism. Running north-south through the heart of downtown, Yonge also pointed the way for Toronto’s rapid northward expansion and suburbanization, connecting residential areas to the heart of Toronto’s commercial and financial district.

It has often been the place Torontonians gather to celebrate or protest. Whether celebrated as the heart of the city, or reviled for its associations with sin or gaudy commercialism, Yonge has always been an important part of Toronto’s sense of itself.


Because of Yonge Street’s importance to Toronto’s economic life and civic identity, debates about its future had wide participation. There is no better place to study if you want to understand the changes affecting central Toronto in the postwar period. Between 1940 and 1980 Toronto transformed from a mostly white, industrial city to a sprawling multicultural metropolis. It grew upwards and outwards, building skyscrapers and subways, expressways and suburbs. And as the shape of the city changed, so did expectations and dreams of what its downtown could or should be. Central Toronto–and especially Yonge Street–was targeted for transformation, whether by planners hoping to better order the city, citizens asserting their right to downtown, or private developers desiring profit and a share in making Toronto a world-class city. The resulting debates were animated not just by conflicting interests, but competing visions of the city.


My thesis is composed of three large thematic sections bracketed by an introductory chapter and a conclusion. The first section uses debates over the pedestrianization of Yonge Street in the late 1960s and 1970s to explore the larger issue of how to balance the needs of cars, public transit users, and pedestrians in the downtown core.

Source: Toronto Star

Toronto Star

In the second, I explore Yonge Street’s transformation into the city’s entertainment destination, and its place at the centre of debates over the moral governance of public space and regulation of the sex industry.

Finally, in the third section I examine attempts by citizens, politicians—and of course property developers—to shape the built landscape in the downtown core, using the massive Eaton Centre project of the 1960s and 1970s as my central example.

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