Our intersections should be microcosms

The old Yonge and Dundas was downtown Toronto distilled and poured out onto the street. Business executives and retail clerks would sit on the ledge around the entrance to the Eaton Centre eating lunch or smoking. People seeking diamond rings and discount jeans, musical theatre and adult entertainment would pass each other on the square before the mall entrance. Panhandlers, thugs, hot-dog vendors, mimes, artists, musicians and manic street preachers plied their respective trades on the corner, each comfortable in the space that served as the city’s rec room.

The Eaton Centre was designed to draw people off the street and into the enclosed society of the mall, but was set back from the street to provide a triangle of public space broad enough to accomodate the bulk of the city’s eccentricities. It was a little gaudy and rundown, but the compressed rhythm of the street corner throbbed the heartbeat of the city and it was beautiful.

All that’s changed. While the buildings on the west side of the street are much as they were, the entire block of ragtag stores on the southeast corner that once served to contain and magnify the energy of the intersection has been razed. In its place is a 3,250-square-metre barren expanse of flat granite that looks like an abandoned bus terminal.

Whatever is eventually built on the northeast corner to frame the square (at the moment, it’s a hole in the ground), the intersection at Yonge and Dundas will be worse than what it was. Embarrassed by the messy genius that sprang up organically and became Toronto’s heart, councillor Kyle Rae, city planners and developers have tried to build a more ideal main square. They’ve ruined Toronto’s best intersection, probably irreversibly.

Saddened but not cynical, I struck out in search of other great downtown intersections. Yonge and Bloor seemed a good place to start. It’s where our main subway lines converge, where uptown meets downtown, where east meets west. A natural focal point.

Yet the towers on the north corners snuff it. The Hudson’s Bay Centre features rough concrete where you’d expect windows, and no apparent entrances to anything. The staircase leading into the RBC Financial branch several dozen metres from the corner serves as a good auditorium for Ben Kerr, and it does provide some space for the hot-dog vendors, but from a corner so spectacularly central, there should be more. The building at 2 Bloor Street West on the northwest corner features a recessed entrance into a concourse with a bank of elevators and a security desk. Yuck. Stollery’s clothing store on the southwest corner is a bright spot, but the City Optical on the southeast corner is the wrong type of business for a good corner. A great intersection requires the communal interaction of a restaurant, a video or clothing store, or a grocery. There’s something too individual about an optical shop.

The northern options — Yonge and Eglinton, Yonge and Sheppard — suffer from malls-with-no-storefront syndrome, so I try looking the other way.

The south end of Yonge at Queens Quay is the biggest missed opportunity in Toronto. The base of the city’s main drag, where the city meets the lakefront, seems like a natural spot for a great public space. It’s the home of the Toronto Star, which would be an ideal anchor for the corner. It was a newpaper that put the “Times” in Times Square. Yet the sheer brutality of the architecture of the Toronto Star building would on its own be enough to kill this potentially great intersection. Add large stretches of parking lot to the north and south, a barren space large enough to fit a football field between the Star building and the condo towers to the west, another vast expanse between the condos and the Westin Harbour Castle, and we’ve got a space more bleak than Dundas Square. I need to get off Yonge Street.

The intersection of Church and Wellesley seems like an obvious choice, but on closer examination it’s more the border of a good strip than a genuinely good intersection. Ditto Pape and Danforth. Queen and Spadina seems potentially good, but two banks and a McDonald’s are enough to kill even the coolest corner. Besides, Queen and John is really the heart of the east end of the Queen West strip, the gateway to the club district to the south and the downtown core to the east.

When I arrive at the corner of Queen and John, I finally find encouragement: the open studios of MuchMusic and City TV and the ingeniously democratic Speaker’s Corner on the southeast corner provide a little media glitz; a convenience store, a noodle house and Pages bookstore on the northwest add some communal commerce; coffee shop patios on both the other corners keep the street life humming.

I realize I’ve been silly to restrict my search to intersecting major streets, and suddenly our city’s two truly great intersections become obvious: two corners that, in contrast to the bigger names on the subway line, are as much destination as thoroughfare, where pedestrians linger, classes mingle and patios attract.

College and Clinton anchors the Little Italy strip with restaurant patios on four corners, including the comfortable Cafe Diplomatico and the currently trendy Tempo. It may in fact be a lot of people’s choice for the best intersection in the city, but four restaurants doesn’t display the variety a truly monumental corner needs. For that I go to Bloor and Brunswick.

In the heart of the Bloor-Annex strip, it perfectly reflects its neighbourhood in the way Yonge and Dundas once perfectly represented Toronto. Ye Olde Brunswick House on the southeast corner is an institution, while the remarkable patio of the Future Bakery on the southwest draws a diverse mix of writers, drawers, talkers and panhandlers to linger over beer or coffee throughout the day and into the night. The By the Way Café on the northeast corner is slightly upscale, and like so much of the Birkenstocks-and-wool-sweater crowd that lives in the Annex, it tried to be vegetarian but ultimately gave up. During the summer, the old building on the northeast corner, which used to house the very communal and pleasantly downscale Allo Stop before the province made it illegal, is transformed into an ice-cream stand with picnic tables out front.

The intersection is steps away from independent bookstores, record shops, sushi joints and pubs. It’s grown organically, undisturbed by helpful city planners. It offers plenty of communal space and a boisterous patio that makes for a lively street life. And it’s a perfect microcosm of the surrounding community.

It’s not the old Yonge and Dundas, but until the city realizes what it’s done and pours a little effort into Yonge and Bloor, I’ll take it.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on January 16, 2003.