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At Yonge: The Great Divide


Last-minute shoppers at Yonge and Queen St., Christmas Eve, 1924.


Antonia Zerbisias Feature Writer

Across The Great Divide, just grab your hat, and take that ride/Get yourself a bride, and bring your children down to the river side.

— Robbie Robertson (The Band, 1969)

A hundred years ago, it's been said, the heaviest pedestrian traffic in Toronto went from one side of Queen St. to the other, just steps west of Yonge.

That's where shoppers crossed to compare prices at Eaton's department store to the north and Simpson's (now The Bay) to the south.

That the rival retailers would set up shop across the street from each other — both growing to dominate their entire respective blocks — was hardly surprising since, at the time, Yonge and Queen was the centre of the Toronto universe.

Not for nothing did both stores set up west of Yonge. So did most hotels, banks, offices and government buildings. Indeed, most everything of consequence was west of Yonge.

That despite John Simcoe's original plan for his town. His intent was to build it at the mouth of the Don. But Ashbridge's Bay, then around 1,500 acres of malarial marsh, sent the city's founding fathers fleeing west.

They only ventured back for the cemeteries, jails, asylums, public houses and bordellos.

And so much of the east became an industrial wasteland centered around the river. That's where Gooderham and Warts built its Dickensian distillery and where slaughterhouses stood next to tanneries, soap factories and sausage makers.

The east was populated mostly by poor immigrant workers as well as the homeless and outlaws who roamed the vast ravine.

Everybody else stayed safe and upwind.

"The east end became a place for things that were unsightly, that didn't smell very good," says the University of Guelph historian Jennifer Bonnell, an expert on the Don. "And where King and Queen Sts. meet at the Don was historically a very dangerous spot."

Today, west-end folks still turn up their noses at the east end. The west end, they claim, is hipper, trendier, more alive. In fact, the old Queen West has moved further west to "West Queen West" to escape the mall store transformation of East Queen Westand maintain its cool cred.

West-enders say the east, what with the postcard-perfect Beach shops and baby stroller-jammed Leslieville, doesn't have the grit and character of the west.

True, you probably don't see as many piercings and tattoos in the east end.

But then, the 19th-century hotel Jilly's, a booze-and-boobs joint, and the bar The Duke, both east of the Don, have yet to be gussied up and gentrified like the west end's Drake and Gladstone.

It's easier to get a good picture of the west end on the 501. That's because of the congestion caused by the traffic. Not so in the east, built mostly after the invention of the automobile.

In fact, many parts east of the Don are now filled with spanking new townhouse complexes, including the infamously genteel "Pleasantville" on the old Greenwood Racetrack.

Also, the east end, thanks to the vast areas around the Moss Park Armoury and housing complex, is greener. And as the 501 trundles further along, you can catch actual glimpses of the lake. There are no looming towers of glass and concrete to cut off the views.

Which brings us to The Great Wall of Toronto, both cultural and physical.

Culturally we know that Queen West, with its music venues and Four Seasons Centre, may have the edge on Queen East — although the latter is where the artists who made Queen West trendy are now being driven by the soaring rents and condos.

On Queen East where it's still possible to find relatively inexpensive industrial space suitable for a studio loft.

As for the physical wall, that's plain to see from any seat on the 501. On the western edge of Yonge, the highrises erupt, ever taller, ever closer together. On the east side, they stick out, literally, like sore thumbs, here and there.

Fort York lives still on the west side.

And Simcoe's dream has returned to the east.


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