Making Ryerson Yonge

The Student Learning Centre – Making Ryerson Yonge

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The Heart of Downtown: Yonge Street as Gateway

The Princes' Gates at the CNE

The Golden Gate Bridge

In 2008, Ryerson president Sheldon Levy referred to the newly-acquired Student Learning Site as a Ryerson’s “gateway onto Yonge Street.”  What did he mean by this gateway? Can a building really be a gateway?

Prison Gates

Prison Gates

St. Louis Gateway Arch

St. Louis Gateway Arch: the Gateway to the West

A gate can be a physical demarcation; it can define and divide space.  It can create a sense of order. A gate can be a division but also a connection.  What kind of gate will the Student Learning Centre be?  One that promotes or prohibits the movement of people, or both?  Who or what will monitor this gateway onto campus, and what criteria will they use to include and exclude?

As mentioned, in medical terms, you can compare Yonge Street to an Aorta of sorts, because it joins together all aspects of social activity in the city.  Just as arteries both withdraw oxygen and dispel carbon dioxide, shops and services on Yonge Street take up valuable space, but also contribute to the social and cultural makeup of Toronto. By creating an entrance or gateway onto Yonge Street, social and cultural life is transmitted into Ryerson from Toronto’s downtown core, just as Toronto’s downtown core is synchronized with the wisdom and knowledge-centre of a university.

Sheldon Levy referred to this phenomenon in his address “Universities as City Builders”.

Next: The Heart of Downtown Toronto

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Permanence and Circulation: Toronto’s Maleable History

The Yonge Dundas area is constantly in motion.  The hustle and bustle of shoppers, the influx and outflow of traffic, pedestrians coming to and fro.  Sometimes it’s difficult to image the area as anything but a perpetual state of activity.  But hasn’t Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas intersection always been synonymous with change and innovation?

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Covering Up: Censoring Sexualised Bodies in the Yonge-Dundas Area.


Yonge Street of the Past: Go Go Girls at the Tavern and risqué b-grade films like Motor Psycho coexist with the old and young.

What does it mean for Ryerson to move onto Yonge Street?

Well for starters it means a coveted Yonge Street address which would allow the university to feature more prominently in Toronto’s downtown core. It also means that the university will be moving all of the esteemed academic tradition of higher learning institutions into a neighbourhood with a resiliently sleazy reputation that has persisted through prior attempts of gentrification over the years. However, the relative permanence of a university structure means that Ryerson’s move onto Yonge may successfully gentrify the area in the way that other formal attempts to do so have not. The reality of this is met with apprehension by some: Allen Cooper, owner of Zanzibar, is worried that the university’s plans will ‘sanitize‘ the street- and of course jeopardise his over half a century old business. Whatever happens, there is no doubt that the university would put a spotlight on the strip joints, adult video stores, and other establishments deal with sex on particular strip of Yonge Street.

Yet it seems that Ryerson need not join the ranks of other symbols of gentrification (Dundas Square and environs, including the recently built the AMC megaplex) that already exist in the area, but may instead comfortably occupy the same space as these so-called seedy establishments.

Moralisation and censorship has been a part of Toronto’s history for much of the last century. With the Prohibition of the early 1900’s, some of the earlier forms of censorship are evident. The message of this image does not only warn against drinking, it also reaffirms a specifically heteronormative sexuality as these ads were addressed to men. The dance halls were another place where sexual performance was censored and at the height of Toronto’s moral reform (led by various religious sects to restore virtue to Toronto) and beyond, there were many rules in place to control any racy behaviour on the dance floor. However, what was allowed- males and females partnered up, however distantly- did allow for sexual performance. It was just on the terms of the dance hall owners or chaperones who helped to perpetuate the values of the reformers.

In the fifties, the image of a clean and wholesome society only served to cover up what was really going on.  Just a decade later, Zanzibar was beginning to establish itself as a strip joint and featured “topless dancers,” finally breaking through the tradition of the reformers that purported to keep sexuality private even though they were really reinforcing a certain kind of public sexual performance. Zanzibar’s relatively radical practices at the time did not mean that censorship was not was not still going strong in the city. Theatres like the Coronet, the Rio, and the Elgin that lined the Yonge Street strip showed classic pieces of cinematic trash, including adult-only films that were heavily censored courtesy of the Ontario Censor Board. These cinemas, spaces where people from different walks of life co-existed to enjoy cinema at the margins of what was deemed acceptable are now long gone, the result of efforts to make the area more upscale.

So does Ryerson want to go the way of the city’s moralisers of past? It certainly doesn’t have to– Ryerson is in a position to break the cycle of censorship and homogenization by taking steps to preserve the diversity of the area. To do so is to support the radical notion that sexuality does not need to furtively occupy the side-streets and alleyways of society. The freedom to perform, and to do so in the way one chooses, is part of the message of Toronto’s recent Slutwalk, and the message Ryerson might choose to support as it moves onto Yonge Street.

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Coming Together at Yonge and Dundas: Liberation, Subcultures, and Media.

Media objects act as markers and makers of subcultures and identities. These media objects can include print publications such as newspaper, clothing and music items, such as vinyl records. Though subcultures rise and fall, and identities may change, these objects of their existence remain in circulation. Ryerson is located in the heart of downtown – the Yonge and Dundas intersection. On the exterior, media objects are bought and sold, yet inside the campus they are created. Ryerson has been home to subcultures and communities and a place for the creation and circulation of their objects – a fact made apparent when examining the history of the campus.

Sharon Zukin’s article “Gentrification, Cuisine, and the Critical Infrastucture: Power and Centrality Downtown” suggests that “the more these groups deviated from an accepted social norm, the closer they were to the cultural and geographical center of the city”. What kind of alternative or deviant groups can be found and linked with the history of Ryerson and the Yonge-Dundas area?  How are these public groups formed?

Michael Warner’s article “Publics and Counter-publics” suggests :

“A public is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself. . . . it exists only as the end for which books are published, shows broadcast, Web sites posted, speeches delivered, opinions produced. It exists by virtue of being addressed.” (Warner, 50)

As well, Warner Suggests that there are publics that come into being, solely because of the circulation and influence of “texts”. A text is something that can be seen or read, and not just in a typical sense. All cultural products can be “read” in different ways. In an area like Yonge and Dundas, heavily saturated with these “texts”, and located in the heart of the city, many of them speak to publics that are “outside the social norm.” Mass marketing and dominant ideologies seem to fill the Yonge and Dundas area today, when digging through the history of people and objects that have passed through the Ryerson Campus, one can see where meaningful interactions (whether creation or circulation) with media can be found.

This video from 1986 shows a Yonge and Dundas area that few students at Ryerson may remember. It is diverse, eclectic, and kitschy – the exciting seediness that was erased with the transformation of Yonge and Dundas into what we know it as today. When we spectate upon historical “texts” like this, we can imagine the publics that roamed among them. If we look further back into history, we can discover more about counter-publics and their “texts”, and that is exactly what we as students discovered when digging through archives trying to discover more about the history of social liberation and counter-culture movements in the history of Ryerson.

At the Ryerson Archives and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, we learned about the sites of conflict for the LGBT movement starting in the 1970’s in and around the Ryerson Community. The Body Politic was Canada’s leading Gay publication, circulating from 1971-1987 and facing many challenges and victories on behalf of the Gay community. Its pages (and creators) have passed through the Ryerson campus both materially and symbolically, as the issues of LGBT rights and liberation remain important on the Ryerson Campus today.

We discovered the role of music as an escape and means of expression for youth seeking liberation from the restrictions of everyday life. Ryerson’s “coffee house”, The Pornographic Onion, was a place for expression and creativity during the folk music movement. It brought together artists, poets and musicians who sought to create a public that was all their own. As well, used records shops like The Vinyl Museum, carried this tangible history onward for further generations, allowing an alternative experience than provided by most music retailers in the area.

Related posts: Taverns on Yonge Street and Nostalgic for Sam’s

While opportunities in the public sphere for women may have been limited in the 1950’s, Ryerson’s fashion department and its affiliation with the Eaton Center provided creative and profitable avenues for women seeking to step out and find their way in the world. Women were able to enter the sphere of business and design, allowing them opportunities not previously available to them, and a means of creative expression.

When we look at the landscape of Yonge and Dundas, we are bombarded with dominant ideology that seems to fly past us on the busy Yonge street strip. What did Yonge street’s culture industry look like in years before? When entering an archive, touching tangible pieces of paper, we can image the rich visual texts that were the landscapes of the Yonge and Dundas (and Ryerson) area in previous times. Without the preservation of these items, these “publics” may be forgotten or overlooked. As well, popular items, such as the above video, and also personal testimonial and “memories” act to preserve cultural histories.  These fragile documents allow us a glimpse into faces of Ryerson University that are often forgotten. When landscapes (both architecturally, and culturally) how does one remember preceding conditions, and their importance?

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On and Off the Street: Is Homelessness A Social Problem?

History of Downtown Toronto

Downtown Toronto, 1930 (courtesy of BlogTO)

The issue of homelessness is an extremely sensitive and controversial topic; however, it is significant to note that this ongoing issue should be publically recognized and accepted as a social issue.

The emergence of a working class and a large homeless population coincided with the industrialization of the city in the 1850’s. Furthermore, the East of Downtown Toronto within the 1950′s was home to Canada’s largest skid row.

Read more about the history of “skid row” and the transition to the word “homelessness,” according to Bill Bosworth, now researcher on housing issues, but working with men’s shelters in the early 1970s.

The Involvement of Ryerson

In 1852, Egerton Ryerson founded Ontario’s first teacher training facility, the Toronto Normal School. Later on, in 1948, the Ryerson Institute of Technology was founded which inherited the staff and facilities of the Toronto Training and Re- establishment Institute. Throughout the years, not only had the name changed, but the many expansions of the University created new and more developed infrastructures. The history of Ryerson includes many factual incidents including the various name changes, the focus of the university and new buildings that were being developed, however one thing seemed to continuously be left out of the history. That fact was that Ryerson Polytechnical University (named so at the time), expropriated the Yonge Street Mission Youth Centre in 1966. In all the histories explaining Ryerson University, this fact has been excluded, however what remains in most archives and databases is the statement that simply “In 1966, its [Ryerson] name was changed to Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.”

Furthermore, the Ryerson Campus has too seen its share of the homeless population. Not only are individuals scattered near campus, but also there seems to be an invisible barrier preventing many from entering the grounds of campus.

For over a century, Yonge & Dundas has been a centre for sheltering and charity of people suffering from homelessness and poverty. A key institution in this struggle has been The Yonge Street Mission, whose name remains etched in stone, now housing its Evergreen Youth Shelter.

Read more about The Yonge Street Mission


Yonge Street Mission
Yonge Street Mission – Evergreen Youth Shelter


Causes of Homelessness

The Youth surveyed, for the most part, become homeless for reasons beyond their control and believed were beyond their capacity to resolve. Youth emerging from foster care, being kicked out, lost housing, or fleeing unsafe homes (none of which they can resolve themselves) make up almost exactly half of the population (49.8%)


Changing Patterns For Street Involved Youth/ [Electronic Resource] / Submitted By Public Interest. Toronto, Ont. : Yonge Street Mission, [2009] (Saint- Lazare, Quebec : Gibson Library Connections, 2010).

Implementation of Policies and Regulations

According to the Ontario Coalition against Poverty (OCAP),

“The mayor, and city politicians, want the public to believe that the city is taking care of the needs of the poor and thehomeless- in reality, homeless men and women are suffering and dying on our streets. The City of Toronto has abandoned many poor and the homeless people who live on its street and in its shelters.”

Those in authoritative positions in the City of Toronto have implemented programs, such as the Safe Street Act, 1999, to address the social issue of poverty and homelessness, however they have failed to meet their needs.



Read more about: The Ontario Safe Streets Act (1999)

“The homeless stand as vigilant warriors battling for public spaces belonging to us all.”

Homeless people are affected by the overt control exercised over their lives by institutional forces. Due to their being un-housed, they are subject to the controls imposed by forces such as private and public policing, as well as governmental control.There is an elimination of spaces where homeless people can live and sleep, resulting in the criminalization of these individuals and therefore the law makes it impossible for them to live and thereby threatens their rights.


Case 1: Nathan Phillips Square

Case 2: Police Brutality at the G20

Case 3: Beaten to Death

With the upcoming emergence of the new Ryerson Student Learning Centre, there will be an increase in security provisions and policing surrounding the area. As the homeless population has already been displaced due to the emergence of new infrastruces within the downtown district, specifically Yonge- Dundas, we believe there will be an even greater displacement and “hiding” of the homeless population as a social problem in this vicinity.

“Poverty is not a crime and the poor should not be criminalized” – OCAP

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Nostalgic for Sam: The Circulation of Consumption A Short Story about a Long Empire
“I do reminisce with friends about Sam’s and our teen-aged visits to ‘the city’ of which Sam’s was an important part. The whole Yonge Street strip really is tinged with nostalgia” -Dawn the Librarian

On a routine basis, Dawn would step off the Subway at Bloor an Yonge Station with the same intentions as many esoteric fans felt during the era of Sam the Record Man. Dawn, a current librarian, worked at a suburban Sam the Record Man location, but she would make a trip into the city to visit the well known record store. Sam the Record Man was Dawn’s temple, and Neil Young was her god. As Dawn walked along, she couldn’t help but notice how class-est Yonge Street really was. In Dawn’s mind when contrasting Yonge’s grubby appeal, she thought the Eaton Centre was “glitzy, multistory, light filled, Canada geese art space, giant commercial…blah versus all those little venues that sold the most bizarre things,” like t-shirt and poster shops. Dawn remembers the store as always being tacky, and “grubby,” but that was part of its attraction. It was almost anti-retail when compared with shiny, “glammed out” shopping destinations, like the Eaton Centre. But it was still cool. This is Dawn’s story of her shopping experiences and the irony that the record store she once worked for will become part of a library, which reflects her current career.

As Dawn walked into the record store, she anticipated the chaotic layout, dusty shelves, and bargain bins. Despite the unattractiveness of it all, “the store was so not HMV. It was weird and grubby, and there were all these hand made signs,” which strengthened its unique identity. The hectic layout of the store would leave consumers feeling confused of where that cherished record was, so they would have to ask an employee for help. Dawn remembers the employee who worked in the classical music section, Friedrich, who knew everything. When she would pick up an order Friedrich would ask “are you sure the customer wants that one, because this version is better!” Although it wasn’t a job requirement, the staff would be very knowledgeable of their material and would find whatever the customer was looking for. Sam Sniderman himself would come out to help his customers find what they needed.

Once you’ve caught the music bug, you eat and sleep it. A trip downtown for Dawn also included visiting used record stores, but Sam’s was the center of it all. She had to go there. Customers would go to HMV to check the price of a record, followed by visiting Sam’s, and if there wasn’t much difference then they would buy there. This is because it was the store they went to all their life. If there was a big difference, in a very guilty manner the customers would slink back to HMV and buy something. Inevitably, if it was something cool that HMV wouldn’t have and Sam’s would. But the day’s of Sam the Record Man slowly declined because they continuously lost the price battle and in addition the mainstream stores, like HMV, would carry more of a selection on a given product instead of many one-offs.

While working at Sam’s, Dawn always saw similarities between Sam’s and a library, but when she made the transition into becoming a librarian, it became even more evident that the two jobs were not so different.  When Dawn worked at the record store, she always had the impression she was working at a library. The organizational principles of record stores and libraries are similar in the way they are codified and have hierarchies. Employees could ‘name of the artist’ know price and inventory information. Because they knew how to read labels and codes, their work paralleled a library’s structure of secret information.

Music lends itself to the codification and Dawn reflected that it wasn’t strange to leave the retail world of music and a record store to a library. She states, “Personally, I think its pretty cool how the rhythm of a music store turning into a library echos my personal path, the main store looked more like a library.” There is a formality in what we think of the knowledge economy and what we think of libraries and people studying and learning and exchanging ideas. At a traditional university, there is ivy and stone and green grass but it comes with weight and attitude and prejudice. When a library is at store front, it is acknowledged that its institutionalized and it doesn’t hold up the prejudice that education is out of reach.” When Dawn would visit Yonge Street, she was never really aware that, at the time, Ryerson Polytechnic Institute was there, unless she caught a glimpse of students piling in and out. As a passerby, Dawn was not impacted that a educational institution was the backdoor neighbor to her musical temple.

Institutions valued by its users leaves its mark when taken down by gentrifiers. The way Sam’s left its mark by giving memories to its loyal customers is the same way the new Learning Centre will impact the lives of the students and public who will gain knowledge and exchange accessible information. Sam’s time had come and gone. As Dawn reflects on Joni Mitchell’s phrase “You don’t know what you’ve got until its gone,” she will miss the place as a part of her youth, as part of her early working life, and as a place she knew as a shared experience. She hopes Ryerson kicks new life into that corner and re-defines the whole location. Dawn thinks Ryerson’s plans to develop the site is terrific and she would love the idea of a library (or Learning Centre) right at street level at one of the busiest corners of the city.

Dawn who used to travel to Sam the Record Man, would never have guessed that her musical shrine would become the extension of Ryerson’s library; which transformed from a Polytechnic institution to a full functioning university which will be showcased on the face of Yonge Street. Toronto has definitely changed over the years, but will maintain the purpose of shared experiences, exchange of information and overall becoming a valued memory.

[The content in this story is taken from an interview with Dawn, the librarian]


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