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.