Pt 1 – Neighbourhood 97 – Walking Yonge & St Clair

Pt 1 – Neighbourhood 97 – Walking Yonge & St Clair


 Neigbourhood Snapshot: Population 12,528 || Population Density 10,708 per square km[I]


When people think about Yonge – St Clair (YSC) they flash on to the 4 corners that define the area. This neighbourhood straddles Summerhill and Deer Park, nudging up against Davisville. It’s a narrow strip in the heart of Toronto with a few pieces of stunning architecture with newer buildings sprinkled around. Trotting the borders, takes about 2 hours, depending on how long you want to dawdle, and if you stop for a pint. It covers 5.9 km along 2 of the busiest roads in the city – Yonge and Avenue Road.

City of Toronto neigbhourhood map

YSC is an easy walk.  There are some inclines along Avenue Rd and the top part of Yonge so if you have breathing issues, take appropriate precautions. If you go at a steady, moderate pace, most of the little hills are easy dealt with. There are 2 sets of stairs on this trip and I’ll offer alternate routes to by-pass them. Please note, in the winter neither sets of stairs is maintained by the city so caution is recommended.

Map of neighbourhood 97 - Yonge & St Clair

Walking the perimeter of Yonge & St Clair

Sidewalks along Yonge from St Clair, heading south to Summerhill, can be a bit uneven in spots presenting tripping hazards, especially on the east side. As well, stores, real estate agents and restaurants have an irritating habit of putting sandwich boards on the sidewalks. If a wind blows up, they flop over, presenting more hazards for people with vision issues or using rollators and walkers. Feel free to do what I do. I pick up the board and lean, folded up against the nearest light pole to get it out of the way.

When I embarked on this project, I initially thought I’d walk around, create a cool map and then throw up some photos of the area – easy, peasy, right? I could knock these suckers out quickly and with little effort. Then I made the fatal mistake of doing a bit of research.  I spent time digging through the Toronto Archives & the Reference Library looking for info on the area and came across a number of wonderful photos of YSC. I often root around the Toronto Archives online offerings because it’s a lot of fun but I quickly became captivated by the changes in the area.  Well, that put a huge monkey wrench into my time line! So things take longer, but it’s so much more entertaining going on walks with a pocketful of old photos.

The first walk, the entire perimeter, is broken down into two posts – Pt one covers Yonge from St Clair to the LCBO at the bottom of the hill. Pt two picks up at the magnificent bell tower and crosses over to Avenue Rd, up to the Beltway and back down to YSC corner.

To start the trip, get off at the St Clair station and exit onto St Clair St E. If you drive, the best thing is to use the public parking garage @ Pleasant Blvd. There is some street parking, but it’s hit and miss. Trust me, it’s easier to grab the TTC.

The station, opened March 30, 1954, houses Line 1 subway, the 512 street car and a number of buses. It’s a busy spot, but alas, terribly non-descript.

Archived photo showing building of St Clair subway

Road work – east of Yonge Street, looking north from south of St. Clair Avenue East February 22, 1951

Not much to see in the station, so if you arrive by subway, head to the south exit, up two sets of stairs and head out onto St. Clair There’s an elevator at the south end of the platform if you need one. Get off at streetcar level, hang a left past McDonalds and you’ll be at the main entrance | exit. If you arrive by bus or streetcar, just follow the signs, making sure you don’t pop out onto Pleasant Ave by accident.  Once on the sidewalk, turn left and walk to the intersection. Pay attention to the streetcars turning into the station and don’t play dodgems with them. They can’t stop on a dime.

Welcome to the YSC intersection, which is far more interesting than it first appears. Look past the traffic and see a neighbourhood undergoing a revitalization, which (so far) hasn’t stripped it of character. On the contrary, there seems to be an effort to inject a bit of flair into what was slowly becoming a bit of a dowdy area.

Photo of corner of Yonge & St Clair showing all the artwork

The intersection is getting a much needed face lift, and the insides are undergoing major renovations, doing away with the bland windswept feel.  Currently the NW corner is host to some colourful billboards that are worth a trip to see. Not sure how much longer the artwork will be up, but it’s an ingenious way to hide all the work going on behind the scenes.

The shot below was taken 1953, from the north west side of Yonge, just above St Clair.  Note the streetcar tracks and mare’s nest of overhead cables running along Yonge. They are long gone, replaced by the subway in 1954. If you’re a rail fan, there are more to come later in the trip.

Yonge looking south at St Clair in 1953

Image courtesy Archives Toronto St. Clair & Yonge in 1953

Compare it to the next photo taken this year (2018)

Photo North on Yonge, looking south to the Yonge St Clair intersection

Road work? Gridlock? Must be summer in Toronto

I tried to get close to the spot the original was taken, but the traffic and pedestrian congestion made it all but impossible so I hopped across the road to the east side, further up a bit. Couple of things to look at, aside from the constant road repair, is the lack of hydro poles along the street.  All the cables are hidden under the road. Another change is the traffic. Oh, the traffic! It’s a heavily travelled section of Yonge that verges on gridlock some days. Its interesting that as late as 1953 there were no traffic signals on the corner. Hard to believe this is the same intersection.

Of all the photos I looked at, this is my favourite:

Photograph taken near Deer Park Church

Yes, that is Yonge St, just a little north of St Clair, not far from where the previous one was taken. The photo was taken in 1908, near Deer Park Church. Toronto history fans will nod sagely and say, “Muddy York” and laugh[ii]. It was a well-earned nickname dating back to early settlement days. Looking closely at the photo, you can see a sidewalk, of sorts. I’m not sure, but they look suspiciously like wooden boards slapped atop the mud.

Time to cross the road and make your way to the north east side.  Now look south and then look at this photo below.

Photo of corner of Yonge & St Clair showing all the artwork<em>Image courtesy Archives Toronto - Yonge near St Clair 1911 </em>

Photo of corner of Yonge & St Clair showing all the artworkImage courtesy Archives Toronto – Yonge near St Clair 1911

This was taken in 1911 when the corner of Y and SC was being widened. Still muddy, but at least there are sidewalks. If you look closely, you can just see a car inside the Deer Park Garage.  Both structures are nothing but memories, along with the sleepy rural feel.

Here’s an Oct 1922 view of the NW corner:

Photo of St Clair streetcar track installation in 1922

Creator: Alfred J. Pearson Date: October 9, 1922 Archival Citation: Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 1571 Credit: City of Toronto Archives Copyright is in the public domain and permission for use is not required.

It was taken when the rails were being laid for the new streetcar line heading west along St. Clair. This is now a dedicated line for streetcars only, which significantly speeds up the trip.

Photo of people standing at a cold streetcar stop in 2018 on corner of Yonge & St. Clair

Waiting for the St Clair street car on a cold winter day in 2018 – St Clair @ Yonge

Go west about a ½ block and then look south east.  While Yonge – St Clair isn’t blessed with a lot of murals, it does make up for the lack of wall art with sheer size [iii].  The 8-story masterpiece, by British artist Phlegm [iv], is visible from quite a distance and it’s breathtaking.

Photo of the 8 story wall art by artist Phlegm. On St Clair west of Yonge St.

Phlegm’s 8 storey wall art on St. Clair just west of Yonge

To put the mural’s size into perspective, take a look at this photo, taken Feb 14 2017 when fire broke out at the Badminton and Racquet Club. If you come to YSC, it’s a much see stop. (You can read more on the fire here.)

Photo of Aerial ladder & fireman fighting against the Phlegm wall art

Ladder truck spraying water on fire

The design over all is a human form overlooking the city. A lot of people don’t realize that Yonge and St. Clair is one of highest points of the city. The mural acts a metaphor for the living, breathing nature of the city. The figure is composed of landmarks and recognizable features, such as the CN Tower, the ROM [Royal Ontario Museum] and the A-frame houses of the area.  The Globe and Mail, Aug 11, 2016  [v]

It’s time to head back to the corner and continue the journey south.  As you walk along Yonge, ponder Phlegm’s words “Yonge and St. Clair is one of highest points of the city”. He didn’t mean culturally, he meant geologically. A friend likes to make a joke “move to Yonge and St Clair and enjoy sea front property without the pesky water”. 450 million years ago there was a massive inland sea that covered much of what is now Toronto [vi]. The YSC area would have been coastland with views to die for.

A couple of blocks south on Yonge, below Jackes and Balmoral ran the ancient the “beach front” property.  If you’re interested in reading more on this, check out Lyman B Jackes wonderful article “Geological History of Northern Toronto” [vii] (Links at the end of the article)

This long section of Yonge is a real throw back to an earlier Toronto, before so much was replaced with oversized concrete and steel. It’s the type of architecture you’ll see in many small towns throughout Ontario. Behind this row of buildings on the west side is St Michael’s Cemetery. It was established in 1855 as the area’s first, and for a long time, only Catholic cemetery and is the burying place for 29,000 people, including 1918 flu pandemic victims and a lengthy list of Toronto’s movers and shakers from the 19th and early 20th century.  This 10-acre oasis of calm is, unfortunately, kept locked and there’s no way to get in to look at the historical headstones.[viii] It’s a real pity.

Photo of street view of Yonge near Pleasant Ave on a sunny day

Photo of street view of Yonge near Pleasant Ave on a sunny day

There are several good restaurants and delis worth visiting along the way. One of my favourites is the Baklawa Queen. If lucky, you can grab the window seat and watch the city go by for a little while.

Photo of the Baklawa Queen restaurant on Yonge near Rosehill

Baklawa Queen restaurant on Yonge near Rosehill

Good food, great espresso and divine baklava. They ooze with honey and the flaky pastry is to die for. What can I say, Superman has kryptonite, I have baklava.

Photo of a plate of baklava

Photo of a plate of baklava

Their Turkish breakfast is the perfect way to end a long walk, so maybe you might want to save this for the trip’s end. If Turkish isn’t your choice, a few doors away is Boccone Deli & Pizza Bar.

Boccone Deli & Pizza Bar restaurant

Boccone Deli & Pizza Bar restaurant

Their backyard patio and fresh sandwiches are a peaceful way to charge up for the rest of the trip. Better still? Grab something to go because you’ll be hitting 4 parks before you’re done.

Time for a quick detour – cross at the lights to the east side at Rosedale and Yonge for a little silly entertainment. Watching the dogs play at Hold My Paws has become a neighbourhood pastime.

Hold My Paw doggie day care

Hold my paw

You can watch dogs cavort through the windows for awhile before continuing south.

A new condo is going up on the corner of Yonge and Jackes, and won’t be finished until sometime in 2019. No, I’m not stopping here simply because I have a weird obsession with construction sites, although that would be a valid assumption. The 14-story condo is replacing the hideous, squat bunker that was home to CHUM Radio for decades. CHUM vacated years ago and the space housed several businesses until it was demolished in the summer of 2017. While I normally hate to see old buildings destroyed, I didn’t shed a tear when the old building slowly disappeared, although I do think a plaque of some sort should go up denoting it was the site of CHUM for decades. A lot of great talent entered those doors, and it was part of Toronto’s history.

Photo of CHUM Radio building on corner of Jackes and Yonge in the late 1970s

Image courtesy Archives Toronto – CHUM Radio during it’s heyday in the 70s

In its heyday, before digital radio & the internet, CHUM was the premiere station in SW Ontario. I remember listening to it back in the 70s way down in the Prince Edward County area, as did pretty much everyone I knew.

Photo of the condo build on corner of Jackes & Yonge

The condo build on corner of Jackes & Yonge. A big improvement over the squat bunker that was there

It seemed like every teen listened to CHUM. It was the end of an era when it vamoosed to newer quarters.

When you cross Jackes Ave, you’ll be at the crest of the hill that demarks the geological basin for the ancient sea. The modest hill isn’t difficult to manage going north, but many a cyclist under estimates how long the deceptive incline is and is left gasping by the time they hit this point. I galumph up and down this section quite a bit (my favourite espresso place is at the bottom of the hill) so I don’t even notice it now.

Photo of Yonge St's 3 story buildings

Independent businesses dot both sides of Yonge St

This section of Yonge slips out of Deer Park (where we started) and meanders into Summerhill. It’s an underappreciated section of the neighbourhood, with a few gems hidden here. 3 story buildings continue down Yonge, some dating to the turn of the previous century. They are a vanishing site so treasure them while you can. This little stretch of road is home to quite a few small businesses and a fun spot to do a bit of shopping.

Photo of Yonge St at Summerhill Rd June 1912

Image courtesy Archives Toronto – Yonge St at Summerhill Rd June 1912

When you reach Summerhill St, pause for a moment. I promised more rail tracks and here they are!  Yonge & Summerhill  in 1911.  I tried to figure out where this photo was taken, but the street has changed so dramatically over the last 100 years, it’s hard to imagine. Well, plus I don’t have an insane death wish so I won’t stop in the middle of Yonge to take a photo.

Photo of Yonge at Summerhill Rd Aug 2018

Yonge at Summerhill Rd Aug 2018

Pity the tracks are gone. I love travelling by streetcar and it might have been the perfect relief line for the over burdened Yonge subway. If you look at the very end of the street you can see the rail bridge over the road. We’re heading there for a real treat.

Photo of the North Toronto Rail Station that is now an LCBO

The jewel of the neighbourhood – the Beaux Art North Toronto Rail Station now serving as the local liquor store

Trotting further south is the jewel of the YSC area – the North Toronto CPR Station. The station was officially opened in June 1916, with the overpass built in 1914.  It was the major rail station in Toronto until Union Station opened in 1927, making the North Toronto obsolete. Although the last passenger climbed aboard Sept 27, 1930, the station saw sporadic use for a few decades until it was permanently closed and sold.  It currently serves as the local liquor store but have no fears history lovers, the building was lovingly restored and it’s a beauty. Trains still run along the tracks overhead and it’s a good place to do a bit of train spotting.

Photo of the plaque on the bridge with the date 1914

Plaque on the bridge, west side

The station was designed by Darling and Pearson, the architectural firm responsible for many of Canada’s most well-known buildings.  They designed it in the Beaux Art style [ix] [x] that was popular during the early part of the 20th C.  The architects patterned it on St Mark’s Basilica bell tower in Venice [xi] and used a type of stone that is unique to Canada – Tyndall limestone [xii] from Manitoba.  It’s also referred to as “tapestry stone” because of the unique and attractive pattern on it created through fossilization of small sea creatures. The building still looks fresh and new, despite being over 100 years old. The limestone gives the building a soft, mellow look and ages well. Its official geological name is “Upper Mottled Limestone of the Red River Formation of the Ordovician System” but I think Tyndall is a bit easier to remember.[xiii]

Archived photo of the North Toronto CPR Station just before it opened in 1916

Image courtesy Archives Toronto – North Toronto C.P.R. Station (opened 1916)

I’m going to end this part on a cliff hanger! Part two Picking up at the Clock Tower will be published in a few days. It will cover more details on the station and the bridge plus the trip north on Avenue Rd.

** All photos, unless otherwise noted, are the sole property of Bitter Grounds Magazine. If you want to reuse any, drop me a line in the comment section below.

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  1. Map of Toronto neighbourhoods [I]
  2. Heritage Toronto – The Roads of Muddy York, David Wencer May 5, 2009 [ii]
  3. Toronto’s Newest Mural is Truly a Sight to Behold Sept 2016 [iii]
  4. See more of phlegm’s artwork on his Instagram account [iv]
  5. What the giant mural at Yonge and St. Clair says about Toronto, Brad Wheeler, August 11, 2016[v]
  6. Toronto Field Naturalist, Geology of Toronto, Frank Remiz[vi] Opens a pdf
  7. Geological History of Northern Toronto, Lyman B. Jackes [vii]
  8. Heritage Ontario, St Michael’s Cemetery, Pamela Vega, July 7, 2010 [viii] St Michael’s cemetery
  9. Ontario Architecture, Building Styles
    Beaux Arts (1885 – 1945)[ix]
  10. Discover the Beauty of Beaux Arts-Exuberant and Classical Architecture Inspired by France, Jackie Craven [x]
  11. St Mark’s Campanile, Wikipedia [xi]
  12. Chronicles of Canadian Paleontology
    Tyndall Stone, Natural Resources Canada [xii] Tyndale stone
  13. Geographical characteristics of Tyndall Stone®, Gillis Quarries [xiv] Tyndall stone