Universal Man Yorkdale
06 . 08 . 2014

Yorkdale an unexpected font of Toronto history

AUTHOR Shawn Micallef

Can a mall have history?

Malls are all about fashion, and fashion changes fast. New clothes, new decor, and new facades erected out front of once-familiar stores like an ever-changing Hollywood back lot. There’s no looking back, unless a retro style is in for a season.

Yet Yorkdale Shopping Centre turned 50 this year and though it doesn’t look its age there’s some history to be found there. Some of it can be felt on the bridge from Yorkdale subway station, opened in 1978, where the terrazzo floors are worn smooth and the steps have deep grooves where millions of feet have landed. Walking here feels as if you’re sharing a moment with everyone who came before, and is the kind of wear more commonly seen in the ancient stone floors of European cathedrals, a testament to how busy this place is.

When Yorkdale opened in February of 1964 it was on the rural outskirts of Toronto and, for a short time, the biggest enclosed mall in the world. Within a decade the city caught up and quickly raced further north. Not much of the original Yorkdale is left, but the recently added third floor food court, built into the rafters of the old Eaton’s building, has an outdoor patio overlooking the patchwork quilt of building roofs that makes up the mall. It might seem an odd place for a patio, with views of Highway 401 traffic on the near horizon, but there’s a “big sky” quality to it, and better yet, an up-close glimpse of the midcentury-modern geometric brickwork of the old Eaton’s exterior. Today’s new malls are often little more than metal sheds, so this kind of detail — that few got to see up close — hearkens back to a time when such things mattered.

Yorkdale’s history can also be found in another unexpected place: the mall’s archive. Decades of unorganized material was stored in a basement room at the mall and, for the 50th anniversary, Yorkdale’s management hired archivist Ellen Scheinberg to sort through and catalogue it, with the intention of donating it all to a public archive.

“I thought I’d find 10 or 20 boxes but there were over 50,” says Scheinberg of the trove of documents, photos, advertisements, video tape, films, posters, and other ephemera she found, much of it in salvageable shape. So much of it reflects Toronto as it grew rapidly into the mixed metropolis it is today. “There were more events than I ever imagined, and they were very eclectic. Lots of international days. There was Japan Week, Israel Week, Danish Week, and so on. Also art displays from the ROM and AGO.” Though not a true public space — there were no protests or political rallies at Yorkdale — the mall became a community hubArt Starts, an organization that uses the arts to bring about social change, is even housed in the basement.

The Yorkdale archive also contains a number of large scrapbooks, with pictures of various fashion and news articles. One was simply emblazoned “SPADINA” and contained clippings beginning in the early 1960s of the debate around the Spadina Expressway that would have linked Yorkdale with downtown, followed by the subsequent Spadina Subway debate. The news clippings are depressing to read through — they remind us we’ve been having the same debate over transit for more than 50 years. Even so, the scrapbook demonstrates developers have always been keenly tuned in to the endless politics of it all.

The freeway didn’t end up connecting to downtown — though the Allen Road-401 interchange was called a “turbochange” in anticipation of the kind of traffic it would handle — and the subway took another decade and half to open, but the people kept coming regardless and Yorkdale hasn’t stopped growing, much like Toronto itself.

Image Source:  Toronto Star