Home Accessibility Yonge Street fights to hold onto its music history while looking towards the future

Yonge Street fights to hold onto its music history while looking towards the future

by Sydney Brasil

With more space for music performances coming, the strip must also remember its past

a crowd of people are at a concert at night time with balloons flying around in the air
Flaming Lips perform at Yonge-Dundas Square (JasonParis/Flickr)

With both the COVID-19 pandemic and city planning changing the future of Yonge Street, community members are hoping to take the downtown Toronto neighbourhood’s music history along for the ride. 

“Yonge Street has always been the convening space for Torontonians. . . You gotta view Yonge Street as a festival street,” said Mark Garner, chief operating officer and executive director of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area (BIA). He said the answer to programming the strip to be more arts-friendly is by hosting as many festivals as possible. 

Recently passed by city council, the YongeTOmorrow project not only promises to create more space for pedestrians, but also for music performances and festivals. With this, there is opportunity for the musical heritage of Yonge Street to not only be recognized further, but to be revitalized. 

Yonge Street has a robust music history, and is especially known for kickstarting the careers of many great Canadian folk, rock, and blues musicians such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Rush, and The Band. 

Much of the work being done to preserve Yonge Street’s musical past was outlined in the Downtown Yonge BIA’s Music Strategy, published in 2015. According to Garner, the goal of the strategy is to pay homage to music’s past, present and future on Yonge Street.

Garner said that the BIA is honouring Yonge Street’s musical history throughout the pandemic in a number of ways. On top of continuing to plaque buildings that used to be performance venues, the BIA is currently producing educational videos, providing maps for walking tours and developing an app that makes murals along the strip interactive.  

Though Garner said that YongeTOmorrow has not affected any of the BIA’s plans to maintain the music culture of Yonge Street, they are still looking to the future beyond the pandemic. These future plans include making music tourism a focus once it is safe to do so, as well as working with Coalition Music on a plan called “music incubation”, which will train people who wish to become music managers and producers. The program will also train people who wish to start indie music labels. 

the front of a building called Zanzibar on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto
Zanzibar Tavern was originally opened as a live music venue, one of many on Yonge Street between the 1950s and ‘60s (Thomas Hawk/Flickr).

Rob Bowman is a music professor at York University who freelances in the music industry, making CD packaging and producing documentaries, among many other projects. He says Yonge Street was the hub for music performances from as early as the 1940s until the early 1970s, and that if a music venue wasn’t on Yonge, it was just around the corner. 

This fostered a strong music community, as touring and local acts would easily be able to catch each other’s sets. “One of the things that did happen at Yonge Street is somebody might be playing at Le Coq D’or, and in between sets would then go down to the Colonial, which is only a half block south, and sit in,” said Bowman. “So up-and-coming Toronto musicians often had their breaks going in and sitting in at the Colonial with people like Muddy Waters.”

Into the mid-’70s, many of the touring acts originally drawn to Yonge Street were instead playing newer venues on Queen Street. This, along with suburbs building their own malls and department stores, made people less drawn to Yonge Street, resulting in the gradual closing of clubs along the strip. 

Due to both the shutdown of clubs and the restrictions the city’s climate has on outdoor performances, Bowman does not believe Yonge Street can be a musical hub in Toronto in the way it once was. He does, however, applaud the Downtown Yonge BIA on their efforts to preserve the street’s musical history. 

Members of Musicians@Ryerson, a campus music club, do not feel the same way, as they think the strip could be doing more to honour its music history. The group is hopeful that more performances from musicians from many different cultural backgrounds will “heighten and engage students on campus,” according to one of the group’s representatives. 

Bowman echoes the call for diversity in performances, saying Yonge-Dundas Square should not focus solely on rock and pop performances catered to younger audiences. He adds that showcasing musicians from many ethnic backgrounds will bring more people to Yonge Street more frequently.

With more space opening up for said performances, Musicians@Ryerson hope they will be able to utilize the space. As expanding their community is one of the club’s main concerns, they want to use that space to make students aware of what they have to offer, such as office hours where they teach music lessons. This idea is not so far-fetched, as Garner said the Downtown Yonge BIA has partnered with Ryerson for events in the past. 

Garner also said that the BIA cannot wait to have Ryerson students back on Yonge post-pandemic, as they generate $30 million dollars for the area annually. This is much needed funding, seeing as the cost of YongeTOmorrow is likely to rise as the project nears completion.

In order for Toronto’s music culture to survive the pandemic, Bowman feels funding needs to go to smaller music venues across the city. This would ensure that the city’s newer, more spread out strips don’t meet the same fate as Yonge Street’s fallen venues. 

“Toronto is still incredibly rich and vibrant in music culture, as it always has been,” he explained. “The real question is, post-pandemic, can it do it?”

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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