Yonge Street – can it get back its groove? Music strategy aims to try

Nostalgia taints memory, but the strip used to feel more homegrown. In its 1960s and 70s heyday, it was a scene, created by nightclubs and record stores, back when both existed in force. 

“The first thing I noticed when I came back to this neighbourhood three years ago was, ‘Where did the neighbourhood go?’ ” said Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area. Toronto-raised, he remembers when buying music (he drops T. Rex as an example, even if it dates him) meant coming down to Yonge.

Professionally, before running the Downtown Yonge BIA, Mr. Garner worked away from Toronto, leading the downtown BIA in Kitchener, Ont., and briefly as director of business and economic development for Waterloo, Ont. 

Now he and the BIA want to reinvigorate Yonge by playing up the nostalgia. The BIA wants to try, or at least as best as a BIA can, to recreate the scene. 

It wants to restore, or in some cases recreate, the neon signs of once-famous nightclubs and place them near their former locations. The sign for Club Blue Note, for instance, will hang in the alley behind what was once the nightclub (now a fast-food court). The idea will be to spruce up the alleyway and turn it into a destination on a walking tour of Yonge’s music history, which visitors can follow with a downloadable app or perhaps guided tours currently being conducted by music writer Nicholas Jennings in conjunction with Heritage Toronto. 

The sign for Friar’s (now the Hard Rock Cafe at 279 Yonge St.) will be placed over the lane behind the restaurant, and the alley will be turned into a pedestrian thoroughfare leading south to Massey Hall. Heritage plaques will also be placed on once-famous music spots. 

In addition, Play the Parks, a series of summertime lunchtime concerts and exercise programs promoted by the Downtown Yonge BIA with a budget of about $30,000 to $40,000, will continue. About 15,000 people attended the series last year. More noticeably, there will likely be more outdoor concerts at Yonge-Dundas Square. Mr. Garner suggested musicians should be playing there every day. 

He pointed to a metal ledge high above the ground, jetting off the metalwork holding Clear Channel’s huge video and billboard display. Wouldn’t it be cool to see hometown rapper Drake performing up there, he said. 

The nightclubs now long gone – Le Coq d’Or Tavern, Friar’s, Club Blue Note, the Zanzibar Tavern (the music club, not the strip bar it is now) – established an R&B and soul sound, the “Toronto Sound,” a harder sound with a little shuffle that carried into the Woodstock era. (If you wanted a folkier vibe, there were the coffee houses of Yorkville). 

By day, Yonge had its brimming record stores. “If you wanted to get an album, you had to come all the way downtown to A&A, Sam’s, Cheapies, those places. So it was a rite of passage. This was the music retail centre,” Mr. Garner said. It’s a common big-city feature, just as grown kids from the 1970s remember the record stores that anchored Granville and Seymour streets in Vancouver. 

“Really it was sex that killed rock ’n’ roll on Yonge Street,” Mr. Jennings, the music writer, said referring to the emergence of strip clubs. “It was sex and the Eaton Centre, that basically did in the live music scene on Yonge Street, sadly, because the property owners who ran these bars realized they could make more money putting on strippers than they could live music.

 

“And when the Eaton Centre went up in the 70s, it just sucked all the street life and activity indoors. So those two things crippled the Yonge Street strip,” he said. Besides Massey Hall and the Carlu, the only music spots left are small, such as a performance space at the Hard Rock or the tiny area underneath the HMV record store (one of the precious few record stores left, too). 

The impetus for the music strategy comes from an agreement between the cities of Toronto and Austin, Tex. Toronto wants to draw on Austin’s experience in transforming itself from a state capital and university town with a simmering music scene into a major North American musical hub. 

Toronto City Hall now has a music sector development office, headed by Mike Tanner, part of the city’s film and entertainment industries department. Mr. Tanner, a writer and musician, was previously director of operations for Toronto’s North By Northeast, the sister music and film festival to Austin’s larger South By Southwest. (This year’s five-day North By Northeast ended on June 21, at a time when Toronto streets were full of popular music, including acts playing the Toronto Jazz Festival and Luminato festival, and with the Much Music Video Awards which took over a block on Queen Street West.)

Mr. Garner sees Downtown Yonge’s plan easily becoming a template for other neighbourhoods in the city, such as Queen West and Ossington.

 

To try to make the plan more than just a nostalgia trip, there will be a $100,000 incubator program to help support and promote new musicians, with an office off Yonge and Dundas. 

The industry group Music Canada is heavily behind the overall initiative. “That’s what they’ve been advocating for years, and really got the city to focus,” Mr. Garner said. Mayor John Tory’s recent trip to South by Southwest was seen as both a show of support and a reconnaissance tour to learn Austin’s methods. 

“He understands the grander scheme [of] not only the economics of the music industry, but how you really have to program and plan the city around music to make it an economic driver,” Mr. Garner said.

“For me, it was to demonstrate to the city that Yonge Street is the spot. If you do it anywhere in the city, it needs to be on Yonge Street based on our past, based on our current performance venues, and this is what we’re doing for the future,” he said. 

“Then we would help deploy it across the city to other BIAs or to other communities within Toronto that want to have music clusters or performers.” 

Live at Yonge 

16,000: Total audience capacity of the 14 live-music performance spaces in and around downtown Yonge Street. This includes Massey Hall, the Carlu, smaller performance spots such as the Church of the Holy Trinity in Trinity Park, and the much larger Yonge-Dundas Square. 

175,000: Number of Torontonians who live within a 10-minute walk of Yonge Street’s music spots. That population is expected to grow 43 per cent in the next 10 years, according to Downtown Yonge BIA. 

June 29, 2015

580,000: Number of office workers, students and visitors in the neighbourhood during the day, which the BIA sees as a ready audience for noon and after-work concerts. 

2,000: Number of businesses falling within the Downtown Yonge BIA’s catchment area. With such a large number, the association will likely have to make just as big an effort educating and explaining the music strategy to local businesses as it will in marketing to the general public.

 CP24 News June 29, 2015