Close your eyes for a moment and picture the intersection of Bloor and Bathurst. What do you see?
Most of us will think of the businesses there. Many of us might imagine a streetcar rolling past.
Which style of street car you picture may depend on your age. The businesses and buildings we might picture, too, though I’d guess most of us immediately think of the 23,000 blinking white lights of the Honest Ed’s sign. For me, that sign seemed eternal—an unmistakable and permanent feature of the Toronto landscape, like the mountains in Denver or Vancouver.
But that sign is now gone — the block it occupied home to highrise apartment towers, making the vista of an iconic corner unrecognizable. My children will never have that association with that place; they’ll never feel the disorienting oddness of the sign’s absence when they visit.
But that sign was only put up in 1984. My grandfather used to say Bloor and Bathurst was his “old stomping grounds.” It never occurred to me that for him, the blinking sign itself was a strange newfangled appendage, out of place in a familiar location.
A photo I found in the Star’s archives circa 1960, when Honest Ed’s was there but the sign wasn’t yet, with an old maroon and yellow PCC streetcar rolling past on Bloor over a cobblestone road, is a window into a recognizable Toronto that is also alien: “the past is a foreign country,” as novelist LP Hartley wrote. Looking at a photo of the same intersection shot this week might give the same impression to many of us. The future is a foreign country, too. Even the present can start to feel like one as we get older.
It’s a sensation you can start to feel about a lot of places in Toronto, the more the city grows and changes. It’s a sensation evoked by two recent photo books: “Streetcars and the Shifting Geographies of Toronto,” by Brian and Michael Doucet, published by University of Toronto Press; and “The Signs That Define Toronto” by various authors, published by Spacing magazine and ERA architects.
The Doucets’ streetcar book presents pages of photos taken by transit enthusiasts beginning in the 1960s and puts them side-by-side with shots of the same locations taken recently. The intention of the original photographers was to document transit vehicles, but the then-and-now photo sets, the authors point out, show a heck of a lot more than that — they show a city gentrified, modernized, transformed.
I was reading it a day after taking my children to the Art Gallery of Ontario at McCaul and Dundas, so I called them over to see a shot of that intersection from 1967. Behind an old PCC streetcar, there’s a bank where the art gallery should be. The OCAD tabletop building is not yet there behind it. In the distance, my kids noticed the conspicuous absence of the CN Tower, which had not yet been built. Even the “now” photo in the book, shot by Brian Doucet in 2015, looks dated to my children: it includes a now-retired CLRV streetcar, and the Henry Moore sculpture pictured on the street has since been moved to the park behind the AGO.
The Spacing/ERA signs book offers a similar window onto a changing city, noting that the lettering businesses put above the sidewalk defines the landscape of the city. Things like the Honest Ed’s and Sam the Record Man signs, and billboards like the “swinging girl” one on Eglinton East, serve as the landmarks by which we navigate. Chapters on the unique streetscapes of Yonge and Dundas, Little Jamaica and Chinatown illustrate a Toronto where generations and tastes and waves of immigration each make a mark, before being overwritten themselves.
Sometimes those marks endure, in some form. The launch party for the signs book was at the El Mocambo, the occasion for my first visit inside since the bar’s top-to-bottom renovation began in 2014.
It felt instantly familiar and yet oh so different. Once grungy and shabby, today it has neon backdrops for selfies and dozens of sparkling clean restrooms. Previously it was a raw place where bands like the Rolling Stones happened to record live albums, today state-of-the-art equipment is built into a studio next to the VIP viewing level to record or livestream every show. Monuments to the bar’s own history — posters, photos, names of bands inscribed on stairwells — are everywhere in the new El Mo, the original “neon palms” sign erected next to the stage. Outside, a replica of that sign, with features that allow easier maintenance and LED lights alongside new neon, hangs over the street. Flexity streetcars roll past where the older versions — and the famous 77 Spadina bus — once travelled.
The new El Mo feels a bit like a museum of its own history, one friendly to the Instagram and livestreaming age. Familiar, but remarkably different. Whether its future will be as storied as its past will depend on how new generations of people use it. Much like the rest of the city.
It recalls the philosophy question of the Ship of Theseus, a boat preserved over centuries, with rotting planks replaced in time by newer, stronger ones. Eventually, not a single piece of the ship’s original materials remained. What is it still the Ship of Theseus?
Some popular answers to the question hinge on the idea that identity is not just about physical materials: the concept of the ship and its component pieces exist together, but are not the same thing. People, too, change dramatically over the course of their lives, from the nursery to the nursing home. Yet, you are still you. Aren’t you?
Cities are like that too. Not precise replicas, like the Ship of Theseus. Instead, full of updates and additions: apartments in place of Honest Ed’s, clean washrooms in the El Mo, different streetcars and new bike lanes. But we’re still here, with the past in our memories and our photo albums — all of that Toronto continuing, evolving, as the next one and the next one after that take shape.