Monday 20 January 2014

Yorkville: Toronto's chicest neighbourhood

In early January, on one of the coldest days of the year (think Polar vortex), I’m walking east on Bloor Street between Avenue Road and Yonge Street. This is Yorkville. The chicest, trendiest, most upscale and most expensive block of real estate in Toronto.

The biting cold stings my eyes, filling them with water and tears flow down my cheeks. By all reasoning, I should be home sipping a hot cup of cocoa with tiny marshmallows floating on top, while watching the fireplace channel. But this is Canada. I am Canadian and what is minus 45 Celsius! I trudge onwards. 

Bloor Street is a major city artery. Cars crawl slowly along. Drivers honk impatiently. Pedestrians dodge cyclists, automobiles and each other, as they weave their way in and out of Holt Renfrew, Prada, Hermes and Gucci. It’s just another busy street in a busy city. 

Bloor Street

But a walk one block north of Bloor Street to Cumberland Street transports me to an era of long ago. The Victorian row houses lining the road add to the feel. People walk slower along this street. They appear less hurried.  They’re smiling more, and no wonder. It feels like a small village where everyone may just know each other.

Cumberland Street
Yorkville has a wonderful and colourful history. Founded in 1830, the Village of Yorkville was a residential suburb with two main industries—the Yorkville Brick Markets and beer making.  For years, it flourished as such.

Public library

By the 1960s, Yorkville was a run down, shabby part of the city, but it was thriving. This was the season of love, Aquarius and flower children and they needed a home.  Yorkville became Canada’s hippie capital, and a bohemian culture erupted around the area. Coffee houses, clubs and art galleries lined its streets. By the late 1960s there were over 40 coffee houses and clubs. Folk music was out and folk-rock and psychedelic rock was in. Musicians like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Carly Simon, to name just a few, cut their music teeth in Yorkville clubs. It’s here that Buffy Saint-Marie wrote her anti-Vietnam song, “Universal Soldier”. 

The most famous of the Yorkville clubs was the Riverboat Coffeehouse. Here, 120 people could be seated comfortably. Each seat was close enough to the stage to provide an intimate experience with musicians like Simon and Garfunkel, Seals and Crofts, Arlo Guthrie and James Taylor. The Riverboat is where Joni Mitchell first performed her famous song, From Both Sides Now.  The rich music history of the 1960s Yorkville clubs and coffee houses, continues to be celebrated today.

In the 1970s, Yorkville experienced another re-birth. Millions of dollars were spent, giving way to upscale restaurants and shops. The 1980s brought condominium developments, and with it an increase in residential population.  In 1993 the Village of Yorkville Park was installed in an area where a parking lot once stood. Today, Yorkville is the place to be and be seen, attracting locals, tourists and movie stars alike.

Village of Yorkville Park

My personal-favourite Yorkville moment, happened on a hot summer evening in a restaurant now long gone. I was enjoying a large  vanilla ice cream served in a crunchy vanilla wafer cone, when three members of The Beach Boys--Mike Love, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson (Brian Wilson was still in bed), strolled in for their evening meal.  All were gracious enough to sign the ticket stub I held for the performance they had wrapped up just an hour beforehand.

Indeed. Good Vibrations.

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