City development needn’t cost a community its cultural history

by | Mar 14, 2014 | Opinion

Victoria Quiroz

Victoria Quiroz
Opinion Editor

Communities need development. With development come new locations, new business, new opportunities and most importantly, a thriving society. However, when developments begin to encroach on a community’s history, citizens should give pause before letting the wrecking ball swing.

Recently the El Mocambo, an historic Toronto live music venue, was placed on the market with an asking price of $3.95-million. The building the El Mocambo inhabits has stood at 464 Spadina Avenue below College Street for the past 164 years. It has only been the El Mocambo since 1950, but since its doors opened in 1850 it has always been a music venue.

While the venue’s fate is far from being decided – the listing’s broker has said he’s actively looking for buyers who will keep the building as a music venue – with upcoming construction developments in the Spadina/College area it’s easy to see the building falling by the wayside and ending up in Toronto’s deadpool.

Unfortunately, it would be in good company.

Sam the Record Man, known for its iconic neon sign, closed its doors in 2007. When Ryerson University bought the property in 2008 for a student learning centre it promised to display the spinning records if the city would not make the entire building a heritage property. Almost six years later the sign remains locked up–out of sight and out of mind.

Honest Ed’s, the goliath discount store at Bathurst and Bloor streets, has long been a cultural staple in Toronto but will probably be facing a demolition crew within a few short years when its current owners, luxury condo-office developers Westbank, decide what to do with the property. Last week, massive crowds gathered to buy the store’s signature hand-painted signs; one can assume that as construction gets closer, people will be clamouring to get their hands on any piece of Honest Ed’s history before it’s gone forever.

These are just a few examples of important pieces of Toronto’s history that will no longer grace our streets. From an all-ages venue that became a high-end furniture store, to grand theatres that are giving way to condominiums, Toronto’s past is seemingly, under constant threat of reconstruction.

This isn’t to say Toronto’s Heritage Preservation Services needs to designate every building a heritage property. The Hotel Waverly, right up the street from the El Mocambo, is 113 years old. But even its owner, who said its wooden foundations are rotted out, put forward a proposal to tear it down and create a building for student housing.

While the Waverly is arguably an historic building, it can’t service the community in the same capacity it used to, nor does it hold any historic value – aside from allegedly housing Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin while on the run. Yet the building is under review from preservation services while the student housing proposal has been rejected.

When a garbage incinerator from the 1920’s can achieve heritage status because of its art deco themes (the Wellington Destructor near King and Strachan), while one of the world’s first multiplexes (the former Loew’s Uptown theatre at Yonge and Bloor) becomes a storefront for a cell phone and Internet provider, one might question how a building’s importance to Toronto is weighted, and, if the requirements need updating.

Toronto will never have a set cultural identity; it is a city made up of a myriad of cultures. But as the city evolves attention needs to be paid to what becomes of the past. All the condominiums in the world won’t make up for forgetting where it all came from.