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Yonge Street: My Ambassador to Toronto

By Waheeda Harris | @WaheedaHarris

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When I first arrived in Toronto – the first street sign I saw was Yonge Street.

I had emerged from the subway to walk to my new school – Ryerson University – and as my instructions had told me, I looked for that street sign as I exited the train.

Those first steps on the legendary street were an assault on my senses.

Yonge Street at Night. Photo provided by Torontowide.com

The endless flow of pedestrians, the bright lights of the Eaton Centre and the various scents and sounds from the numerous cafes, shops, hot dog carts and chain restaurants – all continuing as far as I could see in both directions.

From that moment, Yonge Street became my ambassador to the city of Toronto.

As I learned, Yonge Street, (pronounced young) is the city’s backbone – the Toronto Transit system’s Yonge Subway line lay beneath and from the edge of Lake Ontario to well beyond the borders of the Greater Toronto Area, this street is the main street for the residents.

It was the place where everyone came when they visited the city – lured to the street to see the shiny and the seedy. Whether it’s the business district towers at Yonge & King or the shopping area at Yonge & Bloor, the street is a unique jumble of residential, office and retail – and every intersection along the street denotes another unique neighbourhood.

Yonge Dundas Square

Yonge Street has been transforming steadily – from two- and three-storey Victorian brick buildings and hole-in-the-wall businesses to the concrete and glass facades and upscale retail of the 21st century. With each change comes a further stamp of why this street is still the focus for locals; as it changes, so does the whole city.

When this city celebrates, it’s always been about Yonge Street, from spontaneous street parties in the early ‘90s World Series victories by the Toronto Blue Jays to last summer’s Celebrate Yonge, which created patio areas on the street.

As our multicultural city has developed, it’s Yonge Street that draws the newly-arrived immigrants, whether in celebration of their country’s victory during the World Cup or to become patrons of the vast variety of restaurants representing cuisine from around the globe.

As a Ryerson journalism student I used Yonge Street as my laboratory, stopping pedestrians to get an opinion, to photograph street style and to understand the city of Toronto and what made it tick.

Now when I want a dose of what’s cool or changing, I walk Yonge Street, spotting the congregation of fashionistas, theatre-goers heading into the 100-year-old Elgin & Wintergarden Theatres or families coming to a weekend festival at Yonge & Dundas Square (or just to see how people “scramble,” at the first diagonal crossing in Canada, Yonge Street now boasts two of these).

For those who have never been or for those who have visited multiple times, Yonge Street’s ever-changing street culture is what makes it the welcome mat for the city of Toronto.

A freelance journalist since 2000, Waheeda Harris writes about travel, design, style and the people who are passionate about what they create. She’s contributed to newspaper, magazine and web publications since 2000 including The National Post, Toronto Life, Zoomer, Design Lines, Canadian House & Home, Tribute, Best Health, Style, The Globe and Mail, VIA Rail Destinations, Sweetspot.ca, The Grid, Sympatico Travel & Lifestyle, Elle Canada, Where.ca and HomebuildLife.com. She’s the co-author of the Night + Day Guide to Toronto (Pulse Guides, 2008), and was the travel editor of Lipstickpowdernpaint.com (2009-2011). She currently contributes weekly to Canada.com Travel, Travel + Escape, AOL Canada Walletpop.ca, Kalev.com and regularly to Vacay.ca, TheLoop.ca Travel, and Toronto Homes Magazine.

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