In my previous post, I wrote about the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. Step out of the main doors of the new section of the museum, walk east along Bloor street to the other side of Queen’s Park (the street named Queen’s Park, not the park of the same name south of the museum) and you’ll immediately enter an area known as Yorkville, a district that the local business association calls Bloor-Yorkville.
One aside before getting into Yorkville. Queen’s Park (again, the street) changes names north of Bloor Street. It then becomes Avenue Road.
Having grown up in Toronto and lived here all my life, the name Avenue Road seemed natural to me. It wasn’t until well into my adult years that someone pointed out the absurdity of that name.
Before you ask, as far as I know, no, we don’t have a Street Boulevard, a Road Crescent or anything of that nature. Just Avenue Road.
With that digression out of the way, back to Yorkville. First, a little geography. Despite the local business association calling it Bloor-Yorkville, Bloor Street and Yorkville Avenue don’t intersect. They’re parallel east-west streets.
The boundaries of the area depend on who you ask. Real estate agents give one answer. Yorkville is a desirable area, so real estate agents like to be generous in their definition of it to bring more properties into its price-point orbit.
The Bloor-Yorkville Business Improvement Association (BIA) has another definition. Their focus is on commerce, so their definition pretty much stops where the stores and restaurants stop.
Or you could define the boundaries as being those of the old Village of Yorkville, which was long ago amalgamated into Toronto. Those boundaries are somewhere between the ones used by the real estate agents and the BIA, but probably closer to the agents’ definition.
For the purpose of this post I’m going to use the boundaries of Bloor (both sides of the street) as the southern edge, Yonge Street and Avenue Road to the east and west respectively, and Davenport Road to the north. Davenport is a squiggly street that, at it’s northern most point within Yorkville, which is where it intersects with Avenue Road, is a few blocks north of Yorkville Avenue.
If you’re in Toronto and find that you have an inexplicable, irresistible urge to put your credit card’s limit to the test, this is the place to come to. The rumours of credit cards with low limits actually melting in some stores are almost certainly a rhetorical exaggeration. Then again, I don’t shop in the highest of high-end stores, so I don’t have any personal experiences that I can use to support or refute that claim.
If you’re looking for global analogies to get a sense of what kinds of stores you’ll find in Yorkville, think of the stretches of Fifth Avenue in New York, Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and the Champs-Elysées in Paris that people think of as icons of luxury-goods shopping.
Represented in Yorkville are stores of the international, high-end retailers Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Ermenegildo Zegna and Chanel, among many others. You’ll also find Canadian haute couture and luxury goods stores here, such as Holt Renfrew, Harry Rosen and Royal de Versailles.
Incongruously, in amongst this luxury shopping, which rarely dips below what one would class as a mid-priced store, you also find Winners. If you’re not Canadian you might not be familiar with Winners because I don’t think the brand exists outside of Canada, despite it now being owned by an American company.
To get a sense of what Winners is, think designer labels at discount prices. If you’re American, think T.J. Maxx. The inventory, price points and concepts of Winners and T.J. Maxx are similar. This probably isn’t coincidental. The American company that now owns Winners is the TJX Companies, which also owns T.J. Maxx.
Having only one store in Yorkville, an area with many dozens of shops, that’s way more text than Winners deserves. I mention it only because, to me, it seems so out of place in Yorkville.
Yorkville has a storied past. It wasn’t always the bright, shiny gem of a neighbourhood that it is today. Back in the 1960s, gritty would probably have been a more appropriate adjective for it. Gritty though it may have been, it was the heart, soul and centre of Toronto’s hippie cultural scene and boasted a number of “groovy” coffee houses.
Being the 60s, there was, no doubt a lot of pot smoked in Yorkville then. But I wouldn’t know anything about that. Honest. I was and still am an exceptionally humdrum guy.
Regular denizens of the 60s’ Yorkville included Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Yes, they are from Canada. It was also frequented by authors and musicians that might be less known to people from outside of Canada, but who went on from their 60s roots in Yorkville to become Canadian cultural icons, such as Margaret Atwood and Gordon Lightfoot.
That phase of the neighbourhood gradually disappeared as the folk music, coffee house scene faded in Toronto. Yorkville then gradually gentrified, and then went even more upscale than simple gentrification, to become the home of some of the hautest of haute stores, in amongst many mid-priced stores and filled with mostly high-end residential properties as well, that it is today.
Village of Yorkville Park
Today, the main park in Yorkville is the Village of Yorkville Park, which is not a typical grass-and-trees park. Built over a subway line, before it was a park this piece of land was a parking lot, with a small, old-style diner in one corner.
Speaking of Joni Mitchell, which, if you were paying attention a couple of paragraphs ago, you will know I was, you might say that in creating this park they reversed the lyrics of an old Joni Mitchell song. They took a parking lot and put up a paradise.
Alright, paradise is an exaggeration, but the Village of Yorkville Park is a calming, creative and visually pleasing park in the midst of considerable commercialism. The park, which is only about one short block wide and one long block long, is divided into a number of sections, each of which represents different type of landscapes that can be found across Canada, but mostly in the province of Ontario.
One section includes a clump of pine trees planted in raised, circular planters suitable for sitting on. Another offers a small deciduous forest. You’ll also find grassland, marshland and wildflower areas.
Then there’s the rock. This feature of the park is an outcropping of the Canadian Shield, an 8-million square kilometre sheet of granite that extends under almost half of Canada and into Greenland and small portions of the United States.
Well, the rock in the park is not exactly an outcropping. Toronto isn’t in the almost half of Canada that’s on the Canadian Shield. A hunk of the Canadian Shield was cut up into smaller, but still large on a human scale, hunks that were carted to Toronto and reassembled in the Village of Yorkville Park.
The rock is well used in the summer. Kids scramble on it. People picnic on it. And it’s a great place to sit and people-watch. If you’re not into sitting on big rocks, there are also café-style tables on the flat ground beside the rock.
In addition to stores, you’ll find lots of restaurants in Yorkville. Most, but not all are on the pricy side and geared toward the tourist trade.
I rarely eat in Yorkville, so I can’t provide many suggestions for where to eat. I can, however, recommend the Dynasty Chinese Cuisine restaurant on Yorkville Avenue.
In addition, in the summer, the atmosphere of the treed courtyard of the Coffee Mill is fabulous. The Coffee Mill is an old-world style restaurant that has been operating in Yorkville for decades. It’s become something of an institution
I also loved Pangea Restaurant on Bay Street. Pangea used to be on the pricy side, however I think they moderated their prices somewhat due to the economic downturn. I haven’t been there for more than a couple of years, so I can’t say if it is as great as it was, but when I was there a few times I loved the food, decor, ambiance and service—i.e., the whole package—of the place.
There is more to Yorkville than commerce and the park. It is also very much a residential neighbourhood, with housing types ranging from single family dwellings through to condominium high rises, including the very expensive Four Seasons Hotel and condominiums.
If you’ve been to Toronto before, you might look at picture 5, and say, “He’s an idiot, that’s not the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto.” If so, you haven’t been to Toronto recently. This is the New Four Seasons. You are probably thinking of the old Four Seasons, which was a few blocks away. It is, as I write, being converted into condominiums that are not called the Four Seasons.
By the way, as a totally irrelevant aside, it’s not surprising that Four Seasons wanted a showcase hotel here in Toronto. The Four Seasons started as a not particularly upscale hotel on the outskirts of downtown Toronto. The founder of the Four Seasons has since sold most of his shares in the company, but its head office is still in Toronto.
If you want to tour Yorkville, don’t do it by car. The streets in the commercial section of the neighbourhood are often clogged and pedestrians assume they always have the right of way and often take it without notice. This is very much a walking neighbourhood.
I particularly like to walk through Old York Lane, a short pedestrian lane that runs between Cumberland and Yorkville, near the west side of Yorkville. It’s paved with red interlocking brick and lined with restaurants with patios as well as a few shops.
And get off the beaten path. The inner streets on the north end of Yorkville are tree-lined and well-shaded by a leafy canopy in the summer. Your walk in this part of Yorkville will mostly pass a collection of single-family fully detached, semi-detached and row houses.
The houses on these streets cost way more than I can afford. However, if you are an intelligent, pleasant, beautiful, single, rich woman I strongly recommend that you marry me and buy a nice house in Yorkville for us to live in. Call me.