How the Downtown Yonge BIA is preserving Yonge Street's neon legacy

“Neon played a role in Toronto,” says Garner. “We're replicating the Friar sign as part of the neon museum (same) as the Town Tavern, the Paramount, the Embassy Hotel – all the iconic places on Yonge street.”


Yonge-postcard-1.jpg
Post by Andrew Seale  Photos by Cameron Bartlett

Post by Andrew Seale

Photos by Cameron Bartlett

Mention of the Yonge Street strips neon heydays of the 1970s sends Mark Garner back in time. A Scarborough boy’s pilgrimage to Yonge’s music mecca, through record stores shuttered – Cheapies, A&A Records, Sam the Record Man – past strip clubs and concert venues, the sky lit by neon.

But it’s not just the glow, says the executive director of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area. “Neon has a crackle, it has a smell… you hear things, you see things,” he says. “When it was a rainstorm and the raindrops hit energized neon you heard the electricity in there.”

It blanketed you. And yet, that crackling sliver of history has been on the verge of slipping away. That is until the Downtown Yonge BIA stepped in with a plan to preserve neon Yonge in an outdoor museum.

“The fact that Toronto has no paid homage to it, it was the catalyst for us to say ‘we need to tell the past story of Yonge street and neon is part of it,’ ” he says. “It really was an artistic expression, the pipe benders were a high paying profession back in the day and those pipe benders are gone now.”

The vision is to see not just neon signs but the incandescent bulbed signs that made up the kaleidoscopic euphoria of the Yonge strip, revitalized and strung in the laneways stitching together Canada’s busiest patch.

Mark 1.jpg

“Neon played a role in Toronto,” says Garner. “We're replicating the Friar sign as part of the neon museum (same) as the Town Tavern, the Paramount, the Embassy Hotel – all the iconic places on Yonge street.”

And if they can’t find the original signs, they’ll replicate them. Garner says the BIA is eyeing up both Victoria Lane and O'Keefe Lane as places to display the signage free and for everyone to see. “Arts and culture is not a brick and mortar thing,” he says. “We need to make sure arts and culture accessible to all.”

The project, which Garner has been working on alongside Rebecca Stubbs, the BIA’s arts and culture liaison, has been ongoing for the past five years. In April, the BIA did a pop-up with developer Slate Asset Management at its Junction House condo sales centre. The display illustrates the cultural significance of signage in Toronto.

The City of Toronto’s sign department is supporting the project but there are more stakeholders to bring on board. Ultimately, Garner plans to spin the Neon Museum out of the BIA as a standalone not-for-profit. “This is not traditionally a BIA role but nobody else is doing this work and it needs to be done,” he says.

The BIA recently tapped into the BIA Innovation Fund. “(It) enables us to get the organization structure doing some of the marketing, advertising, the finance system set-up.”

But the logistics of strapping a 300-to-1,000 pound sign to the side of a building can’t be rushed. It’ll time, and it’ll need to be done right.

“The granular details are next,” he says. “We've defined the ‘what is the neon museum?’ and now we're in the how are we going to make it come to fruition – and this is the first step so the Innovation Fund was the catalyst.”

David Hessels