So Long, Yonge Street?
Hey, where did you go?
“And if you walk that way,” says the taxi driver, “you’ll walk onto the longest street in Canada. Longest street in the world. Ya know?”
Later, after he deposits me at my AirBnB apartment and I lay on the double bed, enjoying the sensation of everything not moving for the first time in 48 hours, I go for a walk. It’s a scorching hot day in Toronto, and for someone coming from a country still trying to shrug off a cold, wet Spring, it’s overwhelming. My body struggles to remember how to breathe air this warm, and I realize I haven’t brought a hat. It didn’t even occur to me until now. A hat? What for?
I duck into a Starbucks and try to reboot my brain with caffeine. The barista is chatty.
“Welcome to Yonge Street, buddy – the longest street in the world!”
Yonge (pronounced “Young”, which I never quite get used to) is Toronto’s Y-axis. Street numbers ascend from zero on either side, differentiated with an “E” or “W”. The Yonge-University-Spadina subway burrows under the road all the way into Downtown before hooking eastwards into the great Union Station. The city’s accepted centre, I’m reliably informed, is the Bloor-Yonge intersection. Toronto is nailed to Yonge Street like a sign nailed to a tree.
Here in Uptown, almost all the shops are one-storey, faintly ramshackle in a well-groomed way. I don’t see any litter all day, which makes me feel like I’m on a film set. Everyone else has a hat. (Damn them.)
As I approach Bloor-Yonge the city seems to rear up, like someone is hitting the fast-forward button in a game of SimCity. Toronto asserts itself quickly. It’s huge. And Yonge Street dives right into the thick of it, a wide, noisy path into a forest of steel & glass. When you’re walking down it you can’t see the end, but you sense it’s there. There’s a sense of architectural climax – all together everyone for the big finish! — and that’s when you catch sight of the CN Tower and wonder why it’s not at the end of Yonge where it surely belongs.
“Yonge Street is the longest in the world — wow!” says a passerby, reading from a dog-eared guidebook I don’t recognise.
I stop in the shadow of a Tim Hortons, pull up an offline Google map of the city on my phone and trace Yonge from the edge of Lake Ontario, up, up, passing under my feet, rising into Uptown, north, north and…oh. I’ve lost it. I zoom in, search around. There we go. Yonge Street goes for, yes, a fair old way, but then it meets Ravenshoe Road just under Cook’s Bay, Lake Simcoe, and there it . . . ends.
I scan around – and find another Yonge Street, on the other side of Holland Landing Road & Bridge Street – and in doing so, I notice the Yonge Street I was first looking at . . . doesn’t connect to anything. It’s just a scrap of road.
So here’s the thing. Toronto was once the holder of two world records: the tallest free-standing structure in the world (held by the CN Tower), and the longest road in the world. It held the latter because despite some on-the-ground confusion, it was generally agreed-upon that Yonge Street knotted its way onto the end of the mighty Highway 11, stretching from one side of Ontario to the other. Guinness used to agree – then, in 1999, they took a closer look and decided they didn’t. And who could blame them? It’s a confusing, fascinating mess.
None of this matters to me – in fact it’s almost a relief. Everything round here is on the wrong scale for my tiny, tiny brain. At least Toronto itself makes sense: Uptown, Downtown, bingo. (Very sensible people, the Canadians.) And that feeling of having grasped the geographic essentials lasts until the following evening, when I’m on the 84,498th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel for a wine reception, and I glance out the window to check the murky weather, and Toronto — that same nice, tidy, manageable-sized Toronto — goes from horizon to horizon in a checker of skyscrapers and greenery…
- “The myth of Yonge Street being the world’s longest road lives on” – Meri Perra, Daily Brew, 14th April 2011.
- “To The True End Of Yonge Street” – James Bow, 25th July 2006.