You’ve got the ads, of course. The first thing you notice about Yonge-Dundas Square is that it seems to have been constructed as a monument to commercial messages. The square itself is mostly a triangle, actually, and almost every inch of it provides an ideal platform from which to view the billboards and blinking video monitors that surround it, stretching up into the sky, demanding your attention and exhorting you to see this movie or check out this website or buy these shoes. All-encompassing commercialism may be a fitting theme for the current moment in history, but celebrating it remains an odd concept to base a public square around. Still, the blinding colours and flashing lights create a kinetic energy in the place—or add to its energy, anyway. It works.
That’s the next thing you notice about Yonge-Dundas Square, which will mark its 10th anniversary with a big free concert on Aug. 9: that pretty much all of it works. The geysers that spring up from the granite where children dance and tiny rainbows appear every few seconds. The stage at the far end where bands fill the place with noise and movies are screened. The tables and chairs where people relax in the shade of patio umbrellas. And even—maybe especially—the wide sidewalks on the other sides of Dundas and Yonge, where breakdancers pop and lock, where street preachers bark The Good News, where insistent pamphleteers and nude protesters compete with drummers thumping on cans and buckets for your attention. It all works.
There was a time when I didn’t think it would—in the spring of 2003, when Yonge-Dundas Square first opened, I hated it. It looked to me like a vacant bus platform, and a bleak one at that. Back then, much of the surrounding area remained under construction (and would for a few years more), but the whole premise seemed doomed. It was, after all, a very conscious effort to build a Toronto version of Times Square—right down to the advertising overload. It’s nothing like Times Square. But in retrospect, maybe in a town where our city leaders so often try to mimic bigger and more confident towns, an attempt to copy New York’s success led to a different kind of triumph. (It’s also interesting to see that our version—which has always been a place for people on foot to lounge around—predated Times Square’s transformation into an even more dramatically pedestrian space.)
Ironically, that the same attribute that initially made Yonge-Dundas Square seem so barren actually defines its success today: Fountains aside, there aren’t a lot of bells and whistles in the square’s design, which allows it to be defined by its surroundings. Even more than the ads, there are the places from which people are coming and going: our retail Taj Mahal of the Eaton Centre, the big musicals and restaurants of the Yonge strip, the classrooms of the Ryerson campus, the office towers, the multi-screen movie theatre, and, of course, the bus terminal a block away, the subway just downstairs, and the streetcars on the corner.
Lots of different people from all over Toronto (and points beyond) have lots of things to do around Yonge and Dundas, and the square offers a crossroads for them. It’s a shortcut and a waiting room and an overflow chamber for all the people on their way to somewhere else. And the hustle of those people makes it a good place for others—the performers and hucksters and tourists—to hang out.
That’s the last thing you notice about Yonge-Dundas Square: It works because it doesn’t get in the way by trying to be the big attraction itself—at least not usually. It’s a showcase, not just for the ads and its neighbours, but for the citizens of the city who fill the big empty space with their bodies and their laughter and their energy. Everything else is just a complement to the one feature that truly defines the square’s success as a civic space. One decade later, it turns out to be a monument to people. To us. To Toronto.