I have a scar on my forehead from when I went over the handlebars of my bike half a lifetime ago. There’s a bump on the bridge of my nose from one of the times it was broken. A pale semi-circle on my left thumb marks where I nearly sliced it off while I was cooking for a living. On my shoulder, there’s a blued-out tattoo representing a way of looking at the world I only half-subscribe to these days. None of these things is essential to how I want to present myself to the world, and yet I cannot imagine wanting to erase them from my body. They’re tiny parts of who I am.
Maybe it’s just me, but I see beauty in such imperfect markers of experience—my own, and similar ones on other people. They’re the artifacts of lives in progress, quietly hinting at the story of who we were before we became the people we are today. They remind us of where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and what’s happened to us.
I’ve been thinking about this lately in relation to the debate coming to City Hall about the Sam the Record Man sign that once defined that section of the Yonge Street strip. Those giant, rotating neon discs were meant to be returned to their original location by Ryerson University, which now owns the property, as a memento of a chapter in local history—a beloved music store, but, more than that, a longstanding neighbourhood aesthetic. On Sept. 10, a city committee will consider the university’s request to be excused from the deal it made to restore the signs. Instead, Ryerson proposes an online tribute to Sam Sniderman’s record store and a sidewalk-level monument to the discs.
The staff report on the request reveals Ryerson’s mendacity throughout the entire process: The school agreed to keep the sign in order to circumvent a heritage designation that would have prevented the building’s destruction. Now, the school says it cannot restore the sign for a series of reasons that are either Ryerson’s own fault (it clashes with the design of the new building), entirely foreseeable (the cost of lighting the sign will be prohibitively expensive), or both. None of these concerns are things Ryerson didn’t know before it entered a binding contract with the city. On those grounds alone, city council should deny this attempt to weasel out of the deal lest it be gamed by every huckster facing a heritage designation in the future. (For more on this, read my recent blog post on how we should really deal with Ryerson’s back-pedalling.)
Still, do we actually want the sign back? Some people say it makes no sense to preserve the past with such token gestures—in this case, maintaining an advertisement for a business that no longer exists, which sold a technology that’s now antiquated. Maybe, these people say, such things should go in a museum, rather than on the street. I disagree.
Preserving our heritage in museums, or preserving it as museums, like Casa Loma or Fort York, misrepresents the way the city’s past and present intertwine. Museums are places to visit when we’re feeling nostalgic or curious to see a moment frozen in time, removed from the way we live now. But our recent past is not something separate from our present. Our history is still with us, still shaping us, part of how we got here. It’s still our story.
So the living, growing city should retain historic elements embedded in the evolving urban fabric. In many cases, a landmark can continue to serve its original purpose, as Union Station and the Royal York Hotel do. In other cases, a storied place can be adapted to serve a new purpose, like the grocery store and sports facility in Maple Leaf Gardens, or the galleries in the Distillery District, or the green lab at the Brick Works.
Failing that, we can embed footprints of civic history in the design of the city we’re becoming—the streetscape can be a text in which to read layers of Toronto’s past while living in the present. “Façadism,” as it’s called, can get a bad rap for offering only the illusion of heritage preservation. But to the extent that it makes the story of where we’ve been a part of the landscape of our present, even while we go about shaping our future, it’s valuable. It tells us a bit about who we were, and connects it to who we are. You can’t replace that with a plaque and website telling us about an old record store.