By Siri Agrell
When Aaron Barberian’s father, Harry Barberian, opened his restaurant on elm Street in 1959, the neighbourhood around Yonge and Dundas Streets was bright, dynamic and bustling with people.
During the day, shoppers crammed the stores that lined Yonge Street and poured into local theatres. At night, families strolled hand-in-hand down the sidewalks and packed the restaurant patios and cafes.
More than fifty years later, the Barberian Steak House sits in its original location, one of the last remnants of a once-vibrant community. All around, the streets are shadows of their former glory.
Most thriving businesses have now moved inside the Eaton Centre, and the once friendly and inviting businesses along Yonge Street have been reduced to a dingy line of bargain stores, fast food chains and sex shops.
“At a certain point, stores stopped caring about their appearance, and drugs started being dealt openly throughout the neighbourhood,” said Aaron Barberian, who, about 10 years ago, took the reins of his father’s restaurant.
The area’s slide from glory began in the late 1970s, when the Eaton Centre opened and sucked the successful businesses — and their customers — off the street.
The financial district at Bay and King Streets was creeping north and city officials worried it would steamroll the fragile retail area. To block the invasion, they imposed zoning bylaws that kept storefronts no more than six-metres wide.
By doing so, they froze the neighbourhood in its fragmented state, while the rest of the city grew and flourished.
“That’s why we have all these cute little storefronts,” said Barberian. “It’s managed to capture the character of the area, but it’s also stunted things.”
While malls sprung up around the city, and suburbs drew people away from the downtown core, the Yonge-Dundas area was forgotten. The area deteriorated while a population of panhandlers — and a reputation for crime — soared.
In the mid-1990s, a group of local business owners, spearheaded by Barberian, decided it was time to reclaim the neighbourhood.
“I grew up around here,” he said. “This neighbourhood is a legacy that our parents left us and we’ll leave to our children. I looked around and said: ‘It’s not good enough and we’re going to make it better.’”
In 1995, he helped form the Yonge Street Business and Residents Association, and the group began breathing life back into the troubled area.
With $100,000 of their own money and a $150,000 grant from the city, they retained Ron Soskolne — the city’s chief planner during the 1970s — to create a new vision for the neighbourhood.
Part of that vision is the creation of an area where shopping and culture overlap. Business owners want the streets to be busy day and night, and to be known for their character as much as for their commerce.
“We don’t want to Disney-fy the area,” Barberian said. “I don’t mind that places like Zanzibar are here — it’s downtown, so it should be a little exciting.”
He believes the area’s popularity will hinge on the new town square, to be built on the southeast side of the intersection at Yonge and Dundas Streets. The YSBRA plans to host events in the square 300 days a year — everything from fashion shows to rock concerts.
Although the development isn’t expected to be completed until fall 2002, the plan to revitalize the neighbourhood has already begun to take effect. The expanded sidewalk around the redesigned Eaton’s store is keeping more shoppers outside, and big name tenants such as Guess have already moved in and are drawing crowds.
Barberian says this is only the beginning. He believes the area will soon return to its former prominence, with streets as busy as they were when his father first moved in and set up shop. From now on, he says the neighbourhood will only get better.
“There’s going to be music and events, and it’s going to be a little party all year round,” Barberian said. “It’s going to be very distracting for Ryerson students.”