THE RISE AND FALL OF YONGE STREET’S SEX INDUSTRY

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Tyler Harper

Thursday night at Zanzibar.

Her name is Jasmine. I think it is anyway. It’s a little hard to concentrate.

“I knew you didn’t have to be ID’d,” she says in a French accent. “You have a young face, but you’re not 19.”

“How old do you think I am?”

She eyes me up and down. “Twenty-seven. 28.”

“I’m 26. How old are you?”

“Twenty-eight,” she says and we both laugh because we both know she’s older than that. “I always say I’m 28. If you feel an age you will always be that age.”

I think that over a moment as I take a sip of beer and glance up at the stage. A young-looking girl is abusing a pole in a routine sort of way. She gets on all fours and shakes her ass. No one claps.

“Does it get tiring having to talk to people all the time?” I ask.

“Sometimes. I pick the people I want to talk to. If a guy is creepy or I don’t like him, then I don’t talk to him.” We stare at each other for a moment. I do my best to keep looking into her eyes. “But you have a nice face. I like talking to you.”

“That’s nice of you to say.”

“Would you like a French dance?” she asks, grinning.

Ah, terrible temptation. I contemplate what exactly would make the dance French then remember I have a girlfriend waiting for me at home. And I spent the last of my cash on the beer. Shit shit shit. “Maybe next time. I think I’ll just drink my beer.”

“That’s too bad. I would like very much to dance for you.”

She gets up to leave, keeping an eye on me as she walks away. A song I don’t recognize is pounding out of the speakers. A section of the stage rises and the dancer gyrates with the bass. A middle-age man sitting alone in front of me claps. I finish my beer and get up to leave.

It’s hard to find a decent peeler on Yonge Street these days. There are only three strip clubs, one porn cinema and a handful of sex accessory shops now. But in the 1970s, Yonge was the dirtiest street in Canada. Body-rub parlours, porno vendors, cinemas and clubs lined the strip south of Bloor. There was music on the street. Tourists visited Yonge for the atmosphere and not the Eaton Centre. It was more Queen St. than Bay.

Valerie Scott worked in the body-rub parlours on Yonge during the ’70s. She doesn’t remember the strip as a black hole into which all good men’s souls were sucked, but rather for the people she worked with. “What I liked about it was the comradery between the women. We would look out for each other,” says Scott.

“There wasn’t a lot of violence, hardly any. I never even came across any at all, all the times I worked in the massage parlours. I think because we worked together, there were always two or three or four of us working in a place. And it was just nice to hang out with the other women in between clients,” she says.

The first body-rub parlour opened in the spring of 1971. They grew in tandem with the Yonge Street Mall, an annual festival held between 1971 and 1973. Parts of Yonge from Gerrard to Queen were closed to traffic and vendors moved into the street. The sex industry thrived on the increase in street business the mall provided. The body rub parlours also filled an economic niche on the street and kept Yonge going, taking advantage of real estate that other businesses didn’t want.

“It filled a vacumn. The stores were there, it was the centre of the city. Landlords were pretty desperate because they couldn’t get serious retailers to go there,” says Ron Soskolne, Toronto’s chief planner in the ‘70s.

The increase in people attracted by the mall, however, meant an increase in crime. Some businesses complained they were losing money just as the parlours were flourishing. The mall became a financial liability for the city and was shut down in the summer of 1973. The parlours, however, remained. In just four years, there were more than 100 of them. “In some storefront parlours girls now make a habit of sitting in their doorways winking at potential customers,” wrote the Toronto Sun in 1975. “In lighted doorway after lighted doorway nude photography, nude billiards, nude encounter sessions, nude story telling, nude meditation.”

The party ended in 1977. On July 28, four men lured 12-year-old Emanuel Jaques, who worked on Yonge shining shoes, into an apartment above Charlie’s Angels, a body-rub parlour across from the just-opened Eaton Centre. Jaques was restrained and sexually assaulted over 12 hours, then strangled and drowned. The murder shocked the public and provided the city and local businesses with a moral martyr to rally behind. Many of the sex businesses threw in the towel rather than endure the legal shitstorm. Some were closed down by the bawdy-house law, which gives authorities the legal right to close down any place in which prostitution occurs. Whether or not prostitution was indeed happening was beside the point. None of the businesses could afford to fight both the government and the public. At the time of Jaques’ murder, there were 40 parlours on Yonge. By November there were four and in December the last one closed its doors.

The body-run era was over.

By the early 80s, Scott found herself dancing at the Zanzibar. “The Zanzibar was a happening place,” she says. “That place was packed on the weekends. Even during the week it was busy in the evenings and they had good quality shows. This is before table and lap dancing. It was far more burlesque. You didn’t have anything on the stage like showers or poles. The stage was nice, it was a good hardwood stage. Good for dancing.”

The strip clubs continued to do well, but Yonge Street decayed in the 80s. “It just got worse,” says Soskolne. “Some new fast food restaurants went in like McDonald’s or Burger King. Cheque cashing places. Predominately a lot of vacancy. The buildings were even more deteriorated because the landlord didn’t want to put money into any building that he couldn’t get revenue from. The stores that were rented were rented on a short term basis. You know, clearance shoes, clearance books. You still see that going on all over the city in terms of soft retail space. Then dollar stores started to proliferate. By the time we started the regeneration program in 1994 we counted 29 dollar and discount stores between College and King.”

Crime and drug use on Yonge were on the rise, and by 1994, the economy bottomed out. “You could look out Queen Street from the mayor’s office and there would be no traffic. It was that bad. You probably can’t imagine. The traffic on Queen collapsed. Transit use went down, because of the failure of the office towers and that created a crisis for the business owners,” recalls Kyle Rae, the area’s city councillor, who was first elected in 1991.

Rae took a walk on a wet night in 1994 with members of council to show them the state of decay along the street. With the help of the Yonge Street Business and Residents Association, the city began planning to build a square and a new mall at Yonge and Dundas to revitalize the area.

“The World’s Biggest Jean Store. The World of Shoes. Licks and a jewelry exchange. Nobody misses them. So we were able to expropriate that,” he says.

After nearly 15 years of planning, Toronto Life Square finally opened last year. Yonge has become an epileptic’s nightmare. Neon signs advertising the latest cell phone plans flash electric kool-aid over newly erected condos. It’s a 21st century circus, with a size that fits for anyone with cash to spend.

“I think it’s a huge success,” says Soskolne. “I think having a film festival there is an example of what the possibilities are now and that never would have been possible 10, 20 years ago.”

The sex industry is still there, but it’s only a shadow of its former self. The Zanzibar, the Brass Rail and Remington’s are the only strip clubs left. A porn cinema commands a second-floor perch on the east side of Yonge. Only a few sex shops remain.

For her part, Scott isn’t very impressed with the new Yonge Street. “It’s boring, for the most part. The Eaton Centre is hostile. The architecture is hostile to the streetscape. The stores are tawdy. The buildings really need some renovations. I’m beginning to become fond of Dundas Square, but for the most part, there’s just not a lot of soul to Yonge Street.”

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