When Constable Marty McLaughlin spotted a pack of teenage boys loitering in Yonge-Dundas Square one night this week, he thought he better check out the situation.
He strolled over, and, sure enough, one of the teens made him an offer.
“Can I give you a hug?” the boy said, laughing and wringing out a soaked T-shirt.
He and his friends, members of a British rugby team, were sopping wet after skidding gleefully through the square’s fountains.
A wet hug from a tourist was the most serious threat Constable McLaughlin and his colleagues, Sergeant Mike Hayles and Constable Melissa Huntley, faced on a foot patrol of the Yonge Street corridor Wednesday night.
The trio only used their handcuffs once: To lock up their police bikes.
It was all a far cry from last Saturday night, when police swarmed Yonge Street in search of a man whose spray of gunfire killed one, injured six and terrified hundreds in the Eaton Centre food court.
A suspect, Christopher Husbands, 23, turned himself in early Monday morning, but that hasn’t thawed the chill some Torontonians feel about returning to the Eaton Centre and to Toronto’s famous main drag.
Relentless, sensational media coverage followed the shooting, raising a tough question for Yonge lovers: Could the incident jeopardize the extraordinary revitalization that has happened on and around downtown Yonge Street, particularly its neon-lit, pulsating heart at Dundas?
Although the square, which opened in 2002, is still derided by some as an aesthetic nightmare, its wide-open design and carousel of events have helped transform the area from a seedy haven for porn purveyors, low-level drug dealers and vagrants into one of the more vibrant and safe places in Toronto.
Tourists are flocking and Ryerson University is moving in. So are developers: There are 18 developments or redevelopments in the works in the immediate area.
Kyle Rae, the former city councillor who helped shepherd the square’s opening, remembers what used to be at the nation’s busiest corner: “An intersection that was inhabited by danger,” he said.
Local hotels advised visitors to use Bay Street to get to the Eaton Centre and to avoid the city’s main drag where people lingered “plying illegal activity all day long,” he said. In 1996, Mr. Rae counted 25 dollar stores between Queen and College.
After the square’s opening, Mr. Rae implored critics to give it time to develop character, something he believes has happened.
But no amount of urban renewal can make a place safe “if someone goes shopping with a gun,” he said.
“It’s a fragile balance and I don’t know how to resolve that,” Mr. Rae said of continued efforts to shake off the Yonge corridor’s crime-ridden image.
Before last Saturday, the downtown Yonge corridor hadn’t seen a murder since 2005, when 15-year-old Jane Creba was gunned down near Gould Street on Boxing Day and 27-year-old Dwayne Taylor was shot and killed in Yonge-Dundas Square during Caribana.
Useful figures on lower-level crimes are harder to come by. Toronto police release long-term statistics by police division, not by block or neighbourhood.
But surveys conducted by the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area, which represents more than 2,000 merchants, found the percentage of business owners and employees who felt safe after dark nearly doubled from 42.2 per cent in 2005 to 80.3 per cent in 2009, while the percentage who felt crime was “very high” dropped from 14.7 per cent to 3.6 per cent.
“There is proportionately less crime on Yonge Street and in that immediate area than I see elsewhere in my division,” said Inspector Gary Meissner, the second-in-command at 51 Division, which includes the east side of Yonge Street and stretches from Bloor in the north to the Don River in the east and Lake Ontario in the south.
“In fact, as you move farther and farther away from Yonge Street, I see more crimes of opportunity.”
Insp. Howie Page of 52 Division (which begins on the west side of Yonge) sees the same pattern on his side of the Yonge divide. “I would take my family to walk Yonge Street at 3 a.m.,” he said.
The Square alone hasn’t saved the area. Regular patrols by undercover police and uniformed officers from the Community Response Units in 51 Division and 52 Division have helped, as have the BIA’s crew of four cleaners and team of five “discovery” officers who hand out tourism information in the summer.
The area is also under constant video surveillance: There’s one Toronto police camera in the square and two on Dundas, while the live-eye from the new Citytv building in the square and an untold number of private security cameras also keep watch.
Still, the corridor isn’t free of all problems.
The Eaton Centre is a major mall which, like many shopping centres, is a hangout for idle youths.
“These are places that attract a lot of young people and some of them are going to be gang-involved and some of those … are going to have a gun with them, just for protection,” said Michael Chettleburgh, a gang expert and author of Young Thugs: Inside the Dangerous World of Canadian Street Gangs.
Police are constantly working to suppress aggressive panhandling, public drunkenness and shoplifting in the area, Sgt. Hayles said.
But as he and his colleagues walked the beat this week, Sgt. Hayles said he doesn’t think the Eaton Centre shooting is a harbinger of worse crimes to come.
In fact, he dropped relatives visiting from England at the mall before he started his shift Wednesday.
“As you can see today, folks are still out shopping, doing their thing,” he said. “It’s almost as if things are like any other day.”