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How a child's death led to the rebirth of Yonge Street

Today's bustling urban centre bears little resemblance to the seedy Sin Strip where Emanuel Jaques was murdered 40 years ago

Yonge/Dundas Square in Toronto.

The Vans flagship store at 245 Yonge St. bears almost no trace of its former self. In 1977, the property housed Charlie's Angels, a body-rub parlour above a storefront that offered massages, adult movies and "love aids." Today, the store's window displays skate shoes and designer hoodies. There isn't so much as a plaque to commemorate the tragic event that took place in the building 40 years ago. But for those who follow the history of Toronto, the address played a key role in a dramatic transformation of Yonge Street. And it all began with a murder.

For much of the 20th century, downtown Yonge Street was the closest thing Toronto had to an urban centre: a region of haberdashers, attorneys' offices, vaudeville houses and night clubs. Around the beginning of the 1970s, though, the strip south of Bloor became seedier and racier, a transition that began with the development of the Toronto Eaton Centre. Construction began in '73, causing massive street-level upheaval. Landlords across from the site figured it was a matter of time before they, too, were bought out by a shopping-mall developer. Instead of seeking permanent tenants, they offered monthly rentals to fly-by-night entrepreneurs. The stretch between Gerrard and Queen, where Charlie's Angels opened, became known as Sin Strip, a neon-lit Gomorrah of peep shows, peelers and porn theatres.

The stretch of Yonge between Gerrard and Queen became known as Sin Strip, a neon-lit Gomorrah of peep shows, peelers and porn theatres.

The decline of obscenity laws around the same time meant that these new businesses – many of them backroom operations in second- and third-floor walk-ups – could now brazenly advertise their services. Sex workers called out from doorways to potential clients, while handbills and storefront signage – much of it in bubbly Seventies typography – promised topless dancing and naked massages. "You saw sex written on the landscape in a way that you didn't before," says Daniel Ross, an urban historian who teaches at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

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The public bought into it. In the era of Deep Throat, sex was entertainment, and Yonge had long been an entertainment district. "People were fascinated by the Strip," says Ross. "It was exciting. It was the place to go for Saturday-night action." The cops, having little by way of funding or legal mechanisms with which to crack down on vice, patrolled Sin City but refused to end it – until the dramatic summer of '77.

On July 28 of that year, Emanuel Jaques, aged 12 and an immigrant from the Azores, was shining shoes on the Strip when a group of men offered him money to help move camera equipment into an upper-floor flat at 245 Yonge. Over the course of 12 hours, the men raped and tortured the boy before drowning him in a sink. Three days later, one of the killers, Saul Betesh, turned himself in to the police. The other two, Robert Wayne Kribs and Joseph Woods, were arrested on a train near Sioux Lookout, Ont.

The trauma reverberated across the city, particularly among Portuguese Torontonians, a community approaching 100,000 people, mostly from the Azores. The author Anthony De Sa, a son of Azorean immigrants, set his novel Kicking the Sky in the summer of '77. De Sa, who was roughly Jaques's age at the time of the murder, remembers his parents' generation as one of self-sacrificing labourers. They'd clean hospitals by day, gather worms for bait stores by night, and sew pockets onto jeans over the weekend. "They never had a sense that they were making money to enjoy life," says De Sa. "Their dream was invested in us." In a community that did everything for its children, the Jaques killing was the ultimate betrayal.

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At the urging of José Rafael, a DJ at a local radio station, 15,000 people – most of them Portuguese – stormed Nathan Phillips Square, calling on authorities to purge Yonge Street and reinstate the death penalty. For the first time since arriving in Toronto, Portuguese immigrants began locking their doors.

In the chaos of the moment, signals got crossed. Yonge was already synonymous with vice, but now it became associated with homosexuality, pedophilia and murder. "The general myth was that gays were always trying to seduce and harm children," says writer Gerald Hannon, who at the time worked for The Body Politic, Toronto's gay monthly. "The Jaques murder was the ugly stereotype come true." The killers may not have been gay, Hannon says, but newspaper and police reports weren't interested in such distinctions.

The notion of downtown Yonge as a gay mecca was also farfetched. Farther north, near Yonge and Wellesley, there was an area, nicknamed Track Two, where male hustlers hung out. And if you walked a few kilometres in almost any direction from Yonge and Dundas, you'd find one of the gay bars or bathhouses that orbited the Strip like rainbow moons around a red-hot planet. The Strip itself, however, catered mainly to heterosexual men who sought the swinging Hugh Hefner lifestyle.

But in '77, moral panic was the enemy of nuance, and for the thousands of Torontonians who either wrote to their councillors or signed anti-Yonge petitions, the Strip was gay, tawdry and murderous. Such sentiments had been present throughout the decade, but the Jaques killing gave them new urgency. "It was all about location," says Ed Jackson, an historian and former editor of The Body Politic. "There was a sense that Yonge Street itself had made the bad thing happen."

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Around the beginning of the 1970s, the Yonge strip south of Bloor became seedier and racier, a transition that began with the development of the Toronto Eaton Centre.

As Ross's PhD research shows, the police responded swiftly, emboldened by a sudden influx of provincial and municipal resources. Cops kicked down doors, apprehended sex workers on the street, and reportedly conducted warrantless raids. They made arrests under the 1943 Disorderly Houses Act and the 19th-century Bawdy House Law, which prohibited business owners from operating brothels; few of these charges stuck, but they resulted in damaging court injunctions.

When criminal cases couldn't be made, the authorities buried Sin Strip establishments beneath ribbons of red tape. The police teamed up with the health and fire departments to inspect massage parlours daily, making business untenable. In a designated courtroom at Old City Hall, a special prosecutor brought 93 cases related to bylaw and licensing violations. By October of 1977, 36 of the 40 sex-related businesses on Yonge had closed, most of them permanently. The heyday of the Strip was over.

But the new police task forces didn't disband. After the Yonge Street blitz, the two relevant departments – the morality and intelligence units – started casting around for new work, resulting in a vice-squad industrial complex. Historian Tom Hooper links the post-Jaques crackdown with the ensuing raids against gay bathhouses, which culminated in the largest mass arrest in Canada since the October Crisis.

For much of the 20th century, downtown Yonge Street was the closest thing Toronto had to an urban centre: a region of haberdashers, attorneys’ offices, vaudeville houses and night clubs.

"You've got these two bureaus in the police force who've been very busy bees," says Hooper, who teaches at York University. "They have to continue to justify their budgets, but Yonge Street is now clean. Of course, they're thinking, 'What else are we going to do?'" When, on Feb. 5, 1981, police simultaneously raided four bathhouses, ripped one down to the studs and arrested more than 300 people, they justified their actions, in part, under the Bawdy House Law, one of the statutes behind the post-Jaques sweep.

The Jaques murder and its tumultuous aftermath testifies to the role of narrative in civic life. Many Torontonians felt uneasy about having Sin Strip in the heart of their city, but it was only in '77 that they found a suitably powerful story with which to rationalize their discomfort. Of course, the murder was a massive collective trauma, but it was also a political opportunity. "In moral campaigns against vice," says Ross, "there's always an event that's seized on as justification."

In 1991, Kyle Rae was elected city councillor for Ward 6, which included the former Sin Strip. "Immediately, the pressure was on me to find a solution to downtown Yonge," he says. "I'm a brand-new counsellor, and I'm thinking, 'How do you fix a problem like this?'"

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In the nearly 15 years since the post-Jaques crackdown, the area had continued to decline. Few people think of porn theatres and dirty massage parlours as symbols of economic health, but these businesses, in their time, brought a measure of vitality to an ailing part of town. In their absence, the Strip became even more depleted. The Eaton Centre, which opened in '77, drew foot traffic indoors, leaving the sidewalks vacant.

The remaining commercial enterprises included dollar stores, temporary clearance houses and empty shopfronts with random merchandise in their windows. The local economy also depended on street crime and crack cocaine. When, in 1992, a protest in solidarity with Rodney King turned rowdy, business owners installed metal bars on their windows.

Rae founded the Yonge Street Business and Residents Association, which in turn commissioned Ron Soskolne, a development and planning consultant who'd worked on London's Canary Wharf, to devise a neighbourhood plan. Soskolne surveyed recent attempts to revitalize Yonge – a façade-improvement program; a suite of festive, ladybug-shaped garbage cans – and concluded that they were laughably feeble. "These were cosmetic procedures," he says. "What we needed was open-heart surgery."

Soskolne took an approach that, today, we'd call rebranding. A region once known for vice would instead become a mainstream commercial destination. He took Rae on a tour of the Greater Los Angeles Area, stopping at big-box retail hubs: places where you can park, shop, catch a movie in a multiplex and get dinner at a chain restaurant. Such areas, with their enormous, brand-name shops and steady retail traffic, are sometimes referred to as "suburban power centres." The new Yonge would mimic this formation but in the middle of downtown.

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City council, with Rae's backing, expropriated businesses just east of Yonge along both sides of Dundas. The city resold the north side: PenEquity Management Corporation, a successful power-centre developer, created 10 Dundas East, a complex designed for big-box retailers and a massive AMC cinema. (Today, the building's tenants include Goodlife Fitness, Jack Astor's and Cineplex.) On the south, it created Yonge-Dundas Square.

Soon after these developments, well-known brands – from the Hard Rock Café to Urban Outfitters to Gap – began populating the former Strip, creating the corporate chain-reaction that Soskolne had banked on. "In the early 2000s," he says, "every small piece was a win." While the residents' and businesses' association tolerated existing adult establishments, it didn't want more. Rae recalls a sex-toy retailer whose owners planned to open a location on Yonge. "I sat down with them and said, 'I'm not putting up with this,'" he says. "'You want zoning, but I'm not going to help you.'" If Yonge was to be born again, he argued, it couldn't revert to its former self.

City council's targeted, market-based intervention enabled the Yonge of today, which is economically vibrant, safe, and estranged from its history. There are a few Broadway-style marquees or gaudy strip-club façades, but they seem out of place among condos and sportswear retailers. The new Yonge isn't groovy or bohemian, but it passes the most important test of any urban development: Lots of people use it. And the crowds are noticeably more diverse – in terms of age, class and ethnicity – than in hipper precincts, such as West Queen West.

Pedestrians cross the street at Yonge and Dundas streets in Toronto, Ont. on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016.

Forty years ago, Yonge was a realm of upper floors and backrooms, where people did illicit things in dimly lit spaces. Today, an architecture of secrecy has given way to one of openness. Ryerson University's new Student Learning Centre has a welcoming, street-level atrium. The eastern edge of the Eaton Centre, once an impassive façade – Soskolne compared it to "an ocean liner docked against the street" – now has shopfronts that engage with the sidewalk.

James Brown, a founding partner at Brown and Storey Architects, the firm that designed Yonge-Dundas Square, says he didn't want the site to have a back end. "Each side," he says, "was meant to be a front." The space is open but carefully regulated: Busking and panhandling are prohibited on the square. And the surrounding landscape is easy to monitor. Diners can look down at Yonge and Dundas from the panoptic vantage point of the Milestones Restaurant four floors above.

As for 245 Yonge St., the room where Jaques was murdered no longer exists. Vans occupies a minimalist, lofty shop in which the second and third floors have been removed. Stand amid the shelving units on the ground level, and you can see all the way to the top. The building feels airy and sanitized. There are no rafters in which a ghost might dwell.

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