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Not much remains of Scarborough's Golden Mile Add to ...

They don't make insulated coffee mugs on Thermos Road any more. Then again, they don't make much of anything along Scarborough's "Golden Mile of Industry" any more. The lunchbox crowd - likely loyal Thermos-brand customers - punched their last timecards years ago.

For a place that developed so quickly and with such fanfare - spurring home building and retail construction alike - its death was remarkably slow and low-key.

Symbolically, the final nail in the coffin for this stretch of Eglinton Avenue between Birchmount Road and Pharmacy Avenue was the removal of the 50-foot-tall Golden Mile Chevrolet sign a few years ago. A landmark, its neon glow warmed the sidewalk long after most of the industries were gone, but when it, too, disappeared without ceremony, the sun set forever on Scarborough's remarkable road.

In 1948, after determining that residential taxes alone wouldn't fund the growing township, Scarborough reeve Oliver Crockford and his council purchased about 250 acres of land formerly occupied by General Engineering Co., which had manufactured war munitions there. The next year, the site was prepared for other industrial operations, although 14 of the General Engineering buildings were retained for municipal offices.

Industry came calling faster than anyone had anticipated: Frigidaire to build newfangled iceless iceboxes, Inglis to produce "automatic" washers and dryers, and SKF to roll out a billion bearings.

It became a huffing, humming hive of activity: Everything from pharmaceuticals and cosmetics to candies, paper products, typewriters and toys were being manufactured. As Robert R. Bonis writes in A History of Scarborough (Scarborough Public Library, 1968): "Industrial construction permits leapt up to 26.3 per cent of the total [of all building permits in Scarborough]for the year 1950, and to 46 per cent in 1951." The Golden Mile was such a happening place that companies routinely took out advertisements to announce the relocation of their factories there, hoping the area's golden image would rub off on them.

On the heels of industry came mass housing. Reeve Crockford boasted in January, 1953, that 10,000 homes would be built in Scarborough that year, most of them ringing the Golden Mile. Builders' advertisements touted the proximity to the smokestacks as if it were a good thing. By that December, as if by symbiosis, Eglinton Square Shopping Centre appeared at Pharmacy and Eglinton to service the happy new smog-inhaling homeowners.

The next spring, Archie Bennett and his Principle Investments Inc. unveiled Golden Mile Plaza across the street, the largest project yet for the builder of Toronto's first strip mall, Sunnybrook Plaza at Eglinton and Bayview avenues.

In June, 1959, after touring architect Peter Dickinson's shiny new O'Keefe Centre and Sunnybrook Hospital, the Queen visited Golden Mile Plaza. While published itineraries show that Her Majesty graced its ground for a mere 10 minutes, that it was worthy of a visit at all speaks to the importance of strip malls in particular and suburbia in general. It also gave a boost to the area's growing mythology.

Twenty years later, however, the plaza was losing business, and local politicians were dreaming up ways to redevelop the land as a "golden gateway" to Scarborough, with a mix of offices, retail and high-rise housing. Mayor Gus Harris even envisioned constructing an actual lighted arch to welcome drivers.

The results of these efforts were disappointing. In 1986, a proposal was made for a big-box grocery store with as much, if not more, asphalt than the plaza, and a building that turned its back to the street. At the time, Scarborough planning commissioner Ken Whitwell was quoted as saying: "We wanted a spectacular, attractive development that would revitalize the entire area. This sure as hell isn't attractive, and it's not very inviting." In December, a fire gutted parts of the original plaza, sealing its fate.

By late 1989, General Motor's Scarborough van plant, which had moved into the Frigidaire factory in 1974, announced it would be closing. In 1993, it finally did, despite the fact that thousand of employees gathered to demonstrate against the move.

Today, not much remains from the golden days.

The only evidence of Mr. Harris's pipe dream sits on the northwest corner of Victoria Park and Eglinton, behind a sign saying "Golden Gate Apartments." The average-looking building doesn't have any golden lights on it.

The southwest corner has fared somewhat better, housing-wise, with the recent development of townhouse units, which displaced the famous "Lady on the Swing" billboard erected in 1962 by Willison Chrysler.

Along the strip, backhoes sleep between dirt piles in huge vacant lots and, where old factories do survive, it's only because new faces have been grafted onto them, such as the former Rootes Motors building at Warden and Eglinton, where a Vietnamese restaurant, Sally Ann, flea market, jewellery exchange and a courthouse now rub shoulders.

"SKF" is fossilized in a brick wall; the former Thermos building lies besieged by weeds, its sign reduced to a few shards clinging to an empty frame flanked by redevelopment notices.

Modelled, perhaps, on its namesake in the London suburb of Brentford (and, closer to home, O'Connor Drive in East York), the Golden Mile was a golden flame that burned brightly for nearly half a century until it was snuffed out by big-box stores.

Today, it is the Eglinton Town Centre's towering pylon with a checkerboard of retail signage that stands tallest on the once-proud strip. But in its stores, finding anything made in Scarborough could prove to be a challenge.

Dave LeBlanc hosts The Architourist on CFRB Sunday mornings.

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