What Put An End To The Free Love in Yorkville?

A brief history of a neighbourhood

One of Yorkville’s oldest institutions closed its doors this year. The Coffee Mill celebrated its fiftieth birthday before saying goodbye in August. The Hungarian restaurant opened in 1963 and through that decade and the next it was the haunt of Toronto intellectuals, among others. Margaret Atwood could be spotted there often, Leonard Cohen too.

The Hungarian café was opened to serve Hungarian immigrants who came to the city in droves following the uprising in that country in the 1950s. But the terraced patio attracted people from all over the city to drink espresso and chow down on goulash and schnitzel. The owners weren’t scared of making a splash either; they often walked their pet cheetah on a leash through Yorkville and everyone knew who they were.


(The Coffee Mill)

The closing of the Coffee Mill is an obvious signal that times have changed in Yorkville. Since the 1980s, the small cluster of one-way streets has established a reputation as the haunting grounds of moneyed Torontoians. But unlike Bloor street, just south of the neighbourhood, Yorkville retains a charm that is a hold over from earlier decades. Thus proving that its current form is just that – current. A look into Yorkville’s past reveals more than a few things about its current iteration.

Yorkville is a history told in venues, coffee shops, and restaurants. One of them was the Riverboat, which closed its doors in 1978. If Queen West was the music mecca of Toronto in the 1990s, Yorkville was the mecca in the 1960s and 1970s and the Riverboat was its main stage. Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Neil Young were some of the seminal musicians launched out of this venue. Yorkville’s hippie scene is well known by many Torontoians. It was Canada’s bohemian headquarters, just as Haight-Asbury had a hold in San Francisco.


As the 1960s chugged along, hippie culture drew more and more people into its orbit, which was a problem for the narrow one-way streets in Yorkville. More people meant more congestion for this little enclave. But it was the 1960s so people didn’t take things lying down back then – they sat down. Sit-ins were organized at Queen’s Park to get Yorkville zoned as a pedestrian-only zone. Needless to say, this didn’t work. And in fact, it had the opposite effect: police set up on street corners, ready to detain any drunkards or 18-year-olds out after the 10 p.m. curfew.

This wasn’t what ended the hippie haven though. The summer of love was sadly, of the unprotected kind and a wave of hepatitis outbreaks swept through the area in the summer of 1968. This led some people to start moving out of the neighbourhood. In the meantime, a more slow-moving force was underway. Real estate investors were beginning to see the potential in the quaint village, situated so close to the tony Rosedale neighbourhood. Landlords began to court new buyers. Hazleton Lanes finished construction in 1976 and the Four Seasons opened its doors in 1978.


(Yorkville, July 1978 by Robert Taylor via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, Yorkville is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the city. Yet, the walk-up townhouses and pretty park spaces (including the rock from the Canadian Shield), makes for a picturesque backdrop to all that shopping.


(The Rock at Yorkville Park by Duncan Rawlinson via Flickr)