my name is Sam, Sam the Record Man

Toronto’s Yonge Street has a reputation as the city’s main drag, extending its pavement from the foot of Queens Quay on the shore of Lake Ontario to the city limits at Steeles Avenue and beyond. Lining its route are all manners of attractions for the curious, including the huge Eaton Centre (Toronto’s largest shopping mall), Dundas Square, and that most holy of Canadian shrines, the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Since 1959, the corner of Gould and Yonge Streets played host to one of the most recognizable landmarks of Toronto: two giant, gaudy, neon-filled records, ‘spinning’ in the dark. This was the flagship location for one of Canada’s largest and best-loved music stores: Sam the Record Man.


Sam the Record Man on its final night – photo courtesy JBCurio via Wikimedia

Sam’s started in 1937, in an shop in a faraway corner of Toronto. Sam Sniderman (the eponymous Record Man) and his brother Sidney started the operation as a department within their family’s radio store, but by 1959, Sam was ready to strike out on his own and moved his operation to 347 Yonge Street – next door to competitor A&A Records. As his empire grew, Sniderman opened hundreds of outlets across Ontario and the rest of Canada, eventually dethroning A&A from of its position at the top of the Canadian record biz – and eventually taking over their neighboring Yonge Street store. Boxing Day sales were legendary at Sam’s, with deep discounts on records (and later, tapes and CDs) generating queues of chilly Torontonians that stretched around the block.

However, as the recording industry became more Internet-based, Sam’s (as well as many other music retailers) saw their sales plummet. Even competitor HMV, whose huge, multinational industry reach (and conspicuously located store across the street from Sam’s at 333 Yonge) had helped edge them above Sam’s in the record business, couldn’t keep their heads above water. On 30 October 2001, Sam’s filed for bankruptcy and closed all of their wholly owned stores, leaving only the Yonge Street flagship (reopened the next year with Sniderman’s sons at the helm) and 11 locally-owned franchises open. Sam the Record Man managed to linger on until finally, on 30 June 2007, the iconic signs were switched off (though they’d be relit once for Nuit Blanche in 2008 – see above photo) and Sam’s closed its doors for good. The building that housed it was soon purchased by nearby Ryerson University to be used as a new student centre; to that end, it was reduced to a pile of rubble by the end of 2009.

The building had been hastily declared a Heritage site in an effort to preserve the iconic neon record signs (as the Ontario Heritage Act has no provisions for saving signs without their buildings), but with the demolition of the building, the fate of the records is now in serious question. Part of the deal with the city of Toronto that allowed the demolition of a listed building included a clause that says the university is obliged to take the signs, repair them and put them back on one of two sites — either the new Learning Centre or another building nearby. However, the powers-that-be at Ryerson have indicated that, due to money, they no longer intend to do this, instead opting to replace the signs with ‘digital representations’ – likely video projectors that would shine a facsimile of the sign onto the sidewalk next to Yonge Street. Not quite the same thing.

During Sam’s swan song at the beginning of 2009, I happened to find myself in Toronto, and one night, in the company of Dresden and Rustblade, we paid our respects to the Record Man. In just a few short weeks, Sam’s would be reduced to a pile of rubble, so we elected to strike while the iron was hot. Our entry point was, as things go, a pretty sketchy one, but the impending doom of this site meant the risk-to-reward ratio was unusually high. Plus, at this late hour of night, traffic on busy Yonge Street had slowed to a crawl. With lookouts posted at the ends of the the alley, Rust and I poked and prodded until, inevitably, we found our way in. We beckoned to the others, and into the now-derelict landmark we went.


Dresden surveys what remains of the first floor of Sam’s.

Preparation for demolition was well under way, the walls and floors mostly stripped to their structural foundations. Piles of salvaged pipe, conduit, and wire littered the floors, and loose boards threatened to send us flying at the first misstep. The adjoining rooms were much the same, and we had the sense that workers had been here quite recently, salvaging the last of the materials inside Sam’s that were worth keeping. The squad then whipped out our respective cameras, and the *whoosh* of traffic passing on Yonge Street was soon joined by the occasional clicking of our shutters as we photographed what remained of the first floor.


Looking towards the Yonge Street entrance, the advanced state of demolition prep is apparent.


A magic-marker mural decorates the wall of the basement. By this time, the famous signature panels upstairs that held thousands of rock star autographs had been removed.


Some of the larger store decorations, like this handmade sign, remained behind.

As we proceeded upstairs, we found that things were much the same, but the hastily deconstructed state of the upper floors gave off a strange sense of urgency. Not only had the walls been stripped of their electrical conduit and wiring, some appeared to be losing their plaster as well. The workers had been here recently, too, leaving work lights, empty wrappers, and even a few wayward hard hats and Nomex bunny suits to mark their presence. However, for the time being, we were still by ourselves, with only our own curiosity to lead us farther up the stairs.


A hole in the side of the building reveals cars passing below on Yonge Street. This hole may have been the consequence of the removal of the huge record signs which adorned the front of Sam’s.

Access to the upper floors allowed us to move between the original store on the corner and the two adjoining buildings that Sam’s took over and assimilated into itself during its existence. In the early years, Sam’s did daily battle with their archrivals A&A Records, with only Steele’s Tavern in a narrow slice of a storefront separating the two along Yonge Street. With each new acquisition, interior walls fell to their new owner, and the previously separate buildings were fused together.


The corner of Yonge and Gould in 1973 – A&A and Sam the Record Man adjoin each other at this point, but by the 1980s, all three buildings would belong to the Record Man. The second record sign would later be installed on top of Steele’s. – Photo courtesy Bob Whalen via Panoramio


This part of Sam’s was once the home of A&A. The plaster on the wall was removed haphazardly to get at the conduit and wire underneath, revealing this graffiti of sorts from bygone days.

All of a sudden, the relative silence was broken by a group of wailing sirens coming down Yonge Street. The sirens grew nearer, until they stopped just as they were about to pass by. We spent a few breathless moments paused in an upstairs corridor, waiting to see if we had been found out. After a few minutes, there was still no sound coming from downstairs, no shouts or doors slamming; it seemed the fire was somewhere else, so to speak, so we continued on. Finally, we reached the building’s final ladder, and with nowhere to go but up, the deed was done. We paused for a moment on the roof for gratuitous self-portraits, overlooking the garish lights of nearby Dundas Square.


The squad on the roof of Sam’s; this excellent view would no longer exist in roughly 3 months’ time.

After paying our respects to the soon-to-be-dust Record Man, we headed back for ground level and made good our escape. No alarms, no sirens at the end of the alley, just the four of us rejoining the foot traffic on Yonge, heading off into the night with a new story to tell.

Sam’s has been reduced to an empty lot now, and soon construction will begin on Ryerson’s new student centre – leaving only photograph and memories of those huge, spinning, neon records, twinkling away in the night. However, for the multitudes of Torontonians that grew up with Sam’s as the cool place to be, those memories will remain especially strong.

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toronto heights

Canada’s largest city is home to some of the tallest skyscrapers in North America. Besides the instantly recognizable CN Tower, lesser-known edifices like the Bay Adelaide Centre and Commerce Court still crack the 700 foot (210m) mark. Recently, the rooftops of Toronto have been fertile ground for fellow photogs; Toronto has been called the best city for rooftopping in the world. It’s easy to see why: a downtown core full of tall buildings and cranes (engaged in the process of making more tall buildings), the potential for fantastic, brilliantly lit nighttime cityscapes, and a certain degree of luck with roof access doors. It’s a cocktail that goes down smooth every time.

After cracking Millbrook Prison with some of Toronto’s finest explorers, I went in search of a new point of view on the concrete canyons I’d been exploring at ground level for the last week. Joined by Jono and Dresden (names changed for mystery’s sake), we set our sights on the modestly tall CF Tower – a 36 floor monolith of steel and glass right smack in the middle of Toronto on Queen Street East. Past the security desk and into the elevators went the three of us, and a short vertical ride later, we were facing down the last door between us and the sky. Jono turned the handle, the catch drew back unhindered by a lock, and the magic portal was opened.

parapet
Three of Toronto’s tallest buildings keep watch over the city; from l-r, Scotia Plaza (902 ft/275m), Bay Adelaide West (715 ft/218m), and First Canadian Place (978 ft/298m). To the right of the downtown core is the CN Tower, dwarfing the skyscrapers at more than 1800 ft (550m) high.

From up here, perspective definitely changes. Aside from the sheer height (for reference, 465.88 ft/142m), turning all the pedestrians and streetcars below into pawns on a child’s play set, there exists up here a strange kind of solitude. Toronto at ground level is a busy, sometimes frenetic environment; people rushing everywhere with something to do, drivers cutting off each other in attempts to make green lights, the sound of streetcars clanking down Queen East, music, everything. However, at this moment, on this rooftop, there were only the three of us, and for all we cared we could be the only people in the city. The only sounds up here were the occasional *whirrrrrr* from the elevator machinery nearby, the muffled, reverberating soundtrack to the city below, and the rush of the wind coming off the lake, intensified by our present altitude. The roof was a fantastic perch, ringed by a small rail system used to carry the equipment needed to lower the window washers on their rounds. This ring of metal, as luck would have it, made an excellent place to anchor tripods.

Downtown Toronto was just starting to empty its buildings of cubicle dwellers, so the three of us decided to slip out among them, saying goodbye before heading off to catch subways and streetcars destined for far-flung parts of the city. Later that evening, Dresden and I headed for the King Edward to meet up with Hilite and pay a visit to not only the long-abandoned 17th floor ballroom, but the summit of the building itself. The King Eddy, which opened in 1903, is one of Toronto’s oldest and most well-heeled hotels. We dressed up for the occasion, my pea coat and D’s leather gloves and classy scarf passing the rich test given to us by the eyes of the front desk concierge as we walked in. We proceeded up the elevator, down a hallway to an out-of-the-way stairwell, and up another flight of stairs until we found an unlocked door to the vaunted 17th floor. We were in.


The King Eddy’s Crystal Ballroom was last used in 1978.


Dresden gets up close and personal with Toronto.

Farther up the magical staircase, another unlocked door led us to the room housing the hotel’s six humming elevator motors. Yet another door, again mysteriously unlocked, let us out into the chilly, cloudless night. From up here, the sleepy city still buzzed, illuminated from all sides by thousands of lights. The view from up here was simply staggering.


Couldn’t resist a little self-portraiture.


Dresden and Hilite make their way back down the magic stairwell.

After paying a visit to the Eddy, we made tracks to a pho restaurant just inside the Kensington Market neighbourhood. Out came big bowls of steaming broth, noodles and meat, and over these tasty midnight munchies we traded war stories, reminisced about long-demolished sites, and talked shop (all of us having some photographic pursuits). Toronto is known as the cradle of organized urban exploration, and the explorers who call this city their home are always knowledgeable about what’s under the surface of their glittering metropolis. Hilite was no exception; calm, well-spoken, and with his finger on the pulse of the city, intent on getting to the bottom (or the top) of whatever urban mission he set himself on. Our conversation was laced with names like Consumers’ Glass, the Royal Constellation, and the legendary Malt. Some of these places would see visits before my departure from Canada, but which to choose? Our bowls now dry of soup, Dresden and I said our goodbyes to our comrade and headed off to the subway again, retreating to the dark reaches off of Bloor Street to make our plans for the next night.

millbrook prison – lockdown

Prisons are not something usually associated with Canada, but even a country stereotyped as friendly and polite needs someplace to put all its evildoers.  Though Canada is not usually associated with the sort of violent criminal activity that has become expected in certain parts of its neighbor to the south, there are occasionally some people deemed as especially dangerous to be found up north. Naturally, with time, some of the prisons built to house these high-risk inmates become derelict, leaving behind huge, empty complexes which are difficult to reuse and stubborn to try to demolish.

The wide open farms of eastern Ontario spread out in front of us after we sped past the Toronto city limits, gunning our little Chevy down the 401.  The four of us in the car were heading into rural Ontario on the trail of an abandoned maximum security prison, formerly a place whose name once struck fear into the hearts of teenage hooligans and serial murderers alike: Millbrook Correctional Centre, known to its inmates as simply ‘the Brook’.


Millbrook’s back wall kept two worlds separate for 46 years. Shot on Kodak Ektachrome 100VS

Located far from any real population centers in the woods east of Toronto, Millbrook Correctional Centre was designed to be where Ontario (and occasionally the rest of Canada when there was a need) kept its most violent prisoners.  Opened in 1957 in response to a massive riot that ripped through Guelph Reformatory, Millbrook was purpose built to house the baddest of the bad, the inmates who could not be held anywhere else in the system.  Murderers and violent thugs rubbed shoulders with career burglars and rapists, eventually also mixing with people convicted of lesser offenses like drug crimes, simple assaults, and immigration violations. As increased loads placed on the prison system sent more and more people to the Brook, capacity increased from 268 to almost 500 inmates. 

Regardless of their crimes, new prisoners were tossed into solitary confinement upon arrival in what came to be called the Ontario Plan. Under a part of the Plan known as the Progressive Stage System, an inmate’s stay was divided into three phases, with the initial one being the most draconian.  Upon arrival at Millbrook, inmates would be put on a so-called ‘special diet’ for sixteen days: no letters, phone calls, or visitors; 24-hour-a-day lockdown inside a cell, and nothing to pass the time but a Bible. With good behavior and time, they were rewarded in later phases with things like library privileges, smokes, visitors, yard time, and at the top level, one outgoing letter a week and the opportunity to take correspondence courses from within the prison.

Conditions at Millbrook were notoriously harsh.  Things like personal toiletries and sweets were contraband, and the guards strictly regulated every detail down to how the inmates slept in their beds.  Part of the Ontario Plan meant “troublemakers” were classified (though not segregated in housing) into three groups: one for discipline problems, one for convicted sex offenders, and a third for inmates deemed to be homosexual. Psychological help and treatment was hard to come by, the staff overworked and underpaid.  In April of 2001, a 50-year-old Vietnamese immigration prisoner named Nguyen Cao Son died under ‘suspicious circumstances’ – sparking a hunger strike by around 60 inmates being held for related immigration offenses. In March of 2001, prisoners broke into one of the prison’s control rooms and unlocked a wing’s worth of cells – releasing 39 convicts into the halls of the jail. The inmates tried unsuccessfully to reach the outer yard, and after a few hours of rioting, finally returned to their cells. This incident, along with worsening labor relations between the provincial government and the Ontario public servants’ union made keeping the prison open harder and harder. Sure enough, by the end of 2003 Millbrook was shut down, the prisoners transferred away to jails in Kingston and Lindsay.

We climbed the hill through the trees to the prison, and slowly the imposing three-story-high brick walls came into view. All the doors were welded shut, and a walk around the perimeter quickly revealed our options were limited. After all, this was a compound designed to keep the world inside totally separate from what was outside. It was a fortress. But as with all castles, the walls were eventually breached. We found ourselves a well-placed chink in Millbrook’s armor, and into the penitentiary we went.

Inside, the prison was eerily chilly. The thick walls of cinder blocks and reinforced concrete insulated the cold air inside from the warm spring sunshine. One hallway was covered in a layer of ice two inches thick, trapping a fire hose in its grip.  Mid April didn’t seem so bright inside the bone-chillingly cold halls of the prison.

The prison’s maximum security wings were wide open, all the cell doors locked ajar by the last wardens to leave. The slots in the doors would have been the inmates’ only portal to the outside world, save for a window that looked out on the yard. No doubt a depressing way to spend 20 years to life.


Millbrook’s Solitary Confinement wing – known nowadays as a SHU (Special Handling Unit).

The prison was a self-sustaining city of sorts, maintained largely by the inmates themselves as part of the Ontario Plan’s emphasis on rehabilitation through education and vocational training.  Within its walls were kitchens, medical facilities, and a machine shop that, until 2000, made most of Ontario’s license plates.  An equipment malfunction that year left the province short of plates by 100,000 or so.  When three outside workers were brought into the prison to help make up the difference, all sorts of health and safety types cried foul, and the presses fell silent soon after, with production shifting to a private contractor.  It was one more thorn in the side of the wardens, and only added to government pressure to close the facility.

The beauty of an abandoned prison is that when all the doors are left open, one can see both sides of the same coin. The guards at Millbrook enjoyed several towers where they could survey the sprawling complex of buildings. Central locking stations, like the one the prisoners stormed in 2002, made their jobs easier and arguably a bit safer, allowing all the doors in a given wing to be controlled from a single room rather than risking an inmate stealing the keys. At the time Millbrook was built, these central monitoring systems had only begun to make their debut onto the penitentiary scene, and the new prison received the state-of-the-art systems as they were developed.

We escaped Millbrook without being descended on by the black helicopters of the Ontario Provincial Police (which, I’ve been told, besieged a team that went a few weeks prior to us) or the residents of the town itself. Our attention turned back to the glittering skyscrapers of Toronto, titans that begged us to stand upon their shoulders, their skeletons of concrete, steel and glass towering above us like giant futuristic sentinels. We would soon oblige them.

See more postcards from the joint right here.

**Update – 24 May 2015***

I have received word from Ontario that Millbrook Correctional Centre has finally begun to fall to the wrecking ball. After spending more than $70,000 every year since its closure on the site, the provincial government found the means and time to level the complex piece by piece.

From the demolition plan:

“This project involves the deconstruction and demolition of the main complex of buildings and fire training tower as well as the removal of all roads including the main “ring” road, transformers, septic beds and lagoons, all wells and storm water management systems. The design approach was first to de-construct the site by identifying what can be reused/recycled/diverted from landfill. Environmental remediation work was identified in a phase 1 and 2 ESA and is included in the scope of work. This work includes the clean up in the lagoons, septic beds, former dumpster area, onion field and sand pit, creek area, powerhouse area and sludge beds. Work will also be required under the fire tower.”

Though plans for its reuse have not been finalized, sources indicate that either a local sports center or a large-scale marijuana grow-op are both potential contenders for the site’s final disposition.

Check out some current photos of Millbrook’s dismantling over at Jermalism (scroll down to the bottom for the demolition pics).