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Sam the Record Man: What is part of Toronto’s heritage?

TORONTO – Is an oversized, neon sign of two spinning LPs a part of Toronto’s heritage?

The debate over restoring the Sam the Record Man signage has returned to city hall after staff put forward a motion that would allow Ryerson University to renege on its pledge to restore and re-install the sign to its former glory on Yonge Street.

The university, apparently worried of environmental concerns and costs involved in restoring and maintaining the signage, is looking to commemorate the store instead by installing commemorate plaques near the site and launching a website dedicated to the store and the formerly prolific music scene on Yonge Street.

Bobby Sniderman, the son of the store’s namesake Sam Sniderman, told The Toronto Star that part of the sale of the building to the university hinged on the commemoration of the sign.

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“If my father was alive today, there would be no possibility of this taking place. He would be outraged by it, and he would be leading the charge to get the recognition he deserves,” he told The Star.

And a petition to save the sign has generated over 800 signatures in support of re-installing the sign.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam is one of the councillors being lobbied by the petition to save the sign. While she wouldn’t say whether she will vote to re-install the sign or not, she admits it’s important that Sam Sniderman’s legacy is commemorated.

“In many ways it’s a coming of age experience for a lot of young people,” she said. “Sam the Record Man, the signage, seems to have represented a certain type of cultural iconography on Yonge street and I think that this is what we’re hearing.”

WATCH: There’s mixed reaction from Torontonians about re-installing the Sam the Record Man sign

When Ryerson took control of the building in 2008, city councillors tried to designate the building as a heritage property but according to Wong-Tam, staff determined it “did not have heritage attributes, that it was not worthy of the heritage designation and was not a significant heritage resource.”

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Staff then tried to designate the sign as a heritage property. After negotiations, Ryerson agreed to re-install the sign on a new building.

But what is a part of Toronto’s heritage? Bruce Bell, a city historian, said it “could be anything.”

“The old grates in the streets, some of the old water drains date back to 1880 and you see the stamp put right into it. I mean, there’s history right there,” he said.

While signs are usually thrown out when a business goes bankrupt or closes, Bell said Sam’s sign, is (not surprisingly to those who have seen it) unique.

“The Sam the Record Man sign really represents a period in our history that was revolutionary in the 1960s. There’s nothing on that strip to tell people that.”

Bell admitted that Toronto has lagged behind other large cities in historical preservation throughout its history. He noted that 25,000 buildings in downtown Toronto were torn down between 1955 and 1975 including 700 buildings for the TD Centre and 1200 other buildings were demolished to make way for Nathan Phillips Square and Old City Hall.

However, at the time there weren’t preservation societies or historical boards in Toronto he said. And more importantly, no one lived downtown.

“Now, people live back downtown,” Bell said. “Thousands and thousands are living here and they are starting to question ‘what did our forefathers and mothers do a generation ago?’”

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Should the Sam the Record Man sign be a designated part of Toronto’s heritage? Join the discussion on the Global News Facebook page and let us know. 

According TOBuilt.ca – an online database of historical and heritage buildings in the old city of Toronto – there are 40 buildings in Toronto that are “National Historic Sites.” Those include the Bank of Upper Canada Building at 252 Adelaide Street East, the Royal Conservatory of Music at 273 Bloor Street West, the John Street Roundhouse and Union Station.

St. Lawrence Market, one of Toronto’s landmark destinations, preserved the signage from the original building that was across the street.

“There’s really nothing left from 200 years ago where it all started right where we’re standing. I mean the oldest building that I know of, by St. Lawrence Market, is the market itself, surrounding old city hall built in about 1844,” Bell said. “But unless you walked into the market and if, luckily we put up a little museum in there to let them know, this is where you are, other than that, there’s nothing to tell them that.”

There’s been a recent spate of cultural fights in Toronto.  In June, a group of city councillors tried unsuccessfully to have the Back Campus lawn at the University of Toronto designated a heritage property in an attempt to stop a field hockey pitch being built for the 2015 Pan Am Games.

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And a community backlash grew out of the sale of Postal Station K – just north of Eglinton Avenue on Yonge Street – by Canada Post to a condo developer. The building sits on the former site of the Montgomery Tavern where William Lyon Mackenzie launched the 1837 rebellion.  The building, built in 1936, also bares the rare insignia of King Edward VIII.  The Rockport Group, which bought the building, has stated it will preserve the facade of the building.

But is the oversized, neon sign as significant as the King Edward VIII insignia?

“In 100 years no one here will be left,” Bell said. “There will be a whole new bunch of people here, are they going to want to save Sam’s sign? Is it that important to our history?”

The Toronto and East York Community Council will debate the motion on September 10. It could then be debated at city council in October.

– With files from Alan Carter

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