September 10th, 2013
The Toronto Star
The fate of Sam the Record Man’s iconic neon sign will hang in the air for one more year.
Toronto and East York Community Council voted Tuesday to amend a proposal that would have let Ryerson University off the hook for reinstalling the sign. Instead, Ryerson will have a year to come up with a new location to hang the 800-light, two-storey spinning neon records.
“It could be somewhere else on the Ryerson campus, probably close to the vicinity, or it may be further,” said local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who launched the motion.
“We’ve heard all sorts of suggestions from the public that perhaps we could put it in a museum.”
Wong-Tam acknowledged that Ryerson could hang a “reinterpretation” of the sign using different technology — not necessarily the original 1960s-era neon behemoth.
It’s not clear what happens if the university does not come up with an acceptable location in a year. Wong-Tam told reporters that Ryerson would face being held to its original agreement, but there is nothing in her motion to suggest that is the case.
When Ryerson bought the Sam the Record Man property in 2008, it agreed to put the sign back up — either on its new Student Learning Centre on Yonge St. or on a library building on Gould St.
But the university said during the council meeting Tuesday that it began working with the city to find alternatives just a year and a half later, after it became aware of environmental and maintenance challenges.
In late August, Ryerson revealed its new plan to embed replica signs in the Yonge St. sidewalk, hang a commemorative plaque and create a website in Sam Sniderman’s memory.
It appears the university will still carry out this plan, in addition to finding a new location for the sign.
Ryerson has already ruled out hanging the sign on the Student Learning Centre on Yonge St. because it conflicts with the building’s eco-friendly design. The university has said the Gould St. building is too far removed from the original Sam’s site to hang the sign.
Asked whether the city has any leverage to force Ryerson to stick to this deal, Wong-Tam said the city could take the university to court — but she doesn’t expect that to happen.
“(Ryerson has) never gone away and said we’re not talking to the city. They’ve never shut the door and said we won’t do it,” she said.
More than 1,100 people had signed a petition to stop the city from letting Ryerson back out of the original deal.
At the wide-ranging council meeting, which lasted more than two hours, councillors drilled Ryerson and city staff on the terms of the original deal.
A move by Councillor Josh Matlow to force Ryerson to uphold the deal failed. Wong-Tam’s motion eventually passed 7-4.
“I think the city has done, overall, an awful job of protecting our heritage,” said a furious Matlow during the meeting.
“We’ve demolished so many buildings and taken away so many places that should be a part of our heritage in the name of progress.”
He added that council could be sending a message to institutions that it allows them to back out of deals.
“They sign an agreement to protect our heritage … They’re going to capitulate at the end of the day. This looks to me like capitulation.”
Matlow and other councillors questioned whether Ryerson ever planned to uphold the deal. The university does not appear to have ever tried to incorporate the sign into its design for a new Student Learning Centre.
The university said that after it consulted with sign company Gregory’s, it became aware of concerns including mercury spillage in the event of fire or damage, the lack of neon sign experts and the amount of energy needed to run the sign.
It then entered into discussions with the city for alternatives. Several councillors questioned why the city did not complete a peer review of the Gregory’s report, which Councillor Gord Perks described as a “two-page letter.”
Members of the public and musicians spoke fondly of the sign to council, with jazz musician Jane Bunnett choking up during her speech.
Music journalist Nicholas Jennings read a statement from Bobby Sniderman, son of the legendary record store owner, pointing out that Ryerson should have contacted them before using their trademark and calling on them to reinstall the sign.
Jennings himself described Yonge St. as “the birthplace of Toronto sound.”
“Toronto needs reminders of Yonge St.’s rich cultural past. The Sam’s neon sign is just that kind of reminder,” he said.
Mayor Rob Ford weighed in on the sign’s fate while walking out of a community council meeting at the Etobicoke Civic Centre.
“It’s a unique sign for the City of Toronto. Everybody remembers the Sam the Record Man sign,” he said, adding he bought his first cassette tape there.
“So to get rid of it, it’s unfortunate. I’d like to keep it. But if we can’t keep it, we can’t keep it.”
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