There’s a bit of drama going on in Toronto these days regarding the (in)famous sign that used to adorn the storefront of Sam The Record Man. The admittedly iconic sign was safely put aside before the store was demolished as part of the revitalization of that part of Yonge Street. Ryerson University is erecting a new Student Centre on that site now, but it may well be that the sign will have to be re-mounted elsewhere. This is causing ‘way more of a fuss than it deserves.
Sigh. This is such a tempest in a teapot. Here’s why.
Some people in Toronto’s municipal government are claiming Ryerson has violated the agreement it signed when it took over the property where Sam’s once stood by proposing that the sign be relocated elsewhere. Yet President Sheldon Levy has made it clear (I heard this on CBC Radio 1) that the agreement called for a preference for the sign to be located at its original site, or otherwise moved elsewhere. This should be a trivial matter to resolve by simply having a dispassionate third party read the agreement. Any other comments made by anyone without first knowing the wording of the actual agreement is just wasted breath.
Virtually everyone I know referred to the sign as “Sam’s tits.” This comparison is not just puerile nonsense. It was an association driven by the existence of a series of “adult entertainment” venues in the vicinity of Sam’s store – many of which are still there today. Do we really need to continue that association today? (In case you’re wondering, I would say very definitely not!)
We’re not talking about High Art here. The sign isn’t a Group of Seven painting or anything even remotely in that category of work. It’s a just frickin’ sign. When I first heard it would be taken down, I felt a tiny loss for a moment too. But that was really just nostalgia for my youth, a greedy and self-serving emotion that, while perfectly natural, is also entirely irrational. I would bet dollars to donuts that such nostalgia is at the root of virtually everyone else’s feelings about the sign’s removal.
We’re not talking about a matter of national, or even city-wide, pride here. There’s lots of Torontonians who’ve never even seen the sign – not just become they either weren’t yet born or hadn’t yet immigrated to Canada. They simply live elsewhere in Canada. That is to say, the sign’s impact was even from the point of view of the single province of Ontario, entirely negligible. And even though it made a “guest appearance” in the 2008 version of The Incredible Hulk, that hardly qualifies it as worthy of eternalizing.
We’re not talking about a device that was intended to last forever here. The sign isn’t just a painting or sculpture; it’s a complex mechanical structure with lots of electrical and electronic bits to it – all of it well past it’s “best before” date. How long before it just falls apart (possibly damaging property or injuring people when it does)? How costly will it be to maintain the neon bulbs? How much energy will it consume?
We’re not talking about some instance of “eternal design” here. Let’s face it; as far as design goes, it sucks by modern standards.
Not wanting to just rag on the matter, I’d like to propose an alternative. Lose the original sign, but replace it with a modern installation that is roughly equivalent, designed more carefully, and leverages modern technologies. Consider what has been done with Ryerson’s Image Arts building. I honestly think we could come up with a solution that is technologically superior, aesthetically more relevant, yet still true to the original design concept – and that would be far easier to install and operate – if we just started from scratch rather than, like bitter old men sitting alone in the park waiting to die – desperately cling to goofy old advertisements that remind us of our misspent youths.