Motels that matter: Why this Scarborough strip has a long history and a lot of stories

An art exhibition that opens on Friday night takes a look at the history of a strip of motels on Kingston Road in Scarborough, through old photographs, new works and an installation.

New art exhibition features interviews with people who had personal experiences on the strip

An exhibition that opens on Friday night explores the history of Scarborough's Kingston Road motel strip. This image depicts three views of a motel at 4532 Kingston Road in 1954. (Scarborough Historical Society)

An art exhibition that opens on Friday takes a look at the history of a motel strip on Kingston Road in Scarborough, through old photographs, new works and a series of interviews.

Alyssa Fearon, curator of No Vacancy, which runs until March 31 at the Scarborough Arts' Bluffs Gallery, 1859 Kingston Rd., said she curated the exhibition because she believes these spaces are culturally significant to Toronto's history.

She said they contain stories about displaced people in the city.

​"What you will see in the exhibition are some of the interviews and conversations I have had with people," Fearon told CBC's Metro Morning on Friday.
Alyssa Fearon, curator of 'No Vacancy,' said she curated the exhibition because she believes that these spaces have a cultural significance to Toronto's history and the role of displaced persons in the city. (CBC)

One conversation is with a young woman, now a poet, who grew up in Scarborough and who used to accompany sex workers to the motels to ensure their safety, but someone who wasn't a sex worker herself.

Fearon interviewed the woman about her personal relationship with the motels and her experience with the people who used these spaces for sex work. Visitors to the exhibition will see an interview between Fearon and the woman.

The artists featured in the exhibition are: Sandra Brewster, Nadijah Robinson and Curtia Wright.
This is an oil on wood painting by Curtia Wright, entitled Paraiso I (male). It was painted in 2015. (Collection of David Mitchell Studio)

Fearon, who grew up in Scarborough off Kingston Road "not too far away" from the strip, said she was always fascinated by what was behind those doors.

She remembers, at age 10, riding in the back of her parents' car, looking out the window, seeing the motels and wondering what was happening there.

The strip has a long history, she said.

In the mid-1800s, Kingston Road was one of the most significant arteries in Canada. A lot of people travelled on the road into Toronto from Kingston — hence the road's name — by horse and buggy and needed to take a break. Hotels were built on the strip to accommodate them. 

Just after the Second World War, these hotels began to evolve into roadside motels as the automobile became more popular.

In 1956, Highway 401 was completed and it replaced Kingston Road as main roadway into the city. By the mid-1980s, the motels started to decline and the strip became seedy. 
This is a photograph of a halfway House on Kingston Road in 1910. (City of Toronto Archives)

Now, the motels serve a number of different functions. They are used in part by people servicing clients as sex workers, people who can't find space in shelters and people who are seeking refuge in Canada. "It's still evolving," she said.

"Potentially, they will be changed into condos or who knows. What I would love to see, though, is to see how these spaces can become a hub for creativity in the community in Scarborough," she said.

"When I was growing up in Scarborough, there weren't enough creative spaces. I deeply felt that when I was younger. It would be great to see these buildings repurposed to cultivate the creativity that already exists and that already thrives in Scarborough."

No Vacancy is presented by Scarborough Arts in partnership with Myseum of Toronto and the Scarborough Historical Society for the Myseum Intersections Festival. 

The exhibition includes an opening reception on Friday night, which runs from 6 to 8 p.m., a guided walk on March 18, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and a panel discussion on March 30, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

With files from Metro Morning