Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Motel


They knocked down the Beach Motel the other day, and I had to be there. If you live in Toronto, you probably know that there is - or was - a strip of old motels occupying a stretch of Lake Shore Boulevard just west of the Humber River, and that they were once a good place to go if you were looking for trouble or trying to hide from the law.

Beach Motel, April 2011
Beach Motel, November 2012
They're gone now. It took a few years - thirty, to be precise - but they'll disappear beneath a curtain of condo towers, as part of a plan to redevelop what was considered a sleazy eyesore but was once a sign that Toronto, once regarded as a dull, joyless city you avoided if you could, was finally on the itinerary of places to see, connected by a lattice of freeways, highways and wide roads.

I wrote a feature about it for the city blog I work for, illustrated with photos I began shooting a year and a half ago for another (unpublished) feature I was writing for another (now defunct) city blog. The story talks about the last days of the strip, the long-delayed push to redevelop it, and the very optimistic plans the city and developers have for creating new urban density where there were once only crumbling, low-slung motels  catering to hookers, johns, and the sort of people who pay in cash and either leave early or stay on longer than they wanted.

What I didn't get to talk about was how the end of the Lakeshore motel strip marks a full stop of sorts to the first great period of the car, which began with cheap autos for the citizenry and well-paved, expansive roads built by the governments they elected. Motel, we all know, is a contraction of "motor hotel," and they were born in the 1920s, when time, money and inexpensive cars were suddenly available to people who, if they traveled at all, went by train and stayed at hotels clustered around railway stations.

The car let us explore and the motel gave us a place to stay that was (usually) cheap, clean and convenient. The Lakeshore motel strip was built just outside Toronto's city limits, on one of the main roads that led straight downtown, which made it a short drive to attractions like the Canadian National Exhibition. There remains another declining motel strip on the east side of the city that served the same purpose, and most cities developed these motel districts where the city met its rural fringe, where the land was cheap and an enterprising farmer with fields along the edge of the highway or main roads could set himself up with some extra income.


Motels became profitable and ubiquitous as they entered their postwar golden age, fed by the economic boom, hunger for vacations and leisure time, and families. Family-run motels had to either compete with or merge into chains and franchise operations like Quality Inn, Best Western, Ramada Inn, Howard Johnson's and Holiday Inn. The American Hotel Association changed its name to the American Hotel-Motel Association, and international hotel chains like Marriott got their start in the motel business.

This is the motel era that people over fifty remember fondly if perhaps sentimentally - the family sedan cruising slowly down a motel strip as the setting sun angles over the swaying faces of tired kids slumped across the bench seat in the back. Dad making his choice, pulling in and heading for the office, returning with the key and an ice bucket, driving the car around the motor court to a parking space in front of your room, where he rouses the kids out of the back seat still warm with an afternoon's sweat.

There's a tussle over places to sleep; a cot will be brought to the room if two double beds aren't enough. After trying out the Magic Fingers and cycling through whatever TV stations can be picked up, the family gets dinner at the nearest restaurant, likely one by the office, where the owner's wife runs the cash. Finally, as the headlights from late arrivals play across the curtains, the family nods off as the national anthem gives way to static.

Lake Shore Court, Miami FL, from Lileks' American Motels
"Nostalgia for old motels, like most forms of nostalgia, is selective and dishonest," writes James Lileks on the American Motels annex of his website:
"We like to imagine a pure world before the soulless hotel chains took over, a landscape of lovely neon, local charm, and individuality. No doubt this was the case, occasionally, in the 50s and early 60s, but it was only part of the story. Standardization has its benefits. Franchise outfits have their rules. Every Holiday Inn may feel the same, look the same, but you're reasonably sure there won’t be bugs in the mattress or Norman Bates peeping through a crack in the bathroom tiles."
The chains never came to the Lakeshore strip, and so when the corrosive winds of the '60s hit the place there was nothing to save them. Motels everywhere declined and closed and the American Hotel-Motel Association changed its name again, to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. The '60s didn't improve much besides car design and R&B music, so when that decade's long hangover began, the Lakeshore strip got to host it, and it became known as a place to get a hooker, or hide out from the law or your mom and dad.

When they knocked down the Beach, there weren't many people there to mourn it besides a handful of local historical preservation types taking a big, bitter gulp from the bottomless well of dismay that fuels and defeats them. In a strictly municipal sense, the death of the Lakeshore strip was inevitable, but what made me sad was the end of a kind of travel and all the local attractions - those hokey, cheesy, solemn or just plain weird places of interest - that benefited from a populace traveling at the speed limit, with bathroom stops and a guidebook and a week to kill before they were due at grandma's or Disneyland.

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