I’m probably too young to fully justify the phrase “back in my day,” but back in my day, downtown London, Ontario was so much more than a hasty coffee stop between buses.
Arcades, movie theatres, shopping centres, computer cafes and not one, but two laser tag arenas meant there were plenty of places for area teens and tweens to show off their new cargo pants and discmen.
As part of the millennial generation, I’ve seen a number of drastic changes occur in London. Some are positive, but some leave me wringing my hands, waxing nostalgic. I’ve compiled a short list of sites which have virtually been erased over the past 25 years.
I hope they conjure up fond memories for you, or at least attest to how quickly time flies.
1. Smuggler’s Alley
Then: Smuggler’s Alley was the final incarnation of an ill-fated building on the corner of King St. and Clarence St.
Before it opened under that name in 1995, it had also been the London Mews and London Arcade. Featuring unattractive, dark brown, corrugated siding, the build boasted no windows and only one entrance. Its three-storey exterior with two underground levels looked more like an army barracks than a recreational destination.
The interior design was unique – multi-level hexagonal corridors connected by elevators, complete with artificial lighting. Full red carpeting covered every square inch of the floor.
I vaguely remember it for having one of the only six-screen movie theatres in the city. Others before me might recall the fully authentic Japanese restaurant hidden in the basement.
There were hardly any vacancies, which made every visit all the more surreal.
Now: The building was torn down in 1999 and the space now being used as a parking lot. Last year saw talks of using the corner to host swanky apartments, but whether or not that will happen remains to be seen.
2. Ace Arcade
Then: Two doors down from Smugglers’ Alley was Ace Arcade. Located directly across from Solid Gold strip club, this family-oriented venue was decorated with faux Egyptian art, and boasted more than 40 arcade video games and several pool tables.
Ace Arcade was the place to go for bored high-schoolers looking to waste quarters or cause trouble. My personal favourite games included Street Fighter and Dance Dance Revolution.
Now: Like Smuggler’s Alley, Ace Arcade was also reduced to a pile of rubble scraped away to make room for a parking lot in the early 2000s.
3. The Children’s Festival
Then: The International Children’s Festival in Victoria Park was an annual initiative to introduce kids to arts, music and science. The set-up comprised of tented stations where visitors could try their hand at science experiments and crafts designed to spark the imagination. This was always followed by a family picnic under a tree and dancing to live music with streamers (remember those?).
Now: Sadly, the economic crisis of the 2010’s led to a decrease in ticket sales for the paid event. Its relevance with youth was called into question. Today’s Kid’s Expo is free, and carries on the tradition of holding activities under tents while also offering more in the way of family entertainment.
Editor’s note: Victoria Park is still a beautiful place! There’s just one less, awesome festival there each year.
4: The Elsie Perrin Williams Memorial Library
Then: The Elsie Perrin Williams Memorial Library was a two-storey limestone building that served as the city’s central library. This Queen’s Ave building was constructed in 1939. It is one of only three downtown structures built in a Greek-inspired Art Deco style.
Youngsters booked it to the attached Club Room and children’s library, while our parents enjoyed the auditorium, art gallery and reading garden. The extensive VHS collection was a great way to save on the cost of video rentals.
Now: London Public Library’s central branch at Citi Plaza features a more convenient location and contains the Wolf Performance Hall.
However, I still miss walking up the ostentatious set of stairs to be greeted by Socrates’ stone façade. The building still stands in quiet wait for a new owner, and is registered as one of Canada’s Historic Places.
5: The Embassy Hotel
Then: The Embassy Hotel was a dank, unsterilized pit that gave local adolescents a semi-supervised space to fulfill their rebellious desires. The Dundas east venue was the go-to place to see live performances of your friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s band.
My fondest Embassy memories include punk-rock meltdowns and cupcake fights at The Whippet Lounge, and trying to impress Manic Panic-haired boys by hacking my way through a cigarette on the small, littered patio.
Now: After burning down in 2009, the site has become the stuff of cult legend among Millennials. Some of whom are rumoured to collect small leftover pieces of its foundation.
The vacant lot where it once stood is now a hope-filled eyesore for East Village residents who cross their fingers for its possible redevelopment.
While these locales represent the days of yore in London, Ontario, it’s important to take a look back every once in a while, so we can look forward with hope because of all the opportunities here.
The ever-changing face of a city is a natural course of events. However, from time to time, it’s important to look back on what once was and how we can move forward with it. London has no shortage on beautiful structures and fascinating history. Sometimes it’s right in front of you and you don’t even know it. Now, hopefully, you know just a little bit more.
Feature image by Nicki Borland