Ryerson’s identity crisis is taking over the streets

Ryerson can’t seem to catch a break this semester when it comes to making improvements and honouring heritage on campus — and it’s the school’s own doing.

Our campus is having an identity crisis: Do we embrace the history of downtown Toronto when planning for Ryerson’s future, or disregard the past to start the next chapter in the history books?

Ryerson, as well as city council, made national headlines earlier in the year when university president Sheldon Levy announced that the legendary neon Sam The Record Man sign cost too much to repair and was unsafe to mount on the Student Learning Centre.

Canadian music icons such as Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot and Geddy Lee have voiced their displeasure about the university’s decision. Students, many of whom were still in high school when the store closed in 2007, quickly jumped to their side. They want to hang on to a physical memory of good old Sam and the glory days of the vinyl record while holding Ryerson accountable for trying to back out of the agreement. Ryerson has backed away from honouring the past.

While a decision on the iconic sign’s fate has been put on hold until next year, students have shifted their focus on another obnoxiously bright, costly and controversial bit of heritage branding on campus: River Road.

This past week, after the road’s second makeover, Gould and Victoria Streets were finally dry enough to reopen to pedestrians. This paint job crafted a visual representation of Moss Park Creek, which was once an underground river that ran freely below the surface of the Ryerson campus. The design has become a map to guide pedestrians through the busiest area on campus, at once honouring the long-forgotten past and welcoming the leaders of the future.

This homage to a widely unknown body of water, which Ryerson seems to regard as an unofficial heritage treasure, came with a price tag of $170,000.

The expensive makeover is an offshoot of Ryerson’s ambitious Master Plan that brought us the Mattamy Athletic Centre and The Image Arts Building. The plan has been described as a catalyst for change in Toronto’s downtown core and the community surrounding the campus. But wasting money on branding-by-colours is the wrong approach to making our campus a prominent feature in the city of Toronto. And it is confusing as hell.

Trying to put Ryerson on the map takes more than painting a map under the feet of pedestrians.

Our River Road makeover that masquerades as some sort of heritage stamp is a cry for attention that makes us look weak. At the same time, retreating from the Sam sign heritage agreement with the City of Toronto makes us look desperate to proclaim our presence on Yonge Street. Is there a way to honour history without sacrificing well-earned pride? Is pride the cause of Ryerson’s heritage identity conundrum? Is a balance even possible?

Ryerson may have fought to make a name for itself by expertly and respectfully transforming Maple Leaf Gardens into its new stomping ground, but it has made a mess of aligning itself with heritage values this year.

Whatever upcoming projects the school has in mind, it had better decide what kind of identity is worth the cash.

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