Zanzibar sign: the medium (not morality) is the message

Mar. 21, 2017

Cantaloupes. Hubcaps. Hushpuppies. Headlights. Balloons.

These are the images that Zanzibar vice president Allen Cooper says he will no longer be able to show outside his family’s business – an adult tavern. Cooper said they were part of a photo montage of images depicting (nearly-naked) women displayed on the television on the front wall of his strip club. “We show things that make you think of the woman’s form.”

On Tuesday, the Sign Variance Committee decided not to grant Zanzibar a variance based on a staff report concerning the city’s sign bylaw. “At the end of the day, the test is with respect to the public interest,” said Chair Tracey Hamilton, speaking about letters submitted by concerned citizens about the neighbourhood, and the Chief Building Officer’s decision.

However, not all Sign Variance Committee members were of the view that the issue wasn’t about the content. “Those [concerns] aren’t related to criteria to judge a sign, they are related to other things,” Brian Huskins said to his fellow panel members. Huskins said he would be willing to grant the variances, arguing there is an enforcement system for content in place and [policing content is] not the purpose of the sign variance committee. “It’s not about a sign being bright, it’s not about a sign being flashy, it’s about what you’re putting on the sign… For the people who are writing the letters, it’s about a moral decision, it’s about stuff that’s not related to a TV screen that could have a picture of a pizza.”

The City of Toronto’s Ted Van Vliet, manager of the sign unit, said the concerns over content did not inform staff recommendations. 

After the hearing, Cooper still struggled with the definitions used at the committee hearing. “They call it a sign, I call it a TV,” he said, adding he is not sure what he will do in the space where the television currently sits at the tavern.

Van Vliet explained that the sign bylaw doesn’t regulate non-electronic signs (such as posters) as heavily as it does other kinds of signs. If Zanzibar wanted to keep the television but showed images of landscapes or seascapes – images not related to the business – that may be a different story.

TD Bank at the southwest corner of Queen and Bay could face a similar issue with its large electronic digital screen, visible to passersby through the large glass facade, and currently being considered by sign variance staff. Van Vliet said the outcome of the investigation will depend on what the screen depicts. A permit may be required.

“There’s emerging incidents that are going to test this bylaw. I think it was written really clearly to say that digital signs would not be placed on glass overlooking the public right of way,” Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said after the committee on Tuesday. “If [staff say] that screen is too large and it was intended to violate the bylaw itself, then maybe staff would make a recommendation to take down that screen. And if they have to take down that screen, then I have no problems with that either.”

In the case of the Zanzibar sign, arguments at committee tied the content of the sign to all kinds of other issues, including drug dealing and sex work. When asked for her reaction, Wong-Tam said, “I can say as a member of a sexual minority group, I’m very sensitive around policing of sexuality and morality, and certainly I would say that I don’t think any of us us really want to get into those discussions. But for those that are offended by the content, divert your eyes because there is a lot that people can find offensive and it is very subjective.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the television at Zanzibar was dark.

Longtime nearby building owner Mohammad Khan was happy about the committee’s decision. “I think it’s a good start from an aspect of changing that area of Yonge Street because that strip has been downward for a long time. I think it’s time. It’s just a good start for the sign to go to the next level, where we’re going to have everything change around there,” Khan said. “They are showing semi-nude pictures on the video screen and I think that’s not fair. They had their glory for 60 years. I think it’s time for them to understand, the time is changing, the downtown is changing, and Yonge Street is changing.”

Cooper said Zanzibar has no plans to close their business, which has been operating since 1959. “We’re like the Eveready battery – we keep going and going.”