Report on the Neighbourhood, October 2006

September 25, 2006 by  
Filed under Articles, Local Matters

All neighbourhoods change, except maybe in the suburbs, where most people are pursuing the supposed middle class right to accumulate enough money, property and technology that they won’t have to see or talk to anyone. There, what changes are the temporary fashions and the retail opportunities, the level of noise from the late-night gunfights, the housewives having nervous breakdowns from boredom and isolation, and the sucking sound as the virus drains money out of the community and send it offshore.

Toronto’s West Annex strip along Bloor Street east of Bathhurst and west of Spadina where Dooneys Café sits is a downtown neighbourhood in a big city with a more human dynamic. Every alteration of the streetscape alters that dynamic. It has seen some changes in the last several years—most of them not for the better—and a few of them carry stories worth relating.

A case in point is the closure of the Elizabeth Deli. A few days after Christmas in 2005, the proprietor, a pleasant Hungarian woman named Julia, simply locked the front door and walked away. She abandoned everything in the food display units, fresh meat, sausages, you name it, and left the country. It took several months for the story to come out, and even now, there are conflicting versions. Here’s mine, for what it’s worth.

About eighteen months before Julia abruptly packed it in, her husband, who’d bought the store six or seven years previously, died of a heart attack. Julia took over the business, but the strain of running it and bringing up her daughter, who was six or seven when her father died, broke her down.

The Elizabeth was special in any number of ways. It offered a full butcher shop that aged and cut meats European style, and didn’t overcharge. It also had its own smokehouse on the second floor—a grandfathered piece of zoning now impossible to get (and expensive to maintain) under the city’s increasingly bureaucratic and stringent food handling regulations—that allowed the deli to make several unique kinds of East European sausage, including the best smoked liver sausage I’ve found anywhere. But the biggest prize was the roasted ham and beef, which was the best in the city by a country mile and was sold at about half the price it could have charged at the St. Lawrence Market. Then there was the usual deli fare: an array of on-site pork and chicken schnitzel and other lunchtime fare, with a better than average offering of Euro provisions.

It was for that reason the best of the city’s East European delis, better than anything on Roncesvalles or in Bloor West Village, and far superior to the truncated Tuske, which is still alive, sort of, in a small shop a block west of Bathhurst on the north side of Bloor, next to the empty building that once housed the filthiest McDonald’s I’ve ever run across. When I moved into the neighbourhood there were several other Hungarian delis on the strip, along with a half-dozen restaurants. They’re all gone now as the dwindling European presence has been replaced, commercially at least, by Koreans, especially West of Bathhurst, which is now semi-officially called “Little Korea.”

It’s impossible to say definitively what triggered the closing of the Elizabeth because Julia didn’t stop to explain why she quit when she left the country. One’s instinctive suspicion is that it was the personal tragedies suffered plus a new, more expensive lease on the building that likely was set to kick in on January 1st. It certainly didn’t seem to be lack of trade, which is the other thing that commonly kills business along the strip. Along with Wiener’s Hardware Store a few doors west, the Elizabeth was always the busiest shop on the block.

Anyway, the building sat derelict for a year, and everyone was hoping a new tenant would take it over. But eventually barricades appeared along the sidewalk, and a renovation commenced. Today, the Elizabeth is now called The Pump—another franchise sports bar. Just what the neighbourhood needs.

One small but not insignificant loss incurred by the closing is that the neighbourhood smells different because the second floor smokehouse is gone. I don’t know how many times I walked by the Elizabeth —even on the other side of the street—and smiled at the crisp smokehouse aromas wafting through the air. Now I’d have to lean into the narrow front patio of The Pump to catch any scent of habitation I couldn’t pick up at the Dufferin Mall. And what I’d catch would be the stink of stale beer.

The loss of the Elizabeth is arguably the worst thing that has happened on the strip since its brilliantly-stocked gourmet Italian deli failed about ten years ago and was replaced by a specialty video store. The area lost its green grocer about five years ago, too, when Big Brother closed down. That was partially replaced by the opening of an organic food store shortly afterward, but not really. Anyone who prefers unshriveled fruit and produce now has to get it from Bloor Supermarket, or walk four blocks west to Benny’s Bloor Fruit Market on the northeast corner of Manning. Benny’s stuff is good and often cheap, but Manning isn’t quite local unless you’re a fitness freak.

Another loss along the strip, this one without an olfactory component, has been the closing of Japan Electronics on Borden, across the side street from the patio at Dooneys. It’d been there for years, run by a quiet Vietnamese-born Chinese man named Quon. Quon would fix any kind of electronic device going, including computers, and he’d tell you straight if it was worth repairing before he did. What got him was the decreasing prices of technology—it simply became cheaper to replace things with the new, Chinese manufactured crap flooding the country, and since Quon wasn’t willing to lie to save his own ass, he closed down.

Toward the end, I gave him a few things to fix that I could have replaced more cheaply because I believe it isn’t always a bargain to buy the products of outsourced labour when it deprives your own community of income and jobs—my own antidote to the Wal-Mart syndrome that a lot of us are just starting to come to grips with. But once or twice I brought in devices that he simply refused to fix. Something in his eyes told me he understood exactly what I was doing, and that it smelled like charity to him. So the neighbourhood has lost a valuable amenity, and a nice guy.

His old shop, by the way, is now occupied by EnviroHemp, a niche retailer that used to be on the north side of Bloor a few doors away from the Elizabeth . It sells various consumer products—clothing and paper products mostly—made from, um, marijuana plants without enough psychoactive content to be worth smoking. I’m sure all EnviroHemp’s products are environmentally virtuous if slightly overpriced, and that the proprietors are nice people. But a couple of summers ago during the drought, they were so busy being environmentally virtuous that they didn’t bother to water the container-enclosed locust tree in front of their premises, and it died.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the distinction between niche retail and service retail is a real one. Niche retail is nice to have because it adds texture and surprise to the quality of consumer life. But everyone can live without it. It’s much harder to live without a butcher, baker and candlestick maker, which are the critical mass of a functioning local neighbourhood. Both the West Annex and College Street, which I’ll get to in a minute, are losing elements of that critical mass, and that’s a problem.

Supreme Photo, on the north side of the street a block west of the Elizabeth, also closed a few weeks after Japan Electronics. I’d gotten all my photography developed and printed there for years, enough so the proprietor, a shy, soft-spoken South Asian man with eyes that were so frankly beautiful I could never figure out why the shop wasn’t full of women trying to date him, knew me by name. We weren’t friends and he never actually spoke my name. But whenever I brought in a couple of rolls of film for him to process, he wrote my name and phone number on the processing envelope without having to ask what it was.

About a year ago I got him to make passport photographs for my daughter and I, and while we were there, my daughter made friends with his daughter, who happened to be in the shop that day. It took about twelve minutes for this friendship to form and then blossom into girlish intimacy, and when my daughter and I passed the closed-up shop the other day, she wanted to know where her friend was going to go now that her father had lost his job.

He lost his job to technology change, and I guess I was part of that since I’m now using a digital camera most of the time, and print my own photos on a $60 home printer. I didn’t tell that to my daughter, though. I just said that I didn’t know the answer to her question, but that since they were very nice people, they’d probably be fine. Sometimes you teach your children the world as you hope it is, not the way you actually know it.

The ill-appointed location across the alley from Tim Horton’s on the south side of the same block keeps finding franchisers to move in, strangle on the bad location and die—and then be replaced by another eager-to-lose-his-shirt franchiser. It started with the Friendly Greek, which burned down and is now—last time I checked—something called Thai Spring Rolls, which doesn’t sound like the sort of menu that’s going to have an entrepreneur rolling in cash.

Juice for Life, the organic café a few doors east also closed recently, but only to move east near the Ira Nadel Community Centre at Spadina. I always had my suspicious about just how organic it really was after I ran into its operators out at the Ontario Food Terminals one morning while Graziano and I were there buying produce for Dooneys. They were buying from the same location, and I didn’t see any special labels on the fruit they were hauling out of there. The good news is that there are now fewer sickly, pale people wandering along the sidewalk with their heads stuck in their navels.

Bloor Supermarket also closed during the summer, but it reopened almost immediately with new operators, almost certainly Korean. The old owners had run the place effectively if not very imaginatively for decades and, so the story goes, decided to retire. The store is a little neater now, and it has noticeably fewer customers.

On balance, the West Annex Bloor Street strip remains pretty viable, and because it’s nominally under the protection of Jane Jacobs’ ghost, it likely has enough cultural confidence to thrive well past the point where Jacobs’ aura fades. The renovation—in bright, light blue—of the long-derelict Hungarian banquet hall on the south side east of Brunswick as what’s rumoured to be the world’s largest second hand bookstore will probably enliven things, at least culturally. Suggesting that the new store will truly be the world’s largest second hand bookstore is wildly immoderate given the existence of American writer Larry McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City in Texas, which he’s bought up and turned into a vast second hand bookstore with the profits of his movie-script writing career. But let’s be tolerant, especially in an era where business and bullshit rarely stray far from one another.

Meanwhile, things aren’t quite so healthy on the College Street strip between Bathhurst and Crawford, which Conde Nast magazine called the fifth best neighbourhood in North America a few years back. The currents of global economics are stronger here, and the back eddies are deeper—which locally means that property values have doubled in the last six or seven years, local landlords are greedier, and Toronto’s over-staffed regulatory apparatus is less willing—or inclined—to intervene to protect the community. Slowly, but inexorably, College Street is ceasing to be a neighbourhood that provides a full range of services for local residents and becoming a restaurant district, with the predictable rhythm of restaurants opening, causing a temporary stir, then crashing and closing, which is to say, a rhythm of splash and thuds, mixed in with the scratch of police pencils as the parking vultures ticket the illegally-parked cars of the out-of-district tourists. Underneath that, though, is the quieter but more ominous sound of long-time businesses closing up, most of them Italian clothing and shoe stores that have been there for decades but now can’t handle the ground rents.

From an anthropological viewpoint, some of the restaurant openings and closings are fascinating, and a few of them have been outright funny. About three years ago a nondescript café a few doors west of Riviera Bakery closed and a long, expensive renovation commenced. A swish French restaurant opened, and the initial line-ups to get in were spectacular, particularly after 10 PM. Whoever owned it spent a huge amount of money on brass, chrome and marble, but evidently forgot about the food, which was quickly judged atrocious, and wait staff, which somehow managed to be insolent and incompetent at the same time. The place went into a steep dive within months, and has now changed hands. The new proprietors evidently decided, like their predecessors, that high fashion décor and a lot of cocaine snorting in the kitchen was still the way to go, and the place is empty most nights.

What isn’t funny at all is the recent closing of Magnolia Foods, the high end grocery and produce provisioner that opened up three doors west of Euclid on the north side of the street about four years ago. It was elegantly appointed and when it opened, elegantly and intelligently stocked to suit the needs of both the local Italians and the wealthy Anglo professionals moving into the area. About two years ago, it started going downhill in a subtle sort of way. Whoever was running the produce section ceased to pay close attention, and restocking of other items became erratic—a clear signal that problems with suppliers had arisen. It was still the best thing within miles, but it was clearly unwinding. I hoped it could hang on until the Europa condo at Palmerston on the south side was finished, because that infusion of customers alone might have saved it. But at the end of August the doors were padlocked, and a letter revealing that it owed the landlord $70,000 in back rent was pasted onto the front door. It’s hard to say how many months that involved, but I suspect it was about seven months rather than fourteen, and that the business had been doomed by its business model from the beginning. A business like that will thrive if it is highly capitalized at the outset, and the ground rents are reasonable. Somehow, I don’t think Magnolia had either going for it.

It would be nice to see it reopen, either under new management or with the negotiation of a more reasonable lease. But I’m not holding my breath. A “For Lease” sign has gone up, and that’s generally a sign that someone has decided that the whole enterprise was a bad idea. Will it be replaced by another restaurant? Just what the area needs.

The good news is that most of the remaining core service amenities along College seem pretty healthy. Riviera Bakery, which arguably has the best Calabrese stick bread in Toronto and a wealth of Southern Italian pastries, supplies bread to virtually all the restaurants in the area and is well-run and usually full of customers. My daughter has had behind-the-counter privileges there since she learned to walk, and I’m hoping that the owner, Rocco, stays with it long enough for her to work there part time while she’s a teenager. Next door the Centro Fromaggio, the Italian deli, is under new, better management and seems to be doing fine, although it’s probably vulnerable to one of those suicidal-to-greedy landlords’ lease increases.

Bar Italia two doors west, which has been on the strip as long as I can remember, is usually packed with customers, and of course the Café Diplomatica, which has the best location in the area at the northeast corner of College and Clinton, still serves decent cappuccino and the worst food in the neighbourhood. It’s packed from noon to after midnight with hugely loyal local customers, and the hordes of movie dorks and others who’d rather see and be seen than eat well. Right across the street on the southeast corner, happily, is Sotto Voce, a wine bar with a very short menu that, when it’s on—and mostly it is—gets my vote as the strip’s best food even if you can’t hear yourself think in there after 9:00 p.m. A block west, passing the perpetually excellent Coco Lezzone, site of innumerable pickups and, a few years back, a fairly hilarious if scary love-triangle shooting, and Johnny Lombardi’s multicultural CHIN media fortress at mid-block, is the Grace Meat Market, still doing well despite its completely unpredictable staff, who will bend over backward to help you some days, and not give you the time of day if you’re not Italian the next. I’ve been trying to figure this one out for years, because it doesn’t have anything to do with how busy they are, or what day of the week it is. Maybe the owners only hire people who suffer from the same mood disorders they have. I can’t say for sure, but it makes shopping there an adventure.

On the northeast corner at Grace is a new restaurant called Cucina, the strip’s first consciously Calabrese restaurant. I hope it works out, but then I thought the same of Bruyea Brothers, which seemed to be doing most things right but failed anyway after about eighteen months of struggle. That’s the location of Fernando’s, a long-time Portuguese grocery that I always liked a lot, so maybe there’s some bad karma attached to closing down a popular and well-run service business. Grace and College really ought to be the prime intersection in the area, and I suppose it is from a local point of view. It has the best holiday lights in the area, and the tiny Johnny Lombardi square on the Southwest corner, with its statues of Johnny as both an old man and as a child is a prized sit-for-a-few minutes spot when the weather is pleasant. Down the street south on Grace are the big Italian and Portuguese Catholic churches, the latter at Dundas, and the shops and restaurant to the west on College are interestingly varied and these days, in high turnover mode—again likely because of elevating ground rents.

So what’s the crisis here, anyway? As on the West Annex strip, it’s not exactly a crisis, and it isn’t about change, which can’t be avoided, and probably shouldn’t be. It’s more that the worrisome current of the changes along College is going in one direction—towards tourism and away from local service—and nearly all of it is fuelled by the doubling of property values in the area over the last six or seven years. Even then, it’s not merely about greedy landlords, although that’s certainly a factor. There’s also the developmental truism that tourism and high rents in today’s urban economy attract heavy-duty virus. So far, College street isn’t loading up with them. There’s the ridiculed-by-Italians Starbucks at Euclid, the Flight Centre a few doors west, and the two video rental franchises, Blockbuster and Rogers down at Crawford, which given technology evolution, probably aren’t long for the world anyway. There’s the Dominion Supermarket at Crawford, which is “Fresh-Obsessed!” but imports its vegetables from the U.S. even when they’re in season locally, and the two book-ending Shoppers Drug Marts, one at Crawford and the other at Markham, neither of which seems to do a roaring business. Slightly more ominous is the Brick mattress store and the American Apparel outlet next to the in-construction Europa, but since I’ve never seen a customer in either store, they’re just paying rent while they wait for the uptown slicks to move in next door.

But unlike the West Annex strip on Bloor, which is now infested with bad virus sushi restaurants (normally a syntactical redundancy in Toronto anyway), there are only two on College, and neither is virus. Sushi Island, between Manning and Clinton on the south side of College, is the better of the two, mostly because it isn’t outrageously expensive and moved into the premises of an hilariously ugly restaurant that looks as if it was designed by someone who had a serious head cold and was taking a lot of LSD at the same time. The décor is best described as ossified snot, and the Sushi Island owners, evidently more interested in serving food than in being fashionistas, left it intact.

What’s in the cards for the near future? Everyone is hoping for a LCBO Vintages outlet in the Europa’s ground level retail space, but I’m betting bars, and more virus like, say, Quiznos. Further west it’s looking like more restaurants and bars too, and no serious service retail. The local counsellor, Joe Pantalone, doesn’t seem to know what to expect and doesn’t have a plan beyond high-minded re-election slogans and good intentions.

But College Street really isn’t the fifth best neighbourhood in North America any more, and if things keep proceeding as they have, it’ll be more like Queen Street West on the East side of Spadina than itself in a few years: a good place for street festivals and weaving along the sidewalk dead drunk at 2:00 a.m., but not much of a neighbourhood for the people who live nearby.

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3700 words  September 25, 2006

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Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.