NEW THREAT ON THE BLOCK

In Features /

BY SHAHEER CHOUDHURY, HILARY HAGERMAN AND KEVIN HAMILTON

When Ali Baba’s first opened one and a half years ago selling shawarma and dinner plates for $1, people lined up around the block to take advantage of the grand opening deal. Waleed Beni was pulling in $8,000 a day—more than enough for the owner of the franchise to cover the rent for the restaurant at Church and Dundas streets. The sale lasted a week, and after that Beni looked forward to business as usual: only three years of serving locals and students Middle Eastern cuisine with no guarantee that he could continue once the lease was up.

It’s a transient existence, one now made more insecure by Citytv’s residence at the Olympic Spirit building just down Victoria at Dundas. The broadcaster moved in on Sept. 8 from its former location at the MuchMusic building at John and Queen streets, a location known for its skyrocketing rent and gentrification. Many in the Dundas East neighborhood have welcomed the move, hoping it will bring a much-needed rejuvenation to the community.

But these sorts of changes never come as clean as expected, and while many are hoping the move will bring improvements to the area, the changes could leave the neighbourhood unrecognizable.

Beni, who helped found Ali Baba’s in 1989, knows the sting of gentrification. His store at Queen and Bathurst streets moved at the end of its five-year lease to its current location near Ryerson after rent became too expensive. Now he’s staring down the likelihood of increased rent rates once more. In three years Beni might have to pack up shop again.

“It’s business,” said Beni. “It’s normal. You get used to it.”

The home Citytv moved from was as lively and vibrant as the station itself—at least, it used to be. Queen Street West was a haven for impoverished artists in the ‘80s, for a youthful music and art scene and a streetscape dotted with independent fashion boutiques, clubs and bars. When Citytv moved to 299 Queen West in May 1987, they immediately engaged that community.

“That was their style: let’s get it out on the street, make it hip, savvy and young,” said Marc Glassman, head of the Queen West Business Improvement Association (BIA) and proprietor of Pages bookstore, a Queen West fixture for 30 years before closing in late August. “I don’t think any other stations tried to match it. That was Citytv’s thing.”

Rather than report indoors, Citytv often filmed out on the street and conducted their interviews inside some of the more famous Queen West landmarks. It helped build community through its famous Speaker’s Corner segment and Electric Circus dance parties that spilled out onto the sidewalk.

“People would come by and say, ‘hey, there’s shooting going on’,” said Glassman. “It helped create sort of a romance around Queen Street.”

The increased recognition and foot traffic helped make local businesses very successful—perhaps too successful. The value of land skyrocketed and the slow process of gentrification began. The ‘90s brought a new commercial attitude to Queen West. The artists’ rundown lofts were replaced by a spreading cancer of condominiums. Where Queen West was once a strip of independent stores oozing with character and charm, chain stores like American Apparel and Club Monaco now own the street. Even Pages, one of the last survivors, had to close because the rent became just too high.

“Essentially it’s like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs,” said Dylan Reid, senior editor at Spacing Magazine and co-chair of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee. “[Chain stores] come and scare away the people that made the area interesting.”

Reid, who has lived in Queen West for 10 years, sees the same process happening in neighbourhoods like Cabbagetown, Parkdale and the Annex. “It does seem to be accelerating in Toronto. West Queen West only started getting an artistic presence in the last 15 years, and already a lot of those galleries are moving out.”

Could Citytv affect Dundas Square the same way? Glassman claims it’s unlikely. “It’ll just be an outlet for the critical mass [of people] that’s already there. Yonge Street is never going to be a community like that.”

The intersection at Yonge and Dundas streets has been a signifi cant part of the city of Toronto since the 18th century. Over the decades it has gone through a substantial amount of changes and challenges to become the iconic location it is today in Toronto’s downtown core.

The growth of the area began around the mid 19th century, spurred on by the city’s flourishing economy. Stores like Eaton’s (later to become the Toronto Eaton Centre) and Simpson’s helped further the fame of Yonge and Dundas. In the 20th century, offices, theatres and residential buildings were constructed in and around the area and glimpses of what Yonge and Dundas was to become could steadily be seen. The quick pace proved too much for some parts of the area, however, as they fell to ruin.

“Over the course of several years, mid 1970s and early 1980s, the area between Queen and Gerrard East side just became run down,” said Joe Macdonald, public affairs manager of the Downtown Yonge BIA. “And what happened was that local communities and business leaders got together and worked hard to develop a plan for the rejuvenation of the area.”

These partners included Ryerson, Sam the Record Man and Cadillac Fairview, among others. Through their efforts Yonge and Dundas has reached the pinnacle of Toronto’s downtown. And with Citytv moving in, Yonge and Dundas has had the addition of another big name company into the community.

A few of the local businesses have embraced the move. A large sign hanging outside the Imperial Library Pub reads: “The Imperial Pub Welcomes City TV To The Neighbourhood.”

“I think they’re really going to rejuvenate and add some ‘oomph’ to the neighborhood,” said Fred Newman, owner of the local landmark. This “oomph” may be the same kind that cleaned Queen West of its independent stores. And with nearly every lease in the area on a short term, the community could change drastically in little time. Tracy Liu, who’s worked at Ho- Lee-Chow for fifteen years, said that the restaurant could be gone in six months if it can’t afford to pay the rent.

Rising rent might be a death knell for struggling stores and restaurants, but it is a beacon of revenue for those dealing in the real estate of the area.

The plaza at the south-west corner of Dundas and Jarvis streets has already been bought by a residential developer with plans to erect a condominium on the site, said Ajit Singh, owner of Tiue Dollar on Dundas. And Singh said another is going in along the stretch where the empty Good Tymez cafe stands.

“This corner is worth more than a million and a half,” said Beni, who has plans to invest in some property in the neighbourhood. “This area is hot for business. It’s very hot.”

It will take some time for the effects of Citytv’s presence on the community to be fully realized.

Local businesses have so far taken warmly to the move, but this may change with rising rent. By then it will be too late, and the stretch along Dundas East may never look the same.


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