Toronto has gone through a revolution over the last decade. From a rather sleepy, even provincial city, it exploded during the boom years and continued growing (albeit at a much slower rate) during the Great Recession. Rapid population growth, and projections for much more of the same, prompted the city to proactively encourage (and in the case of some high-profile cultural institutions, even help fund) vertical expansion (i.e., building up) as a means of reducing urban sprawl. The result, a transformation of the city’s skyline that continues today. Toronto, in fact, now has more towers under construction than any other city in North America. But, in an effort to keep the city livable, it mandated that developers dedicate one percent of the total project cost to public spaces and art. It even helped fund a number of cultural organization’s efforts to build new buildings in and around the city’s downtown area.
Although the city has dozens of interesting neighborhoods, we focused much of our much to limited time to exploring the character of Toronto by tracing one of the city’s major thoroughfares, Queen Street, which is traversed by the iconic 501 streetcar line. With the help of two very able guides (especially Betty Ann Jordan of Art InSite), we explored the street and its environs, from the fascinating bohemian arts and design neighborhood on the west side (the so-called “West Queen West” district) through the downtown core and out through a number of gentrifying residential neighborhoods to the city’s Eastern Lake Ontario beaches (a neighborhood appropriately known as “The Beaches”).
West Queen West
The bohemian West Queen West neighborhood (roughly from Bathurst to Dufferin Streets) is, in our view, the most interesting. West Queen West is the city’s current avant-garde arts and design district, replete with artist studios, galleries, independent crafts and clothing shops and a couple of wonderful arts-centric hotels. It is home to a few subsidized ArtScape residences, in which artists can rent (and in a new building, buy) compact studios/living quarters.
Two of the neighborhood’s premier boutique hotels also invest heavily in the neighborhood art scene. In fact, one of these hotels, the charming and fascinating Gladstone Hotel, was created by one of Toronto’s primary arts families (the Zeidlers) and serves as a virtual incubator of new artistic talent. This can be seen through the hotel’s many commissioned pieces in the lobby and public spaces, the fascinating rotating exhibits from up-and-coming artists that line the hallways, the highly 37 unique, artist-designed rooms and the salon in which the hotel hosts meetings of artists and classes in which artists can draw and paint models. One particularly fascinating exhibit shows Jonathan Hobin’s disturbing, but incredibly provocative photos in which children stage interpretations of troubling recent events.
The Drake Hotel, meanwhile, has become a cultural hub for art and music. The hotel has a full-time art curator that selects artists and designers to stage exhibits and periodically redesign common areas and rooms. Walls are painted in intriguing colors and designs and the lobby lounge is currently dominated by a large wall cabinet filled with nicely arranged samples of products that have been obsoleted by the hectic pace of technology. The open-air SkyBar, whose new redesign was being opened to the public that evening, hosts some of the city’s newest and hottest bands.
While the hotels serve as community magnets, cutting-edge art and design pervade the neighborhood. Each block is practically wall-to-wall galleries and independent designer stores. The Stephen Bulger Gallery, one of Canada’s leading photo galleries, has regular exhibits (including the current "The Bikeriders" by photographer Danny Lyon, that portrays the American Midwest motorcycle counterculture), provides free screenings of art films and and serves as something of a community gathering place and showplace for the neighborhood’s photographers.
Some of the boutique stores are equally fascinating. Three of the most interesting that we toured are:
Doc’s Leather and Motorcycle Gear. This fascinating biker store, which welcomes visitor’s with a life-size statue of Doc, is loaded with all types of biker gear and Doc’s personal collection of eccentricities, including human skulls, stuffed animals and minerals, all of which are for sale. The walls, meanwhile, are lined with photos of Doc’s many patrons
Gravity Pope. Although I have no idea what the name refers to, the store is filled with indie designer men’s and women’s fashions and shoes–thousands of pairs of shoes of every shape, style and color you could want: Shoes ranging from perhaps $50 to prices approaching $1,000. But you don’t have to care about shoes or fashion to love the store. It has a 1930’s Art Deco staircase, a 1920’s-era chandelier and is furnished with Louis XVI furniture and rococo art objects.
Other interesting indie shops include:
- Lady Mosquito, which specializes in women’s accessories and jewelry made by Latin American artists;
- Magpie Design, with "extroverted" women’s clothing and opulent custom clothing made for celebrities including Prince; and
- Kol Kid, imaginative and artful children’s toys and clothing.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, which we did not have time to visit, provides a more formal collection of edgy art. At the other extreme are a growing number of street art alleys, where the city helped fund, and many property owners welcomed street artists to create murals on the backs of buildings that had been magnets for graffiti.
Ossington Street. Since a day of shopping and museum viewing can build up an appetite, the somewhat ossified Ossington Street was recreated as a hip dining and drinking venue. Bars and lounges including Sweaty Betty’s (a hole-in-the-wall bar made famous when actor and director Drew Barrymore through a party there), restaurants including Bohmer and Union a couple dozen others, specialty food stores like Cote de Boeuf, and a going number of artist-run galleries and vintage stores now occupy virtually every inch of the three blocks north of West Queen.
From Queen West to The Downtown Core
West Queen West was created when the rents of the previous Queen West arts and design neighborhood became too pricey for artists and indie designer shops to afford. The gentrified Queen West, and the neighboring King Street West areas are now dominated by more expensive designer boutiques, higher-end restaurants such as Lee’s and the new headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival, which contains screening rooms, archives, special film-related exhibits and two restaurants, as well as the festival’s offices.
The Queen and King West neighborhoods blend into the Fashion and Entertainment Districts, which contain high-end boutiques, innumerable, often packed bar/restaurant/nightclubs and the Roy Thompson Hall event center, with its circular reception area and water-lined outdoor patio.
Then, as you reach the downtown core, with its Government Center and Financial District, things, as discussed above, get tall. While the CN Tower continues to dominate the city’s skyline, it is now, nowhere nearly as lonely as it had been in the past.
But, while the building boom continues, the city is working to keep the city livable. It has, as mentioned above, mandated that developers dedicate one percent of the total project cost to public spaces and art, resulting in a proliferation of small parks and public art. It even helped fund a number of cultural organization’s efforts to hire renowned architects, like Frank Geary and Daniel Libeskind, to design new buildings in and around the city’s downtown area.
East Queen Street
East Queen Street traverses a number of somewhat less fashionable, but increasingly gentrifying neighborhoods to the far eastern edge of the city, which is effectively an upper middle-class suburb. These neighborhoods, heading east from downtown, are:
- Corktown, which is currently an Irish community, consists of relatively small, well-kept, increasingly expensive homes that represent a number of architectural styles that are generally reminiscent of homes from the countries of the original residents.
- Riverside, a gentrifying neighborhood that still has a fair number of less than reputable bars and inhabitants.
- Leslieville, a former industrial section that gentrified over the last decade, is still home to working-class and middle-class families;
- The Beaches, a moderately upscale community of attractive homes, resort area shops and, of course Lake Ontario beaches, replete with boardwalks, to which many of the city’s residents flock on summer weekends
Queen Street, The Beaches neighborhood, the 501 line and the city of Toronto itself, end at the huge, Art Deco-era RC Harris Water Treatment Plant, a 1930’s-era architectural statement that has been affectionately deemed, The Palace of Purification. The exterior, and from what we are told, the opulent interior, have been used as a set in many movies and television programs.
Queen Street is, overall, an incredibly diverse street. It is indeed a fitting symbol of an even more diverse city–a city that welcomes immigrants from every country in the world; a city in which fewer than half its residents were born.