The aroma of freshly poured espresso fills the room at Press Vinyl Café in Danforth Village, where Mary J. Blige and Marvin Gaye records catch your eye in the stacks. So too does the working Victrola at the front of the store and the wood panelling decorating the ceiling, which was repurposed from bookshelves that once crowded the books and music store. The panels still wear labels like “history” and “young adult.”
Trevor Stafford purchased the business in August and subsequently cleared out six tonnes of books, records and stuff being hoarded in the basement (like “10,000 pens named Jessica”). Now that the walls are finally visible, Stafford has commissioned local artists to paint murals, offering their takes on their favourite records.
He curated the space to be a community hang-out that offers a “joyful analogue” experience. Put on a record, have a latte and savour the remnants from the store’s various permutations over its century-old history – as a book store, electronics store and perhaps, as evidence suggests, even a deli. “There’s just this lineage that I’m inheriting,” says Stafford. “That’s part of the fabric of the community.”
Press Vinyl Café captures a Danforth Village vibe: a hodgepodge of old and new, but mostly old that’s starting to feel new again.
The stretch of Danforth Avenue from just west of Main to the Scarborough border at Victoria Park hasn’t seen the rapid change and development that neighbouring communities like Monarch Park and the Danny (the name given to the Woodbine and Danforth area by its local BIA) have enjoyed. New or renovated businesses in Danforth Village, from Press to the incoming second location of Comedy Bar, are flanked by crumbling storefronts, like the 50-year-old Danforth Furniture operating out of a caved-in building that may soon be designated a heritage site.
Homes in the area are slightly more within reach for those hoping to set roots in unaffordable Toronto and willing to cross the hump that is the Don Valley Parkway while looking for a bit more space than a downtown condo or west-end home has to offer. The average price for a detached home in Danforth Village was about $1.3 million in the second quarter of 2021, according to the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board (TRREB). That’s well below the city average and the prices in nearby areas like the Upper Beach or west-end equivalents like the Junction.
Making the last dash to Danforth Village means incoming residents can bank on the expected development – or gentrification – to come.
Coming to a Danforth near you
“This is the next natural section of the Danforth to see growth,” says Philip Kocev, a broker at iPro Realty. “It’s an underutilized area given the transit options that we have here.”
He’s referring to a trifecta of commuting options right at the corner of Main and Danforth, where residents can grab the Bloor-Danforth subway (aka Line 2), the 506 streetcar or hop on the GO train and get downtown in 12 minutes. “When we talk about areas where you want to build density, these are the kind of things you want to look at.”
The cranes are up at Main and Danforth and the density is coming. Condo prices are already showing the demand: Tribute’s incoming LinX suites are pre-selling one-bedroom-plus-den units starting at $900,000 and three-bedroom units starting at $1.17 million.
Meray Mansour, broker at Rare Real Estate, has sold many homes in the area and expects a rush once immigration to Canada opens back up. Danforth Village has intrinsic appeal for new residents, being commuter-friendly and within city limits. And both Mansour and Kocev point out its fascinating mix of businesses within walking distance.
There’s humble storefronts like Janny Fruit Market, which has been letting its apples and oranges pour out onto the sidewalk since 1983, and is now catering to a different walking clientele. Next door is A to Z Discount, a tiny shop cramming everything from underwear to TV brackets. And next to that is a dermatologist advertising botox and chemical peels.
On a Sunday visit to the neighbourhood, we meet a seamster who lives at Pape but made their way down to the Pakistani-owned Fabric Town on the other end of Danforth Village to gather materials they would typically have to trek to Queen West or a Fabricland in the suburbs to find. These shops are flanked by the local Sobeys, which has a beautiful anti-racism mural on its back wall, and big-box stores like Canadian Tire, Lowes and Leon’s. “It feels like the suburbs in the city,” says Mansour.
The area also feels more connected than ever thanks to the Destination Danforth pilot program, which took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to introduce secure bike lanes to the area, allowing for an easy trek from downtown to Dawes and bringing businesses out onto the street – not to mention lovely street murals and community art.
“It fundamentally changed the feeling of the street,” say Beaches-East York city councillor Brad Bradford, who campaigned in 2018 on making the streets safer and supporting local business. “Danforth prior to the installation was a four-lane arterial road where, particularly outside of rush hour, people drove on it like a highway. It wasn’t particularly compelling. It didn’t feel safe. We had really serious accidents here. What we have now is a beautiful new streetscape where we prioritize space for people. It’s much more comfortable to walk. And people spending time on Danforth has translated into increased sales for our businesses, more vibrancy and more animation.”
Bradford adds that the plans are in motion to extend those bike lanes all the way to Victoria Park.
That streetscape is among the draws that brought Vicky and Yusuf to Danforth Village. The couple are speaking to NOW while perusing the wares at Press Vinyl, and they explain that they moved in just a few months ago from the downtown core, seeking more space but in a place where they can get a 10 pm snack within walking distance. They’re also drawn to the nature in the area.
“Taylor Creek Park is right there,” says Yusuf, adding that the bike trails in the park are a pathway to all the east-side greenspace. “It connects to the hydro corridor if you want to go out east to Scarborough. And if you go west, that connects to the Don Valley path.”
Comedy Bar co-owner Gary Rideout Jr. is counting on the new residents to the area for the second location he’s setting up at 2800 Danforth at Dawes. He says the area feels like it’s on the cusp of change, much in the same way that Bloorcourt Village felt when they launched the original Comedy Bar.
The new location will open with a Second City residency. Rideout Jr. is director of business development at Second City, overseeing the construction of the club’s new location on the waterfront while the old Mercer spot transforms into a condo. And so, in the interim, Second City will set up shop at the east-end Comedy Bar, with tickets on sale for the first shows December 3.
“It’s cool for the history of that space,” says Rideout Jr. “We’ll be like, ‘Remember when Second City was out near the border of Scarborough?’”
Rideout Jr., who actually grew up near Danforth Village, takes me on a tour through the history of the area, pointing out that it already had a past life as a pretty bumping spot. His new Dawes and Danforth Comedy Bar location was a car dealership a hundred years ago, not far from where Ford once had a manufacturing plant. The aforementioned location currently housing Danforth Furniture was once the White House Hotel, catering to guests pulling up in horse and carriage. That’s why there’s a motion to designate it a heritage building. The neighbouring building, currently the Dixon Hall shelter, was the Grover Theatre from the 1920s, possibly hosting vaudeville shows alongside early silent-to-golden-era cinema. The building would later become nightclubs Funhaus, Spectrum and Zoo Bar.
Food writer and CBC Radio Metro Morning columnist Suresh Doss remembers a somewhat different Danforth Village littered with mattress stores and barbershops. Growing up, he used to travel past the area when riding with his family from Scarborough to Gerrard Street’s Indian Bazaar. Now he lives just south of the Danforth Village border.
Doss moved into the area a couple years ago from St. Lawrence Market, seeking more space when he and his wife were expecting. Danforth Village made the most sense for the easy access to both downtown and his family in Scarborough. The east end is also more appealing to Doss due to its diversity.
“Victoria Park is probably the brownest subway station you would ever visit,” says Doss, “based on how many people are Bangladeshi, Indian and Sri Lankan.”
Danforth Village has seen waves of immigration, with many Bangladeshi and Indian people moving into Crescent Town and Cambridge Place apartments near Dentonia Park over the last 20 years. Doss points me to the Google Maps tag for Dentonia Park, where you’ll see several images of Ramadan and other cultural festivals.
“It’s a real cultural hub,” says Bradford, who dubs the area “Banglatown,” given that its home to the largest Bangladeshi community in Canada. “It is a destination magnet because of the vibrancy, the markets and the cuisine. It’s something that we celebrate in the east end and we’re very proud of.”
Doss agrees. On top of enjoying what he calls the best barbecue in the city at Beach Hill Smokehouse, the Turkish stylings at Two Brothers Shawarma, some of the finest roti within city limits at Danforth Roti House, and Indian treats like Gulab jamun, ras malai and laddu from Pitha Ghor and Sweets, Doss goes to town on the neighbourhood’s Bengali cuisine and grocery stores. He gets his mangoes from markets like Marhaba and Nishita. He joins the long lines at popular Bangladeshi restaurant Ghoroaa three to four times a week. And then there’s ADDA, which Doss calls his favourite new spot and likely his favourite Bengali restaurant.
Doss also fondly remembers going for a walk with his wife a month after moving in to Danforth Village a couple of years ago. They accidentally bumped into the first ever Taste of Bangladesh Street Fest. “All these businesses spilled out onto the street and were doing different things,” says Doss. “Women and men from the nearby apartments set up tables and were selling samosas and all kinds of other stuff. That was a tipping point. That festival encouraged more people to visit and move to the area.”
And now the condos are coming. The prices are going up. A new sushi restaurant and third-wave coffee shops are popping up. And the neighbourhood makeup is changing.
“As soon as you walk south on Main, go over the GO line, it becomes incredibly white,” says Doss, describing how the area already has clear divisions. “I sometimes feel like I’m the only POC in my neighbourhood.”
He adds the area west of Main is rapidly becoming less diverse. As investment, development and gentrification continues its “March eastward” (to borrow an expression from Bradford), the rest of Danforth Village could end up looking that way too.
“I don’t think it’s as much an issue of pushing people out as it is more about making room for more neighbours,” says Bradford, when considering how development and gentrification will change the neighbourhood. “We’re going to see new housing opportunities, new community amenities and benefits. We just need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to bake in and secure some affordability with all that new development.”
Alejandra Ruiz Vargas already sees a failure in that regard. She’s the chair for the East York chapter of tenant advocacy group ACORN. The organization has been pushing since 2015 for Inclusionary Zoning (IZ), which is a policy tool to mandate real estate developers incorporate affordable rental housing units into new condos. ACORN members protested at the corner of Main and Danforth this past summer, demanding the city use IZ to secure 20 to 30 per cent of new condo units for affordable housing, which the group defines as a percentage of income – not simply below the average market rate as the city does.
None of the new condos that are popping up in or around Danforth Village are incorporating affordable housing units. Even the massive four-tower plan at 6 Dawes, adjacent to the Danforth GO station, has yet to commit to affordable housing in its proposal.
“They’re favouring the developers,” says Vargas, explaining why city officials have been dragging their heels on a policy already adopted in Montreal and New York City.
The city is proposing to adopt an IZ policy in 2022 that will mandate five to 10 per cent of units in new condos are set aside for affordable housing, increasing to somewhere between eight to 22 per cent in 2030 – as if there will be any room for housing left by that time. The Ford government’s Bill 108 restricts the use of IZs to the area immediately surrounding a major transit station and developers are quickly gobbling those corners up.
Vargas says the city hasn’t been pushing for the 20 to 30 per cent IZ demands because, as they say, it fears developers will walk away. “I have to laugh. Who’s going to leave Toronto with all the money that these condos make?”
As demand and development continues in Danforth Village, so have predatory practices from landlords, says Vargas. She says tenants at Main Square, the tall, imposing rental towers at the corner of Main and Danforth, received notices for above-guideline rent increases that weren’t filed with the Landlord and Tenant Board as required. She says the landlord was phishing to see who would pay even though they didn’t have to. Many tenants paid the increases, according to Vargas, due to uncertainty and fear in a precarious housing market.
“All rent increases at Main Square are governed by what is allowed under the Residential Tenancies Act,” says Mark Hales, senior vice president at Realstar, the property management firm behind Main Square.
“All of those apartments are subject to rent control policies,” says Bradford, speaking generally about the properties in Danforth Village, from Main Square to Cambridge Place. “We have to be vigilant in that as we’ve seen a lot of predatory landlords try to take advantage of some of the circumstances over the COVID-19 pandemic. We always have to fight for affordability.”
“This conversation will be very different in five years,” says Doss. “There’s so much development taking place at Main and Danforth. I don’t think there’s going to be affordable housing for a lot of people – especially newcomers.”
Where to eat and shop in Danforth Village