I live on Dundas near Ossington, but you won't find me walking on Dundas when I'm heading for the city core. That's a pleasure I reserve for real streets, Queen or College. Why hasn't hippification occurred in my area, a wonderful ethnic enclave that runs between the S-curve at Bathurst and the bend at Ossington? Largely because of the vacuousness of the stretch of Dundas between Bathurst and Spadina.
Theoretically, those blocks should have the feeling of Chinatown-meets-Little-Portugal, but their lack of vitality and general ugliness instead give them the feeling of Chinatown-gets-cut-off-from-Little-Portugal.
Lack of good retail stores, prosperous restaurants, attractive buildings and any sense of enclosure of the street make walking here feel like navigating a suburban industrial park on a Sunday.
Walking west from Spadina, this is what you see: From the thriving heart of Chinatown, complete with giant-screen videotrons, Dundas quickly declines in the course of only two blocks. On the north side, Augusta and Kensington, the two openings to the Market, do nothing to advertise the fact that they're gateways to one of Toronto's most interesting retail areas. In fact, I've been approached more than a few times by tourists standing at the corner of Dundas and Augusta or Kensington asking me the way to Kensington Market.
On the south side is the grim Atkinson Community, the former Alexander Park, with its chilling geometry, ugly brown colour and suffocating narrow horizontal windows. Beside the Atkinson Community is the yard of the Ryerson Community School, with a dirty fence that hasn't seen a paint job or rust removal in years and a sign that says, "Helping to improve our environment." Your sense of irony will get a workout - just don't lean on the fence while you're reading the sign; rust doesn't wash off easily.
And then Dundas goes into an S-curve. I personally love these - they break the monotony of the street, slow down the cars and, when they have wide sidewalks and retail stores, as on College in Little Italy, they make the street very attractive.
This S-curve isn't like that at all. It's punctuated by the ugly and unfriendly Scadding Court Community Centre, with its long wall of grey concrete and unsightly horizontal windows. Is it my imagination, or is there a law decreeing that community centres should be blank, dull grey buildings that turn whole blocks into dead zones?
The intersection of Dundas and Bathurst is our last stop. Here's the suburban, blank front of Toronto Western Hospital. Ironically, the McDonald's on the other side contributes more to the street. And then begins the neighbourhood that is my raison d'être here. A reasonable flow of pedestrians is needed to revitalize the retail stores and stop the slow deterioration caused by the exodus of the Portuguese community to the suburbs.
Currently, the retail stores are modest and sparse and the houses on Dundas in poor repair, giving the street a disharmonious feel.
Sometimes an area doesn't depend on city intervention but on the brave entrepreneurs and shop owners who take a chance on it. In this case, they are not forthcoming, and this part of Dundas could certainly use a hand from the city.
According to Linda MacDonald, the city's manager of planning for the west end, this area is zoned for mixed-use development, but there are no active movements toward any projects or planning studies. The area just isn't on the city's radar.
Helen Kennedy, assistant to Trinity-Spadina Councillor Olivia Chow, says their office has seen no renewal proposals. "Of course, we would love to see that area redeveloped, but as it stands, that small strip is not very attractive to developers."
The initiator of Toronto's first Business Improvement Area, Alex Ling, says Dundas West faces two major obstacles. The first is the lack of a BIA.
"The BIAs lobby the city for improvements and help financially with a street's renovation and maintenance. Without them, much is missing.' The other problem, he says, is the landscape itself. "That strip of Dundas (between Spadina and Bathurst) was never meant to be or feel like a main street," Ling Says.
"Most buildings on the north side have their entrances on the side street. And the Atkinson Community and Scadding Court Community Centre are not institutions that can be dislodged easily. Perhaps something will happen in the area in the very long term, but I don't see it changing in the near future."
Just a few feet west of Chinatown, starting at one of the busiest intersections in the city, a little strip is crying out for renovation, either in the form of retail improvement or landscaping by the city.
Let's hope someone will get the ball rolling.