Shortly after Starbucks opened its controversial Queen and Dovercourt location, I wandered in for a latte (tall, 1 per cent.)
There, propped along the back wall was a cookie-gram that bore, in slick iced letters, the following message: "We're glad it was all our fault. Welcome. Love, Drake."
This was in response to the graffiti attack on Starbucks when it was still "coming soon": "Drake you ho, this is all your fault," promptly erased but immediately replaced with, "Drake you slut, this is all your fault."
Then came the broken windows and the paint bombs, the latest just two weeks ago.
Through all this, I found myself grappling with a dose of lament coupled with a shot of giddy (extra-long). Franchises, especially American-owned, suck. And Starbucks, well, there's something about the unassuming neutrality of its beige and green decor and the way it methodically pumps out sameness, fostering the myth of stability in a cup, that signifies the beginning of the end.
No one has to tell me that the coffee emporium's system of mass production, akin to Ikea's prefab construction (should we even use the words "Ikea" and "construction" in the same sentence?), is rapidly replacing all that's unpredictable, creative and independent.
Still, when we think something's shitty, is misogyny really still our best insult option? And, that said, is it really the Drake's fault? C'mon. Simplicity's nice, but complexity's nicer.
The giddy? Back in the late fall, the Beaver Café closed early and the Gladstone didn't yet have coffee. Country Site serves brown water, and I've never liked the Drake's coffee. Despite knowing better, I drink Starbucks. En route to my day job, my night job, in the midst of deadlines, storylines I drink it often.
So imagine my consternation when I found myself face to face with the cookie-gram. This brazen boast confidently claiming responsibility for the gentrification of Queen West seemed in fact a toast to capitalist solidarity. Who knew cookies could stand in for high fives?
With the political gravity of every bold I've ever ordered resting on my shoulders, I wondered if I should refuse my latte, storm out of the café and this Drake/Starbucks co-conspiracy and renounce my complicity.
Could I ever forgive the Drake's lack of shame, its indirect fuck-you to those protesting the "redevelopment" of this Queen West strip?
When I phone Drake owner Jeff Stober, he tells me, "We welcome everyone into the 'hood. Contrary to our critics' position, we're inclusionary and democratic. We feel that no shopkeeper, even a competitor, even an American chain which we weren't thrilled about deserves to be defaced prior to opening."
And the cookie? "Maybe one of my managers thought for about five seconds before writing it. In retrospect, I probably would have chosen very different words." Hmm. For an establishment that's under constant scrutiny, its ethics and intentions relentlessly questioned, I'd call that sloppy.
Still, as Stober's quick to point out, the Drake has a host of kudos under its belt: "[The graffiti] doesn't give us the credit we rightly deserve. For example, we were very involved in fighting certain issues with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health's (CAMH) major construction project. They were going to allow a Loblaws at Queen and Shaw [in their development.] We almost single-handedly funded the defence of the neighbourhood."
He points out that he employs 140 people, most from the neighbourhood and with arts backgrounds. The Drake offers artist-in-residency programs, he adds, and supports a number of galleries in the 'hood by sending food for their events.
Wait a sec. A Loblaws? The grocery stadium, with its symmetrically spaced aisles boasting brightly coloured foodstuffs, artfully plotted islands proffering bounties of baked goods, fresh fruits and vegetables, the entire President's Choice collection, dug up from around the world by "food-inspired" PC insiders?
When I contact the Disney World of grocery stores, reluctant spokesperson Elizabeth Margles won't say much. "I don't know if it's true or not [that Loblaws is interested in that location.] Until we actually break ground and announce something, all you've heard are rumours and nothing more."
At CAMH, Joanne Campbell, the org's vice-president of communications and community relations, confirms that Loblaws is not part of CAMH's makeover. "The city requires commercial frontage along Queen Street," she says. "Our master plan notes that no retail store can exceed 450 square metres, which allows for relatively small boutiques. We also made provision for some slightly larger locations because we wanted room for a pharmacy and a food store. This led to fears of big-box stores moving in a massive Loblaws, for example."
A group of people, she says, took CAMH to the Ontario Municipal Board, but a compromise was reached before the ruling, and the largest stores will be limited to 4,600 square metres, not enough for a big box.
Okay, no Loblaws. Stober's right on that one.
But what about those rumours that the Drake's owner is attempting to buy up real estate from Beaconsfield to Lisgar for a block of boutiques?
"I don't think it's relevant to this discussion," he says. "We own a couple of buildings. The boutiques renting space there are people I thought brought value."
The truth is, Stober owns more than a couple. To date, his Flophouse Chic Investments has purchased five buildings on Queen West: numbers 1150 (the Drake), 1144 (Queen Star Restaurant), 1142 (Magazin Flair), 1140 (O My Gallery) and 1136 (Lot 16 Bar).
The only holdout in this stretch is the building housing Saigon Flower Restaurant (1138 Queen West). Says restaurateur Rose Vuong, "He's asked me to sell a couple of times, but I've refused. I've been here 20 years. He's been here for two and he's trying to kick all the people out."
What is Stober's vision anyway? "We've got zero plans right now. Anyone who knows my commitment to the neighbourhood, my sense of design, knows that if we ever did anything with those buildings it would be in absolute keeping with the integrity and regulations of the neighbourhood."
Which neighbourhood that is I'm not exactly sure, given the proposed condo developments in the Queen West triangle (the area where I live, between Queen, Abell and the railroad tracks), the influx of trendy daytime strollers and night owls who, since the Drake reno, litter the strip and the cursed Starbucks.
This is quite beside talk of the Gap and American Apparel eyeing the 1,830-square-metre DeLeon White Gallery (1096 Queen West) that Stephen White, who'll be relocating in June somewhere within the 'hood, sold to Wilmslow Properties late last year.
While Wilmslow declines to comment on potential tenants, Ed Niedzielski, the realtor handling the rental, laughs, "I started that rumour."
"Yes, for kicks. I've got prospects, but I'm not going to tell you right now. It's a little premature."
Because I'm suspicious of kicks, I ask Jane Shaw, director of public relations for Gap Inc. She defuses the rumour: "We are not looking for any additional real estate on Queen."
American Apparel's retail manager, Dan Abenhaim, leaves things a little more open-ended: "We consider [this stretch and our current location at 499 Queen West] the same neighbourhood. We might do a smaller boutique in the near future."
Queen West is indeed on the cusp of a complete makeover. But fault does not lie exclusively with the Drake. It starts inadvertently with folks like me moving into working-poor neighbourhoods to save a little time and money so we can make art. We radically reconfigure the demographics of the space we've invaded, unwittingly making room for corporate ventures to say that locals demand their presence.
Like Starbucks. As the company's Ontario marketing manager, Jessica Mills tells me, "We only move into a neighbourhood when we're asked to do so."
And Stober notes, "Inner-city neighbourhoods where pockets of artists live have been rediscovered and revitalized. This is old news. If you talk to homeowners, many residents, shopkeepers, artists benefiting from sales of art in galleries in the neighbourhood, people are happy. Forward-thinking people want projects like the Drake. They want to celebrate those types of enterprises."
While it's silly to suggest that Starbucks sets up on an invitation-only basis, and it's strange to assume that self-interest is forward-thinking, what I find most ridiculous is my own attempt to write myself out of responsibility. Does gentrification happen in spite of me or with my encouragement?
And what is the inner lack that routinely propels me into Starbucks, that insists, despite my better judgment, on being glad there's an outlet a few steps from my home? Why do I think I can approximate some semblance of a tidy, stable self-definition through a Starbucks coffee?
There's not so much fault as there are fault lines. These fractures, bloated with ambivalence, are always already underfoot.