Starting up the Junction

These days in Toronto, one sign of gentrification in a neighbourhood is that somebody has opened a microbrewery there. Trinity Bellwoods has Bellwoods Brewery, Parkdale has Duggan’s and the Liberty Village Brewing Co. is located where its name implies. It’s fitting, then, that the Junction has two: the Junction Craft Brewery opened in 2011, and the Indie Ale House opened its doors in 2012.

But in addition to brewing up beer, the Junction and its neighbour, the Junction Triangle, have become prime locations for the sort of tech companies marked by the open-concept, informal work culture that is common to startups.

“[The neighbourhood] offered a beautiful space that was affordable and large enough to grow into,” says Heather Steele, Ubisoft Toronto’s Director of Communications. The global gaming company’s Toronto studio was opened in 2010, and has been one of the major players in the revitalization of the Junction and the Junction Triangle. Their story is a good indicator of how different the neighbourhood has become – when they first arrived, there was a single coffee shop within reasonable distance.

However, as the old adage goes, if you build it, they will come. And what Ubisoft and other companies have been doing is building a solid base of people in the area during the daytime who have the money to spend on quality food, coffee and drinks. It’s become the sort of place that a restauranteur dreams of: the same open, bare bones spaces that attract startups are available in smaller versions for cheaper than downtown. Since Ubisoft has moved in, the Junction’s rows of empty corner stores are slowly filling up with bars, cafes and restaurants. And a list of startups has followed.

Correlation does not imply causation, especially when so much is happening at once. The TTC will use the Bloor GO station, near Landsdowne and Dundas West, as a stop along its proposed Union-Pearson line. This marks a shift from the neighbourhood as a destination, and more of a launching point: “Many of our employees like to live close to work,” says Steele, “and we’ve seen the area move to condo development and from that, more of your average residential amenities.”  

Ubisoft’s accomplished Montreal branch was a part of the gentrification of Mile End in the mid-90s while the Junction isn’t yet the same cultural hotbed as Mile End, it has the potential to be. The area’s empty warehouses have made it a prime location for music rehearsal spaces. At Ratspace, you could run into anyone from Drake to members of Broken Social Scene to Jann Arden there’s also The Jam Space, and old Toronto stalwarts the Rehearsal Factory have a location just to the east at Dovercourt and Dupont.

The neighbourhood has a cultural history, then, that dates back before Ubisoft’s days but lacked a consumer element. This could be what makes the area’s developing culture unique a quick look at the tech businesses that are setting up shop, and you can see that they all revolve around a blend of art and commerce. “The culture [here] is an extension of the creative class from Dundas West,” says Karn Saroya, co-founder of Stylekick, an Android fashion app now developed in the Junction.

A unique example of this is Nuvango, a Junction company that creates protective cases for electronics. At first glance, this may seem like the least artistic enterprise imaginable. However, Nuvango sees their cases as canvases, and prints on them art from gallery artists across the globe.

This open-minded approach is a characteristic of the neighbourhood as a whole Nuvango is not just sponsoring, but hosting, an art show at local cafe Crema Coffee. “Being a business without a retail space in the community… we make our presence known in other ways.” says Brian Dunn, Nuvango’s senior curator.

There seems to be a theme in what tech businesses in the Junction are looking for: the ability to be a part of the building of a culture that is uniquely their own and cares about its own community. The pieces were there to be built upon: TTC access, plenty of real estate, and the rehearsal spaces that led musicians to bring the arts with them to the area. Technology has been added to the mix, and it seems to have been the missing piece to the Junction slowly bringing itself together and coming into its own.

“We’ve had neighbours come up to us and just be curious about what we’re doing,” says Adam Shaheen, owner of animation studio Cuppa Coffee on Edwin Avenue. “It’s an incredibly friendly area.”

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