Ghetto goes upscale, but what happens to fags of modest means?
When the Alexus, that new condominium at the corner of Church and Alexander, was under construction, a friend of mine who is steeped in local gay ghetto history walked me gleefully by the hoardings to see his favourite bit of graffiti.
Bright red “Danger” signs punctuated the construction barrier along Alexander, and in the white space beneath one of them someone had written “due to gentrification.”
We’re in what’s commonly known as Boystown or Gaytown, and it’s still pretty funky — but how long can that funkiness last?
“Perhaps the single most important factor shaping this neighbourhood,” says my friend Rick Bébout, a Gaytown expert, “was the abundance of affordable rental housing.”
It had to be. A glance at data from the 1996 census shows that the legendary “gay dollar” might be less abundant than we like to imagine. The overall average income for the area is $26,800, more than $2,000 lower than the regional average (for men only it’s $6,700 lower than the average).
“More than half the women,” says Bébout, “and 43 per cent of the men live on less than $20,000 a year. Try paying $1,000 a month rent on that.”
Since the Tory dismantling of rent controls, that’s the kind of money you can expect to have to pay. And all the new rental units the Tories assured us would sprout up once controls were removed? Well, no. We’re getting condos.
Bébout worries that the forces are already in place to recast Church/Wellesley into a version of the Castro, that one-time epicentre of gay life in San Francisco. It’s not any more, apparently.
The area, he says, has become a “gay theme park,” a place to buy rainbow flags and other souvenirs, a place where walking hand-in-hand with your partner wouldn’t draw stares — but not a place that could actually be lived in by the crazy mix of people who built it. Too expensive now.
The Alexus is, except for some minor detailing, a finished building today. It is pleasantly neighbourly and not overwhelming, its highrise section thoughtfully set back to continue an imaginary line established by the City Park co-op directly south of it.
The surrounding sidewalk is broad and, though a little bleak at the moment, features park benches and a few struggling trees.
At street level there’s a Timothy’s Coffee shop, Lush (a high-end bath-and-beauty-product emporium) and some retail space still waiting to happen.
City councillor Kyle Rae lives in the building. So does Larry Richards, dean of the faculty of architecture, landscape and design at the University of Toronto, with his partner, Frederic Urban, an associate professor in the same faculty.
Richards and Urban were gracious enough to show me through their unit (9-foot ceilings, a balcony, windows looking west and south) and the building’s public spaces (a party room on the third floor opens onto a wonderful outdoor deck complete with gardens, a barbecue and a Jacuzzi).
It’s clearly a delightful place to live. The question in some minds, though, is whether a process has been unleashed that will transform the vibrant, motley mix that is now Church/Wellesley into a bland tourist-driven Canada’s Homoland.
To some degree, of course, it’s that already. If you’re a queer from out of town or even just the burbs, you head to Church and Wellesley.
It is to party. But it’s not all party and party souvenirs. A lot of people still live in the neighbourhood, which still has the services that make residential life possible. There are greengrocers, butchers, convenience stores, restaurants both inexpensive and moderately pricey, dry cleaners, video rental outlets, coffee shops.
Because everybody goes out for coffee, few institutions offer as reliable an indicator of a neighbourhood’s health in terms of economic mix as its coffee shops.
Now, I have nothing against Starbucks. It’s all I drink at home. But it’s expensive — the choice of the affluent or the (like me) financially foolish. Urban life, though, requires a more fertile mix than the affluent and the foolish to keep it vibrant. The gay ghetto, so far, scores high on the coffee-shop fertilometer.
Moving north to south along Church, you get the Second Cup. Country Style, across the street in the Yogenfruz store. Starbucks, a bit farther south. The Dog House, below grade at 473 Church. The newest, Timothy’s, in the Alexus.
And though anyone might drop into any one of them at any time, each has its personality and class bias.
The Second Cup, for example, would be as middle-class as most of its brethren in the chain except for the miracle of The Steps. Because you can smoke out there, because you can shamelessly share a coffee out there, because it’s cruisy out there, you get a younger, poorer, raunchier crowd.
(Perhaps it also helps that it’s the only place on the strip whose interior decor reflects the neighbourhood. The wall graphics show a couple of lesbians whooping it up, one gay guy cruising another and a pensioner huddled over her coffee.)
Country Style is a quickie and a cheapie — no personality, grab a cuppa to take somewhere else. Starbucks makes a tiny concession to smoking and cruising (three outside tables), but it screams upscale.
They want you to speak Starbuckian, for one thing. And when you have your “short” (known in the rest of the world as a small coffee), you’re invited either to go upstairs and sink into an easy chair with a copy of Toronto Life or admire the wall display of expensive coffee production units.
The Dog House? Feels like a working-class hangout: inexpensive coffee and you can smoke inside. Timothy’s? Too early to tell, but Kyle Rae, who passes by daily on his way home, describes it as an “older, quieter crowd. Not showy.”
Bébout, whose socio-historical tour of the gay ghetto is available at webhome.idirect.com/~rbebout/, might concede that the coffee shop test indicates a reasonably healthy and varied neighbourhood at the moment.
He’s also reassured by the 13 municipal and private non-profit co-ops in the area, which provide more than 2,000 affordable units — though getting into one requires a patience that many people might not have. (Rae notes that the waiting list for co-ops in the city now holds some 57,000 names, and it’s growing by approximately 800 names a month.)
But 2,000 affordable units are not enough to keep the neighbourhood from tilting dangerously toward the affluent.
Alexus residents like Rae, Richards and Urban don’t want that to happen.
Richards and Urban moved to the ghetto from their home in the Yorkville area partly because Yorkville was merely a playground for wealthy shoppers.
They say it was too monochromatic, too dead once the shops and glitzy bars and restaurants had closed. “Here, when my day starts at 6 am,” says Urban, “the local pizza shop is open for people who are ending their day. I like that.”
How long he’ll be able to enjoy those real-life rhythms is the question.
The answer might be in our coffee shop culture — the “canaries” that give us an early warning of any change in neighbourhood atmosphere.
If the only “canary” left is Starbucks, we’re in trouble.
Number of restaurants on Church between Alexander and Wellesley: 26
Number of retail stores: 27
Number of bars and clubs on the Church strip: 19
Census Canada estimate of the average income in the Church-Wellesley area: $26,800
Regional average income: $28,800