The Drake decade

It took a while, but we've accepted the West Queen West spot as an edgy part of the city's cultural history, despite the well-heeled crowds

Happy 10th birthday, Drake Hotel! In a city where most bars and restaurants go out of business in less than a year, making it a decade is a big deal indeed.

The building may no longer have that shiny brand-newness, but it’s now a bona fide institution – one that has for better or worse become a potent symbol of West Queen West’s gentrification over the last 10 years.

When press releases went out detailing the plan to turn the decaying building into a bohemian arts and culture hub, there was eye-rolling and hand-wringing among the actual artists who’d been building a community for themselves on that stretch of Queen West.

Attracted by cheap rents, storefront galleries had been multiplying, unintentionally creating the ideal conditions for bigger changes.

“In the first couple of years, my gallery felt a bit more like a project,” recalls Katharine Mulherin, who opened her first spot in the area 16 years ago. “I did imagine, though, that the neighbourhood was going to have a denser population in the years to come, and that in some ways it was contemporary art that would be its focus.”

The area has been in a constant state of development. In fact, the Drake was a landmark long before Jeff Stober purchased it.

It opened in 1890 as Small’s Hotel in an area that was at the time a major Canadian Pacific Railway hub and near one of the city’s wealthiest districts.

It was renamed the Drake in 1949, and went through many more increasingly grimy incarnations, including as a punk hangout and rave den in the 80s and 90s, before Stober turned it into a fancy boutique hotel.

By the time the Drake finally reopened after three years of renovations in 2004, battle lines were clearly drawn between the haters and the supporters. Nevertheless, a fuzzy middle ground soon emerged.

Even if you supposedly hated what the Drake represented, you’d be forgiven for hanging out there if you were performing. That wiggle room was extended to hipsters who were just there for the free guest list, drink tickets or easy line bypass.

Despite feeling way underdressed and underfunded compared to the well-heeled crowd who waited to get in every Friday and Saturday, I found myself not only listening to music there semi-regularly, but also playing DJ gigs and shows.

It might have felt a bit like my friends and I were being paid to hang out to help the bankers feel edgy, but that’s how a lot of nightlife functions and flourishes.

When a Starbucks opened down the street, it was famously spray-painted with the slogan “Drake you ho, this is all your fault,” which was promptly erased but immediately replaced with, “Drake you slut, this is all your fault.”

That graffiti lodged in our brains. You can still buy T-shirts online emblazoned with the slogan from anti-gentrification activists.

But the oversimplification, not to mention the slut-shaming, also stirred a backlash against the backlash.

As much as the line captured the raw anger many felt about their rapidly changing turf, seeing that rage laid out in all its childish, unfiltered glory highlighted just how much our reaction to these changes was driven by emotion.

“It’s sad that there are fewer and fewer storefront galleries along this strip now,” Mulherin admits, “but that’s a very common pattern. Artists move to neighbourhoods that are a bit rough around the edges because of cheaper rents but then break the ground for people who want culture where they live.”

The condo towers we were warned about arrived eventually, but astute observers had known they would. The shift had started before Stober moved in, back when the Drake was still called the Stardust. If you believe that a Starbucks leads to rising property values, then you have to accept that art galleries do, too.

Now “the Drake feels like an established part of the neighbourhood,” Mulherin says. “It was a bit scarier when it first opened. It seemed like all the galleries would get priced out because something fancier had landed. We don’t have that concentrated storefront gallery district any more, but some of us are still here. Things just evolve over time – they have to.”

Says Stober: “Our vision of creating an arts-inspired hotel for locals and visitors alike has remained true to this day. We have worked really hard to remain true to the spirit of what the ‘hood has always represented to us.”

It took a while, but we’ve accepted the Drake into our hearts as an important part of the city and its cultural history.

We remember seeing one of MIA’s first-ever live shows in the basement, and knowing she was going to be huge. We remember being there when Antony and the Johnsons played that super-intimate showcase early in their career.

We remember Peaches doing her best to freak out the TIFF crowds, and Kid Cudi pouring vodka down the throats of fans in the front row.

We remember fending off requests from patrons for the Backstreet Boys and DJing LCD Soundsystem tracks instead.

We remember playing countless Elvis Monday showcases for small crowds of other musicians, knowing the lineups outside on the weekends were helping fund those indulgences.

The Drake has matured into an institution, and maybe helped us grow up a bit, too.

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