Toronto In Transition: Changing Before Your Eyes

If you ask a native Torontonian how things are going in their town, you might receive an eye-roll and a laugh in response – the Canadian equivalent of a New Yorker’s “Oy, vey.” Things in Toronto are turbulent these days, to say the least.

For one thing, nobody is sure who the mayor will be in 2013, given the conviction of Mayor Rob Ford. Toronto neighborhoods are mulling whether they want to allow casino gambling. And, big chunks are falling off the Gardiner Expressway, the municipal freeway that runs parallel to Lake Ontario on Toronto’s eastern shore, leading to renewed calls to tear it down.

The sense of change goes beyond just politics and infrastructure. All over Toronto, neighborhood borders, once defined by ethnicity and income, are blurring. Long-time immigrants have decamped for the suburbs, as new residents and merchants with different backgrounds take advantage of location and lower rents.

These things might not be readily apparent to casual visitors. For them, Toronto has always been laid out in a sprawling “I.” Their well-trod path has begun just north of the lake on Front Street, stretching from the Rogers Centre (or Sky Dome, as many here still call it) and the CN Tower to the west, and to the east across Union Station to the Air Canada Centre and St. Lawrence Market.

Heading North, many visitors have plied Yonge Street, the clogged commercial district, or University, which is home to the Art Gallery of Ontario. The northern boundary, for many visitors, is Bloor, border on the tony Yorkville district, where upscale stores like Holt Renfrew and outlets of international brands are found.

But the Toronto neighborhoods where most savvy residents reside lie outside the I, in eastern and western stretches of streets like Queen, Dundas and College. And these are where the biggest changes are taking place.

“There’s a lot of hidden neighborhoods that you don’t see in Toronto on first visit, but you’ll see it if you come a few times and hang out a while,” says Shawn Micallef, the author of “Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto” and a senior editor and co-owner of the magazine Spacing.

%Gallery-174398%Micallef says there are two types in neighborhoods in Toronto – your own, and the places considered to be “destination neighborhoods.” He explains, “Your neighborhood is self contained and has everything you need.” Locals can go to their nearby stretch of shops and restaurants to eat and grab a coffee. But if they hear about new places, “they’ll travel there,” he says.

The home base versus destination identifier is changing faster than many Torontonians find to be comfortable. All over the city, neighborhoods that were settled for decades by a single group are now seeing new establishments owned by a younger, hipper crowd, some launched by locals, others by people from out of town.

One example is Leslieville, set about two miles east from downtown Toronto, with its main commercial district running along Queen Street East.

There’s been a community in place since the 1850s, and it got its name from George Leslie, who owned the Toronto Nurseries. Many of the people who lived in the solidly middle class neighborhood worked as gardeners, or in nearby brick factories. But it was always overshadowed by a much trendier (and some might say prettier) area nearby called The Beach, named for its parks along the lake.

“It was a nice, stable, unpresuming neighborhood between downtown and the Beach. Everybody talked about The Beach, the Beach, the Beach,” Micallef said.

The big change came in 2000, when a local tannery caught fire, burning for days and showering the neighborhood with ash. After the clean up, with industry gone, Leslieville began to gentrify. “I remember walking around in 2005, and there wasn’t a place to get a proper coffee. There were fast joint bars and the coffee places were coffee shops,” he says.

Now, old-fashioned corner stores with Drink Canada Dry signs are the exception. Leslieville, called “Toronto’s Brooklyn,” has become a jumble of espresso bars, bakeries, bike stores, cheese shops, retail and restaurants like Queen Margherita Pizza, which opened three years ago with a menu featuring wood-oven fired pizza.

Queen Margherita Pizza is on the farthest east end of Leslieville, overlooking one of Toronto’s car barns, home to the streetcars that ply the city. Drive just a little farther east on Queen, however, and the neighborhood fringes on Little India, another Toronto spot on the edge of change.

There are still plenty of merchants and eateries with Indian and Pakistani names and wares on Gerrard Street, the area’s main drag a few blocks away. In the summer, hundreds of diners jam into the outdoor tent at Lahore Tikka House, savoring butter chicken, spicy cauliflower and fresh made naan. Shops across the street sell kulfi, the frozen concoction that cools the tongue after a spicy meal.

But within eye sight of Lahore Tikka sits the sales office for a new condo development.
Its owners aren’t calling the neighborhood Little India. They’ve given it a new name: East Village Leslieville. And the development looks as cutting edge as anything found across the city, or in other parts of the world.

The arrival of new residents comes as many of the Indian and Pakistani families who lived in Little India have moved to the suburbs, leaving behind affordable, solid housing that appeals to the families that are starting to appear in new groceries and coffee shops.

Even the newcomers aren’t sitting still. The owners of Queen Margherita Pizza are expanding into another one of Toronto’s changing neighborhoods.

In a few months, they’ll be open on Dundas Street West, on the edge of Little Portugal, where the pattern of new espresso bars, moms with strollers, and young residents on bikes amid an old style enclave is repeating itself, once more, leading to a sense that it will be the next spot to emerge in the ever changing city.

For more on Toronto In Transition click here

[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]

The New Reno: Yes, Virginia, There Is Gentrification

renoI’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that Reno has historically not been one of my favorite places to visit. But I spend a fair amount of time passing through, because my brother and his family live nearby, in the ski town of Truckee. Flying into Reno is convenient for anyone wanting to visit Lake Tahoe.

For years, my brother, Mark, has been telling me that Reno is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, what with the implementation of Wingfield Park – the city’s kayaking park that runs through downtown – and the Truckee River Walk with its galleries, cafes, and brewery. But don’t worry: Reno is still The Biggest Little City in the World, rife with the requisite prostitutes, crack houses, tattoo parlors, pawn shops and all the unsavory characters one would expect to find.

Yet, I discovered a younger, gentler, hipper Reno over Thanksgiving when I was in Truckee. Reno is trying to dial down its hard-core gambling, all-you-can-eat, come-all-ye-societal-fringe-dwellers rep. The most noticeable change is the gentrification underway along the South Virginia Street Corridor, the major north-south business artery. The street is paralleled to the east by a mix of decrepit and charmingly restored Victorian and Craftsman homes. Housing, Mark says, is ridiculously affordable.

I did a book signing over the holiday off South Virginia at a bustling new cheese shop, Wedge. A lovely addition to the area, Wedge has an excellent selection of domestic and imported cheese, as well as house-made sandwiches, specialty foods and primo charcuterie. Want a good, affordable bottle of wine, some soppressata, and a hunk of award-winning, Alpine-style cow’s milk cheese from Wisconsin? Wedge has it.

When Mark and I arrived at the shop, he commented on how much the area was changing, citing the soon-to-be-open wine bar, Picasso and Wine, next door. The employees cheerfully agreed that there were lots of exciting developments underway, but that “there’s a crack house just two doors down.” They weren’t joking, either. We were parked in front of it.renoClose to Wedge is Midtown Eats, an adorable, farmhouse-modern cafe, and Crème, a sweet breakfast spot specializing in crepes. Get lunch at popular soup-and-sandwich spot Süp, imbibe (and eat) at Brasserie St. James brewery, Craft Beer & Wine, and mixology geek faves Reno Public House, and Chapel Tavern (over 100 whiskeys on shelf!). Making dinner in your rental ski cabin or condo? Visit the Tahoe area’s only Whole Foods.

If you’re in need of some sweet street-style, hit Lulu’s Chic Boutique or Junkee Clothing Exchange. If it’s your home that’s in need of an inexpensive upgrade, Recycled Furniture is the place. As for those tats and street drugs? You’re on your own.

Future plans for the South Virginia Corridor include greater emphasis on facilitating more pedestrian-friendly walkways, public spaces featuring art installations, fountains, and benches, and street-scaping. Gentrification may not always be welcome, but for Reno, it’s the start of a whole new Big Little City.

[Photo credits: Reno, Flickr user coolmikeol; bike path, VisitmeinReno.com]

Macau: China’s First And Last European Colony

macau Macau, one of only two special administrative regions of the People’s Republic of China, features a unique blend of architecture, culture and heritage.

Walking the streets, it will become immediately clear the region makes a lot of money off gambling; however, through the architecture you’ll also be transported back and forth from Europe to Asia, and from the 16th century to the present. The city is a former Portuguese colony, and is China’s first and last European colony. While today China is responsible for the region’s military defense and foreign affairs, Macau is quite autonomous with its own police force, currency, laws, customs policy and immigration policy.

With such a diverse history, it’s no surprise a large section of Macau is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, with 25 buildings being deemed to have historical and cultural significance. Well-known sights like the Guia Fortress, Senado Square and the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral are on the list, and many of these elected sights can be seen via the Macau Heritage Walk circuit.

For a more visual idea of Macau, check out the gallery below.

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[images via Big Stock]

Atlantic City Is a Hard Place to Love

Somewhere around Indiana and Pacific avenues, I had a sinking feeling. Atlantic City seemed to consist entirely of strip clubs and skin dens, convenience stores and empty store fronts. The beach was a few blocks away, true. But would a sparkling bit of ocean be enough to make the uneasy feeling in my stomach subside? This seaside resort, stacked with casino resorts dwarfed by their cousins in Las Vegas, did not look promising as I drove up to my hotel.

It was a dive of a place, recommended to me by a fellow travel writer, and someone I think of as an Atlantic City aficionado. He told me to try the Inn at the Irish Pub, a spot perched precariously above a dark watering hole, emphasis on the hole, that’s open 24 hours a day. The hotel is the sort of place that charges a deposit of $5 when you’re handed a brass key fastened to a plastic yellow diamond, stamped with a number.

I hiked up the stairs to my room, whose bathroom connected to the room next door, and flopped on the lumpy bed. I needed to call my friend, Robert Reid, and ask him if he’d set me up for an elaborate travelers’ joke, sending me to the inn to see if I’d actually go.

Traveling the American Road – Trying to Love Atlantic City


I told him, “This place is a dump,” to which he replied, “Oh no, I love that place!” I still didn’t believe him. “I wonder if you got a bad room,” he said. “I mean, it’s old, I know. I had fun there… You don’t like the room?” I mentioned that while I’d stayed in worse, that’s not really saying much, coming from a guy that’s slept in a hammock in a garage in Nicaragua, among other less-than-luxe places. “To me, you know what, it’s one of my favorite hotels in America.”

He explained: “Most of my hotel stays are forgettable, cookie-cutter experiences. My room was totally fine. It was clean, this kind of mixed-matched random old furniture, slightly slanted floors, the window with the lace curtain blowing, the people are hilarious. It’s just like, ‘Why does this exist?!'”

Robert’s interest in the hotel was unique, though, being informed by his Monopoly quest. See, the street names in the real estate game were drawn from Atlantic City, and last year, he set out to learn the stories of the avenues that we all know from the board. His trip-and resulting video-gave me high hopes for AC, even if they would soon be dashed.

For those not on a Monopoly quest, like me, it’s a tough place to visit. There are vacant lots, disused by everyone except a lone golfer I saw, swinging an iron simply because he had the space. There’s the grime you’ll find at any casino resort, set a little deeper and in need of a month-long scrub. There’s unemployment, too, bad and deep and forecast to last for many more years.

The boardwalk is a dimly bright spot. Even on a weekday evening, it was busy with families and couples, the famous pushcarts carrying tourists north and south. (There’s a big billboard advertising Boardwalk Empire, the HBO show that’s at least putting the name Atlantic City in people’s homes again.) The casinos, with Wild West, Roman, Mughal themes, do have visitors, if only a few. As my friend told me, “It just isn’t quite Vegas. It’s not even quite Reno.”

Robert insists–and I believe him–that the people in AC are proud of their hometown. But for those not interested in where Monopoly comes from or cheap blackjack tables, it’s a tough place to love. At least you can still get unbelievably good sandwiches at White House Sub Shop on Arctic and Mississippi. I took mine to go.

Fired middle-aged waitresses sue over skimpy uniforms at Atlantic City casino

fired waitressesIn Texas, we have no shortage of restaurants catering to the drooling male demographic. Hooters, Twin Peaks, Burger Girl, and many others require threadbare uniforms to entertain and engage their mostly male patronage. The decent food/hot waitress business plan has proven an effective tonic for a thirsty male demographic, and the phenomenon seems to be infesting the suburbs. Skimpy uniform capitalization extends beyond the suburbs though, and casinos are another hotbed for this sort of uniform minimalism.

At the Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, several waitresses were recently fired after a modeling agency came in and evaluated the cocktail servers in their skimpy “Roaring 20’s” outfits. What appeared to be a harmless photo-shoot in the new uniforms was actually an evaluation of the servers to keep their jobs. According to USA Today, fifteen servers were let go after the “sham evaluation process.” Seven of the sacked middle-age waitresses lawyered up and are suing the Resorts Casino Hotel in an age and sex discrimination lawsuit.One of the fired waitresses, Katharyn Felicia, had been a loyal employee since 1978. A two time employee of the month, she felt that the process “was very degrading to women.” The Resorts Casino Hotel feels that they gave each waitress a fair shot, and the jazz era uniforms are part of a re-branding effort. The flapper costumes include elaborate hats, deep slit short skirts, and fishnets. The property is trying to capitalize on the popularity of the HBO program Boardwalk Empire which takes place during prohibition in Atlantic City.