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.
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[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]