Toronto In Transition: Coming In From Elsewhere

Over the past 40 years, Toronto’s Queen Street West has undergone a transition that’s shifted it from trendy boutiques and galleries to international chains and lively restaurants. As a result, the art scene that long called the street home has been pushed farther west to an area called West Queen West.

And now, even West Queen West is seeing its own transition. The galleries, little cafes and funky hotels are still there. So is the mental hospital that is the area’s major employer. But there are other newcomers, including one from way across Canada.

Gravitypope, with roots in Edmonton, Alberta, and stores in Calgary and Vancouver, opened its first Toronto store this fall. It’s the kind of well-groomed, innovative spot you’d see featured in Town and Country Magazine or a Nancy Meyers movie, with shoes and clothing that look meticulously selected by fashion stylists.

In another time, Gravitypope would have found a home in the opposite direction on Queen West, among the well-known names. But with that part of the street chockablock with retailers, its owner, Louise Dirks, decided she’d be better off away from the fray.

“Everybody kept saying, ‘go to Queen, go to Queen, go to Queen,’” she says of the area. “But I couldn’t find a space with a decent basement,” which was a requirement for the extensive inventories her stores carry.

Dirks is among a number of new arrivals who are staking their claims in Toronto neighborhoods. Some of them, like Nicole Angellotti at Lit Espresso Bar in Little Portugal, are already established in other parts of town, and see opportunities for expansion.

Others are rolling the dice on their first ventures in the city, hoping that the Toronto customers who visit their stores elsewhere are willing to do business with them at home.

Toronto author Shawn Micallef says their investments are the strongest endorsement a neighborhood can receive. “When outside Toronto moves in, you know the neighborhood is on peoples’ radar,” he says.

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Dirks pondered her move to Toronto for years before taking the plunge. She opened the first Gravitypope store in Edmonton in 1990, operating as a cafe with a selection of clothing for sale in the back for her first decade. In 2000, she added a second store in Calgary, and then a shop in Vancouver in 2004. Her shoe business grew along with her clothing business, and with them, she incorporated a Web-based operation.

Over the past five or six years, “I got at least one email every couple of weeks from Toronto, begging for a Gravitypope out east,” says Dirks. In 2008, she went on a tour of Toronto neighborhoods, scouting by walking up and down the streets.

Finally in 2011, she settled on a brand new building in West Queen West, only a block from the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction (CAMH). Getting settled was a challenge, and the space was ready months after she originally expected. But since opening in the fall, “Every day has been awesome for us here,” Dirks says.

The location is “a bit fresh,” she says, and thus far, her customers have had no problem venturing out to her. On Gravitypope’s first day of business, 90 percent of her customers were former Western Canadians whose moves had preceded hers.

Manny Nikolaou, who runs Cafe Bernate next door, is among those glad to see a substantial business move in. “In the last five years, this whole area’s changed,” he said, while pulling espresso shots. “Before, it was a bit of a rough type neighborhood.”

He was also a little wary when a Tim Horton’s opened across the street, for fear it would take away his sandwich business. But the “quick sandwiches” made at Tim’s aren’t stealing the customers away from Bernate’s lineup, which includes 30 different homemade offerings.

Nikolaou says upscale stores like Gravitypope can only help West Queen West. “We’re happy to see people like them come in,” he says.

A few blocks away, another western Canadian newcomer has made itself at home on Dundas Avenue West. Ride Away Bikes came to the neighborhood in 2010, setting up a shop that sells new and used bikes, and performs repairs.

The owners have two other shops in Vancouver, and saw opportunity in Toronto’s growing bicycle culture. While the city isn’t as bike friendly as other places, there’s a move afoot to expand the use of two-wheeled transportation. “It grows every year,” says Justin Brady, a store manager.

About two-thirds of his business comes from the surrounding neighborhood, but in the past year and a half, as cycling has become more popular, he’s noticed more people arriving from other parts of Toronto. “Probably, people would have noticed us before,” Brady says.

And, Brady will soon find out whether two new businesses on his end of Dundas West bring him more customers. Two doors down, Queen Margherita Pizza from Leslieville is opening one of its two new Toronto restaurants (the other is a few miles east, in an upscale area called Babypoint). Across the street, Susur Lee, the Toronto restaurateur who competed on “Top Chef Masters,” has opened Bent with his two sons.

The sleek black and red restaurant, which some liken to a nightclub, hasn’t exactly gotten off to a strong start. The Toronto Star gave it just one star, saying it was “more broken than merely bent,” while the Globe and Mail was kinder, pointing out the place has been packed since its opening.

Brady, at the bike store, is glad to see the outsiders draw crowds, at least. “It can only mean good things,” he says.

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[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]

Toronto In Transition: Pushing Neighborhood Boundaries

Joel and Joshua Corea grew up in Toronto’s Little Portugal, which lies west of downtown. They can tell you about the park where they played, the streets their parents didn’t want them to visit, and give you details of who owned which store.

Now, the Coreas have opened their own place, Archive, a gleaming new wine bar in the same sized storefront where many other entrepreneurs have gotten their start. The street sign on the corner says “Portugal Village” and just down the block are bakeries, banks and a radio station serving the Portuguese community.

But this end of the neighborhood is known by another name: Dundas West, after the street where Archive sits. It is still a little lonely looking area, lacking the polish of a gentrified neighborhood like Leslieville, or the bustling activity of Toronto’s Chinatown.

However, Dundas (pronounced Dun-DASS, as in behind) West has now become what’s known in Toronto terms as a “micro-neighborhood,” and its offerings are growing. In Archive’s block, there’s a standout breakfast/lunch cafe called Saving Grace, a small art gallery, two coffee bars – Ella’s Uncle and Ezra’s Pound – along with a laundromat and a travel agent.

It was the idea of starting fresh but with proximity to their roots that attracted the Corea brothers to Dundas West. They had restaurant experience, and a deep interest in wine, especially those made across Canada. “We wanted to create a civilized drinking establishment,” explained Joel, who had another idea in mind.

He and his brother wanted to make Archive a hangout for their colleagues in the restaurant business, who were often looking for a place to go after their establishments closed around 10 or 11 p.m. The only trick was finding the right spot.

%Gallery-174399%The Portuguese landlord, who knew the Corea family, “wanted us in here,” he explained, and so the transition from vintage clothing store, the old tenant, to wine bar began.

Creating Archive required a complete tear up, which was a team effort involving the Coreas, Josh’s girlfriend Tara Smith, who created the bar’s tapas menu, and her brother Brandon, a carpenter, who built the sleek bar, the furniture and laid the floors. The money came from the Corea brothers’ savings, plus loans and other help from family and friends.

Neighbors often stopped by to see how the work was going, and the community support came in handy when it was time to pass various fire, health and building inspections. Archive has the only liquor license on the block, which keeps crowds and noise to a minimum.

Still, the work sometimes seemed daunting. “A lot of days, I came in here, shook my head and said, ‘what are we doing?’” Joel Corea said.

By contrast, their friend Nicole Angellotti had experience under her belt when she opened Lit Espresso Bar on College Street West, right in the center of Little Portugal. It’s her second establishment, and her second foray into a traditionally ethnic neighborhood.

The original Lit Espresso Bar is on Roncesvalles Avenue, in what has been a Polish enclave. But in recent years, it’s become one of the most popular areas for young Toronto families, drawn by inexpensive rents and solidly built properties.

While Dundas West is still emerging, Angellotti has Portuguese neighbors to her right, and a sandwich shop to her left. Portuguese is spoken on the street, and traditional foods like sweet custard tarts are easy to find.

Lit, however, seems like the kind of sleek spot that can be found in any North American urban center, from Vancouver to Chicago. Tables are filled with young men and women typing on Macs, while a few spots are filled by moms with squirming children. “It’s a community space,” Angellotti says.

And, there are signs that like Little India, Little Portugal may be about to modernize, as well. Just down the street from Lit, construction crews are at work on the same kind of low-rise condominium building that’s being built across town, its streamlined appearance just as much a contrast to its ethnic neighborhood.

Angellotti, who grew up in the Toronto suburbs, comes from an Italian family, which she says gives her empathy with her family oriented Portuguese neighbors (and also confuses them, since her name makes them assume she speaks Italian or Portuguese).

One thing the two cultures have in common is a love of coffee, especially Italian roast. “One thing my dad always said was, ‘pick a business that’s recession proof,’” she laughs.

But her coffee is a contrast to what her neighbors are used to. Rather than serve pre-ground espresso shipped in cans from Europe, she’s roasting it herself, under a label called Pig Iron. She and her brother Joe, who is her business partner, are so convinced that Toronto will embrace locally roasted beans that they’ve decided not to open more cafes, for now, and concentrate on growing the coffee business.

The decision has actually been a bridge to her new neighborhood. “We do have some of the younger Portuguese guys coming in,” Angellotti says. “I feel like I’ve won a little battle every time they say, ‘this espresso’s good.’”

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[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]