5 Tips For Experiencing Toronto’s Changes

As the author of “Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto,” Shawn Micallef knows more corners of Toronto than most visitors will ever see. He can take a look around a neighborhood and pick out the new places in an instant. But newcomers may not know the difference. Here, Micallef offers his five tips for enjoying Toronto (with a little help from me).

  1. Hop on a street car. “It’s slow, it’s above ground, and the stops are every block. You can get off, walk a block, if you’re bored, get back on.” He advises picking one street – such as College, Queen, or Spadina – and riding it from end to end. An affordable way to do so is the Day Pass sold by the Toronto Transit System at all subway stations. Up to six people, with a maximum of two adults, can ride the system from the date on the pass until 5:30 a.m. the next day, meaning you can take a street car to sight see, dine out, and drink until bars close, if that’s your fancy.
  2. In the summer, go to the beach. The Toronto Islands are just a short ferry ride from downtown. The breathtaking view of the skyline is exchanged for a visit to cottage country, akin to a 1930s movie set. Toronto is proud of its eight Blue Flag beaches, recognized internationally for their cleanliness and safety. The islands are also home to Hanlan’s Point, a clothing optional choice, one of the few such public beaches in the country. “It’s all the weirdness of urban Toronto landing on a beach,” says Micallef.
  3. In the winter, go underground. Visitors to Toronto are often amazed when they venture down a staircase and find an entire city beneath the city. Underground Toronto stretches for 17 miles, from Front Street up to Yorkville. There are restaurants, shops, shoe repair stores, the basements of major department stores, parking garages, and more than 125 access points to buildings up above. “You could live down there,” he says, as a reporter for the Toronto Star did recently. Even if you don’t want to spend that much time, at the very least, it’s a pleasant short cut.
  4. Visit a market. Toronto has embraced farmers markets with gusto. During the height of the summer and fall harvests, there is a market somewhere every day of the week, with some starting at dawn and others in the evening. Because of its varied ethnic groups, Toronto markets range well beyond fruits, vegetables and cheese. I’ve tasted Thai influenced dumplings and salad, enjoyed Dutch pancakes and taken home vegan tarts. Don’t overlook the permanent St. Lawrence Market, either, where stalls are open six days a week. The Kensington Market area in Chinatown abounds with sights and smells, and newcomers from Latin countries and South Asia are adding their own contributions.
  5. Watch for contrasts. With neighborhoods shifting, you will find old school and new school right next door to each other. Conduct your own pub crawl or tea tastings. Sample baked goods from traditional and modern purveyors. And talk to the owners. Torontonians have the same friendliness found in Chicago and New Orleans. They’ll tell you what they think of what’s changing around them.

For more on “Toronto In Transition” click here

[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.’”

For more on Toronto In Transition click here

[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]

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]