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.


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.

For more on “Toronto In Transition” click here

[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]

Carnaval Mazatlan a festive celebration, but safe?

Carnaval Mazatlan started this week and runs through February 21. Like other celebrations, glittering costumes, exotic foods and dancing street musicians are all part of the festivities. But this year’s Carnaval, while featuring a full program of activities designed for the whole family, comes on the heels of a renewed travel warning to Mexico questioning the safety of a visit south of the border.

“Thousands of North American visitors will join in the full array of festivities, which celebrate Mazatlan’s rich heritage, authentic cuisine, music and welcoming spirit of its residents,” says GoMazatlan, the marketing arm of the Mazatlan Hotel Association.

But will Americans traveling to Mexico be safe?

The U.S Department of State’s updated warning on travel to Mexico points out “an increasing number of innocent people are being targeted by transnational criminal organizations (TCOs)”, something that Mexican President Felipe Calderón generally doesn’t like to acknowledge or discuss says HSsecuritytoday, a web site targeting news and analysis on homeland security affairs.

Issuing a “strong caution” against “nonessential travel to areas within 16 of Mexico’s 31 states,” Spring break trips to Mexico are being discouraged. In fact, National Public Radio (NPR) says Mexican drug wars have gotten so bad that the Mexican people are out on strike – not because they need better wages, but because of crime that’s nearly shut down the country’s tourism industry. In turn, NPR reported how locals and tourists have been “extorted, kidnapped and intimidated by local gangs,” said Huliq just this week.

While Americans may be debating a trip to Carnaval in Mazatlan, Canadians seem to have made a clear decision not to visit. In the latest case troubling Canadians, a Calgary woman was found badly beaten in a five star resort hotel elevator last month in Mazatlan and placed in a medically induced coma later undergoing reconstructive surgery for injuries to her face. The headline in Canadian news reports: Calgary woman Sheila Nabb emerges from coma after horrific Mexico hotel beating. Not good a good sign.

In 2011, six Canadians were killed in Mexico and 50 were assaulted. According to the State Department US citizens murdered in Mexico increased from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011.

To be fair, the State Department also says that “the Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect US citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations,” which we found to be true visiting Mazatlan last October where armed Mexican Marines stood watch over Day of the Dead celebrations happening during our visit. But at that time, crime in the state of Sinaloa, where Mazatlan was located, was not a concern.

The travel warning updated by the State Department earlier this month breaks down crime by states in Mexico and notes “You should defer non-essential travel to the state of Sinaloa except the city of Mazatlan where you should exercise caution particularly late at night and in the early morning. One of Mexico’s most powerful TCOs is based in the state of Sinaloa,” which causes concern for many and will probably result in a lower than normal turnout for one of the best Carnaval celebrations in the world.

Dating back 113 years, Mazatlan’s celebration began in 1898 and is today recognized as the third largest Mardi Gras in the world, following Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. During Mazatlan’s Carnaval, locals and visitors converge for colorful parades, dance performances, art exhibitions, open-air street festivals, outdoor concerts by international artists and a grand firework display.

It will be a shame if, after all that time, Mazatlan’s Carnaval gets shut down by criminal activity. Still, the words of caution by a relative of Canadian Sheila Nabb are hard to ignore: “Stay out of Mexico. It seems to be getting worse and worse.”

Flickr photo by Kashmera

Photo of the day – Rural Mailboxes

Living abroad, one of the things I miss most about the US is mail. Sure, much of it is junk nowadays, but nothing beats the thrill of getting a new magazine, letter from a friend or a postcard in the mail. In Turkey, getting a package or letter from overseas can be a maddening (and expensive) experience dealing with customs and I miss the everyday ritual of checking the mailbox. When I first traveled to England, I was amazed that they get mail delivered more than once a day (though I’m sure it’s been cut down like many other services in the modern age)! This photo from rural Calgary by Flickr user Chris Maki made me imagine how the ritual of checking the mail would take on more importance if you had to travel a distance to the mailbox.

Have you seen any unusual mailboxes in your travels? What does mail mean to you when traveling? Add your mail (or other travel) photos to the Gadling Flickr pool and you could be featured as a future Photo of the Day.

Top North American rodeos to check out this summer

In honor of the approaching National Day of the American Cowboy, which I wrote about earlier in the week, I wanted to highlight some of the best rodeos North America has to offer.

Even city slickers can enjoy a rodeo; it is, after all, a sporting event. With a lot of beer. And grilled meat. And a lack of giant foam fingers and face-painting (not a bad thing, I might add).

In all seriousness, rodeos are great family fare. There are usually parades and drill team exhibitions, down-to-earth people, great camaraderie, and you can watch some truly amazing human, equine, and bovine athletes perform in independent and team events. At day’s end, you can always count on a big barbecue, live music, and a dance. The below rodeos are all located in places of great historic interest if you love the Old West or Americana. Git boot-scootin’.

Calgary Stampede
It may be surprising to learn that Canada has a cowboy culture, but Alberta does, and is home to this world-famous event, which is an integral part of the community. Critter lovers should note that the Stampede places extreme emphasis on animal welfare, which you can read about here (FYI, the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) also has strict animal welfare regulations in place, so contrary to belief, livestock are not being tortured for the sake of entertainment). Events ranging from steer wrestling and women’s barrel racing to junior steer riding will be happening July eighth through the 17th.

[Photo credit: bronc, Flicker user Bill Gracey;Sheridan WYO Rodeo
Located in the heart of Yellowstone Country at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, Sheridan has no shortage of pastoral pleasures to go with its Western heritage. Rodeo Week–July eighth through the 17th–kicks off with a parade, and night rodeos are held the 13-16th. Part of the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour, Sheridan WYO also features events like the Indian Relay Races (Those of you who are offended by the non-PC-ness of the name…remember we are not in Berkeley, and there’s a $25,000 payout prize), and a public Boot Kick-off event featuring live music, food vendors, and more.

Cheyenne Frontier Days
Know as the “Daddy of Em All,” the world’s largest outdoor rodeo has celebrated the American West since 1897. From July 23rd to the 31st, crowds from all over the world gather to watch arena events. You can also visit Cheyenne’s excellent Old West Museum, tour historic homes and “Behind the Chutes(don’t miss if you want to see what goes on before that gate swings open and bulls and broncs cut loose),” and attend Western Art Shows, concerts (Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow headline this year), a carnival midway, an Indian Village handicraft/historic recreation, and more.

Days of ’76 Rodeo

Held in one of the Old West’s most historic and notorious towns, this Deadwood, South Dakota event has been named Best PRCA Small Outdoor Rodeo four times, as well as PRCA Midsize Rodeo of the Year since 2004. This, the 89th year, runs from July 26-30th, and features two parades and lots of local Native American culture. The entire city of Deadwood is a national historic landmark located in the Black Hills Territory, so be sure to plan on an extra day or two for exploring.

Pendleton Roundup
Eastern Oregon is at the heart of the state’s cowboy country, and Pendleton is one of the ten largest rodeos in the world. Have a last-days-of-summer trip September 14-17th, when the weather is hot and sunny (it does happen in the Pacific Northwest, really). Bareback and saddle bronc riding, team roping, bull riding, Indian relay races, wild cow milking, children’s rodeo, and parade: it’s all here. Trivia: Pendleton is one of the first rodeos to have women officially compete. In 1914, Bertha Blanchett came within 12 points of winning the All-Around title.

[Photo credit: team roping, Flickr user Al_HikesAZ]

Canadian prairie road trip day one: Calgary-Saskatoon

The first day of our three-day road trip had to be reworked when we discovered that it is impossible to arrange a one-way car rental from Calgary to Winnipeg. After a half-day spent checking out the appealing Boho mish-mash of Calgary’s Inglewood neighborhood, we nabbed a ride to the airport and checked in for our almost completely full flight to Saskatoon.

The Calgary airport, much like Calgary itself, is bold and busy, with remarkably low-stress security lines. Note to the TSA: please take a look at Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) protocol. Thank you.

The flight was very short, so short in fact that it left me unable to come to any sort of pithy summation of the airline, but I can fairly claim that WestJet flight attendants are unquestionably cheery. WestJet, for the uninitiated, is sort of a Canadian cross between Southwest and JetBlue.

The airport in Saskatoon is bright. It smells fresh and new, and there are hanging plants that give the gleaming space a ribbon of color. Saskatoon’s cab drivers talk about the oil, potash, and uranium resource wealth of the province. That the population is also increasing is a fact so obvious that it comes into conversation almost as an afterthought. We had the good luck of meeting two chatty cab drivers, one a hilariously sardonic fellow who lamented the Disneyfication of Times Square; the other a transplant from Toronto who told us that we had to see the Bollywood film My Name is Khan. The prairie’s legendary friendliness is real, and it’s also catchy.

Saskatoon’s downtown is well-serviced with shops and businesses, though it is utilitarian. The city’s trump card is the South Saskatchewan River, which bisects it. The park along the river is absolutely gorgeous, so idyllic it overwhelms the senses. During our stroll, joggers, bikers, and loungers were taking advantage of the riverside park.

University Bridge across the South Saskatchewan River.
Saskatoon centennial monument.

In the evening we walked across the Broadway Bridge, with its dramatic views of the river and downtown. Our goal: Calories Bakery & Restaurant, a Saskatoon institution that sources much of its menu locally. Our evening there was lovely, with a fantastic menu and a disarmingly charming waiter. The Caprese salad, organized into a tower, was brilliant, as were the courses that followed: duck confit over polenta and slices of cake served to share.

Calories is located in the funky and appealing Broadway neighborhood, which centers on the relaxed and wide avenue of the same name. Stand out Broadway retailers include the Bulk Cheese Warehouse delicatessen (732 Broadway Avenue), a free trade shop called The Better Good (640 Broadway Avenue), and the Vinyl Diner (628B Broadway Avenue), a music shop.

The walk back to downtown, just past sundown, was everything one could want from a summer prairie sky: glorious streaks of red across an enormous expanse of fading blue.

Saskatoon is fresh. As Saskatchewan thrives economically and its biggest city continues to grow, Saskatoon will continue to be a city to watch.

Upcoming events include the Saskatoon Fringe Theater Festival through August 7 and Folkfest (August 19-21).

Read the entire road trip series here.

Some media support for this road trip was provided by Travel Alberta and Tourism Saskatchewan. All opinions belong to the author.