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Urban Experience

Queen Street West is dead. Long live Queen Street West

Can artists and hipsters in this vibrant neighbourhood learn to get along?

By Stefan Dubowski

Visit Toronto’s Queen Street west of, say, Shaw Street but east of Dufferin, and you’ll find art galleries, boutique stores — a sense that the area makes creativity a high priority. But this inspired ‘hood also seems threatened.

New residents are moving in — wealthier than the entrenched artists, they attract cool condo developments and chic bars. Just look at all those big ads for lofts and flats. Like the newcomers they hope to attract, these developments seem plugged in to the locale’s artistic vibe, but they also might be pushing out the artists who made Queen West desirable in the first place.

This begs a question: is Queen West, as it once was — an artist’s enclave, a hotbed of creativity — over and done? Is the spirit that made the neighbourhood vibrant now on the way out? Or can Queen residents, old and new, balance hippy and hipster?

Those are the sorts of questions a group of Queen residents considered during a panel discussion at the Gladstone Hotel, a Queen West landmark, in November. The participants included New York urban critic Roberta Gratz; Michael Toke, Queen West artist; and Margie Zeidler, architect and development critic. Moderated by local activist Misha Glouberman, the panel’s answers suggest that it might be difficult for Queen to accommodate its distinct sides.

Zeidler said Queen’s artistic heart might be dying. Take, for example, 48 Abell Street. The existing building dates back to the early 1900s, when it was a farm-implements factory. These days it offers inexpensive live-work spaces for artists. But the owner wants to demolish it and erect condo towers.

Zeidler is a member of Active 18, a group fighting the controversial development plan. Active 18 has argued at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) that the site’s main developer, Verdiroc Development Corp., could save 48 Abell and its artist lofts. Zeidler’s group created an alternative development plan in which the existing building stays and becomes part of a flourishing urban system.

But during the discussion at the Gladstone, Zeidler was skeptical that the Active 18 alternative would win the day. “My prediction is it won’t be the vision the community came up with,” she said, adding that if 48 Abell goes, Queen’s heart will follow. “It’s the soul of this area.”

Toke, the artist on the panel, lives in 48 Abell. But he said Queen wouldn’t die if the building were demolished. For one thing, the owner has been threatening to tear it down for years. That it still stands is the only surprise.

He said he incorporates the neighbourhood’s changes into his art. Take, for instance, his send-up of the Bohemian Embassy. An emerging condo development, the Bohemian’s street-height billboard features a woman dressed in designer goth, appearing haughtily bored. Toke’s interpretation, a film called “Bohemian Embarrassment,” displays a similarly dressed woman who, at the start of the reel, is just as arrogant as the original, but her boredom takes over. She pulls long swallows from her stylish wine bottle and falls down drunk.

The piece marries Queen’s varied aspects — art, fashion, snobbery of all kinds. For Toke, this is how artists should keep Queen alive: embrace the changes, own them and use them for inspiration. “I don’t think we’re in the process of killing Queen Street,” he said.

Gratz, from New York, was surprised by the battle over 48 Abell. In her town, “even our greediest, most expansive developer wouldn’t dare to try” to do what Verdiroc wants to do. In the Big Apple, the developer would attract plenty of bad press for displacing artists and destroying a heritage building.

“Most people want change in their neighbourhood,” Gratz said. “It shouldn’t be cataclysmic.”

But there is a hint of inevitability about Queen’s transformation. It has happened before, in other places. Witness Yorkville, Toronto’s tony village for movie stars, expensive cars and high-cost condos. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Yorkville was a hippie haven. But as it grew popular, it attracted a richer crowd. Businesses came and catered, eventually forcing those who couldn’t afford a certain living standard out of the area.

It’s happening on a more residential note in places such as Leslieville, an east-Toronto neighbourhood where houses now push the $400,000 mark — a far cry more expensive than they were 10 years ago, even taking into account the real estate market’s ups and downs. It happened on Queen West, east of the current hullabaloo. Fashionable restaurants and clothing retail chains now rule where independent stores once operated.

Gentrification is a common urban phenomenon. Sometimes artists lead it, at first living alongside people who have as little money as the creative crowd, and have taken up residence in a particular area simply because the neighbourhood offers inexpensive accommodation. But soon after the artists come the wealthy wannabes and entrepreneurs follow, looking to capitalize. “I know wherever I move, I’m going to be part of the process that drives out all of the neighbours,” said one artist in the audience at the discussion.

But must it be either/or? The Gladstone, which Zeidler’s family helped restore to its former glory, has become a hipster hangout. But it’s also a cultural centre, a place for artists to discuss the fate of their neighbourhood. Further east the Drake Hotel attracts wealthy patrons, but its music and art showcases make it a vital addition to the creative landscape. Who’s to say the new condo developments and their residents won’t likewise add to the local colour?

Developers moving in pay homage to the area’s pedigree, using it as a selling feature. The Bohemian Embassy’s website lists famous musicians (Jane Siberry; Martha and the Muffins; The Pursuit of Happiness) who are part of the local history. The West Side Lofts, another Queen West development, reveals its creative side with a sales centre that is itself an Eamesian work of art.

Meanwhile, St. Clare’s Multifaith Housing, a developer, says it plans to build 199 inexpensive spaces at 48 Abell, some designed to suit artists. Visit St. Clare’s Web site (www.stclares.ca/abell.html) for details.

But is it the right answer? Zeidler pointed out that affordable-housing developers receive government subsidies for building low-priced units. In this case, perhaps the government should have saved its money by saying “no” to the development. After all, 48 Abell already houses artists affordably. Why pay millions of dollars to fix something that isn’t broken?

But city hall failed to designate 48 Abell a heritage building, which would have halted, or at least drastically altered, the development. Some audience members at the Gladstone blamed Mayor David Miller for the situation, saying he’s “all lip service” and no action for the arts community. Days later Miller won re-election.

Toke said that at 48 Abell, he can operate a table saw any time. Creativity sometimes strikes at odd hours, and it behoves an artist to go with the flow. The current neighbours are used to it. They probably ride the same wave. Would the new neighbours be so understanding?

At the end of the discussion, the audience gathered for a mock funeral march. They planned to make their way to 48 Abell and bid the old building farewell. As they left the Gladstone, some seemed dejected. The discussion was hardly uplifting. And it didn’t conclude one way or another on the neighbourhood’s future.