News & Opinion

The life and death of a great Toronto neighbourhood

In Arrivals & Departures on August 22, 2008 at 5:46 PM

Max Fawcett explores the worrisome decline of the Annex

It might be time for Toronto’s urban geographers and city planners to add the term un-gentrification to their lexicon, because that’s precisely what’s happening in the Annex, one of their city’s oldest and most famous neighbourhoods. Unlike other neighbourhoods in the city that are being bought out and up by neo-yuppies, who spark the transformation of old carpet stores and empty storefronts into painfully hip clothing boutiques, espresso bars, and of-the-moment restaurants, the Annex is sliding in the other direction. Where the neighbourhood was once a bohemian haven defined by a decidedly middle-class ethic it now is rapidly becoming nothing more than an upscale student ghetto defined by fast-food restaurants, ten dollar martinis, a dwindling clutch of futon stores, and a startling increase in the number of vacant storefronts and the homeless people that populate them.

One of the most important and visible aspects of the gentrification process is the influx of new and interesting restaurants that in turn attract more people to the neighbourhood and more fuel to the fires of gentrification. It stands to reason that the reverse is also true, and that the disappearance of interesting restaurants portends trouble ahead for a given neighbourhood. That’s precisely what has happened over the past five years in the Annex, as the diverse selection of quality restaurants that served something other than sushi and shawarmas have been replaced by places pursuing the aforementioned culinary zeitgeist or downmarket chains aimed at cash-starved students like Pizzaiolo and St. Louis BBQ. Meanwhile, the supply of quality delicatessens, bakeries, and speciality suppliers, necessary adjuncts to a prosperous local food culture, have all disappeared.

Another important factor in and indicator of the process of gentrification is a vibrant nightlife built around interesting and eclectic bars that draw in young people from other neighbourhoods, and here again the Annex exhibits the opposite trend. In better days, the neighbourhood’s evening trade was anchored around Lee’s Palace, a venerable old music hall that hosted some of Canada’s best live music performances. Nearby bars like the Tap and Las Iguanas, which were jointly managed and staffed by former members of the early 90s band Pursuit of Happiness, attracted a healthy mix of musicians, artists, and locals, while the Green Room was popular among underage kids from across the city who were looking for their first drink. Today, in contrast, the nexus of the Annex’s after-hours scene is located in the bowels of the Brunswick House, a place that attracts crowds of professional pukers, UFC aficionados, and other people that normally head to the club district. The only thing they have added to the neighbourhood is an increase in late night fist-fights, noise disturbances, and property damage.

As if these trends aren’t discouraging enough, those interested in the long-term health of the Annex must now also respond to the death of both its heart and soul. Dooney’s Cafe, the long-time haunt for writers, artists, and other assorted political and cultural rabble-rousers that acted as the neighbourhood’s soul, was sold recently. Ownership of the famous cafe, which successfully fended off the predatory gaze of Starbucks in 1995 in one of the neighbourhood’s seminal moments, passed from the steady hands of Graziano Marchese to those of Marnie Goldlust, a 25 year old with no experience in the business or, perhaps more importantly, in the neighbourhood and its unique politics. Its devoted core of regulars, which included people like Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin, writer David Gilmore, jazz impresario Bill King, and actor Tony Nardi, has already abandoned the place for more hospitable climes, most of which are situated outside the Annex entirely.

The neighbourhood’s heart, meanwhile, is slated for transplant surgery. Honest Ed’s, that infamous insult to good taste that anchors the neighbourhood for tourists and locals alike, is widely expected to meet the business end of a wrecking ball sometime in the near future, as David Mirvish converts it and significant parts of neighbouring Mirvish Village into a lucrative mega-condominium project. While the finished project and the upwardly mobile tenants that will populate its units may help to stop the de-gentrification of the Annex by providing local merchants with an influx of new residents with disposable incomes to burn, it could just as easily accelerate the process by replacing a glittering monument to the neighbourhood’s quirky eclecticism with another cold and sterile condominium block.

Un-gentrification shouldn’t be confused with de-gentrification, a concept best described by writer Adam Sternbergh in a November 2007 piece in New York Magazine on the New York borough of Red Hook. In it, he describes how Red Hook failed to take off as the latest it-neighbourhood despite the fact that it was subject to the attentions of New York’s real-estate developers, artists, professional hipsters, and other members of the vanguard of gentrification. It was, as Sternberg noted, a realtor’s dream, “boasting Manhattan views, a salty maritime history (working piers! Brawling sailors!), and a brochure-ready name, all of which would play perfectly on some theoretical condo prospectus. Seeking waterfront living with a dusting of urban grit? Then drop your anchor in Red Hook!” The fact that Red Hook has yet to exchange its bars and diners for flower boutiques and it-fashion stores left Sternbergh wondering whether gentrification was the raging and unstoppable fire that its proponents depicted it as or instead a flood that raises all ships but eventually, and indeed inexorably, puts them right back, and in so doing leaves behind a badly damaged version of the original landscape. The Annex, however, is a unique case, and as such doesn’t co-operate with Sternbergh’s analysis. Far from being a neighbourhood awaiting the arrival of gentrification, be it with anticipation, nervousness, loathing, or some combination thereof, the Annex is one whose cycle is already complete. It is un-gentrifying, a phenomenon that may merit its own feature article one day.

The recent shootout that left two wounded at the corner of Bloor and Brunswick Streets, the geographical heart of the Annex, should have served as a bloody reminder of the Annex’s decline, or even a catalyst for discussion about it. Instead, it elicited no more than the usual isn’t-that-terrifying and aren’t-guns-terrible titterings that inevitably accompany the rubbernecking spectators and the police tape at shootings. That nobody seems to have noticed the broader trend that produced the shooting is a consequence of its comparatively glacial pace. While previously no-go neighbourhoods like Ossington Street or West Queen West appear to gentrify in a matter of months, the Annex’s decline has been much more gradual. But that difference in pace makes it all the more dangerous and all the more difficult to reverse. The people affected by it, from local residents and business owners to the ever-shifting landscape of public officials and politicians, have been lulled by the gentle grade of the decline into believing that the long-vacant storefronts, corporate fast-food outlets, habituated homeless population, and pools of blood and broken glass that should be viewed as warning signs are instead perceived as longstanding characteristics of the neighbourhood and elements of its charm. Unfortunately for those who care about the neighbourhood, it appears that nothing, not even the shooting of innocent bystanders on a popular street corner, is capable of exposing this dangerous deceit.

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This article was first published in Dooney’s Cafe.com and is republished here with the kind permission of  the author.  Max Fawcett is a freelance writer and former resident of the Annex.  To see more of his work, visit Dooney’s Cafe.com and www.maxfawcett.com.

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