The story arc, as it’s usually told, is that stuffy old Church St has — over the course of the last decade — been losing ground to hipper, more affordable watering holes in the west end.
There, a number of bars have been serving a gayish, mixed crowd on Queen St W, Dundas St W and Ossington Ave. Adding to the picture — and presumably complicating things for Church St bar owners — is a smattering of sweaty, bumpin’ gay events held monthly at straight clubs in Parkdale, Kensington and the Annex. Yes Yes Y’All. Big Primpin. Cherry Bomb.
That trend has amped up over the last year or two, as the city has welcomed Fit, Business Woman’s Special and Tapette to the mix.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Downtown gays and west-enders do not represent distinct tribes of Toronto’s gay scene. Many are as likely to go to Yes Yes Y’all or the Gladstone as they are to Buddies or Crews and Tangos. While there are some militant defenders in both camps, there’s a broad swath of partiers who are just as happy to go to a gay ’90s night in Kensington as College Night at The Barn.
With a gaggle of gay men — or a mixed gay-straight friend group — my friends and I are more inclined to hunt out a new and exciting gay night at a straight club. The expectation will be exactly that: a fun night out with friends.
In the gaybourhood, a night out — even with the same friends — feels different. More cruisey, less judgmental of a hookup.
It’s weirdly symbiotic, weirdly yin and yang, but the resurgence of gay men’s sex-centred entertainment on Church St is totally bound up with what’s happening west of the gaybourhood.
It makes sense that Church St would play up its distinctive feature — its festive, libertine atmosphere, which radiates from the bars and spills onto the street.
Lesbians and trans folks cruise Church St, obviously, but it’s the men’s bathhouses, especially Steamworks and Spa Excess, that set the tone of the strip. Add to that places like the Black Eagle and the nest of porn shops on Yonge.
Even more traditional gay bars play it up — just try to imagine a drag queen’s repartee without a healthy dose of sexual innuendo.
There is porn playing on the bars’ TVs. There are best-ass contests. Unlike west-end club nights, the abs-and-ass posters are literally bolted into the walls of the bar.
The proximity of the bathhouses can’t be underestimated. If you’re at The Barn and you haven’t found someone by last call, you have a place to go that’s a slam-dunk. And that inevitably affects how men cruise in the bars nearby, whether or not they ever intend to end up at Steamworks. The same can’t be said of a one-off night at the Annex WreckRoom.
And that’s not to say one is better than the other; they’re just different. In mixed, queerish bars outside of the Church St nexus, cruising is less overt, less expected. Existing relationships are cemented and friend networks are expanded — that’s the appeal. Because of the geography, the crush of places where fellas can get off is less likely to inform the decisions of partiers.
So when a peeler bar named Flash opened in the heart of the Church-Wellesley Village at the end of October, it was really no surprise. It represents a neighbourhood playing to its strengths.
That a “no frills” sex club called Urge opened at Church and Dundas the same month, and the men’s strip club Remington’s just got a major facelift, all within walking distance of the Wellesley subway station? Again, it’s not a surprise.
Will Flash and Urge be able to make a go of it? That will depend on the usual blend of marketing and customer relations — just like anywhere else. But ever since Goodhandy’s landed at the foot of Church St, it’s been clear that getting laid, watching guys get it on and cruising for hookups are a big part of the area’s successful business model.