3 min

Dear Bank St businesses

Gays are a gentrifying force worldwide

Everyone wants to live near gay people.

I’m filing this column from Toronto’s Church-Wellesley neighbourhood. It’s Sunday night, quietish. Residents are milling around coffee shops and dog parks, others are enjoying dinner or a drink. I’m tucked away at a little renovated turn-of-the-century bed and breakfast on a little, renovated street.

Church-Wellesley is a mixed residential and commercial strip on a slightly run-down but otherwise prime piece of real estate. North and south of where I am, it’s pawn shops and payday loan outfits. But for a few blocks, it’s Toronto’s gay village, brighter and busier than the neighbourhoods around it.

Many, many gay people in Ottawa are familiar with the area, having visited it at least once. Lots of people who have visited it have reservations of one kind or another (it’s too bourgeois, they say, or too tacky, or too commercial). And yet it remains a viable draw for thousands of tourists every year.

These blocks are more prosperous (for both straight and gay businesses) than those surrounding — and that’s obvious just by looking at them. Those blocks have more pedestrian traffic, especially in the evenings, making them safer for both people and their property. That’s because gays are one of our best lightning rods for the vitalizing force of neighbourhoods.

That’s right, everyone wants to live near gay people. Considering the perks — neighborhood renovation, creative and artistic spark, neighbourhood pride, safer streets, a greater number of profitable business hours — it’s no wonder.

Bank St is heading down that track. The section between Nepean and James houses just about every service this city offers gay people. Large numbers of gay people live in the surrounding area and work and play close by.

One by one, houses between Bank and Bronson are being renovated. As well, four new condo developments are underway on Bank St alone. More will come after Bank St’s facelift.

Area businesses have the chance to cash in on increased creative energy and pedestrian traffic by welcoming us. The result, judging by every other gay neigbourhoods in North America, is people spending more time in the area. And that means a bigger pie for everyone — more coffees made, more shirts sold, and more dinners eaten. Judging by the businesses relocating to Toronto’s Church-Wellesley area (banks, boutiques, Starbucks, American Apparel), everyone gets a piece of the higher economic activity.

Incidentally, don’t write off the tourist angle. We may not have nearly the population of Toronto, but one thing we have in spades is tourists. Right now they swarm down Wellington, up Rideau and into the Byward Market. Church-Wellesley is a little off the beaten track, but it attracts thousands of tourists with its open, inclusive gay-friendly vibe.

And if not? In Montreal in the 1970s, gay businesses were clustering downtown. But they were given the ole heave-ho by city planners. They moved to a rundown neighbourhood to the east — and in the process gave the neighbourhood a spit and polish. Now, St Catherine East a vibrant area.

As for Bank St, our local reps from all three levels of government are on board. After seeing overwhelming support expressed at the Bank St redevelopment open house, I am satisfied that residents are onboard. Even the Ottawa Citizen editorial staff endorsed the flags. That leaves one other key player — area businesses.

Local businesses are understandably feeling queasy at the moment. After all, they’re about to have a big hole where their street used to be. Businesses between Laurier and Somerset will face new pressures on their already thin bottom lines — and this just months after busses were diverted from Bank St for eight weeks while the corner of Bank and Somerset was closed.

With rent increasing along Bank St, something needs to happen — and quickly. Local businesses have given me no reason to doubt that they will embrace the rainbow — since they have openly embraced our community almost without reservation so far, and since doing so makes good business sense.

The rainbow has long stood for diversity and inclusiveness. It’s not a gays-only symbol. Its philosophy — celebrating people of every stripe — is one that Bank St has lived for a long time. Soon, with all players onside, that celebration will be marked physically on the street.

And that just leaves us to the particulars. Even though BIA director Gerry Lepage appears to be avoiding my calls, I believe that the Bank St BIA will request street signs with rainbow markings for Bank St between Nepean and James — just like the BIA on Somerset did recently to demarcate Chinatown. It’s durable and low cost and the city picked up the tab. To my mind, it’s a no-brainer.

Will city planners adopt lampposts with space for two banners, one for the BIA and one for a rainbow flag? With all the politicians onside, I certainly hope so. Likely, we’ll have an answer within six weeks.

The business advantages are compelling. If you’re visiting any of the shops on Bank St in the next couple of weeks, take a moment to articulate your views to the owners and managers. I’m confidant that we can get most people on board.