3 min

I love the nightlife, I love to boogie

But not on this strip, you don't

Credit: Xtra files

The hardest part is breaking it to the Americans. The poor dears stumble up here with such high hopes. They’ve seen Queer As Folk and they want a big, glitzy dance bar.

Oh my, you think, sitting in a half empty bar on a Tuesday night. Better break it to them gently. “Sure you can dance in Toronto,” you say, “but only on the third Thursday in March and only if the moon is in Scorpio. And oh, by the way, remember to bring the right drugs, because otherwise it’s a bore.”

There are plenty of dance events in Toronto, special nights and one-night-a-month events, but they invariably take place outside the ghetto. It’s not like you can just dawdle across the street after cocktails and have a dance or two.

What Toronto doesn’t have (but desperately needs) are dance clubs that are woven into the fabric of the local scene. The city lacks the energy that once went by the code name “disco.”

There are many reasons for this dismal state of affairs – gay fickleness, lack of entrepreneurial initiative, a dance scene that’s morphed into a drug scene and a downtown that is rapidly becoming a retirement village for middle-class, middle-aged condo dwellers.

But most of the blame can be placed squarely on the back of a bizarre municipal by-law which has effectively stifled ghetto development for more than a decade.

The 1986 by-law, spurred by problems with a Yorkville straight club, bans nightclubs and dance clubs from residential areas of downtown unless they were already in existence prior to 1986.

Consider the state of the current dance scene. Or rather its history, since much of it is long gone. Chaps is now a Rabba. Boots is a Howard Johnson. The dance space above the former St Charles Tavern has turned into apartments. The Carriage House on Jarvis St is now a Ramada Hotel. And the fabled afterhours club, the Manatee, on St Joseph St, is nothing but an earthen pit full of rising condo concrete.

The only new, regularly- scheduled dance club to open in the last decade is Five, which got away with it because it took over a pre-existing dance space (former home of Colby’s and Katrina’s).

Fly operates on the sufferance of its neighbours. As long as they don’t complain, it’s all right, but technically it’s in violation of zoning regulations.

It’s A Boy’s Life was in much the same situation until it moved south of the no-fly zone (north of Queen on Church is a no-no), all the way to Guvernment. So far south that it’s offering shuttle bus service from Zelda’s.

The shuttle bus says it all. Given a choice, homos would prefer to stay in the ghetto (and if you’ve ever been in the creepy, testosterone-driven reaches of the Richmond-Adelaide club district on a weekend, you’ll know why). But we don’t have much of a choice.

The by-law was amended and the entertainment district expanded in 1997 at the behest of City Councillor Kyle Rae so that the nightclub zone now runs as far north as College on the west side of Yonge and as far north as Gerrard on the east side – but it still excludes all of Church St north of Queen.

Of the remaining Church St dance spaces, two, the Barn and Zipperz, have been there (in one guise or another) since the 1970s. Were they to be torn down and replaced with, say condos, they couldn’t be replaced.

The Church St village is zoned commercial-residential which means you can have bars and restaurants, but no dance clubs, and only a certain amount of dancing.

Two or three of the Church St bars have flirted with dancing lately and as long as the neighbours don’t complain they may be all right, since, as Rae explains, by-law enforcement is complaint-driven.

The recent renovation or re-branding of places like Sailor, Byzantium, George’s Play, Pappi’s and Lüb suggests that there is life in the old strip yet, but clearly no one is going to invest in a full-fledged dance club. You’d have to be crazy. The regulatory regime is too onerous, especially if neighbours oppose it.

Clearly there are problems associated with dance clubs and neighbourhood residents deserve to be protected from noise and other hassles. But there have to be subtler and more creative ways of doing it.

With the municipal elections looming, it’s time to rethink the role of local government in gay life. It’s not enough to get the cops out of the bars and baths. It’s not enough to beg the city’s forgiveness for being here. It’s time for the city to do a little community development.

It did it once before, way back in 1981 when it made it easier for businesses to locate on Church St between Gloucester and Alexander. It’s about time it did it again.

Next time the Americans come to town, I want to have something to show them.