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Keep the Village queer: study participants

Ongoing study group continues to collect ideas to prepare gaybourhood for WorldPride

Community members take part in a meeting at The 519 Community Centre May 14, providing feedback on the Village Study. Credit: Andrea Houston

Residents of the Church-Wellesley Village have been enthusiastically participating in a new study of the neighbourhood and have communicated overwhelmingly that they want the area to stay “queer and sex-positive.”

The group working on the study gathered at the 519 Church Street Community Centre mid-May to provide an update on the progress.

Some comments were scribbled on boards posted around the room: “[I want to see] moms with strollers next to leather daddies,” and “[We need] more spaces geared to women,” and “More bars, restaurants and places to socialize.”

But not everyone agrees on this vision for the Village. One comment said, “I come to the Village for events, but I don’t linger because there’s only naked men. Need diverse imagery.”

Still, it’s abundantly clear from the feedback so far that preserving Toronto’s gay village as a queer destination is vitally important to many people, says Harold Madi, partner with the Planning Partnership, part of the group conducting the Village Study.

“It’s been a really inspiring process,” he says. “People in this community really care about this place. It’s been unanimous. We are going to make sure the Village survives.”

Madi says there is concern that the Village is changing too rapidly. Condo developments are forcing out gay bars and clubs, while other gay and independent businesses are pushed out because of skyrocketing rents.

“This community has really evolved organically,” he says. “It was never planned to be a gay village.

“What I hear the most from people is that need is still there. This area is still the place of arrival and transition for LGBT people across the country, especially those in smaller communities. They know Church and Wellesley. Gay youth and adults that are finding their identity, they come here. That resonated with us.”

With increased acceptance in other areas of the city, as well as cheaper rents, queer people have fanned out across the city, he says.

“This is the time to be deliberate in protecting the LGBTQ aspect of the Village. With the encroachment of high-rise developments and shifting community values in this area, there is a fear that [the LGBT] aspect is being chipped away.”

Doug Kerr, WorldPride 2014 human rights conference co-chair, is part of the group conducting the study, along with The Planning Partnership; Toronto architect Ken Greenberg; Jane Farrow, former executive director of Jane’s Walk; and N Barry Lyon Consultants.

Kerr says the group is acutely aware that WorldPride 2014 is just around the corner.

“We are looking for short-term initiatives that can be implemented by next year,” he says. “We’re looking for ideas that will entice people to come to the neighbourhood for WorldPride. That means engaging the local businesses and community agencies. We want ideas to help get the neighbourhood excited for WorldPride.”

Maura Lawless, executive director of The 519, says the group will continue collecting feedback. So far, she notes, there’s been an online survey, a Jane’s Walk and several one-on-one interviews. Lawless encourages everyone to contribute.

“We are taking all that feedback and preparing detailed presentations to be displayed at Pride,” she says, noting that The 519 will host an information display. “That will be an opportunity for 500,000 to 600,000 people to reflect on this project. We want a very robust community consultation and community engagement with this.”

Chris Drew, a member of the Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association, made several suggestions at the meeting, including narrowing Church Street to remove parking spaces and widen sidewalks.

“I was happy to see many check marks beside my suggestions,” he says, pointing to the boards listing ideas to improve the Village. “I really want to see more pedestrian space, more retail space, more benches and more trees along Church.”

Check out Xtra‘s series on the changing nature of the gay village.