Gosh, I envy the new improved Bloor St — its granite sidewalks, low planters, spacious vistas.
Sure, the cost overruns are ridiculous, the holdups grotesque, the tales of bureaucratic incompetence hilarious, but sooner rather than later, Bloor is going to be a grand boulevard, and almost incidentally, one of the great see-and-be-seen places in the city.
Already, walking along the finished stretch in front of the Hudson’s Bay Centre, I have the feeling so rare as to be utterly unfamiliar, that I actually live in a great city. People stream toward you without anyone threatening to knock you over.
Compare this to the backwater known as Church St, where the sidewalks are so narrow and cluttered as to be impassable. Church St, the Village whose most distinctive features are its Stalinist-era beer store and a filthy beggar who threatens non-compliant donors with a hug.
People moan and groan about the bar scene, and lord knows it could use a shot of energy. Maybe just some place, any place, that plays something other than standard-issue house and survives on the gratitude of more than just a few Rev-crazed kids from the suburbs.
But if people wanted to improve the strip, and make it more than just the default setting on your gay radar, they’d pay more attention to the physical space.
Let’s start with the historic stuff. The best thing about Church St is the 19th-century streetscape. The lovely Second Empire house that is home to Fuzion (ignore the ugly fence and overdone patio) was built for department store magnate Robert Simpson and dates from 1877/78. The apartments above 7-24 Video opened in 1926. Even the five-building row that houses Woody’s beneath its high-hipped roof hails from 1893.
Not only are these places old, they’re human scale. Indeed, I sometimes think the best thing about the Village, boys and bars aside, are the small homes and apartment buildings on the neighbouring side streets. They’re not to today’s taste, but they make the whole place feel more intimate.
The best thing about the strip is also the one thing under attack. A developer wants to level some or all of the small, funky buildings known as Gloucester Mansions, at Church and Gloucester, and replace them with a 25-storey condo.
I’ve nothing against tall buildings or redevelopment, but why here, in one of the more interesting blocks on the strip, when there are vacant lots up and down the street all crying out for attention? The parking lots opposite Maple Leaf Gardens, beside O’Grady’s and in front of The Beer Store are particular eyesores, the latter so out-of-place it looks like it was air-lifted from some derelict strip mall in outer Scarberia. I don’t think any developer should be allowed to build (or demolish) anything until they’ve first filled in the existing gaps in the street.
Why bother to fight it? Developers always get what they want, and we’ll all be living in glass boxes soon anyway. But it’s those small, human-scale buildings that give the area its charm and make it feel like a neighbourhood. People are influenced by their physical environment, its light and scale and ease of use. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself where you’re more likely to talk to someone, at King and Bay or Church and Wellesley? So if you want to keep the Village somewhat (vaguely) friendly, we need to pay more attention to the built environment.
Let’s start with the Second Empire block on the northeast corner of Church and Wellesley. You wouldn’t know it from the garish signage or sagging roof lines, but this is one of the gems of the street. If I were czar of Church St, I’d start with that corner. Have it gentrified, fixed up, smartened up, propped up and possibly in-filled. The parking lot at the rear would be a great place for a condo.
And for God’s sake, let’s do something about the sidewalks. Either widen them or de-clutter them. Less parking, more strolling and a few decent trees. You ought to be able to go for a casual ramble without stepping on a hobo or bumping into a pole.
If a bunch of overpriced stores on Bloor St can get a new public promenade, why can’t Church St?
Tongue Lashing appears in every second issue of Xtra.