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11 min

The new queer metropolis

How the gaybourhood has graduated from village to city

INSIDE SCOOP. Sam Ghazarian is a Church St businessman and the chair of the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area. Credit: Matt Mills photo

I was happy to return home to Toronto this spring after a satisfying two-year stint in beautiful Vancouver.

When I left Toronto in 2005 The Barn — the creaky but reliable gay bar at the corner of Church and McGill Sts — was still open as it had been since the mid-1970s, but its days were dwindling.

The US version of Queer as Folk was just wrapping up its original run in which Toronto’s own familiar gaybourhood served as fictionalized example of what television directors thought queer streets ought to be like.

A year later, at a crowded, grungy table in Vancouver’s PumpJack Pub — a bar not unlike The Barn, as it happens — I watched with hundreds of jubilant queers as the same-sex marriage bill passed third reading in the House of Commons.

Just as the queer world seemed at full integrationist bloom — as the mainstream bestowed the unenviable and fleeting mantle of popular coolness upon our already plenty-cool queer culture — I began to hear unexpected murmurs from friends back home. Church St was losing its lustre, they said. The cachet was gone. The music in the village no longer seemed as good as in years past, the hot guys had all moved to Montreal and the sidewalks were choked with uninvited straight families.

The gay village, whispered my Toronto friends, was dying.

The mainstream press, eager to identify any new trend no matter how anecdotal the indicators, seized on the gossip as the thin edge of an ominous wedge.

In May 2006, in a Toronto Star piece under the headline “Goodbye Gaytown?” Bruce DeMara wrote, “There is a growing sense that the central corridor holding the amorphous ‘gay village’ is under siege — from high rents, shifting demographics, condo expansion and complacency.”

Accompanying his piece were three photos. One of the recently erected statue of Alexander Wood, one lively but obviously staged archival shot of the former Steps over a caption that began “In days of yore,” and one of the façade of the former Bar 501. For this last image — which is complete with graffiti, boarded-over windows and old marquee reading “Thank You Church Street!” — the photographer must have literally crawled into the gutter and pointed his camera skyward. It’s a morose rat’s-eye view, that makes Church and Wellesley look like Detroit’s Eight Mile Rd.

In December Michelle DiPardo, writing in National Post, jumped on the end-of-gay-days bandwagon. Under the headline “Less gay, less village” she wrote, “As the gay village gains popularity as a mainstream destination, some of the factors driving [condo and commercial] development are conspiring to make it less of a necessity for gays to live here. Many are abandoning the village to seek homes elsewhere in the city.”

Added to these mainstream news pieces is a flurry of cyberspace graffiti from anonymous bloggers. While researching this piece, for example, I coincidentally visited the Church and Wellesley entry on Wikipedia. Under the subheading “Uncertain Future,” a mysterious author wrote:

“Church St is no longer viewed, particularly by gay youth, as an essential destination. Many bars and clubs throughout Toronto are now gay-friendly. The residents of the [Church St] area are now largely middle-aged men with established careers. Therefore, some feel that in the near future Church St may no longer be the heart of the gay community. This prospect has lead many to ponder whether Toronto really needs an enclave for sexual minorities.”

It’s hardly an empirical analysis. Nevertheless, similar rhetoric can be found on dozens of web pages.

Thanks to this cybergossip, I was asked at least a dozen times while in Vancouver by locals and visitors alike what truth there is to the buzz that Church and Wellesley is falling to pieces and bleeding queer citizens.

When I returned to Toronto as Xtra’s associate publisher at the beginning of May, I was eager to see the changes in the village for myself. I half expected to find tumbleweeds and burned-out cars. I imagined emaciated vultures circling overhead

It certainly isn’t that bad and it didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that reports of the death of the gay village are greatly exaggerated.

***

The question itself — is Gaytown dying? — is nonsense. Church and Wellesley is a neighbourhood, not an organism. It was never alive in the first place. “Is Gaytown dying?” makes almost as little sense as, “Are we winning the war on terror?”

Bizarre dimensions to the rhetoric don’t stop there. Ask this question in casual conversation: What is killing the gaybourhood? The answer invariably seems to be prosperity. Businesses are closing because demand for retail space in the village has driven commercial lease rates higher. Apartments can’t be had because people are willing to pay too much money to rent them. Queer people are abandoning Church and Wellesley to escape all the established, career-oriented, middle-aged queer people who live there.

In “Goodbye Gaytown?” DeMara cited the demise of The Barn, the walling-in of the famous Steps and the closure of what was then Bar 501 at Church and Wellesley as signs that the gaybourhood is over.

He equated The Barn’s closure with the end of dancing in the village, but he neglected to mention Tallulah’s, Crews/Tango, Fly, Zipperz or Alibi. Each of the danceable hotspots he ignored are actually even a little closer to Church and Wellesley than is The Barn. There are also a handful of other village places that DeMara didn’t list where fun-seeking queers can find entertainment, cocktails and blowjobs any night of the week.

DeMara didn’t point out that when The Steps formerly leading to The Second Cup were filled-in and glassed over, the hangers-out simply moved two blocks down the street to Timothy’s. Nor did he mention that Bar 501 was boarded up, not because it had been abandoned, but because it was at the time being renovated and rebranded as Vice, a titillatingly gritty queer bar.

DeMara quoted a number of Church St retailers who, when asked if they thought commercial lease rates in the area are too high, predictably responded in the affirmative. There doesn’t appear to me to be a conspicuously high vacancy rate among village retail spaces. In fact, there are very few vacancies. The businesses that disappeared during the past two years — a laundromat, a restaurant or two, Bar 501/Vice, purveyors of bric-a-brac and overvalued clothing — went mamms up because they weren’t well-managed or otherwise failed to compete. Some simply moved to other locations because their leases were up. In virtually every case another enterprise has already filled the vacancy, or will soon.

Marc Warman owns an internet radio station called ManCandy and has promoted a number of parties in Toronto over the summer. He tells Xtra that he’s signed a lease for Vice’s former home at 501 Church St. He says the space is being gutted and will reopen as a yet-to-be-named queer bar sometime in August.

Warman says he also plans to open a new club at 5 St Joseph St and has plans for a third bar he isn’t ready to talk about.

“The locations are within walking distance of Church and Wellesley and they will each offer something completely different,” says Warman. “It will be three spaces that cater to every kind of crowd.”

Warman won’t say exactly what he’s paying in rent for 501 Church St, but he calls commercial rents on Church St “crazy”.

“But as a business owner, as long as you operate your business correctly and pay your bills, I can’t see why you wouldn’t make money,” he says. “It’s such a busy street. As long as you keep your customers happy they’ll come back and spend money and you can pay your rent. I honestly thought it was a great business opportunity.”

All the new retail additions, including Warman’s, employ queer people and serve a queer clientele in a queer neighbourhood.

That Church St bars and bistros remain at least prosperous enough to stay open even while every two-bit roadhouse in the province experiments with gay-friendly nights is testament to the unique draw that the queer village continues to offer. If you want a mixed crowd you can go almost anywhere. If you want a queer crowd you really have to go to Church.

***

Dennis O’Connor, owner of O’Connor Gallery which specializes in sexy, gay-themed artwork, is past-chair of the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (CWVBIA). He’s been a passionate supporter of the gay village for more than a decade. The Alexander Wood statue at Church and Alexander was his project. But last year he moved his business from its village location to a larger space near Queen and Parliament. O’Connor seems to be a go-to source for death-of-the-village stories and I was curious about why he pulled up stakes and moved away.

O’Conner Gallery’s new home is more than twice the size of its old digs. It’s in an area with much more street traffic. The new space is everything an upscale commercial art gallery should be. It has high ceilings, gleaming hardwood floors and floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. It’s above street level, but only about four feet, as if for better exposure. The artwork on display is as wonderfully homoerotic as ever and a walk from Church and Wellesley to Queen and Parliament is barely 20 minutes. It’s really not that far.

The old gallery, on Maitland just steps east of Church St is, in contrast, a clapboard house with a wavy roofline that was built as a single family home. For O’Connor the move was clearly a step up. He certainly wasn’t starved out of the gaybourhood, he prospered there enough so that he outgrew its market.

“I opened up in 1995 as a gay gallery with gay artists; that was the whole premise,” he says, nestled in a comfortable leather couch in his new location. “Church St was the best place for me to be back then. It’s not important for me to be there any more. It’s very limiting to me because I need space and you’re not going to find it on Church St.”

O’Connor says he pays more rent in the new location than he did for the old place and pooh-poohs the notion that commercial rents are killing Church St.

“The merchants are always carrying on about how Church St rents are outrageous,” he says. “If you talk to any business person, it’s always too much rent. I’m not going to say that I pay just enough rent. I pay too much, too. A lot of the gay businesses opened up 10 or 20 years ago when things were cheaper.”

Sam Ghazarian took over from O’Connor as CWVBIA chair late last year. He has owned and operated the Baskin Robbins store on Church St just south of Wellesley for more than 10 years. He says his business has increased steadily in that time. Ghazarian sees positive economic changes in the village but, he says, queer people have more options than they used to.

“We know as business people that what attracts people to this neighbourhood is the fact that it’s gay,” he says. “We have the Church Street Fetish Fair, Nuit Blanche and Halloweek. The biggest of all gay celebrations, Pride Week, is on our street. But now The Beaches offers something, the Danforth and Queen West offer something, College offers something. Chruch St is not the end-all-and-be-all of gay life, that has changed. But the stores are better. Look at Il Fornello. Look at O’Grady’s, open to 3am and still thriving. Churchmouse, when it was Vagara, wasn’t very busy, now the patio’s crowded and open to 2am.”

***

Residential rents are up, too, but the demand for apartments is still high.

When I left Toronto two years ago I hated to walk away from what I considered the best apartment I ever had. It was spacious, the location in the gaybourhood was perfect, I’d decorated it to suit my taste and, although the rent was a burden, I managed. Now that I’m back in Toronto, the same space is 20 percent more expensive than when I left.

That says to me that demand for gaybourhood living has grown. Rising rents are exactly what you’d expect under those conditions.

Nevertheless, in one weekend in April I found and leased a perfectly good apartment only a few blocks from Xtra’s Church St offices. It’s like thousands of other downtown rental apartments but it’s not in the heart of the neighbourhood. I can’t afford to live there any more. My new place is not in the projects, but I can sure see them from my balcony. I do pay less rent than I did before I left for Vancouver, but my income is smaller and I have been priced out of Church and Wellesley.

But DiPardo’s suggestion that gay people are abandoning the village for other parts of the city and that straight people are gushing in behind them as they leave doesn’t seem right to me either.

The family invasion hysteria seems particularly strange. Friends who live in new condo developments in the area tell me that their neighbours are overwhelmingly queer singles and couples.

That seems to make sense to me because there are so few homes in the gaybourhood that seem remotely suitable for families with small children.

As I write this piece, there is only one condo for sale with three bedrooms or more within easy walking distance of Church and Wellesley. It’s offered at $1.3 million. There are a few tiny single-family cottages and town homes within 10 blocks of Church and Wellesley. Most of them are in Cabbagetown with prices for rickety fixer-uppers without parking starting at a young-family-defying $400,000.

With a public school on Church St and a high school a few blocks east on Wellesley St, there have always been children in the gaybourhood. Maybe mainstream values have changed enough so that smart tourists prefer to push their prams down Church St to avoid the dirt and hustle of Yonge St. Maybe straight families are less likely to avoid visiting the gay neighbourhood than they once were. I see more people — gay and straight — everywhere, but I just don’t see a huge exodus of queers from Church and Wellesley.

This feeling was reinforced on Jun 21 when Now Magazine hosted a discussion salon entitled “Is Gaytown Dead?” at their drinks and coffee lounge on Church St a few blocks south of the gaybourhood. Naturally, I arrived early to ensure I got a seat, but fewer than 20 people were in the room all night. After subtracting two drink slingers, at least two Now staffers who seemed to be there by coincidence, and the six panellists, the turnout was measly. The discussion was nevertheless interesting. The closest anyone on the panel got to saying, “Yes, Gaytown is dead,” was playwright and author Sky Gilbert, who said that queer political activism and ghettoization is passé. Author Zoe Whittall said she doesn’t feel at home on Church St before dashing out early to attend a Pride event. The consensus among the rest of the panellists was that the gaybourhood is not immutable, but that death seems too severe an analogy.

As I left the cozy gathering behind, I walked up Church toward Wellesley. The AIDS vigil with hundreds in attendance was in full swing at Allan Gardens. It sounded more upbeat than the “Is Gaytown Dying?” discussion. The sidewalk north to Xtra’s offices near Church and Wellesley was almost impassable because it was choked with thousands of beautiful gay men of all descriptions. “If the village is dead,” I thought to myself, “a shitload of hot men have turned out for the wake.”

Granted, Pride Week is extraordinary, but I still feel that Church St is busier and more queer now than it was before I left for Vancouver two years ago.

As I’ve reacquainted myself with other parts of the city, I’ve come to believe that there are more queer people walking around everywhere. West Queen West and Parkdale in particular are blossoming.

If indeed there is any validity to the suggestion that queer people are leaving Church and Wellesley, most of them must be moving to Riverdale, Leslieville and The Beaches. Every time I walk or jog through those neighbourhoods I see familiar strangers and old friends from the gaybourhood mowing their lawns and walking their cute little gay dogs.

I wonder if longtime residents of those areas worry that their neighbours are abandoning them to a rising tide of queer people who are buying up all the good real estate.

Frankly, after some of the best years of my life living in the village, I’d be happy to move to a quiet, leafy neighbourhood on the other side of the DVP, too. I don’t feel like I’d be abandoning the gaybourhood. I still like to work and visit here. I just want some more space, en suite laundry, perhaps a little garden and I could do without nighttime sirens and street sweepers.

Rather than the death of Gaytown, I submit that a far more appropriate analogy is that just as Church and Wellesley grew from a ghetto into a village, it continues to grow from a village into the downtown core of a new queer metropolis.

Like any metropolis it has residential areas, commercial areas, areas that are upscale and areas that are shabby. It has exciting, artsy, bohemian areas and sensible, quiet, practical areas. It has places to party hearty and places to grow petunias. The demographic descriptions of the people who live in it change over time. Its citizens feel the real effects of social and economic pressures. They risk leaving the less fortunate behind and they should be active participants in shaping the future.

The queer metropolis is growing, prospering and changing like any healthy community would. But it is certainly not dying.