4 min

Urban Design: Pillow talk

Unleashing creative, sustainable energies

BED SPREAD. Blue Room by Barr Gillmore and Michel Arcand Credit: (Glenn Mackay)

Christina Zeidler is too much. Lauded in 2003 by Now magazine’s Cameron Bailey as one of Toronto’s 10-best filmmakers and awarded the 2004 Best Canadian Media Award at the Images fest for her shorts Machine Guts and Kill Road, Zeidler has been able to keep her camera rolling (two new flicks; one just screened, another is on the way) while, as the Gladstone Hotel’s development manager, pulling Parkdale’s historic gem out of metaphoric mothballs.

“DIY-politics and zine culture are huge for me,” says Zeidler. “DIY is a revolutionary concept: Don’t be afraid, do it. Do it yourself. That confidence really opens up worlds because it takes away credentialism and discipline-focussed thinking.

“Okay, so I want to run a hotel. Take my zine strategies and apply them – and no joke, it all works.”

In just two years, Zeidler and her innovative development philosophy have transformed the Gladstone into a cultural hub of living, breathing art – with 39 permanent artist-designed hotel rooms opening in December, a multi-use second floor and, of course, the Ballroom, Art Bar and Melody Room continuing to house community and cultural events in full swing.

“The biggest risk we’ve been taking is in imagining that community and culture are a business – that they can be profitable and successful, not only monetarily, but also serve a purpose in a community, be part of something that, in the end, is incredibly sustainable development.

“In the bar industry, most people look for a five-year flash-in-the-pan. Then you either institutionalize or die or sell.”

Zeidler earned her development stripes when older sister Margie Zeidler brought Christina on board to help run 401 Richmond St W and 215 Spadina Ave, two innovative buildings owned and operated by the Zeidler family. “The most striking thing about this city is its neighbourhoods which have been developed through personal stakeholders – people doing things that benefit themselves and the spaces in which they live,” says Christina. “We’re inviting that process into a larger development.

“It’s a risk for most people to imagine that it works. But these kinds of projects are happening all around us – the Distillery District, all over the US, internationally – and these creative risks are working globally and locally. The point of this is to make it happen, and to make it infectious.

“This tiny strip is not about one voice. It’s about a pawnshop, a corner store, a strip mall, a Vietnamese restaurant, a hotel – all of that is really good. I’d like the Gladstone to be in dialogue with the many voices of the area, engaged in not just one thing but many.”

This engagement is evident in the hotel’s individually designed guest rooms. “These are not meant to be themed rooms, they’re meant to be dialogue. Within each room is the voice of the artist who designed it, but that voice doesn’t dominate. You’re invited to enter that space and your story is important, too. That interaction and reciprocity is key.”

Zeidler loved the push-and-pull process of turning scores of submissions into rooms able to stand the wear and tear of hotel living. The collaboration was fruitful. “It’s a really neat trick. Most people think that you’re inviting chaos but, in fact, you’re inviting careful consideration, people who care immensely about the details of a project, of a room. That’s something one individual or a big firm can’t do.”

Zeidler’s approach is rooted in a 15-year career in the arts. “I’ve learned a lot from incredible projects that have come before me: Symptom Hall, the Cameron House, Cinecycle. And my own work has taught me a lot: playing in bands, organizing film screenings, going to theatre, making film and video, being involved with Buddies [In Bad Times Theatre]. As you schlep your band gear from place to place, you meet people from different disciplines and learn about the different cultures with which you’re interacting.

“I’ve also done lots of socially engaged work, in particular, with The Playground, a sort of Outward Bound for urban youth. We’d teach youth-at-risk skills through creative projects, CDs, digital photo projects. Creativity is a scary risk. To open up that feeling in yourself – to risk your voice, to risk artistically, and to complete it.”

The OCAD-trained Toronto-born heiress and art star hadn’t intended to take on the colossal role that she has with the Gladstone. “I never expected to have to do the big reno so quickly, all at once. That was never the intention. But the building was in 40 years of disrepair. Everything was in total jeopardy of collapsing and during my first year here that became the most obvious reality. Everything had failed and it was seriously scary: cracked boilers, entirely failed heating systems, rotting walls, rotting everything. Not a single thing was left except the beautiful shell of the building and the stories of it, the people in it.”

Since Zeidler’s entry, the queer scene at the Gladstone has become larger than life. “We call our events love-ins. The ones that we really like, that stick around, are successful community-based events that reflect the energy of the diverse nature of the city – and the queer part of that is very huge.”

In particular, the Wednesday night Hump Day Bump has gained a lively following. “It’s so hard to find alternative queer spaces that work. My girlfriend [Deanne Lehtinen] was one of the people who started The Shag [with Sherry Patterson and Liz Singer], an amazing women-only event with a great atmosphere where you could hang out, cruise, chat and connect.

“Hump Day Bump is bringing back that kind of safe atmosphere and expanding it, but with the Gladstone twist that mixes up a younger queer crowd, the neighbourhood queer crowd, people on the street passing by stopping in and Nick, the bartender who has been with us for 40 years. It’s amazing. Like most marginalized communities, queer communities are good to places that are good to us.”