Five years ago it seemed the gentrification of Parkdale was inevitable. So why hasn’t it happened?
The lights are dim and the volume inches higher at Parkdale’s new restaurant, Grand Electric. Bill Withers is stuffed back into an album sleeve, replaced on the turntable by Dr. Dre’s The Chronic; in the crook of the L-shaped bar, two guys in their early 30s remind each other of the lyrics. It’s a Wednesday in late November, opening night, and everyone is crowded dark-denim-knee to dark-denim-knee. There are more than a dozen bourbons lined up on wood shelves and as many Mexican dishes scrawled on the blackboard: tacos, pozole, pollo frito. At a red picnic table near the restaurant’s window, a group of six demolishes the entire menu.
So this is the new Parkdale, right? It’s the hip, well-heeled fulfilment of a prophecy written six years ago on the yellow stuccoed wall of a Starbucks seven blocks east: “Drake you ho, this is all your fault.” As soon as the Drake and Gladstone made themselves over and lured that green-mermaid beacon of gentrification, it was only a matter of time before the bistros and boutiques crept west past Dufferin, under Queen Street’s CN bridge, and reached into gritty Parkdale.
Toronto Life first spotted gentrification’s fingerprints back in 2005. In an article on Parkdale’s changing landscape, the magazine crowed, “Queen Street’s wild western frontier is prettying itself up faster than you can say yee-haw!” A year later, the Parkdale Liberty Economic Development Corporation partnered with Ryerson’s fourth-year urban planning students on a study called “Managing Gentrification in Parkdale.” And in early 2007, local politicians and city thinkers gathered at the library to ponder the same, in a discussion titled “Where goes the neighbourhood?”
But so far, the shiny condos, which have come to dominate the eastern side of the underpass, haven’t been built. Parkdale’s social-service hubs remain—almost two dozen of them, in an area roughly bordered by Roncesvalles and Dufferin, the train tracks north of Queen and the lake. Step outside Grand Electric on a late November night and you’ll find a pawnshop immediately to the left. Along the same stretch, there are bright coffee houses and Asian grocery stores, a multicultural association and a Franciscan food-service ministry, a jewellery studio, dentist’s office and a knitting café. There’s a legal-aid clinic and a community health centre in the basement of which, this spring, a food co-op will open—Toronto’s first in 28 years.
“In the last four years, there was a lot of talk about what’s going to happen to Parkdale,” says Heather Douglas, executive director of the neighbourhood’s business improvement area. “We’ve seen some change, but nowhere near to the extent that everybody predicted.” Alan Walks, a geography and planning professor at U of T, agrees: “Parkdale is still one of the areas that is slow to be affected by the onslaught of gentrification in the inner city of Toronto.”
What happened here? Parkdale’s gentrification, it seems, was cut off mid-yee-haw; the westward march of Queen Street didn’t quite breach Dufferin. But because of the architecture that Parkdale was given, and the stubbornness that Parkdalians bring, something else has taken place. It’s not exactly gentrification—instead, it’s a more inclusive kind of evolution, one that reflects and caters to the diversity of this neighbourhood’s residents and encourages them to stay put.
In its classic form, gentrification occurs when the social makeup of a neighbourhood transforms from working class to middle class and higher. That’s often seen through the deconversion of rental housing: Nice old buildings, built originally for owner occupation then turned into rental units, are reclaimed by owners once more. A broader view of gentrification would include new condominiums or former warehouses transformed into lofts, since they create space for middle- and upper-class residents, as well. Either way, lower-income renters are out of luck.
There are signs of classic gentrification in the neighbourhood. “Above Queen, especially west of Lansdowne—that area has changed very much,” U of T’s Walks says. “The housing is low-rise on beautiful streets, and a lot of the rentals there have been changed into owner-occupied houses.” Along the side streets north of Queen, Bugaboo strollers now appear about as often as shopping carts.
I live on the second floor of a lovely, creaky Victorian row house near the Parkdale LCBO (location!), and I’ve been known to panic that every improvement my landlord makes to the place is a troubling sign she wants to move back in. But then I reassure myself by softly repeating: Parkdale is a community of tenants. Some 77 per cent of us rent our housing, compared to a city-wide average of 32 per cent. In South Parkdale, below Queen, that number climbs to 91 per cent. Tenants are here because the architecture exists for them here: there are low- and high-rise apartment buildings, bachelorettes and enormous mansions that were divided into units almost a century ago.
“If the dominant stock for rentals is maintained in its current form, then the general social composition is likely to maintain, as well,” says Walks. He cites the mid-rise, high-density apartment complexes along Jameson Avenue—those sandy-brick boxes that sprouted up in the ’50s and ’60s—as an anchor for Parkdale’s low-income residents. Known locally as “the landing strip,” Jameson has provided the first home for waves of new immigrants. In the 1980s, West Indians and Tamils came; in the late 1990s, Tibetans did, and now they number almost 2,000 in Parkdale. Three years ago, thousands of Roma joined them, fleeing violence in Hungary. Community identity is strong here: In 2009, a public art project snapped 250 black-and-white headshots of Jameson’s residents and tiled them onto tree planters that line the busy street.
There’s the danger that a condo behemoth or two could disrupt all that. But ward councillor Gord Perks thinks it’s an unlikely scenario. “Those apartments are built on very tight sites, so you couldn’t knock them down and put in something bigger,” he says. The community has also taken active steps to ensure that housing remains for its lower-income residents. The Parkdale Pilot Project, a decade-long municipal program that legalized rooming houses in Toronto, was completed in 2009, with almost 80 houses licensed and improved. Because of that, Perks says, “we’ve created a housing stock which means that close to 1,000 people can’t be dehoused by the marketplace.”
Had housing stock turned over and been replaced by glass condos for the upwardly mobile, Walks says, “You would’ve seen a lot of new businesses move into Parkdale.” The recession has, unquestionably, played a role in slowing that development. But there’s another reason that it has been difficult for bars and restaurants (and bars masquerading as restaurants) to find a toehold. “Gord Perks is playing a very, very active role in terms of new liquor licences,” Parkdale BIA executive director Heather Douglas says.
Exactly how active? Every time a liquor licence is applied for, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario notifies the city; councillors may then declare the licence to be against municipal interest. Perks does that every time. Generally, licences are still granted, but not before he has sculpted some conditions; Kanji Sushi, a restaurant being built on Queen, saw 13 stipulations added to its liquor licence. Among them: no audible noise after 11 p.m. and, aside from special occasions, no cover charge.
That’s not to say that Queen Street hasn’t become noticeably louder and more crowded, especially on weekend nights. Last year, Perks confessed to The Globe and Mail that he was concerned Parkdale would become the next West Queen West. But his fears have since abated. Or at least, he tells me, “It will be a long time coming, and over my dead body.”
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