Could the east end become Toronto’s next hotbed for indie-music culture? The organizers of tonight’s Feast in the East concert sure hope so.
Tonight, a well-curated arts event featuring live bands, video installations and free food is set to go down at a little-known venue in Toronto’s east end called the Dickens Street Theatre.
But the Dickens Street Theatre isn’t really a theatre. In fact, it isn’t even a proper concert venue. It’s actually a random loft space in what looks like a pseudo-industrial park not far from Dundas and Carlaw.
And though they might one day be considered visionary local music pioneers, promoters Tad Michalak and Neil Rankin aren’t the leaders of the city’s latest arts movement. Because as they readily admit, there’s no movement out here to speak of at the moment.
“I’m constantly travelling west to go to shows, put on shows, or do any sort of cultural thing,” says Michalak, an east-end resident. “There really isn’t a lot happening here beyond bar bands or bigger shows at the Opera House.”
Rankin agrees. “The Don Valley separates the east end from the rest of the city, and there’s definitely some sort of mental block when it comes to crossing the river. It’s a cultural dead zone to people [in the west end]—they don’t know that anything’s over there.”
Indeed, few of us can say we’ve enjoyed legendary evenings of drunken rock ‘n’ roll in the heart of Leslieville, but Michalak and Rankin’s concert series, Feast In the East, represents a rare, concerted effort to put the east end of the city on the local indie-music map.
Naturally, in an area known best for quaint brunch spots and quiet coffee shops, finding a venue was the biggest challenge.
“We had a lot of trouble finding a venue because people who own spaces in the east end aren’t in [the indie-rock] mindset,” Michalak says. “Places like Sneaky Dee’s, the Silver Dollar, or The Boat—those types of spaces don’t exist in the east end.”
Rankin says bar owners were hesitant to step outside their musical comfort zone and embrace something artier. “The venues don’t cater to the style of shows that we want to do—the underground artist–scene show. When you approach a bar, and you’re not a cover band, and you’re not coming to their open jam night, they just don’t get it.”
After scouring local bars from Broadview and Danforth all the way to Queen and Jones, their search led them to a friend’s loft space down this gravelly side street. With high walls for video projections and no need to reach a certain sales total at the bar, Rankin informally christened the space the Dickens Street Theatre and the rest is…well, not quite history, but getting there.
“There’s no spot in the east end that you can be guaranteed to go and meet like-minded creative people yet, so we’re trying to help cultivate that.”
The view of Toronto’s skyline from Dundas East at Carlaw.
In New York City, a band can play to completely different audiences on back-to-back nights at venues that are a short subway ride away from one another. Concertgoers in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan comprise two entirely different crowds, but no such multi-destination scene exists in Toronto. Yet.
The best indication that a second hotbed could pop up is Toronto’s geography. The hipster colonization of Parkdale now stretches all the way to Roncesvalles, where Queen West and King West merge to form the Queensway. That means the city’s westward gentrification will soon reach a natural end point (i.e., High Park, the leafy wall on the other side of Parkside Drive), leaving east as the only way left to go.
But will casual music fans ever want to go there? Can the Don Valley mental chasm ever be breached? Michalak says the commute isn’t as horrible as we all imagine.
“People think it’s so far away, but it’s really not. It’s 20-minute bike ride or a half hour on transit.” (It turns out his estimate was generous. My own trip to the venue on the 502 Queen Street bus from Bay Street to Carlaw took 13 minutes in the middle of rush hour.)
Michalak and Rankin are cautiously optimistic, and claim that attendance at the first two iterations of Feast In the East this past May and June exceeded their expectations. But they still provide a map with every advance ticket sold, and have promised a slice of pizza at the door as extra incentive for each attendee.
Yet local musician Daniel Woodhead—who in 2007 and 2008 booked a series of memorable all night, rave-style multimedia events at Gerrard Street’s Centre of Gravity for his former band Spiral Beach—says a remote space can actually add an element of intrigue to a show.
“I think the distance just made it more exciting,” Woodhead says, adding, “everyone knew it would be a pretty unique experience. I really don’t think I’ve been to another show like that, anywhere, ever. My brother Airick [who now performs under the alias Doldrums] has been saying for years that the east end would become the place to go for shows. I think it’s totally possible, if more small DIY spaces open up.”
Woodhead’s new project, Moon King, a collab with his Spiral Beach bandmate Maddy Wilde, is already booked play Feast In the East IV, tentatively scheduled for early August.
There is, of course, the other little problem—that of neighbourhood dynamics. Rankin says he occasionally worries about injecting a little bit of nightlife into Leslieville, a trend that could inevitably change the area’s bedroom community atmosphere.
“I live in the east end partly because it’s a retreat, an escape away from the hustle and bustle of the west,” he says. “Do I want everyone here stumbling around my neighbourhood all the time? I’m a little nervous because I don’t think people would want this area to turn into Ossington.”
Perhaps it’s a stretch to compare the east end “cultural dead zone” to an area so fraught with booze-slinging excitement that it was not long ago the target of a ban on new bars, but Rankin is ever the idealist.
“Toronto is one of those great shape-shifters of a city. The east end is cheap, it’s out of the way, and people are relaxed there. But they like to party just as much as people in the west end. I want to celebrate that.”
Feast In the East III happens tonight at the Dickens Street Theatre, 35 Dickens Street. $7 at the door. All ages. 9pm. Featuring Foxfire, Entire Cities, Polynesian Bride, Black Walls and video installations by Cameron Lee.