A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[URBAN NOTE] Two changing streets

)Over at his Psychogeography blog, Shawn Micallef tackles (“Our queerest street”) the question of whether Church Street is continuing to be queer or not. After doing a rundown of Church Street’s diversity south of Gerrard, he concludes that things are safe enough. So far.

As Toronto’s gay scene moved from Yonge to Church Street in the 1980s, that old sensibility of queer bars behind darkened windows evolved into a much more conspicuous street presence. It was always a gay area, though, from the legendary days of possibly gay magistrate Alexander Wood in the early 1800s (that’s his statue at Alexander and Church) to the 1950s and ’60s, when the City Park Co-Op and Village Green apartment complexes were built (the latter includes a round building endearingly nicknamed “Vaseline Tower”), residential structures where a single man or (less frequently) woman could live in relative privacy and alone.

The Church-Wellesley kind of urbanism is ideal. That’s why so many less-gay people are moving in, and why the neighbourhood pretended to be Pittsburgh when Queer as Folk was filmed here. At the same time, the security need for cultural ghettos in mostly tolerant Toronto has decreased as the rest of city has become kind of gay.

In the Diversity-Our-Strength-motto sense, it’s all good, but for those worried about the demise of Church, it’s useful to think of how other ethnic strips have evolved. The Greeks don’t live en masse on the Danforth anymore, nor do the Italians along St. Clair and so forth, but the ethnic strip remains, and people visit because it feels Italian or Greek. Bars may come and go, but Church is anchored by visible institutions and places like the 519 Community Centre; the AIDS Memorial and Cawthra Park; the AIDS Committee of Toronto or that Alexander Wood statue. Even the CBC’s Battle of the Blades that recently put life back into Maple Leaf Gardens is good for the community, because it was the gayest event the place has witnessed since Liberace performed there.

While Church Street isn’t cool with the hipster queer kids (all it takes is a few promoters to change that) The Village is still critical if only for this moment: imagine a gay kid coming from less tolerant places like Timmins, Jamaica or Afghanistan arriving at Church and Wellesley and, for the first time, seeing this vibrant, celebratory strip. No offense to those three places, but this is why cities are salvation: you can see, immediately, that you
belong here, just as you are.

Meanwhile, over at the Star, Mary Ormsby examines Sherbourne Street “Sherbourne: Toronto’s ‘city in one street'”, a street just a few minutes’ walk east of Church, starting at the Sherbourne subway station on Bloor Street East and continuing south for kilometres. It’s a street, Ormsby argues, that captures the diversity of Toronto, at least of the old downtown core.

The condominium has not yet emerged from the ground, its cement and iron footings being formed to hold 17 storeys of polished glass and aluminum with suites selling for less than $300,000. In 18 months, “The Modern” promises to be a landscaped playpen for young downtowners.

A short block north on Sherbourne Street, the city’s most damaged, desperate and dangerous roam for drugs, hookers and easy cash. Men with nowhere to go and nothing to do kill time until the shelters open or until sleep overcomes them in Moss Park.

Bookending this 164-year-old thoroughfare is enormous wealth. Elegant stone-and-brick mansions dot the northern tip, vestiges of the moneyed and powerful who once lined both sides of the 3.5-kilometre stretch. Due south on Lake Ontario’s sandy shoals, bulldozers clear space for a $29 million public park to feature waterfalls and play structures.

Street churches, whose preaching was originally for the rich, offer ESL classes and counselling between prayers.

Social housing, gentrification, immigrants, magnificent parkland, the country’s highest concentration of homeless, political activists, acts of kindness, acts of violence, health centres, ballparks and a hockey arena all share the two-lane asphalt strip.

Say hello to Sherbourne – skid row to some, the Ritz to others – the most intensely Torontonian of all Toronto streets.

Go, read them both.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2009 at 3:18 pm

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