March 13, 2012

Dude, where's my neighbourhood? (alternate title: Gentrification is Bullshit)

It's finally happening. The Silver Snail is moving out of it's Queen West digs. We knew this day would come, as news broke last April of the building being sold, but it's still incredibly sad. The Queen West strip has finally lost the last of it's je ne sais quoi, with it's transformation into an open air mall pretty well complete. Mr. Social and I were trying to figure out how many of the unique shops we both know and love are left. The sad news? We could only come up with three.

This has sparked an interesting conversation between Mr. Social and I regarding how counter-culture, or the lack thereof, has made a huge impact on our little corner of the world.

The late 1940s-1960s had the Beat Poets/Beatniks hanging out in (the now long gone) Gerrard Street Village

Circa 1966. Gerrard Street no longer looks like this

The 1960s had the Hippies smoking marijuana and talking of political and social change in Yorkville (esssentially the exact opposite of what the upscale neighbourhood is today)

Circa 1968. A far cry from the ultra expensive shopping district and celebrity hangout it is today

The 1950s-1975 had Rock & Roll clubs on Yonge Street, which gave way to strip joints and shopping malls (The Zanzibar opened in 1960 and is still operating today)

Okay, so I think this pic is from the 1980s but it has SAM THE CHINESE FOOD MAN!!!! Oh, and the Zanzibar

The late 1970s-early 1980s had a vibrant local punk scene spring up in Toronto, with bands playing at venues like Crash'N'Burn (now an office building) and The Horseshoe

At the 1978 punk rock show at the Horseshoe Tavern that came to be known as the Last Pogo, the crowd gathers under the marquee after being kicked out by police

The late 1970s-1980s had Queen West transformed by local students, including those of nearby OCAD, and the area developed an active music scene which was one of the dominant centres of Canadian music in its era

515 Queen Street West over the years

The Big Bop, before and after (not including current reno)

Which brings us to my Queen West, the Queen West of the 1990s, which looked something like this:

Looking back on the Queen West of the 1990s, I can see how it was shaped by the counter-culture of the time. In the early 90s, you could really see Grunge and Skateboarding culture. The mid-90s still kept the Skate culture, but you could also see the Indie Rock, new wave of Punk Rock and Rave cultures come through. All through the 1990s this was home to the Goths. All this in this one little stretch. It was home to indie shops carrying unique items, great little restaurants and a variety of venues for live music.

So what changed?

Well, as far as I can guess, the lack of any kind of counter-culture right now is why this once vibrant stretch has become a haven for corporations, and why there is no one area in Toronto that people are flocking to. The same neighborhoods that have been "in transition" or "up and coming" for years still carry the same status.

What was once counter-culture has devolved into various "scenes", which no longer have neighborhoods to call their home. The scenes have moved into venues scattered throughout the city, which are also disappearing one by one as "gentrification" continues and corporations take over. I mean, look at the Big Bop, what started in 1876 as a Masonic Lodge with ground level shops, it became the Holiday Tavern in 1948 and then the Big Bop in 1984. What was once a haven for music and counter-culture of all kinds, closed it's doors in early 2010, and as of January 2012, is a Crate & Barrel.



  1. It's amazing who got started in these neighbourhoods that no longer exist: Margaret Atwood, Gordon Lightfoort, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young... While Toronto is still a vibrant hotbed of new music (arguably one of the world's best according to the NYT), and certainly no stranger to political dissent, none of it is really a product of any counter-culture, and the city really doesn't have any neighbourhoods that stand out like the ones we've lost. I'm hoping a new one emerges somewhere; every city needs that crucible of expression.

    - Mr. S

  2. I have a question - what IS the difference between so-called counter-culture and cultural movement (like say, so-called Hipsters near Liberty Village)? Is it a matter of artistic expression being coupled with the stylistic cultural resistance?