In Sanitizing Toronto of its Grit, Are We Washing Away its Character?

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In Sanitizing Toronto of its Grit, Are We Washing Away its Character?

"The relentless gentrification of Toronto is a major concern."

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Jilly’s strip club is now the Broadview Hotel. Photo via Toronto Realty Blog.

Some of Toronto’s most nostalgic and beloved venues have also been the grittiest, and they are disappearing. But in sanitizing the city, we may be washing away its colourful history and the people who created it.

The storied walls of the Harvey’s on the southeast corner of Jarvis and Gerrard streets is a well-known landmark for residents throughout the GTA, known by its nickname, a dehumanizing slur for sex worker. When rumours swirled early this year that “Hooker Harvey’s” could become a thing of the past thanks to a mixed-use development proposal, many Torontonians weren’t having it. Its grittiness is part of Toronto’s fibre, they collectively tweeted.

Of course, “Hooker Harvey’s” survived—for now.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for Honest Ed’s, the Brunswick House, or Jilly’s strip club—all of which once offered a similar sense of distinctly-Toronto, tacky nostalgia. They’ve closed in favour of a sleek housing development, a Rexall Drugstore, and a trendy boutique hotel, respectively.

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Magical corners of the city that are quickly disappearing as condos gobble up more and more downtown landmarks. Photo by Matt via Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Jilly’s—which closed in 2015 after a 34-year run—is just one of the dozens of strip clubs to disappear in recent years. There were 63 strip clubs in Toronto a decade ago; now there are only 14. Sex stores like the ones that used to line Yonge Street have met a similar fate. The Metro Theatre—Toronto’s last porn theatre—closed its doors in 2013 to make way for a climbing gym.

Many point fingers at gentrification. “Working-class entertainment is often the first thing to go when neighbourhoods get homogenized for wealthier residents with suburban aesthetics,” says Sarah Schulman, author of The Gentrification of the Mindabout the impact of gentrification on lower Manhattan in the wake of the AIDS crisis, when newly emptied out rent-controlled apartments flipped to market rent, as queer communities and artists were replaced by rich, white gentrifiers.

In Toronto, “There is definitely an element of NIMBYism when it comes to the shuttering of sex clubs and strip clubs; folks don’t want a strip club in their backyard, and the more affluent the population, the more NIMBYism we see,” says Jack Lamon, owner of Come As You Are Co-op. “However, the underlying factor is largely economic; it is more profitable to convert a building into condos than selling overpriced drinks at a strip club is.” He acknowledges that the availability of porn at our fingertips has contributed to a lowered demand, yet a friend, who is a strip club regular, assures me that Toronto’s sexier spots aren’t hurting for business.

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Yonge Street was once known for sex shops and music stores. Both are now mostly gone. Photo by HïMY SYeD via 30masjids.

Lamon says it’s virtually impossible to get things like the commercial insurance and payment processors for credit cards needed to open adult stores and clubs. “Fundamentally, banks, businesses, and government perceive adult-oriented businesses as much higher-risk and they intentionally make it extraordinarily difficult and expensive to run an adult business of any sort,” says Lamon. “As such, historically, adult industries were largely funded and run by organized crime; that isn’t as true anymore, but when you consider that running an adult business is already more expensive than other comparable businesses, once you throw in increasing rent and smaller audiences, anyone interested in profit will turn elsewhere.”

So, the days of strip clubs are numbered, says seasoned urban affairs columnist Christopher Hume, who isn’t terribly concerned with their demise. “They are from a different era,” says Hume. “I have a friend who dragged me to Jilly’s one time and it was horribly depressing. I do think that the relentless gentrification of Toronto is a major concern, but there are projects that make me happy, and the transformation of that building is one of them. I live just up the road and I’ve been going past that twice a day for 35 years, so I am very familiar with the place. I did a video on the building a few years ago, and the day I did it, they found a woman dead in there. I don’t think that the loss of a strip club in a building that would be left to deteriorate is not something I am going to feel sorry about.”

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The Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume in his classic video from inside Jilly’s in 2011.

That’s not to say that Hume doesn’t recognize the value in the grit. “I would worry more about Kensington Market when it comes to gentrification because of the appeal of it is grittiness, where I never thought Queen and Broadview had any appeal at all,” says Hume. “I would hate to lose Kensington, but we probably will.”

While the threat of losing Kensington’s hippy haven is a tough one to swallow, the reality is that as Toronto becomes an increasingly important player on the global stage, we’re scrubbing the city clean of its grit and grime, one condo development at a time. But in doing so, are we also erasing away its history and vibrancy? It’s important to question the cost at which we’re making things cleaner, sleeker and “safer.”

At a time when soaring real estate prices mean we’re increasingly raising children in condos in the city’s core, the sanitization of the city is undoubtedly a positive thing for a large portion of Torontonians who don’t want sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to be part of the walk home from school.

But a little grit is what gives the city character and gives urbanites that distinct edginess. If it continues to disappear, I fear we’ll only move toward a bubble by the way of the ever changing, small business-disappearing (and increasingly boring) Yonge and Eglinton. The revitalization of the so-called seedy isn’t just a threat to local residents and business owners as the gentrification of the surrounding streets causes their rents to climb, but to everyday Toronto citizens.

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Sadly, it seems Kensington Market’s days are numbered. Photo via Expedia.

Sure, the city’s young professional set will clean up well and talk shop in a trendy new boutique hotel, but we also embrace and support the city’s grit and grime in all of its glory in the comfort of our dirty Converse Chucks. We’ll sing karaoke in a dive bar; we’ll opt for a tired mom-and-pop bowling spot over the pricey, all-strings-attached Ballroom Bowl; we’ll support an indie band at a hole-in-the-wall venue with a beer in hand.

The problem is, we have fewer options to do so, as older indie venues also seem to be closing their doors on the regular in Toronto. Most recently, Paul McCaughey, owner of the Matador Ballroom, said that he is ready to sell the historic venue after a failed round of negotiations with the City.

Urban affairs columnist and author Shawn Micallef says that there are a few competing factors at play when it comes to assessing the appeal of the grit. “One is certainly nostalgia for that ‘gritty’ city that is easily romanticized as more exciting, unexpected, or even dangerous than it is now,” says Micallef. “Certainly we see that with Yonge Street. I feel it, too. But I wonder if given a choice, what would most people would choose? People like ‘nice’ things and you could argue that people, whatever their social or economic position, deserve a ‘nice’ city too.” He says that nostalgia obscures the fact that people would choose nice over gritty, given the chance and the means. “The trick is how to provide space for the independent retailers and those who cater to people with less money: both those kinds of operations can’t handle the dramatic rent increases that come when a street becomes trendy or hot,” says Micallef.

Of course, what we’re seeing in Toronto is nothing new; it’s the common case in cities across North America. While gentrification and redevelopment may be inevitable—regardless of a potentially negative effect on the surrounding community—it’s important to consider how much of a landmark’s rich history to keep alive. It can come down to what is deemed “deserving” of being preserved and whether the decision makers see the virtue in vices and their historic impact on shaping the city’s identity.

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The ongoing gentrification of Yonge Street. Photo by wyliepoon via Torontoist’s Flickr Pool.

Last July, Filmore’s—the landmark Garden District hotel and strip club—was designated as a heritage property by the City of Toronto. A recent Globe and Mail article highlights the perpetual struggle faced by the three-storey brick building between those who would preserve it and those who would rather transform it and do away with it all together. Currently, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) has a mandate to transition the ward while preserving its history and has been vocal in her desire to keep the original building regardless.

The team responsible for the two-year revitalization project of The Broadview Hotel (once Jilly’s) has placed a strong emphasis on preserving the rich history of the building, and has been recognized with the prestigious Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conservation. They’ve kept the original façade and the historic arched windows and incorporated many original features (including the former fire escape) into the design elements. “The fact that the building has been cleaned shows me that people respect heritage and are willing to put their money where their mouth is and to actually do something about it other than tear it down or build a 20-storey glass condo on top of it,” says Hume. “That kind of love for the city is rare. It should be celebrated wherever it occurs.” The trendy hotel will likely draw the cocktail sipping set to the neighbourhood, who will hopefully support other local businesses.

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The window to the beloved burger restaurant, Dangerous Dan’s, which is expected to close this month. Photo by Ian Muttoo via Torontoist’s Flickr Pool.

The neighbourhood’s gentrification, however, has also resulted in the purchase of establishments, like The Real Jerk, by developers and rent increases that have pushed some businesses to close their doors—like the infamous Dangerous Dan’s, which was slapped with an 80-per-cent rent increase and will be closing down this month after 18 years.

For some, architectural façadism and the preservation of original neon signs just doesn’t soften the blow of the gentrification’s grip.

“Things like commercial rent control is necessary, as are limitations on chain stores and fines on businesses with more than three outlets. People should also be fined heavily for buying to flip, rather than buying to live—it destroys communities and shatters cultural clusters,” says Schulman.

In the meantime, Hume assures me that—thanks to the rooming houses, half-way houses, and the ample social housing—there is still plenty of grit in the Queen and Broadway neighbourhood and that it won’t disappear anytime soon.

Whether or not these residents will be able to afford any of the new establishments, however, is another story.

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