Parkdale’s Community Essence

Why Toronto’s worldwide appeal is getting in the way of Parkdale’s community essence
– Written by Daniel Melfi

It’s 9:00 a. m. on Thursday morning. I lace up my shoes, finish my smoke and take one last look at a brilliant morning hanging in the West-Toronto sky. I can’t stop thinking about how much more I enjoy living here than on Church Street.

It’s refreshing to exit your home and be surrounded by low-rise buildings or a two-story house. The sky seems bigger and the days feel brighter. Seeing parks instead of concrete courtyards adds a sense of liberty, not confinement.

I’m leaving my apartment; it sits on the border of Parkdale and West Queen West. The building is eight stories tall and it’s the slightly smaller brother of two-building complex. It’s new and probably pisses off someone that it even exists here.

But just to my right, the trail of glass windows ends and those nostalgic of Toronto’s pre-condo era can find solace in Parkdale.

The village of Parkdale begins immediately west of Dufferin Street and the change is immediately noticeable. Buildings are older, streets are wider and the trees taller.

Juxtaposed against the few high-rise rentals that have dominated the western cityscape for decades, you find the ancient Victorians, which have been nestled amongst the willows for over a century.

In Parkdale, people go out in public, they return to local stores and support local business.

As I start running, I pass innumerable people on Queen Street, it’s hot outside and this street is not fit for a jog. There are too many people.

The trend continues until I hit Cowan Street, just past the Parkdale Public Library, where the city councillor holds his local meetings. I see my friend and co-creator on this site, Andy Capp.

“I hope you are enjoying the neighbourhood,” I say to him as I sprint by, careful not to drop my pace. He smiles and takes another drag on his cigarette while he waits for the streetcar, presumably on his way to work.

That’s the thing about Parkdale, you encounter people but it’s not a novelty. It’s normal. It’s expected. If you hang around this area of the city long enough, people will start to recognize you and they won’t forget who you are.

As one of Toronto’s only real neighbourhoods, Parkdale’s struggle is not to evolve, but rather to maintain its character in the face of a society begging for globalization.

Initially, the region was populated by the large homes of the upper-middle class. According to Parkdale Community Legal Services, the neighbourhood was a playground for the elites of Toronto, from the 1800s until the early 20th century. It even existed as an autonomous village for over a decade until its incorporation into the City of Toronto in 1889.

The neighbourhood was drastically altered by the construction of the Gardiner Expressway and Lake Shore Boulevard in the early 1950s.

According to Parkdale historian Tom Slater, the construction cut off the community from the lake and other popular recreation at the Sunnyside Amusement Park. The resulting exodus of wealth would serve to define Parkdale for the next half century.

The wealthy Torontonians left Parkdale, presumably for the suburbs, leaving many unoccupied estates, capable of housing far more than initially intended.

Large homes along Jameson Avenue were gutted. Slowly, in the 1970s, developers began to purchase one home at a time and hand them off to individuals to run as rooming houses. The homes were then divided into many smaller dwellings, sharing common elements. They attracted transient renters — that paid weekly — and were often considered a detriment to the value of a neighbourhood.

After the deinstitutionalization of the Lake Shore Psychiatric Hospital in 1979, many patients were released into society with little access to the few government funded support networks available. As a result, many ended living in poverty in rooming houses.

Rooming houses divided single-family homes into several smaller units — which attracted single workers, students, alcoholics, and other former psychiatric patients — and according to Ontario Tenants the trend drove away the few families that remained along the former upper class blocks.

With only undesirable rooming houses remaining, developers faced little resistance towards the idea of knocking them down. They were then replaced with the high-rise rentals that have since characterized South Parkdale’s north-south arteries.

These apartments have played host to many of Toronto’s low-income individuals and families since their construction in the 1970s. The majority of residents hail from India, Nepal, the Philippines and Tibet.

But the neighbourhood is much more diverse than that. Phil Anderson, director of 1313 Gallery on Queen Street West, says at Parkdale Collegiate — the local high school — there are over 32 languages spoken.

The neighbourhood is a magnet for culture. “Originally, it was because it had cheap housing,” says Anderson. But that housing stock is disappearing. “Older homes that might have held a few flats are being bought up by someone who has the money to invest in a large property.”

According to Canadian Census data, almost one-third of Parkdale residents make less than $20,000 per annum. That’s almost double the 16 per cent rate for the rest of the city.

Almost half of the residents in Parkdale spend over 30 per cent of their income on shelter. This precarious state of existence is particularly rooted in the province’s unbalanced tenant laws.

“Our landlord tenant legislation from the province of Ontario is very lopsided in favour of the landlord,” says Parkdale city councillor Gord Perks. “There is a tremendous amount of anxiety and insecurity from people who are long-time residents of Parkdale,” he says.

Fearing that they will lose their homes and in turn, their security, Parkdale’s residents are turning to community activism to confront the issue of rent control and affordable living space.

The Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (PNLT) is an attempt by the citizens of Parkdale to acquire property — often by donation or negotiation — in order to distribute it fairly amongst the community.

Aside from community activism, councillor Perks is aware that there isn’t much citizens can do in defence against big developers, with financial interests at heart.

Real estate purchasing companies like Akelius have been cited in numerous media outlets for trying to manipulate tenants to move out, so that rent prices can be raised upon relisting.

“The strength in our future comes from our ability for people to have more power about shaping their lives than they currently do,” says Perks. Parkdale residents will be eager to know just how to wield that power against their disinterested landlords and increasing rent.

Long-time tenants with little means for a lengthy legal battle have struggled since developing giants like Akelius have purchased properties in the area.

Part of Parkdale’s definition lies in its diverse demographic anatomy, both culturally and socially. When companies like Akelius try to increase the average wealth of the demographic, part of Parkdale’s will be highlighted, while others marginalized.

It will leave the neighbourhood with a feeling of lonely vacancy — it only takes a look west to the soulless commerciality of Queen Street and Ossington Avenue to foresee the outcome.

That is a future that some landlords in Parkdale are trying to avoid. Sarah Dougall, owner of the Made You Look jewellery studio on Queen Street West, is a Parkdale landlord that also serves on the Village of Parkdale Business Improvement Area (BIA) board.

The neighbourhood has changed drastically since she first moved in. “It used to be that from Dufferin Street to Brock Street there were only three businesses: the Cadillac Lounge, The Rhino and the Rustic Cosmo,” says Dougall. “Other than that everything that you see today is all new, so the energy on the strip has changed incredibly.”

Perks shares the idea of an inclusive neighbourhood, but says it’s a complex issue to address. “We want to have a neighbourhood [where] any income level or background can afford to live,” he says.

That’s been challenging enough for the municipal government; to also afford them adequate social opportunities will prove even more complicated.

“I’ve been a very big supporter of protecting what’s great about Parkdale and building on it, says Perks. “It’s not an automatic win, it’s something that you have to struggle [with] every day.”

Gentrification is creeping up on Parkdale. Condos survey Queen and Dufferin from all angles and act as a vertical watchdog over the few remaining Victorian quarters in Toronto.

Businesses have capitalized on the growing population along Queen Street, turning the formerly decrepit west-end into a fashionable hub for young twenty-somethings.

But when Dougall moved in, the neighbourhood windows were largely boarded up and shops were closed. “It went from a neighbourhood with no definition to a neighbourhood that is starting to be defined by its uniqueness,” she tells Third Atlantic.

Anderson witnessed a similar change since he moved to Parkdale. After taking a Toronto Star reporter for a tour around the then-new 1313 Gallery in 1997, real estate agents started phoning Anderson, thanking him for the positive publicity. “I was thinking afterwards, was that such a good thing to do or not?”

Anderson’s involvement in the Parkdale arts scene began a few years before, when the Parkdale Village BIA put out an open call for artists in 1994. Anderson was one of the original dozen or so that turned up. Eventually they formed the Parkdale Village Arts Collective (PVAC).

Since then, the non-profit gallery has hosted about 70 shows a year.

“My goal was always to have a gallery where people felt welcome to come in,” Anderson tells Third Atlantic. “It’s a place where people can come and check out work from different artists and we try and make it as accessible as possible.”

Anderson has been the director of 1313 Queen St. West since 1997. While he wasn’t present during the building’s tenure as a police department from 1931-1963, he has since seen the building transform from empty, to artist hub.

The building houses artist studios, city office space, four galleries and the local BIA office. Although 1313 Queen St. W. is an example of community land surviving, it’s not without the help of ArtScape, the not-for-profit, art-driven, urban development firm.

Parkdale’s nightlife and art scenes have both seen an expansion on the Queen West strip, although the city only deemed one positive. Since 2013, a zoning bylaw has regulated the number of liquor licence-eligible establishments between Dufferin Street and Roncesvalles Avenue.

The neighbourhood’s liveliness is steadily growing, albeit slowly.

The bylaw proves a mirror to the larger issue of identity maintenance in Parkdale. Years after Vogue Magazine labeled Queen Street West as one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world, costs of living have slowly begun to tighten the grip around Parkdale’s struggling residents. Displacement is rising with each new condo construction site, but there are fewer housing solutions to turn to.

By limiting the number of new establishments, Perks and his team are trying to retain some control over a neighbourhood appealing to foreign interests, with no interest in maintaining the community which thrived there as its foundation.

Perks’ struggle to maintain balance in the neighbourhood parallels the fight of Parkdalians against higher rents, says Dougall. Amidst higher demand, many landlords have the opportunity to increase rent.

But that poses a risk of diluting the community, she says. “By landlords being so money-hungry, they run the risk of having only people who can afford that income bracket living in Parkdale,” she says.

While Dougall understands temptation for landlords to charge more, she has opted to side with her tenants and charge less. “[I’m] deciding to ignore what market value looks like and preserve the integrity of the neighbourhood,” she says.

“Whether a poet, musician or a painter, these are the people that add so much culture to a city’s flavour and if these people have no where to live, I don’t want to live in that city.”