Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Skid Row to Hip in Toronto?

East Texas Red sent me an interesting article from the New York Times about the area of Toronto known as The Junction, called Skid Row to Hip in Toronto. It's interesting in that it is an outsider's simple view of a neighbourhood in transition. It's unfortunately poorly researched and tells little of the rich story of this area.

My grandfather owned and operated the Queen's City Leatherworks in the Junction, a storefront factory/retail/residence from the 1920s until the 1960s. They made gloves for the railwaymen, as the Junction was more than a jumble of tracks, it was a rail town, a workingman's town. My father grew up in what we called affectionately "the Glove Shop". They were a working class family living upstairs and behind the retail store, and above the basement workshop. They were all musicians on the side. My grandpa played violin, and made them too. My uncle Eugene carried on that tradition. My father played sax and clarinet. Uncle Billy played Cello and Uncle Harold was a piano prodigy who would later mingle with the artistic elite in Paris.

Later, by the time the railway business became ancient Canadian history, and the Junction became "Little Malta", my father opened Alumacraft, a small factory making aluminum windows and doors, located just across the street from the Queen's City Leatherworks. Through these decades, the Junction was the only area of the city that was dry. No pubs. No liquor stores. No restaurants serving wine or beer or booze.

I remember the window shop was heated by wood in the winter. My father got hardwood offcuts from a furniture company to heat the place. I liked to take the wood pieces out to the vacant lot next door and create imaginary wooden worlds. Later, I would hang with the Junction kids, the ones that played in the lane out back. We would find old spray paint cans that were still pressurized and take turns whipping rocks and pieces of cement at them. The kid who punctured the can and made it dance won.

A kid named Jerry let all the cows out of their pens at Canada Packers. The packers was located along St. Clair. Oh did it stink along there, one of the strongest smells from my youth. I have a vague memory, or maybe it's a dream and not a memory, of guys driving pickup trucks down Dundas and along Runnymede, herding the cattle. There was a reata-man, a modern-day vacarro, a buccarroo standing in the back of each truck, lasso in hand, trying to rope the stray cows. Could that be true? I don't think I could make that up.

When I was growing up, there was a stretch just west of Keele St. that was a shopping district in decline. I remember it was a place where brides to be shopped for their dresses. Some of the storefronts had marvelous window displays on each side of the entrance. By the time I rented a studio in the early 80s in an old convenience store warehouse in the Junction, the area had lost it's shine. Reading the article, you would think the area became something out of "The Wire", with corner boys and hookers everywhere. True it was a little rough around the edges, but it was not nearly as bad as the article made it sound.

The seeds of the positive change came with the change in the law making it legal to sell alcohol in the Junction. By this time, a number of artists had set up in the area, taking advantage of some temporarily cheap rents. Yes, the area started to gentrify. However, the following quote from the article made me laugh out loud:
Block by block, they are transforming this stretch of Dundas Street West from a grimy skid row into a bright enclave filled with quirky bookstores, vegan restaurants and organic cafes. The other adorable line from the article is "Non-vegans have options too."

The Junction is a fascinating area full of stories. One day I'll tell you some more of them. It never was quite what the Times says it was and I'm not so sure it will ever be what they say it is now. How interesting though, that the New York Times travel twigged to this curious neighbourhood.


Candy Minx said...

What a great post.

My first apartment in toronto was in the Junction and I used to take tons of photos of the area. There used to be a couple of great restaurants and you could take your own booze because they couldn't sell it. I thought it was so strange on one street corner you could get booze across the street...none.

The Nag said...

Our first house was on Annette between Fairview and Gilmour. Not so hip then. I must have been ahead of the curve.