Being away from West End Toronto for the bulk of Euro2012 made me terribly homesick. I’ve spent most of my adult life away, but that scrappy cement patch of autobody shops, faded warehouses and parkette drug deals will always be my most primary of homes. No one does international futebol championships quite how we do. The flags! The honking! The aggro traffic-stopping revelry! The drunken giddy shouting at strangers! My current home of Port-au-Prince appreciates a good match, and while I was warmed to hear the neighbourhood men yelp as though collectively wounded with every near-goal and near-save, this soccer crowd just didn’t cut it for me. I wanted excessive public rowdiness. I wanted to be home.
Maybe distance has made me nostalgic, but I now look through love-lidded eyes at my old immigrant-enclave hood. I smile at the Portuguese sports bars (and the Super Bock-tipsy aging construction bachelors), recall the corner store where I used to buy patties after school, and take delight in the dilapidated discount strip mall that has slowly emptied over the years. I used to scowl at the noisy gino-mobiles, the ugly flat-top buildings, the dull desolation. The drug dealers made me furious for taking over the playground (also my shortcut to the bus stop), coming and going in a constant cycle of street, arrest, jail, street. I often had the feeling that I lived in an abandoned space, one where people were resigned to carry on because they didn’t have the heart to give up completely. Tired faces, low wages, drop-out kids. Our area didn’t even have a name, like the Annex or Corso Italia, presumably because no one could be bothered to coin one.
“This neighbourhood is where dreams go to die,” I would tell my brother, and he would crack up. “Yeah,” he’d say, forcing a straight face, “I went to the Galleria a few days ago, and I’ve been depressed ever since.” The strip mall was the apex of this mini-empire of hopelessness. My classic illustration: every December the mall would set up Christmas decorations and a modest throne for Santa to sit in —- to take gift requests and snap photos with little mall rats, as is the great mall tradition — but Santa never came. In the 20+ years I lived in the area, the Galleria’s Christmas chair was always empty. I laughed when I got older. Why would he come here, anyway? Not like anyone on this block was getting presents.
The neighbourhood is changing, though. The Zellers discount department store in the mall is slated to shut down this month, skeevy off-track betting joint PM Toronto is already boarded up, and the rest of the Galleria is to be demolished and built-over with condos. On recent visits I’ve started to notice people jogging, bike locks have sprouted, and there are now creative-class espresso shops and hipster bars up the block from the working-class bakery/cafes and sports dives, competing for new residents’ attentions. I have mixed feelings about this. Not bad, just mixed.
On my last Toronto visit, I spent time at the first official hipster bar on the Geary strip, chatting up one of the owners about his choice of locale. I had never bothered to hang at the spot’s previous incarnation — a decidedly manly bar named Copas, where the rare client who pulled up on bicycle had probably just gotten a DUI. This new space was beautiful, filled with art and vintage speakers, the pants tighter and beards longer than on the previous regulars. The new owner said that most of his friends now lived in the area, refugees from the increasingly pricy Queen West scene they had helped make popular, and that they were hurting for a decent hang out spot. So, it made sense to open up, he said, here in the middle of nowhere.
Hey, I said. I grew up here. It’s not nowhere. People live here. Families live here.
Both his words and mine fell awkwardly, because here we were — him, opening a front-line gentrifying bar, and me, sipping a pint of Steamwhistle while contemplating gentrification. I read through articles and blogs about this bar, rejoicing its arrival in “the middle of nowhere,” heralding a Williamsburg-esque transformation that by some is seen as inevitable. What?
I felt alarmed. I was pleased to have spicy mojitos within walking distance, but worried that these new residents would dismiss the area… much the way I had, growing up. Guilty. Would they be the kind of migrants who flush in, dismiss the working-class community, and go about re-paving things their way? Would they see the beauty in the brokenness? Would they compliment their new surroundings? Would they shop at the Mexican bakery, the Portuguese fish market, the churrasqueiria? Would they scowl at the Dufferin bus stop like a local, or wait with mild-mannered patience?
It’s a strange thing to slip between classes and social groups. I thought I would be used to it by now, but having multiple worlds collide on my home turf has been weird, particularly because I don’t even live there anymore. So every visit will make me feel like more of a visitor. The rest of the city, the people who ride bicycles by choice, do yoga, and pay too much for watery coffee, is creeping up. I suppose am one of those people, minus the bad taste in coffee, but I sprouted from this space. The bargain stores will close. Warehouses become rehearsal spaces become lofts. More immigrants will leave, pulled to live with their children in the suburbs. I’ll fly back to see my parents, and before they sell their house and move on, I’ll get together with friends at a bar around the corner, where they play 45s and screen vintage cartoons, for cocktails and fish tacos to wax nostalgic about how my neighbourhood is gone.