Profiles of intersecting communities in Toronto’s east end
Reading Time: 8 minutes
By Nishi Kumar
The corner of Homewood Avenue and Maitland Street is a complicated one. Looking north towards Wellesley Street, a nearly 40-storey condominium looms over historic brick apartment buildings. South towards Carlton Street, the Allan Gardens Conservatory greenhouse shelters homeless people from the rain. In the mornings, condo owners drop by Red Rocket Coffee on their way to work while young students play tag outside of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School. At night, transgendered sex workers meet their clients along Maitland Street. The view from my bedroom window shows Toronto — old and new, wealthy and poor — all coinciding along one street.
In our city of neighbourhoods, people often define themselves by where they live, and for good reason. With unrelenting condo development, a single city block can double in property value practically overnight. With more immigrants than almost any other city in the world, you can hear several different languages just by crossing the street. The boundaries between Toronto’s neighbourhoods matter in our day to day lives.
After several years of living in Toronto, when I finally ventured east of Yonge Street, I landed at the intersection of three distinct Toronto neighbourhoods: Church-Wellesley Village, St. James Town, and Cabbagetown. These neighbourhoods share much more than geographical boundaries: historically, this corner of downtown has been home to Toronto’s poor and marginalized communities. From those similar beginnings, these three neighbourhoods have evolved in stark contrast to each other, reinventing themselves to adapt to Toronto’s ever-changing population.
In a city where green space can be hard to come by, Cabbagetown houses boast beautifully landscaped front gardens. The streets east of Parliament Street are lined with mature trees. It’s a quiet, family-oriented community, but it’s also only a quick ride on the Carlton streetcar to the bustling downtown core. Riverdale Farm and the Toronto Necropolis draw a steady stream of foot traffic to local, independently-owned businesses. The neighbourhood flag — featuring a bright green cabbage — flies above many homes along the streets.
Like so many Toronto neighbourhoods, Cabbagetown began as an ethnic enclave; the original residents of the area were Irish immigrants fleeing from famine in the mid-1800s. The city’s British majority coined the name as an offensive jab at the newcomers’ makeshift vegetable gardens. Cabbagetown was considered one of Toronto’s worst slums for decades — until savvy buyers noticed that the location and housing stock had serious real estate potential.
“This started back in the late ’70s, when there were a couple of real estate agents and investors that started to buy properties and started renovating them, and that basically gentrified the area and changed its landscape,” says Addy Saeed, real estate agent and Cabbagetown Residents’ Association board member.
Today, Cabbagetown is one of Toronto’s most sought-after neighbourhoods, with home prices to match: in 2012, the average price for a detached home was $1.3 million.
Since its rebirth about 40 years ago, the neighbourhood has made a concerted effort to build its reputation as Toronto’s architectural destination. Thanks to local activists, much of the area has been designated as a heritage conservation district by the province, making the neighborhood one of the largest areas of preserved Victorian homes in North America. The annual Cabbagetown Tour of Homes lets apartment-dwellers peek into the renovated interiors of these heritage mansions. The front doors and fences are adorned by plaques, telling the stories of the famous Canadians who once lived and worked in the neighbourhood.
Other than its quirky name, there aren’t many reminders of Cabbagetown’s former identity as an impoverished immigrant centre. Today, immigrants account for less than 30 per cent of the neighbourhood’s population — though still a significant figure, it is less than average for Toronto.
“Because of the prices being so high [in Cabbagetown], a lot of the immigrants are coming in and looking for cheaper shelters… they tend to be moving into apartment buildings,” explains Saeed.
High-density apartments and condo buildings have never been part of Cabbagetown’s landscape, and because of its heritage designation, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. “So that’s where St. James Town comes into greater importance,” Saeed adds.
Moving north on Parliament Street, the scene shifts dramatically. North of Wellesley Street, the sidewalks become emptier and the inviting restaurants and shops disappear. Instead, imposing concrete apartment buildings dominate the streetscape.
St. James Town was built on a dizzyingly large scale, a stark contrast to Cabbagetown’s charming low-rise storefronts. It feels surprisingly quiet, given that this single square block is officially home to 18,000 people — though local estimates suggest that the actual population is 25,000 — making it the most densely populated neighbourhood anywhere in Canada.
While Cabbagetown evokes images of the Victorian era, St. James Town is a relic of mid-century urban planning. Rather than revitalizing the existing buildings north of Wellesley, entire blocks of dilapidated Victorian homes were razed in the 1950s and ’60s to make way for modern “Towers in the Park” for Toronto’s middle class.
If St. James Town feels isolated from the rest of the city, it’s because it was designed that way — the principle at the time was to keep people, roads, and retail segregated from each other. Modern high-rise apartments, surrounded by expansive swaths of green space, were envisioned as a solution to the problems of over-crowding and pollution that plagued Toronto’s downtown.
It might be invisible to many of us, but within the collection of concrete towers is one of Canada’s most culturally diverse communities.
“There’s probably 60 to 70 different cultures,” says Chris Hallett of Community Matters Toronto, a grassroots organization that facilitates employment and education programs for St. James Town community members.
St. James Town is home to over 11,000 newcomers to Canada who are looking for an affordable place to begin their new lives. This commonality, along with the close living quarters, creates a unique sense of community cohesion in St. James Town.
“Because [constituents of St. James Town] share a common interest of trying to become established and trying to learn about Canadian culture and trying to learn about where they are… there’s participation in each other’s cultural festivals, there’s an attempt to learn different languages… But it’s all done as a group, it’s not done as individual cultures,” says Hallett.
The area is poised for new condo development soon, but it’s unclear how even greater density will affect the services and amenities in the community. St. James Town is a highly educated community, but the average income is less than half of the Toronto average.
Hallett says that most residents of the apartment towers are focused on their immediate financial needs, leaving little time for the type of civic engagement that has helped to mitigate the negative impacts of condo development for other communities.
However, that trend seems to be changing: from advocating for healthier garbage collection policies to organizing the St. James Town Festival, community members have recently been joining together to make improvements to their neighbourhood.
“Before we had a very unorganized group of small, poorly resourced agencies… that void was filled by the community itself,” says Hallett.
This newfound sense of ownership could help St. James Town adapt to the changes and challenges that lie ahead.
A little further west on Wellesley, rainbow flags fly on street signs and in shop windows. The business activity is more eclectic, from swanky cocktail lounges to fast-food chains to independently owned hardware stores.
The homes are a mixed bag too: there are a few of the high-rise apartment towers common to St. James Town, and a handful of heritage buildings more reminiscent of historic Cabbagetown. At night, there’s a steady stream of drunken party-goers on the street; by morning, couples with young children stop for brunch. Church-Wellesley is the picture of a neighbourhood in transition.
“The Village” has long been the epicenter of Toronto’s LGBTQQIP2SAA community. Its origins trace back to 1826, when the land was purchased by Alexander Wood, a British merchant and, some suspected, homosexual. The public began to refer to the area as “Molly Wood’s Bush” (“molly” being a derogatory term for homosexual at the time), and local lore suggests it has been a meeting place for gay men ever since.
A mural on the northwest corner of Church and Wellesley depicts a timeline of milestones from the community’s LGBTQ activism campaigns. The artwork is a sobering reminder of the political battles that have taken place in the neighbourhood.
From protests against bathhouse raids to AIDS activism to present-day Pride Week celebrations, the community leaders in the Village have been advocating on behalf of Toronto’s sexual minorities for decades.
As attitudes towards the LGBTQ community have shifted, the Village’s identity is less certain.
“Gay people don’t have to go to the one area of the city to feel safe anymore,” says Laurence Heath, a resident of the area and sales associate at Northbound Leather, a leather shop near the intersection of Yonge and Wellesley whose products include corsets, harnesses, and bodysuits.
“You could go almost anywhere, especially in Toronto anyways, and feel fine,” he adds.
The Village is no longer exclusively gay; same-sex couples are moving out while straight couples are moving in. Although this greater acceptance is undoubtedly a good thing, it does change the face of Church-Wellesley Village, particularly for business owners who have historically catered to LGBTQ clientele.
“You can’t just open up a business, put a rainbow flag out, and have all the gay men flocking to your store to patronize it. It just doesn’t work that way anymore,” explains Heath. Northbound Leather hosts a monthly fetish night and describes itself on its website as “a proud supporter the leather, fetish, BDSM, gay, transgender, and alternative communities.”
Alongside this cultural shift, gentrification of the area is evident. New condo developments are cropping up along Carlton Street and Wellesley Street, while major retailers buy out space along the commercial strip.
Heath explained that the independent businesses are struggling to keep up with the rising rents along Church Street. It’s a fate that Cabbagetown seems to have miraculously avoided.
“I see that little stretch of Parliament, from Wellesley down to Carlton, as being very similar to the way that Church Street used to be,” he says.
Like so much of Toronto, the northeast corner of downtown is a patchwork of disparate communities. These few square blocks have historically had an important role for those who were excluded from the rest of Toronto society, from early working-class Irish settlers, to LGBTQ activists, to new waves of immigrants to Canada.
The histories of these communities play an integral role in their identity, but, as time passes, the connections to their origins appear to be weakening. New infrastructure and demographics are moving in and replacing neighbourhood characteristics that once defined the areas’ identities and their place in Toronto’s patchwork of neighbourhoods.
The view from my bedroom window shows the overlapping layers of Toronto’s past and the uncertainty of its future. It’s an intersection that reflects our city’s haphazard history, the messy divisions that still remain, and the change that is undoubtedly to come.