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Queen Street East gentrification…

June 11, 2011

I live in an old downtown east-Toronto community where beauty, and a certain sense of chaos, has now been mostly replaced by those who herald the arrival of the clean, and the orderly. Our decrepit Queen East strip of low-income working class families, Chinese groceries, merry drunks, homeless shelters, cheap restaurants, and our overall generally very-low repute, have all come down with a terminal case of gentrification.

The first wave of the new millennium-fashionable-set started moving on to my backstreet and began scooping up all the old cheap brick houses just after the turn of the century. They then gutted and renovated the (then) $100,000 homes and turned them into hipster fabulousness, and then flipped them for a two hundred percent profit.

Our late eighteenth century Belfast-inspired rowhouses were then cleaned up even more, and flipped again, and now they run you anywhere from $500-to-$750,000.

The new hipsters then quickly made it apparent that they hated our low-end restaurants, our bad coffee choices, and our lack of fresh gluten-free bagels and organic chevre cheese options. So they seduced the Queen Street landlords with promises of riches to come and soon enough retirement signs and “going-out-of-business” signs began to flower all along the strip as old Greek mom-and-pop shops, barber shops, and working-class businesses could no longer afford the rents.  

Now we have two kilometers of espresso bar cafes; dozens of wonderful prix-fixe restaurants; Belgium chocolate eateries, charcuteries; art galleries; and almost two dozen antique shops.

The community has been re-christened “The Riverside District” and sells itself as an award-winning bohemian village full of $18 martinis and $50 saltimbocca chicken dinners. Now we have free-range hand-fed organic $19 hamburgers, $9 loaves of French sourdough bread, and $75 a pound cheese shops. And to cap it off we have an indoor swimming pool for dogs, and access to a canine spa and pooch summer camp facility north of the city (your dogs will actually be picked up in an old school bus).

The hipster gentrifiers are all young-ish (25-35), and they reproduce almost as soon as they move in. And soon after that they bring in their brown-skinned nannies to power-stroller their gifted children to the newly redesigned parks and walk their fifteen hundred-dollar dogs.

                                                                                                           II

The first thing you notice about the new hipsters is that they are incredibly busy (and thus very important) people. They are perpetually running to-do lists through their heads as they scurry to get a latte before spin class, or their boot-camp yoga workout, or their appointment with their life mentor or “complexity management” coach. (Yes, complexity management coaches.)

There never seems to be enough time for all the things they want to do. They always seem to be living their lives half-way to tomorrow. 

Their main fetishes appear to be interior design, over-stylized gardens, food porn, the latest fashion trend, further gentrification (“revitalization” as they call it), and the stock market. They have no time to sit on their front porches, but will spend an hour or two standing in line on Saturday morning to eat breakfast at one of the recently ordained “hip” bistros. They have also petitioned to get “Jillies” (local strip club; and one of the oldest in the city) kicked out of the neighbourhood in favour of a “boutique” hotel.  

They know they are only living here for a year or two before they sell up and move on so they have no interest in planting roots in the community and thus they rarely make eye contact with you or ever even say hello. They are big into play dates, yard sales, and the LCBO catalogue. Their children are all assumed to be gifted and are enrolled in piano, art classes, or kung fu lessons.

They feel that we somehow lost our way with our sixties social liberalisms and although feel that everyone has a right to their own sexual orientation, the right to work, and not be discriminated against they otherwise prefer a return to 1950’s social conservatisms. Crisp clean clothes, immaculate houses, freshly washed cars.

They all work sixty hour weeks and believe that they are somehow recession proof and that the Toronto property bubble does not exist. (It does not exist. It does not exist…)  They like to pretend they are highly individualistic and not in any way suburban, but this only comes from the delusional fact that all the women like to wear expensive yoga clothes, and the men have wireless internet connections attached to their ears.

Their homes and restaurants and clothes are all over-stylized shades of beige and egg whites. Their backyards are masterpieces worthy of Better Homes and Gardens. They water their sidewalks as if they didn’t know water had better things to do.

Now “Riverside” is a long line of BMW’s, fabulously fashionable people, and pudgy middle-aged men who on Saturday mornings love to get themselves up in ridiculous cycling gear, and with their riding friends move like a flock of spandexed sparrows to the Beaches and back.

They are as homogenous in their individuality as any cul-de-sac in Brampton.

                                                                                                            III

One of my new neighbours, a perky young blonde mother whose hair is always in a pony tale, introduced herself at my door one evening with a “Hi, I’m your new neighbour smile”, and then asked me to sign a petition they were taking to the City demanding the removal of the homeless shelter from our neighbourhood.

When I refused she seemed quite perturbed at my stupidity. “But it will be good for our property values!” she declared. I told her I already liked my property value. “But it will be worth even more!” she said to me. I told her it wasn’t just about property values to me. I told her the shelter had been here long before any of us ever were. She walked away somewhat confused and vaguely irritated and has not made eye contact with me since. (The homeless shelter has gone. I have since heard others say that it is time “someone” cleaned-up East Chinatown.)

On the surface gentrifiers say they are urbane, hip, individualistic, and progressive, and that they accept all social manifestations – be it same-sex marriage, multi-race relationships, universal human rights, multiculturalism – but if you think or act any differently than their officially accepted zeitgeist, if you decide not to participate in their uber-consumer lifestyle, if you have no interest in cendre-des-pres salads, Lululemon, or locally-grown organic free-range cheese, they will shun you as if you were a Black man in 1950’s Alabama.

                                                                                           IV

From Regent Park to Pape Street, condo developments are now springing up throughout the neighbourhood like mushrooms after a sweet summer rain. And as with all things hipster and contemporary in Toronto, the new condos follow a strict rectangular conformity, with tinted glass, and exterior colours as varied as grey or beige. For the hipster set, ugly is the new beautiful.

“The condo market is quite spectacular at the moment”, I was told recently while sitting in our local espresso bar. “The market has never been so spectacular”, chirped in his friend.

“Spectacular” I quipped to me girlfriend.

I doubt that any of them ever knew what this neighbourhood once was. I doubt that any of them care what happened to the working-class people who once lived here and were forced out when they moved in. There is no history in a gentrified community. There is only ever the wonderfulness of a life well lived, the anticipation of a spectacular tomorrow, and a platinum credit card in the back pocket.

Yes, it’s all done on credit. The house. The car. The clothes. The butternut squash crème brule. The vacation. It’s all a deck of maxed credit cards. (Even some of the kids have been purchased on fertility clinic lay-away plans.)

Credit is the great secret to the illusion of gentrified riches. Canadians are now operating at record levels of debt and everyone is jonesing for their next consumption fix.

Where will it all end is beyond me. I know that bubbles burst, or move on. The condo bubble will most definitely burst.

Other, “new” neighbourhoods will be the “next hot thing”.

In fact, I hear that all the action is now at Dundas and Ossington.

Check it out, before it’s too late.

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