the genocide of gentrification…
If you look (if you want to look), you can still find in downtown Toronto little pockets of what we now refer to as “the old neighborhoods”. Neighborhoods we once referred to as the “working class” districts.
(Do we still designate people of the working class? Or has academia come up with a cleaner phrase to describe that layer of our economy where people live one layer up from having to live in public housing? Or homelessness? That world of day-labouring ex-addicts, night janitors, roofers who drink too much, dishwashers.)
But it is getting harder and harder to find remnants of the old downtown Toronto.
Gentrification has nearly smothered everything now from the Bloor West Village to Leslieville (and increasingly beyond to the Beaches).
The downtown is now awash in hipster cafes, organic bakeries, antique shops, condominiums, more condominiums, and $20 servings of mac-and-cheese.
And no neighborhood can stop the gentrification onslaught. (But why would they want to? What with their increased property values, higher rent incomes, sense of self-importance.)
Even the last great bastions to alternative downtown cultural realities – Parkdale, Kensington Market, Chinatown – are all succumbing to the clean and shiny, the germ free, the lactose intolerant.
Overwhelmed by the hordes of anal retentives who have come to colonize “the cool neighborhoods”, looking for some sort of cultural vibrancy that has eluded them, wishing they were poor and artistic, or musical, full of that spark that they think they see on the streets of Kensington Market – yet retracting from it’s sense of anarchy as soon as they set up shop there, cleaning everything to the bone, coating their world in egg-white and beige.
The Market now has organic supermarkets so clean you can eat off the floor; gluten-free vegan bakeries run by freshly scrubbed young women with degrees in literature and art history; artisanal butchershops with hand-massaged meat cut for you by men in button down shirts and wearing pork-pie hats.
It doesn’t take long to see that those clean masses who come seeking a little dirty vibrancy soon tear down the old and replace with the new and ensconce themselves behind glass towers of sterility that grow like steel blades of grass everywhere now in the downtown.
For the sake of simplicity I now break downtown Toronto into two basic categories of people – the creators (a rapidly dwindling group, as they can no longer afford the rents), and the unconscious destroyers (germ-free obsessives who clean their toilets every three days and recoil from the few under-educated and visibly poor who still remain in the community).
Gentrifiers seem to be obsessed with cafes. Not Starbucks, or Second Cup, – all seriously passe – but independent hipster cafes. They have bloomed throughout the downtown like mushrooms after a summer rain. They are all the rage for people on the go.
High grade coffee at $5 a glass.
There is a new outstandingly earnest “hippie” café in the trendy Crawford and College neighborhood of young gentrification – the strip of College from Grace to Crawford having been transformed over the past year into an upscale version of the old Kensington Market (all but eradicating the old “Little Italy” mom-and-pop shops). Here it is all about east-Asian fabric and cushions, long hair, beards and beads, acoustic guitars and Tibetan pants. A fantasy cafe dedicated to Greenwich Village, circa 1964
There is the white walled minimalism of Manic Coffee at College and Bathurst. And the exposed brick warm hipster vibe at Darkhorse Café on Spadina (where too many young men gather who wear hats, snappy shoes, and preen a little too self-consciously over their neatly trimmed beards.)
It’s the sheer number of cafes that astounds me! I often see 4, 5, or 6 of them within a block of each other.
So much common space for so many lonely people absolutely frightened to talk to each other.
The community table at Darkhorse is packed the afternoon I am there – yet no one ever makes eye contact with the person right on their elbow. Longing, is suspect, for something, anything, yet frightened, too shy (in the way Canadians are), too polite to say anything at all.
(Darkhorse first made its mark by having a massive, beautiful community wooden table anchor its 1st store on Queen East. An incredibly novel idea by Toronto standards back in the day, the community table has now swept through Toronto indie coffee culture, and last year Starbucks started experimenting with the model as well.)
I’m not sure why gentrifiers are drawn to the old neighborhoods when they are so obsessed with the clean and the sterile.
When you ask them, they do identify that the old neighborhoods have a “vibe”, a sense of “life” that they are looking for for themselves.
They say they love the old neighborhood shops – the spice shops and the fish markets and fabric stores where everyone has faces worn by time and wind and cigarettes and various dysfunctions.
They identify as wanting to live in these neighborhoods full of flavor and culture and history.
Yet, they can’t help themselves, needing to first clean the place up, make the place more business friendly, get themselves noticed and reviewed in Now Magazine.
Gentrifiers are like vampires and zombies, roaming from neighborhood to neighborhood, fetishizing everything – coffee, chocolate, olive oil, bread, whisky, Tibetan sea salt – sucking the vibrancy to the marrow, making every neighborhood look like every other gentrified neighborhood – everyone in on the facade of originality, everyone hip to the latest social media trends, everyone looking for their next hit of cool.