Monday, May 22, 2006

Street Archeology: Ossington Avenue, Toronto

This is a departure from the usual fare of well, not much lately, but I hope you'll enjoy this stroll along one of Toronto's most interesting and evocative north/south streets – Ossington Avenue. I suppose you could call this a flâneur, as I do like to fancy myself an acute observer of street and social life. However, there was no one around Ossington today, due to it being a holiday (Victoria Day) here in Canada.

Moreover, instead of stealing from Beaudelaire and Benjamin, I'd prefer steal a concept from Foucault – well, I'm not even really stealing it from him either, I'm really just name dropping - and take you on a kind of archaeological dig through the history of Ossington as I imagine it to be. Our tools will be unequal parts empirical and conjectural, and best of all, there will be photos.

When you come at Ossington, heading south from Dundas Street, you find yourself in the centre of the Rua Açores, one of the Portuguese areas of the city.

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[An aside. Toronto self-identifies itself as a massive agglomeration of “villages”, represented by street signs letting you know what “village” you're in. Could it be that nice-looking street signs are a major reason why Toronto is, for the most part, a decent place to live? I wonder how all the people who live in these areas deal with the kind of village they're a part of. And if you think they don't, consider this – I'm rooting for Portugal in the World Cup this year.]

Here you have some of the elements of what makes an area “ethnic” - the local butcher and fishmonger sell dead things with their heads on them. The peixaria pictured above is a particularly interesting and affordable place to buy fish from. You won't find sushi-grade tuna there, but there are a kinds of fish there that I've never seen anywhere else in the city.

The papelaria in the photo is also a sign of another ethnic influence on Ossington – Vietnamese. Yes, the Papelaria Portugal is run by a Vietnamese family. And so here we find the two communities who make up what I'll call the “ethnic presence” on Ossington – Vietnamese and Portuguese. (yes, that is a strip club above the pool hall).

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The Portuguese presence appears to manifest itself through food and building materials. The Portuguese community is well known in Toronto for helping to supply manual and skilled labour in the building trades for the booming construction industry here, although a good number of Portuguese were recently deported back to Portugal by the Conservative government.

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So there are hardware stores, kitchen and bath stores, bakeries and fishmongers – one could do nearly all their renovating shopping on a single block of Ossington.

The Vietnamese presence is very different. Where the Portuguese community lacks restaurants, the Vietnamese community abounds. I believe there are six Vietnamese restaurants on Ossington Avenue between Queen Street and Dundas Street. Many of these restaurants also have Karaoke, as you can see from the picture below.

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Ossington wasn't always this way. If the information on this site is correct, Ossington's name, like many streets in Toronto, is an homage to a distant British nobleman. In this case, the 1st Viscount Ossington, John Evelyn Denison, whose family owned the area immediately west of Ossington.

Ossington is also home to those seeking refuge from the crowds and rents of Queen Street West. Also known as West Queen West, the area along Queen to the east and west of the foot of Ossington is arguably the hippest place in the city, with shops, art galleries and restaurants galore. One can see how West Queen West is beginning to bleed over onto Ossington, just as the Portuguese influence made its way south along Ossington from Dundas. In between these two influences is a kind of everyman's land, where old and new mix with the hip and ancient.

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Take for instance i deal coffee, at the midpoint between Queen and Dundas on Ossington, between Little Portugal and the Hipsters.

i deal's second location (the first is in Toronto's legendary Kensington Market), has all the shabby couches and stepping-into-someone's-basement-apartment-kitchen feel of the original on Nassau. As usual, the coffee's great, and the crowd lively. This is something that would have been unthinkable five years ago, when the cool part of Queen street petered out before Trinity-Bellwoods park, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (Ossington ends at its main entrance) still remained a kind of psychological barrier for people in the community, keeping house prices low and shop fronts boarded up. That a great coffee shop and roaster like i deal would open up on Ossington leads one to believe it won't be long before the Vietnamese karaoke bars are replaced with places like this one:

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It's called the Sparrow. Those heavy maroon blinds are always drawn, and when you can peer inthrough the door, you notice something rather unusual for much of Ossington - it's always busy. Always. I've never actually set foot in there, because I cannot imagine I have the icy coolness to survive in a place like this. And the menu speaks for itself:

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This is ahistorical, decontextualized dining at it's best. Not a Vietnamese or Portuguese dish in sight – you could be anywhere in the city with this menu. It's a slice of trendy Queen Street for the people who can't stand Queen Street anymore and felt the need to colonize somewhere new.

And you see, this is the future of Ossington. The people in the Art and Design district who cannot stand people like me, moderately well-off bourgeois dilettantes with a keen eye who simultaneously manage to drain everything authentic out of a community and replace it with Subways and Starbucks (because it's what we know), need somewhere to go too.

Like those ethnic communities along Ossington, these people are fleeing something, in this case the gentrification and homogenization of Queen Street, where every little mom and pop store has a brand manager, and making their way to Ossington for something authentic. And I'm not too worried they'll take over Ossington, and its cigar factory (can anyone say an outdoor staging of Carmen?),

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or its wine grape warehouse,

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and turn them into a Banana Republic and a Quizno's. I want to keep thinking Ossington will defy the very descriptions I am trying to impose upon it.

My little excavation reveals a number of layers, each of which has influenced the later ones. The remaining Victorian homes from the turn of the century, alongside industrial buildings. One then finds the artifacts of the people who lived and live around here, through the ethnic communities. Finally, like much of Toronto when it undergoes gentrification, a kind of well-designed, poorly lit group of shops and restaurants, each trying to help lighten your wallet.

To me though, the most interesting spot on Ossington is this vacant block:

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Why? Because despite all the business that has emerged in the past few years, it remains stubbornly empty. What should be the centre of Ossington's street life sits vacant. Right now this block is a bit of real space that contains a multitude of possibilities. It's been vacant for years now, but what can you imagine it to be? A bookstore? A architect's office? A Burger King?

I have neither the money nor the aptitude to reclaim this property from its empty misery. Someone will come along, and all I can hope is that whoever does reopen those doors appreciates the depth of history and multiple aspects to its character, and adds a new layer to an already complex urban space.