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.


gawain said...

I did enjoy it, indeed. What a plesant thing this is, to go for a walk with a friend through his neighborhood, to listen to him as he points out various sites and tells stories about them. Great work, thans LT!

absurdity miner said...

Excellent post, JT!

I used to live just off Ossington, but several city blocks north from the area LT blogs about. That area, the Davenport-St. Clair West stretch, has its own character. It's not quite as urban; it features tree-lined front lawns and houses, with a few pockets of commercialization at the major intersections. The Portuguese influence is still strong in that stretch. The Vietnamese presence drops off, replaced by a bit of West Indian and Latin American culture.

siri said...

That last corner space is for rent for $8000 per month. Do you think they can rent if for that?

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Siri, thanks for stopping by!

Is that really what they're asking for it? Seems pretty steep to me!

At that rate, that space will remain a great possibilty and an actual failure.

I've wondered if the block couldn't be turned into another boutique hotel, although one very unlike the Drake and Gladstone.

katbyrd 41 said...

LT--A very enjoyable tour of Ossington. I'm a former Buffalonian who made many trips to Toronto to enjoy everything it has to offer. Interesting to see it from an insider's perspective. You have a nice turn of phrase: "...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." And: "At that rate, that space will remain a great possibilty and an actual failure."
Always a pleasure to encounter good writing. Thank you!

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Thank you! I want to do more of these, and I hope you'll drop by to check them out!

gonads said...

I live at Davenport and Ossington and love taking the #63 bus South to work at my trendy advertising agency at King and Spadina because for a while everything feels authentic. I guess it is me the Starbucks is serving : (

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder! And perhaps the Starbucks being there is a good sign. I don't know what that sign is, but it's still the lone corporate entity in the neighbourhood, besides the cigar factory, of course!

And it seems we were ahead of the trend - the local style website recently profiled the very strip of Ossington I spoke about, calling it the "most elitist of all Toronto - if you're into culture." They mention the Sparrow in similar terms too.

Anonymous said...

Great tour of that neighbourhood.
I used to spend a lot of time around Queen West/Ossington as my now ex lives there. I live further north and west at Davenport/Old Weston, also very Portuguese/Latin/West Indian.
I would actually like to see a little bit of the gentrification take place in the neighbourhood as Davenport west of Caledonia can be a little on the depressing and drab side.
Great pictures by the way.
Oh, and that shot of the empty corner building. Reminds me of the building called Heydon House at the corner of St. Clair West and Old Weston. Right now it's got an ugly convenience store in it.
Not sure what the upper floors are used for but it's an interesting looking piece of architecture.
Maybe the next Drake or Gladstone(20 years from now!).
Enjoyed the neighbourhood stroll!

Anonymous said...

Fellow Anonymous is quite right about the Heydon House... I actually took a bike ride through the depressing areas of north west Toronto today and found it to be the find of the day sight wise.
Also catching my interest of late is the gems that you will uncover if you only travel on laneways. Some of the most interesting structures (home or otherwise) and people I imagine that inhabit them show up quite often.

Give it a try... if you into that kind of thing.

Anonymous said...

Hi just happened across this page. I liked it! Funny how, in just 1.5 yrs, the vacant space i believe is now a hip new bar (Leveck Block) and the Lang Van II karaoke bar is now Baby Huey, another bar. The Sparrow has also closed (and I believe reopening as another bar). In any case, your identification of that vacant space as the "most interesting spot" on ossington is downright prophetic, as leveck block may just be the bar that puts ossington over the top in terms of 'hipness'. whetehr that's a good or bad thing is another story.

andrew said...

All the anonymous comments- thank you, and yes, I will be stroll down there again with a kind of update, although with all the snow we've had here in Toronto, it could be a while!

Pape Blong said...

This is hilarious. Greetings, Burgershoppe Quality Meats -- your logo beautifies the neighborhood!

Teena in Toronto said...

You'll have to take another tour to see how much it's changed in the last couple of years ... thanks for the memories :)