Here comes the neighbourhood
Sherbourne and Wellesley will soon be home to a slew of high-end condos, but it’s already home to hookers, shootings, and No Frills. What happens when these worlds collide?
By Kimberly Spice – Fab Magazine
They are everywhere on Wellesley, Sherbourne, and Jarvis Streets: large sheets of poster-covered plywood caging in block-sized pockets of flattened earth. The pungent smell of grime is ubiquitous. Machinery pokes up ominously where the Wellesley Central Hospital once stood, a wasteland that soon will contain a new park and manicured lawns as part of a new condo development.
Butting up against Toronto’s gaybourhood, the Wellesley-Sherbourne area is not unique. Huge blocks are being demolished in the downtown core to make way for phallic condominiums. There’s Aspen Ridge Homes’ Vu two towers at Jarvis and Adelaide; Context Development’s Radio City, which took over the old CBC building on Jarvis and Carlton; and Great Gulf Homes’ “X the Condominium” tower at Jarvis and Charles.
But there is something different about the projects at Sherbourne and Wellesley. With voguish names like Verve, The Steam Plant Lofts, The Star of Downtown and 500 on Sherbourne, they are not only within a mile’s radius of each other, in some cases they’re right across the street from St. James Town â€“ a name that doesn’t conjure up stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.
David Dunkelman writes in his book, Your Guide to Toronto Neighbourhoods, that St. James Town was originally built to house “upwardly mobile singles and professionals.” But today the area is known for its multitude of low-income immigrant families from dozens of countries living in a block that is riddled with violence and drug trafficking. Between fifteen and eighteen thousand people call it home, making it Canada’s most densely populated neighbourhood.
“There are still problems within the community and watershed moments of violence,” says Staff Sergeant Frank Bergen of Toronto Police 51 Division. “In the spring there was a daytime shooting on Bleecker Street and obviously these [types of incidents] are of major concern for the community.”
Although extreme violence has occurred in the area, some see it as merely “isolated incidents,” and some of the condo developments in the area are sold out, while others are 70% sold. Floor-to-ceiling windows, marble accents, laminated flooring and Euro-style kitchens are standard features in some developments. Prices ranging from $149,000 to over $600,000 are drawing the singles and professionals that St. James Town’s 18 high-rise buildings were originally designed for.
What happens when these two worlds collide?
Directly across Wellesley Street from Tridel’s Verve construction site at Wellesley and Sherbourne, Homewood Avenue stares back. Homewood residents are seeing the beginnings of the area’s changes as machines hammer cores into the ground for the condo‘s foundation. Some residents on Homewood are hoping for great things from the development. For years, prostitution, drug trafficking and vehicle traffic, including loud music and eggs being thrown from passing cars, have been on the increase. The problem peaked last year with a shooting on the street that killed two, with a stray bullet entering the window of a nearby home. Since then the community has become more proactive, holding regular meetings with concerned citizens and police and government officials.
Speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals, one long-time resident says, “I’ll be walking home and watch while prostitutes lining the street lift their skirts way over their heads when a car drives by.” He lifts his own imaginary skirt and rolls his eyes in disgust. “And it doesn’t stop in the winter. I walked down the street this past winter and a prostitute wearing a fur coat walked right up to me, flashed me and asked if I was interested. They are totally naked under there!”
The breaking point is near for many residents. “I’m going to move if it doesn’t change soon,” another community member says sadly. “I’ve lived on the street for a long time but I don’t want to live this way.” Adds another man, “If Tridel can come in and clean up our neighbourhood, I’m all for it.”
Even if residents in the new large developments decide not to take an interest in solving the area’s problems, there will be an increase in the police presence in the area. The presence has already been felt. “We’ve been very fortunate,” presence has already been felt. “We’ve been very fortunate,” says staff sergeant Frank Bergen, whose unit of 17 officers was recently increased to 35, and will soon increase to 40. “The Wellesley-Sherbourne area will have a sergeant and six officers dedicated to that neighbourhood.”
But will the condo owners simply generate more complaints, and demand different standards, for these new officers?
“There is part of the community that appreciates [that prostitution is] a historical component of the neighbourhood, but that same community would also suggest that an increase in crystal meth, crack or violence is not acceptable,” says Bergen. “With development, certain standards are no longer accepted in that community.” This means that police often become the front line in effecting change. “Everybody wants to live where it’s happening, but at the same time they want what’s happening to change because they live there now.”
For 39-year-old Clafton Fiola, one of the original buyers in the Tridel Verve condominium, the negative aspects of the area are a moot point. “Up-and-coming” neighbourhoods have long been attractive to trendsetters looking to take advantage of lower prices. He purchased an 800-square-foot two-bedroom loft. “It will be a unique area. It’s been stable for about 30 years. [It's] known as the gay area and it’s in the middle of everything,” says Fiola. But he adds, “It’s a neighbourhood in transition. I’m hoping it will turn into a Yorkville.”
It’s a bold dream – when you’re walking past Food Basics and St. James Town, it’s tough to imagine FCUK moving in next door. “It will never be another Yorkville,” says Dr. Dennis Magill, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. He specializes in social change and has been a resident of the area for 27 years. “St. James Town is predominantly lower income families and what we call a social ethnic receiving area. That’s not going to change.”
Still, he thinks there are parallels between utra-chic Yorkville and what’s happening at Sherbourne and Wellesley. “Going back 30 years when I first came to Toronto, Yorkville was where everybody went for the hippy lifestyle, where everybody went to get drugs, mainly marijuana. It was pretty run down and it’s changed dramatically over time.”
“I don’t think our area [Sherbourne-Wellesely] will change the same [way] as Yorkville,” says Magill. “But it’s an area that’s undergone dramatic changes. Here we have a blending together of different lifestyles, different income levels. It makes city living interesting and exciting. I would hate for it to become a middleclass enclave.”
The middle-class enclave he describes is reminiscent of what’s taken place along Richmond Street and King Street East, which condo developments have transformed into long condo corridors with chi-chi furniture stores and Starbucks outlets at street level, and BMWs pulling into underground parking garages. Prospective residents of Sherbourne-Wellesley should expect more of a contrast.
One of the strangest juxtapositions is already taking place at the Radio City complex. When condo owners started moving into Radio City in late 2004, many predicted its towers would usurp the ultra-gay reputation of the buildings on Alexander Street, including the circular landmark nicknamed “Vaseline Towers.” It’s not uncommon for residents to be asked, “So who have you had sex with in the building?” But Radio City also has an entire floor of nuns. With sisters living alongside sisters, some have joked that it just makes the building gayer.
Peter Rex, a 43-year-old gay accountant who lives with his husband Steve Martin, the 43-year-old owner of a commercial cleaning service, says living with such a diverse population does not bother them. “Live and let live,” says Rex, owner of a penthouse in the Radio City complex. “On a day-to-day basis, we only see them in the garage. We have a very pleasant atmosphere. We chat all the time,” says Rex. “But we mind our own business.”
Still, not every buyer may be prepared for the diversity they will encounter. Informing newcomers about the area’s lifestyle is not as important as selling property for some developers at Sherbourne and Wellesley.
Gary Silver, president of Willowfield-Winchester Inc., which is developing The Star of Downtown, gave a curt, “No,” when asked if they inform their buyers that they are bedding down in an area predominantly populated by gays.
Tridel, on the other hand, wants purchasers to know who they’ll be sleeping next to. While queerness is not a prerequisite for living in the area, Winnie Chan, Tridel sales representative, says, “We always tell purchasers they are moving into the gay area. We want our purchasers to be well informed.”
And there are other factors that will help the neighbourhood feel more like a neighbourhood than a series of vertical gated communities.
The new Wellesley Community Centre and public library at Wellesley and Sherbourne opened in April 2005. It reflects the growing number of youth in the area. “Children and youth programs are one of our priorities,” says Jane Scarffe, Promotions and Communications Officer for the City of Toronto. But that priority may not include queer youth: Scarffe says, “We don’t have any gay-specific programming at [the Wellesley Community Centre],” she says. With an average of 15,000 people using the facility per month, staff have had to extend the hours of operation. And with funds being raised for a pool, there will no doubt be plenty of gay area residents eager for a new bathing destination.
Within a short walk, the 519 Church Street Community Centre, open since 1975, offers programming for the LGBTQ community as well as homeless people and other area residents. “Our trans programs and queer parenting program are increasing in numbers,” says Alison Kemper, the 519′s executive director, pointing to a shift in demographics and the needs of community members.
Also nearby is the Rekai Centre, a long-term care facility for patients with chronic illnesses (including HIV and AIDS) that opened last year. Half its residents are from the area, and the Centre will be a neighbour of condos like Verve. Walking across Earl Place, one street north of the Tridel, The Steam Plant Lofts and 500 Sherbourne developments, one can envision the possibilities – tree-lined streets, properties squared off by black cast-iron railings, neatly kept gardens. Nicely dressed elderly couples walking slowly along the sidewalks chatting amongst themselves.
“I believe the neighbourhood should be able to sustain people from the cradle to the grave,” says Kyle Rae, city councillor for the ward including Wellesley-Sherbourne, in reference to the new developments on the Wellesley Central Health Corporation grounds. “We are just enhancing the ability of people to retire, grow old or possibly become infirm and we’ll be able to maintain them in the neighbourhood.”
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