Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Cashing in on cultural cool

Toronto, in the urban-anthropological sense, is said to be in its adolescence. In some ways, it does evoke a certain self-consciousness that belies its desire to be a self-assured, grown-up metropolis. And like any adolescent, the city has been undergoing a rather dramatic growth spurt of late, accompanied by the necessary growing pains. Private and government investment in the city's cultural capital - such as the construction of new and dramatic add-ons by super-star architects to sites such as the ROM, the AGO, and OCAD - has also trickled down to its latest diamond in the rough, the west-end neighbourhood of Parkdale.

Parkdale's main drag, Queen Street West, has long been home to many of the city's greatest visual artists and musicians who favoured the area for its cheap rents and plentiful studio spaces. It's also held a reputation as a rather rough part of town which, until recent years, no well-heeled urbanite in search of a good cocktail hour would have considered as a desirable playground, never mind a place to crawl home.
Spearheaded by the renovation of the Drake Hotel, Parkdale's hip factor has spread further west, into what for years was considered a no-go zone. Within this neighborhood of used appliance stores, diners, rep video stores, and mom and pop grocers, commercial galleries, clothing boutiques and modern furniture shops have sprouted. And along with this type of commercial revitalization comes an interest in housing. Condo development in the area has reached its apex with the (wait for it) Bohemian Embassy, a luxury condo spread which unabashedly cashes in on Parkdale's reputation as a nesting place for artists, musicians and "free-spirited" creative types. This point is enforced, with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball, by the BE's website and their gobsmackingly horrid poster campaign featuring a model wearing a 'bohemian-pastische' of fishnet, chunky jewellery, floppy hat and braids, and pancake makeup. Oh, and she's clutching a rose. I don't think they could have come up with something more inane if they tried. The great irony in all of this is that the area the BE compound will occupy includes a five-storey turn of the century building which has been used for artists' live-work studios for decades. These artists will be turfed and their building demolished to make way for two condo towers - at 8 and 19 storeys tall - that will not only dwarf the surrounding area's existing buildings, but will be a visual blight on the landscape.
Plenty of people are upset over this, and justifiably so. A site called bohemianembarassment, by Toronto artist Michael Toke, was offline when I tried to google it. According to Globe & Mail columnist Leah McLaren, BE developers have threatened Toke with legal action. And this from a group that claims to be successfully integrating into the community.

It has been said that artists are the stormtroopers of gentrification, and a recent newsletter by the Art Gallery of York Univeristy's Director Philip Monk, illustrates this phenemenon very well. He proposes that any commercial development that displaces or radically upsets existing artist's
way of life be subject to a tax that would be redirected towards cultural development in the neighborhood. The idea would probably never fly, but the point is clear. That the inimitable 'cachet' so sought after by commercial developers to attract buyers is the very thing that is suffocated when development occurs. Inevitably, the same people suffer, and they should be compensated for it.

Conspicuously absent in the BE website's grating descriptions of the neighbourhood (and its far-too-liberal use of the words 'hip' and 'trendy' - they're working really hard to convince you that you won't be a total loser for moving there), is any mention of the very present Centre for Addiction & Mental Health, just a short jog down Queen from the BE. In my recent travels up and down Queen west, I regularly encountered a variety of CAMH residents wandering up and down the street. On a few occasions I witnessed a man simply standing on the sidewalk hollering into the air above him with all his might. Given our proximity to the CAMH, it was safe to assume he was a resident out for a stroll and perhaps low on meds. Or maybe, as I like to think, he too, was appalled at the blind greed that has infected his neighbourhood, and just needed to express his disgust in a way many of us probably wish we could.

One joint that's been doing it right is the Gladstone Hotel, a few blocks west of the Drake. It has managed to integrate the hotel's existing ecclectic citizenry (hard core aging bar flies and alterno-scenesters) while revitalizing and preserving this cornerstone hotel's beauty and heritage. While this may seem like trying to host a party with several vastly different types of people on the guest list, hoping they'll all mingle happily over a warm Labatt 50 and a pint of Smithwick's, for the most part, the experiment seems to be working. Take for instance their artist-designed rooms, where visual artists were invited to develop theme rooms for the hotel's suites. Among the themes are Teen Queen, by Cecilia Berkovic, replete with Hollywood hunk posters plastered on the walls and bubble-gum pink overload. Or Faux Naturelle, by Allyson Mitchell which according to their website "feels like a woodsy retreat where lesbian separatist commune meets Storybook Gardens." For those who prefer to wake up to a little less kitsch, more creatively subdued suites are also available. They've even integrated artist studios into the hotel, available for long or short-term rent. Imagine that. And the bar where the bar flies used to hang out? Largely untouched by the renovations. They've even kept the weekly karaoke nights.

I don't live in Toronto, but I try to visit as often as I can. There are great things about it that I envy, and that my Montreal home simply fails to capture (like artificial ice on outdoor hockey rinks! Yeah!). And while Montreal (or Winnipeg, or any other culturally-rich city for that matter) is no stranger this sort of over-zealous, short-sighted commercial development, one can only hope that more alternative groups will strike while the iron is hot with their own truly creative, home-grown brand of civic investment, to create neighbourhoods that are interesting and enjoyable to live in, not because they try so hard to be (and for the wrong reasons), but because the incentive is about community, not cool.

Local weekly rag The Parkdale Liberty weighs in
AGYU Philip Monk's newsletter
Witness for yourself the horror that is The Bohemian Embassy
The Globe and Mail - Leah McLaren's take on the sitch
And the kvetching goes on! a rant and images of the BE by Kevin Steele on flickr
The 2 cool 4 u Drake Hotel
A fine example of responsible community development The Gladstone Hotel

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