Shaping Toronto: Queen West

Originally published on Torontoist on March 16, 2016.

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“The road to the heart of Toronto runs along Queen Street. It may not be the most imposing thoroughfare in town, nor the longest, but it is the liveliest, the most vibrant, successful, and popular. More than any other, it is the street that defines Toronto, and that has led the way to the re-urbanization of the downtown core, a process that continues today.” — Christopher Hume, Queen Street: Toronto’s Urban Treasure, 2012.

For those who came of age from the late 1970s through early 1990s, the heart of Queen West was between University and Spadina. It was the Queen West I was introduced to as a child, tagging along with my father as we browsed one used book store after another. To a kid from deep southwestern Ontario, it was a magical place, with its funky old buildings loaded with funky old things, and a stretch with a wide sidewalk to run around freely.

Flash forward to my teens. My hometown is finally wired up to cable, introducing the CHUM/CITY galaxy of channels, which, to a not-yet-cynical mind, depicted Queen West as the coolest place in the country. Based on an informal survey of friends on Facebook, this was not an unusual feeling. You could speak your mind on Speakers’ Corner, or check out whatever MuchMusic was doing. You could even toss in some shopping while you were at it.

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South side Queen Street West from 217 to 233, August 23, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 3, Item 1234.

“Along Queen Street West, purchasers in that section of the city will find much that it will be to their advantage to inspect.” — the Toronto News, December 23, 1885.

One of Toronto’s oldest roads, Queen Street (known in its early days as Lot Street) was laid out when York was established in 1793. During the early 19th century, the stretch we’re concerned with was the front of D’Arcy Boulton Jr.’s property, where he built The Grange. His lasting legacy along Queen is the short stretch east of Spadina where it widens out.

“Our worst streets are those Victorian and Edwardian thoroughfares where bad design and poor maintenance give an impression of sordidness and decay. King, Queen, Dundas, and much of Yonge are such streets, and their ugliness is not improved by their stretching, seemingly, to infinity.” — Eric Arthur, Toronto No Mean City, 1964.

For much of its existence, Queen West was a modest commercial strip serving local residents and workers at nearby factories and warehouses. Never glamourous, by the 1970s it was described by Toronto Life as being “inhabited by transient winos and the ethnics who had failed to prosper in the new country.” What it had was great older commercial architecture and cheap rents, two assets which would spur its revitalization.

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Map of Queen West, Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

“Six years ago, the unwary Saturday afternoon browser who slipped off Yonge Street on to Queen Street West unwittingly fell off the edge of the known shopping world. At that time, deepest darkest Queen Street West—notably the few blocks between John Street and Spadina—had little to offer the inquisitive, well-heeled young shopper with money to spend. There were the old, antique shops, the porno shops, and the Turner Wine Store at the corner of John and Queen with its down-at-heel clientele of listless, hungry men, the greasy spoons, office buildings, and machine shops. Even the more adventurous would go scurrying back to Yonge Street or north to Bloor, with its classy, high-priced Yorkville.

“Today that section of Queen—two blocks on the south side, three on the north—shows signs of becoming the new world. The spirit of trend has raised her elegant skirts and skipped down from gorgeous, pricey Bloor to nestle among scores of bright, funky craft stores, highbrow art book and comic book shops, new antique emporiums, elegant eateries, and purveyors of the crazy, imaginative baubles that attract the moneyed restless.

“The setting is a broad, tree-lined stretch of Queen Street, Toronto’s answer to the Rue des Capucines in Paris. There, close to 40 vibrant young stores have sprung up among the old—altogether a Saturday browser’s dream.” — Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

Expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario and a greater integration of the Ontario College of Art into the neighbourhood produced an influx of artists who remolded the street, whose works are currently celebrated in an art exhibition as part of the Myseum Intersections festival. Longstanding businesses, such as the Peter Pan diner, were revamped. Tourists were told the strip was, according to Fodor’s, “a strange world of dusty, neglected stores next to popular nightclubs” like Bam Boo and others.

“Think of Queen West as Toronto’s version of Hollywood’s Melrose, minus the palm trees. And Heather Locklear. Whether for shopping or people-gawking, Queen West is Toronto’s hippest strip.” — Stephen Davey, Now City Guide Toronto, 1999.

As Queen West evolved, it fell victim to its own success. As rents shot up, the next generation of artistic entrepreneurs moved further west, pushing out beyond Bathurst. Filling the spaces were chain stores, leaving the impression among those who enjoyed its renaissance that the strip was becoming an extension of the Eaton Centre. Shifting ownership drained the vitality out of the old CHUM/CITY channels. Some pushouts were less successful than others—the space where Pages bookstore operated has been vacant for years, though recent renovations of the front indicate something may finally be happening.

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“Today Queen Street West is an animated mixed-use corridor that functions as a local and regional destination, drawing people from the residential neighbourhoods that surround it, and extensively, from all over the city and beyond. The history of the street, and its place in the collective memory, continues to be enhanced by the presence of a vibrant retail and entertainment scene, and the multiple events and venues that make Queen Street West their home.” — Queen Street West Heritage Conservation District Plan report, 2007.

Sidewalks remain packed on average days. Live entertainment still holds sway at venues like the Horseshoe, Rivoli, and the Rex. Designation as a heritage conservation district in 2007 offers stronger protection to retain its low-rise, century-old architecture (even if it currently boasts at least one example of odd facadism where Silver Snail used to be). Whatever you think of the strip’s evolution, it retains its vitality.

Additional material from Toronto No Mean City by Eric Arthur (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964); Now City Guide Toronto by Stephen Davey (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999); Fodor’s Toronto (New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 1984); Queen Street: Toronto’s Urban Treasure (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2012); the March 1979 edition of Toronto Life; and the February 2, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star.

BEHIND THE SCENES

This was the final installment of Shaping Toronto.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

I wrote about the initial revival of the Queen West strip during the lare 1970s in the following installment of Retro T.O. for The Grid, originally published on April 17, 2012. 

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Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

With Silver Snail’s impending move to Yonge Street, one of the few remnants of the original Queen West strip is departing the scene. The ongoing transformation of the stretch between University and Spadina into a row of chain stores is just the latest evolution of the street. Back in the winter of 1979, the Star and Toronto Life devoted lengthy articles to the birth of what would become, as one headline put it, “gutter glamour on Glitter Street.” The Star depicted pre-hip Queen West as such:

Six years ago, the unwary Saturday afternoon browser who slipped off Yonge St. on to Queen St. W. unwittingly fell off the edge of the known shopping world. At that time, deepest darkest Queen St. W.—notably the few blocks between John St. and Spadina—had little to offer the inquisitive, well-heeled young shopper with money to spend. There were the old, antique shops, the porno shops and the Turner Wine Store at the corner of John and Queen with its down-at-heel clientele of listless, hungry men, the greasy spoons, office buildings and machine shops. Even the more adventurous would go scurrying back to Yonge St. or north to Bloor, with its classy, high-priced Yorkville.

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Toronto Star, February 2, 1979. Click on image for larger version.

Toronto Life characterized the area as a marginal strip on the fringes of the clothing trade, where the streetscape was “inhabited by transient winos and the ethnics who had failed to prosper in the new country, ‘old-country good-for-nothings’ in the eyes of their more successful compatriots.”

Several explanations were given for why the landscape changed. There was the influence of Ontario College of Art graduates who stayed in the neighbourhood. Rent was far lower than in Yorkville, which provided better profit margins for the new business owners whose average age was 30 to 35. There was the allure of nearby cultural attractions like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Alex. Frequent streetcar service and plenty of on- and off-street parking didn’t hurt.

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Queen Street looking west from St. Patrick’s Market, June 7, 1981. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526,  File 76, Item 29. 

The result, according to the Star, was a neighbourhood where “the spirit of trend” had “raised her elegant skirts” and nestled “among scores of bright, funky craft stores, highbrow art book and comic book shops, new antique emporiums, elegant eateries and purveyors of the crazy, imaginative baubles that attract the moneyed restless.” A few reminders of the old days, like the A. Stork and Sons poultry store and a touch of industrial pollution, lingered on.

Both articles viewed the refurbishment of the Peter Pan restaurant as the turning point for the strip. With a history as an eatery stretching back to 1905 (and under its present name since 1935), the diner at 373 Queen St. W. attracted three partners who discovered old booths, counters, and fixtures gathering dust in the basement. After a refurbishment, the new Peter Pan was, according to the Star, “an art deco wonderland, a smash hit with the city’s young affluent.” That is, it was a hit if you could stand the servers, who Toronto Life declared the representative figure of the new Queen West (“the narcissistic waiter who’s in a punk band”).

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Queen Street looking west from Beverley Street, June 7, 1981. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526,  File 76, Item 30. Click on image for larger version.

Of the 27 businesses listed in the Star’s “Where to shop in new village” guide and a few others included on a map, only four will continue on Queen West following Silver Snail’s departure: the Black Bull, Peter Pan, the Queen Mother Café and Steve’s Music Store. Even in 1979, merchants worried about the street’s future. “I don’t want too much change in the original street,” noted Peter Pan co-owner Sandy Stagg. “Change will come, I know. I just hope we can keep it under control.”

Additional material from the February 2, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star and the March 1979 edition of Toronto Life.

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