There goes the gaybourhood
Micah Toub, The Globe and Mail - Mar 24, 2007 pg. M1
A new, straight crowd is discovering Church and Wellesley
Two years ago, when Ben Mercer and his girlfriend Cagla Eskicioglu decided to move in together, they'd been priced out of the Annex, and were looking for a quality pad that was affordable. "We heard a rumour that rent's always cheaper in the gaybourhood," says Mr. Mercer, a news anchor at AM640 Toronto. "You have to understand, I'm a very cheap man, so I look to prey on opportunities that save money."
And that's how Mr. Mercer and Dr. Eskicioglu found themselves in a high-rise near Church and Wellesley, which has been the heart of Toronto's Gay Village for decades. And they aren't alone: These days, the area's character is changing as straight couples and families move in and Toronto's gay community disperses across the city.
Real estate agent Julie Kinnear, who has been selling property in the area for 15 years, says at least half of the clients she places in the Village now are straight, and that number is increasing. "People want to walk to work, and the gay community is right downtown in quite a nice part," Ms. Kinnear says. "I guess more people just feel like, 'I don't care if it's a gay village, or any village -- I want to be downtown.' " That's what Mr. Mercer and Dr. Eskicioglu, a medical resident, are thinking, and they're committed to the neighbourhood; next summer they'll move into a new condominium on Carlton Street. "It's a really clean area; all the best markets are there, there's great fruit stands, great butcher shops and great coffee shops," Mr. Mercer says, adding that he and Dr. Eskicioglu would consider raising kids in their future pad.
Some of their neighbours have already taken that route. Their current building at Church and Maitland is the unlikely nesting place for four babies this spring. "It's so weird; we've never had this many at one time before," says Helga Tuleweit, the rental agent for the building. Three of the four couples, all straight, asked to be transferred to bigger units. Ms. Tuleweit jokes, "There must be something in the water."
More likely, it's a question of neighbourhood loyalty and rising real estate prices. "It used to be, if you had children, you moved out to the suburbs, but that's slowing down a lot," says real estate agent Richard Silver. "Once [straight couples] are used to the area and what goes on, they tend to just stay in the area."
Although the Village, with few parks and playgrounds, is not the most ideal setting for a family, Alison Kemper, the executive director at The 519, a local community centre, asserts they have "a fairly busy family resource centre." She points out that Church Street Junior Public School had an addition built about five years ago to accommodate the growing population of youngsters.
Still, to long-time observers, the family life in the area is a bit surprising. Mark Peacock, a writer and member of the B-Girlz drag performers, recently moved back to the Village after seven years, and he says he's noticed some differences. "If you go to Crews," Peacock says, referring to the historically gay bar on Church, "it's very mixed. There's an equal number of girls in line as guys." The reason for this, Peacock poses, is not only that more straight people are coming to the Village, but also that gays are no longer restricting themselves to just one area of the city.
"They've grown up with [homosexuality] being so much a part of urban culture that they just go wherever," he says. Regular queer parties in Parkdale, such as Foxhole at the Gladstone Hotel and Big Primpin' at Stones Place, confirm that the Village is no longer the gay community's only night spot.
Meanwhile, rising commercial rents in the area have put a damper on nightlife. Dean Odorico, general manager of Woody's on Church Street, says bars are surviving, but clubs are closing down left and right. "The Barn closed, and Five on St. Joseph Street," he says. "There's not a lot of big dance clubs left for the gay community."
And once a club shuts down, another one will not take its place. According to Kyle Rae, long-time city councillor for the district, a 1986 city bylaw prevents clubs from obtaining dancing licences in the area, or anywhere outside of the Entertainment District. Mr. Rae cites "noise problems, parking problems, and crowd problems" as the reason for the bylaw, and while he says liquor licences can still be obtained, he doesn't think Church Street needs any more bars. "Residents want bar owners to respect their neighbours. Some fly-by-night bar owners want to cash in on their liquor licences, and they open up their windows and force people to listen to their music," Mr. Rae says.
Not every resident, however, is happy with the Village settling down. "People demand to live south of Bloor but with suburban Oakville noise levels," says Eugene Cipparone, a lawyer who came back to the area after living for several years in Manhattan. "I find it very un-urban. If you want to live in Oakville, live in Oakville."
As well as losing its status as the only place for the gay community to party, the Village is no longer the only place for gays to live -- and rising condo prices are increasingly driving them out. Steven Bereznai, the editor-in-chief of fab , a Toronto-based magazine covering the city's gay scene, says the same thing happened in San Francisco's Castro District and New York's West Village. "There are areas that start out as being classically gay, but that wind up shifting because the younger generation can't quite afford it any more," he says.
And the retail strip along Church Street reflects a certain degree of change. From Alexander to just north of Wellesley Street, an increasing number of chains have moved in, such as American Apparel, Starbucks, and Il Fornello.
"Rents are so high, it's really hard for independents to start up here," says Ms. Kemper. "All the construction in the neighbourhood has been middle- to high-end condos." On the other hand, the Timothy's at the corner of Church and Alexander is still packed with almost exclusively gay patrons, the travel agency across the street is called Rainbow High Vacations and, last month, Zelda's Bar had posters on the windows advertising Drag Idol 2007.
So will the area's gay character disappear? Not according to Mr. Rae. "It will continue to be a gay destination for entertainment, bars and cruising," he says -- and adds that, from what he's heard, "the vast majority of the people moving into the new condos are gay." In any case, the area's history has made it a tourist attraction. "I see tour buses going around in the summer, mentioning Queer as Folk ," Mr. Rae said, referring to the Showcase series that was filmed in the neighbourhood.
Or, as Ms. Kinnear put it, commenting on the rise of interest in the Village: "We're like hip, now, dude."