In junior high and high school, countless Sundays were spent in and out of colourful stores along Queen West, scooping up whatever we could with our part-time job paycheques.
We’d buy CDs at record shops, bracelets at small artisanal spots, and bell-bottoms and leather jackets at one of the many vintage stores. Queen West was brilliantly gritty and grimy, filled with young people with multi-coloured mohawks who happily played the guitar on the sidewalk. It was simple to shop locally before it was trendy, as there was no alternative – and you never knew what treasures you’d return home with.
Somewhere along the way, however Queen West changed. It progressively went from shamelessly seedy (in the best way ever), to vibrant and colourful, to uber-trendy yet more commercial, one new coffee shop, yoga studio, glassy condo building, retail chain, and high-end boutique at a time. The businesses that revitalized the neighbourhood in the first place are now being priced out, with the strip where businesses would live (and often thrive) for years now characterized by constant turnover.
Recent years have seen the closure of family-run convenience stores along the Queen West strip. Many antique shops and vintage stores like Cabaret Vintage are now things of the past like the goods they once sold. Local watering holes are going under almost as fast as the beer goes down. The longtime beloved spot to let loose to live music (and flirt with a bearded stranger), The Hideout, served its last customer October 2016. Independent business – big and small – are closing up shop because they can no longer afford the neighbourhood’s ever-increasing (see: ridiculously insane) rent costs.
Naturally, the galleries that have historically peppered the neighbourhood haven’t remained untouched by the rampant gentrification and many have moved further west and north. For example, both the Edward Day Gallery and the former site of the Museum of Contemporary Art Canada (MOCA) – it has since relocated to 158 Sterling Rd. and will reopen this spring – were forced to close in 2015 to make room for a condo development. The chain restaurants have also started to roll in, with a newly opened Taco Bell occupying the former Hideout real estate and a shiny new A&W now sitting at the corner of Queen and Palmerston.
Of course, the transformation of Queen West is not a new, nor a unique story. No artist-filled inner-city street is immune to the grips of gentrification, especially in a city with real estate prices as insane as Toronto’s are. Of course, it all begs the question of whether Queen West has changed for the better or for the worse. Really, I think it depends on who you ask. The Loblaws and Metro grocery stores are surely convenient for the influx of condo dwellers in the neighbourhood. The higher-end stores save a trip to Yorkville for those with pockets deep enough. The fast-food chain restaurants may be a cheap and convenient end-of-the-month dinner option before ridiculously high apartment rents are due.
But I do miss the old Queen West. Perhaps the biggest concern is the speed at which this has happened. But we also live in a city that lacks rent control on commercial real estate leases and one that has failed to take action to protect Queen West’s small businesses. With that said, I think it’s the responsibility of the City and of the citizen to preserve the fabric of the iconic neighbourhood. The only way the smaller businesses can sustain themselves is if we continue to frequent them.
On the plus side, one definite – and major – positive in the changing face of Queen Street has been the revitalization of the once isolated Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Not to mention, the fact remains that one thing Queen West hasn’t actually lost is its vibrancy; to be fair, there still are a ton of smaller, amazing, independently owned boutiques on Queen West. And, of course, there is no shortage of great restaurants.
The colourful ‘hood still remains one of my favourites in the city. It’s one of the first places I take friends from out of town. One of my favourite Sunday activities (especially in the summer, naturally) is shopping along Queen West. The Drake Hotel remains my go-to place to party.
The only hope is that it remains great. While it was an ego boost back in 2014 when Vogue named Queen West the second hippest neighbourhood in the world, maybe it was better left a local secret.
Featured image: Instagram/ @d_a_f_f_y_d
Do you think Queen West changed for the better or worse? let us know in the comments!
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