Sunday, March 24, 2019

a news service

Finding Julia: A March Report on the Neighbourhood

It’s now March, and until a couple of snowstorms hit us, one on Valentines Day and the second at the end of February, Toronto’s winter was extraordinarily late and once upon us, half-hearted. That it came at all was a relief, and at first, it was widely welcomed. After almost a month of eerily pleasant and too-warm temperatures along with a lightscape that felt like Toronto was auditioning to be the set for a remake of Neville Shute’s end-o’-the Worlder On the Beach, no one complained about the cold for almost a week. After that we’ve been subjected to more than five weeks of below zero temperatures, and an older, more familiar anxiety has returned: is winter ever going to end?

The fact is, winter’s reluctance to arrive scared the hellout of people here, just as the surge in wacky weather has scared people elsewhere across the world. This is to the good, because no one can sensibly deny the reality of global warming anymore. It is shared experience now, and not deniable even by the Bush Administration or Canada’s Conservative government, which is currently afluff with a series of insincere attempts to convince the public that conservatives no longer think that caring about what we’re doing to the planet is the first step toward both Communism and bum-buggering erotic proclivities.

I’m not convinced that the Conservatives are acting in good faith, but then I’m not convinced by any Canadian political party’s sincerity about the environment, except maybe by the Greens. Stephane Dion notwithstanding, the federal Liberals did nothing for the environment over their 12 years in office, unless you think that signing the Kyoto Accord and then doing absolutely nothing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is competent environmentalism. NDP leader Jack Layton likes to pretend his poop is bright green, but his party has a longstanding habit of standing up four-square for the environment exactly until the first union job is threatened—after which they’re not much more caring than the old Soviets were. Social democrats and socialists of whatever degree of radicality don’t make good environmentalists because their humanism doesn’t, when the crunch comes, permit them to see beyond humanism’s political repertoire. They remember how women have their reproductive rights, and then they mistake ethnic and religious lunacies for human rights, and pretty soon they’re four square behind standing room only. In the end, today’s social democrats just want to ensure that the (now imaginary) working class has exclusive access to the pastures of paradise, that the chosen have an acceptable multicultural profile, and that there are wheelchair ramps for the disabled—even if it’s standing room only.

All this being the case, why aren’t I out campaigning for the Green Party? Don’t get me started. Greens will protect the environment, sure, but is having the Waffen SS reconstituted in green uniforms the best way to get that protection? The social conservatism of the Greens, both in Europe and North America, is a constant reminder that it was Germany’s environmentalists who first allied themselves with the Nazis, and that it is politically unwise to put one’s trust in anyone who believes in purity or purification. I don’t  want to suggest that Canada’s Granolaheads are goose-stepping Nazis under those floppy sweaters, but from Elizabeth May on down, they provide a little too much evidence that they think they know better than the rest of us. Sure, they’re mostly finger-pointing school-marmish about it, but I worry about anyone whose political energy is grounded in self-loathing. When I talk to Greens, I get the sense that they’re thinking, at a subconscious level, geez, if we could just get rid of all these goddamned humans, the planet would be much better off. Hello?

Greens are, in that sense, practically everything the NDP isn’t, and thus a different terroritory of the same dysfunctional wheel. And that—along with the fact that the wheel isn’t on the same vehicle as the capitalist economy no one is any longer willing to interrogate—is the problem, isn’t it? Greens have more misanthropic righteousness than political patience and where the NDP’s core values ultimately contradict their environmental goals, the weakest commitment the Greens have is to democracy and due process.

It’s not much brighter at the local level. Despite David Miller and the recent infusion of talent on council after the last election, the City of Toronto also seems similarly ill-constructed to bite down on the things within its jurisdiction that could make a difference to the environment, and has a disturbing willingness to settle for “good intentions”. Partly it’s party politics that has been preventing anything from really getting done—the party dogs are more interested in beating up their ideological enemies than getting anything done, and anyway, dogs aren’t exactly famous for innovative thinking. But there’s also an institutional stupidity that seemed to get built into the 1997 amalgamation of Greater Toronto’s municipalities, and the presence of an overabundant herd of bureaucrats shadowing their jobs and their departmental turf in an era of bottom-line accounting is probably a major culprit.

It’s the sort of mindset that sets up a blue-box program and then sends 80 percent of it to landfill because it can’t think its way past the high cost of sorting the materials. Nor can it seem to come up with a way to make high rise apartment dwellers take recycling seriously, and the attempts to get the restaurants on board have been more authoritarian than effective. You want another example of what I’m getting at? Okay, look at this one: the City’s ostensibly enlightened revenue-producing conservation program of metering water is likely to result, given the decade of moderate-to-severe drought we’ve recently experienced, in the destruction of much of the city’s tree cover.

Why? Well, metering water will make everyone cost-conscious of water use. You tell me what’s going to happen when citizens wander out to water the boulevard trees, some of which need 400 gallons a day during hot weather. Never mind. I’ll tell you: they’re either not going to do it, or if they do, they’re not going to give the trees the water they need. Deputy mayor Joe Pantalone, who used to be the city’s tree advocate and still likes to talk about how the boulevard trees are the city’s lungs, doesn’t seem to have noticed that the city has two policies nose to nose. The obvious solution to this one—not a foolproof one at all—is to give homeowners with city-planted trees on their property a $50 annual break on their water bill and let them know that they have a civic duty to water the trees. If we want more trees and an income-neutral policy, they could put a $50 surcharge on homeowners without boulevard trees. Don’t hold your breath for this one to happen.

You’d also think Mayor David Miller would be willing to have the fireside chat necessary to get the troop of princesses who ride the recycling trucks to empty the green bins without bribes or begging (they’re prone to decide that full bins are awfully heavy and can wait until next week).

More generally, the recycling trucks need to go out of their way to make recycling noticeably easier for people than punching everything into drawstring plastic and sending it to Michigan with the non-recyclable recyclables.

* * *

Just before Christmas I made one of my periodic runs to Costco Wholesale. No, I don’t have a Costco membership, but Graziano Marchese, who got me into going to Costco in the first place, gave me one of his Dooney’s cards so he could collect the 2 percent on whatever I spend. I used to worry that the cashier was going to look at the card and notice that I don’t exactly resemble the round-faced, swarthy person on it, but the reality is that no one looks at anyone’s face at Costco because the corporation only has an interest in our consumer disorientation and our wallets. I generally don’t look at people’s faces there either, at least partly because I’m vaguely ashamed to be there, although of course I always make sure whatever I’m buying is only available at Loblaws or Staples—until I spot a real bargain, after which point I’m no different than any other crazed idiot in the store.

Maybe it was the holiday season and Peace-On-Earth, etc., but I did glance around at the faces about me while I was standing in the checkout lineup. The third face I parsed belonged to the cashier on the checkout next to the one I was in. I found myself gazing at Julia, the woman who, as noted in the last neighbourhood report I did here, abruptly abandoned the Elizabeth Delicatessen on Bloor Street two years ago and was rumoured to be living in Ohio.

The rumours were wrong, evidently. And the reality, as it tends to be when people face economic difficulties, was notably less romantic. Our eyes met for a split second, and she quickly looked away. Likely she didn’t want the contact with someone from her past life, which would have involved a barrage of questions about what happened and why. Or maybe she was just following the corporation’s no-eye-contact code. I won’t draw the moral/cultural diagram on this, because it’s painfully obvious. But now you know what happens to struggling business people, even ones that are highly valued and popular.

Zizi, which along with the also-recently-closed Via Oliveto, was for a few years in the early 1990s, a relatively serious restaurant on the north side of the West Annex Bloor strip, is now closed and boarded up. So is Tre Fontane, which never had one fountain let alone three (isn’t it supposed to be “Three Coins in a Fountain”?). Tre Fontane’s owner was a strange but friendly character who sometimes wandered into Dooney’s to scratch his head about why Graz’s customers ate at Dooney’s and not at his place. A lot of people who don’t know Graz wonder about the same thing.

Superior Photo is now 10,000 Villages, which is a franchise that offers fair trade coffee and a variety of higher-quality-than-usual Third World merchandise. If you’re really cynical, 10,000 Villages is the latest marketing scheme to get us to pay more for Third World commodities by making us feel guilty about how exploitive capitalism is. I’m all for Fair Trade in whichever form it takes, even if all it means is “slightly-more-fair-than-it used to be.” But if you look carefully at what’s on offer at 10K Villages, most of it still lies in that netherworld between bric-a-brac and useless junk. The difference is that here there are a few items for sale—night-tables and bookcases, mostly—that have both utility and some beauty. These are also lustily over-priced, which leads me to the perhaps cynical conclusion that whoever thought up this franchise isn’t getting to work on the bus, and doesn’t spend all his/her cash and quality time with Juan Valdez and his people any more than Sam down at Wal-Mart does.

The owners of Cobs bakery, which opened in the fall on the north side of the strip, aren’t going to be found on public transit, either, at least not on the TTC. That’s because Cobs is a virus, too, and a new and virulent type that attacks an element of the local economy that was once thought to be immune. What Cobs does is premix and prepack its breads and other bakery goods, probably in some vast industrial complex in Ohio, and then bakes them on-site using automated ovens, minimum-wage workers and an idiot-proof operating manual. Customers get their bread fresh, sort of, and forget that the profits are being sucked out of the local economy as surely as they are at Costco.

It’s hard to say what HMV Books, which is now open on the south side of Bloor west of Brunswick Street, really represents, either generally or to the neighbourhood. For fairly obvious reasons, John Snider andFranz Donker at Book City aren’t fans, and I’ve heard stories from others thatdepict HMV as the book industry’s equivalent of an ambulance chaser—able to thrive because most of the industry’s producers pretty much live in ambulances. If nothing else, HMV is a weirdly apt metaphor for the way today’s world works: A slick new corporate-style entity built on a fading cultural component with a collapsing industrial apparatus that is now into its third decade of creating products that progressively fewer people want and even fewer still use (there is a distinction). Without chronic overproduction of books, HMV couldn’t exist. In a sense, it is the institutionalization of Giant Book Sale TM, which has been feeding off the same cultural shift for at least 20 years now, but which was based on the assumption that overproduction was a temporary condition. HMV embodies the recognition that this isn’t a temporary condition, and thus can be exploited on a long-term basis. Another possibility is that HMV is just a very large second hand bookstore, and that we should all be grateful and partake. Only time will tell—but in the meantime, ain’t capitalism grand?

The strip west of Bathurst continues its curious transformation. It is curious because it is part decline and part ethnic reorientation. A quarter century ago, this was the Hungarian district. In the early 90s, with the Euro population in decline, Latinos and Koreans began to move in. Today the Koreans are firmly in control, and most of the Latinos have migrated further west along Bloor. Whatever is Korean-owned along the street tends to bustle in a distinctly Korean and insular way, and the critical mass is beginning to move east across Bathurst Street. But the Koreans don’t own everything, and what they haven’t taken over is in a marked state of decline.

The McDonalds outlet, with the parent company still reeling from the Supersize Me documentary’s disclosure that Ronald McDonald serves food that is more likely to kill you than to nourish you, is now a Korean restaurant, and judging from the empty seats, not a particularly good one. Further west, Tasty’s, which used to be a neighbourhood institution, has also closed down. The Greeks who once ran it sold it to some really quite talented folks connected with Southern Accent, which is the long-running Cajun restaurant on Markham. They messed with the meat&potatoes menu just enough to alienate the old clientele without enticing new loyalists, and down it went.

Also gone is the personable John Angel of Angel Interiors, which was really a quite fabulous family-run upholstery shop a few doors down from the Korean Supermarket just west of Bloor and Manning. He’s moved his operation to Christie & St. Claire, and seems to be doing fine up there.

On the surface, it may seem strange that none of the crappy sushi joints on the strip have died. This may be more a testimony to how undemanding downtown Toronto’s Japanese cuisine customers are than to the general vitality of the sushi craze, but perhaps there’s another explanation.

The reality is that none of the sushi joints on Bloor are Japanese restaurants. The ones west of Bathurst are established Korean restaurants that serve sushi, and the ones that have appeared east of Bathurst in the last five to seven years are global franchises run by Koreans or Chinese. And in some respects, they’re the most visible edge of a fundamental change in the entire neighbourhood.

Over the last decade local business after local business has gone down, and more than half of them have been replaced by virus of one sort or another. Subway has arrived, so has Starbucks and Taco Bell. Ronald McDonald has come and gone, carried off by its reliance on transfat and calories. A host of lessor viruse has also taken root—the sushi francises, the Friendly Greek (which came, burned down and was replaced by an always deserted Thai Springrolls franchise. There’s also the Pump, Cobs, and god knows what else I haven’t spotted or don’t realize is a virus. But they’ve crept onto the street, and now there’s more of them than the local businesses.

The result is that the strip has become a fast foods locus, and the other food provenance has also declined: five delicatessens are now two, and the number of full service restaurants has similarly dwindled. A few days ago, Graz told me glumly that the last two years have been his worst since he opened, and he doesn’t see it improving.

College Street, which is my other hangout, has also seen some changes. Around Christmas, Magnolia Foods reopened after four months, presumably with a less onerous rental lease. The new proprietors are South Asian, nice people who are, as they point out, friendlier than the old proprietors. Unfortunately they’re also clueless that they’re operating in a neighbourhood that remains distinctly Southern European, which means you need to know what’s good olive oil and what isn’t, and which tomatoes are which. Before it went down, Magnolia was trying to develop an upscale version of the local groceries that were once common along the street, but now completely gone. Until the high rent began to break them, the original proprietors had a notion of how to do that. They were pushed over the edge, I suspect, by the demolition of the office building across the street a block east, which supplied takeout lunch clientele and a solid portion of their other trade. The new people don’t seem sure whether they’re an upscale convenience store or a gourmet delicatessen, and it shows. That they seem not to know the difference between olive oil and crankcase oil probably dooms them–or ought to.

A few doors west, Marlowe has closed, and a chicken wing franchise called Duffs—a famous one, according to the board-up sign—is on the way. Marlowe was one of those restaurants that couldn’t quite decide if it was a bar or a restaurant, and ended up as neither. When the liquor inspectors closed it for 9 days after a New Year’s raid that caught it (along with the
doomed Teatro and Octapus (their spelling) Lounge across from the soon-to-open Europa condo) serving booze to smokers outdoors on New Year’s Eve, it never quite seemed able to recover. The Europa is another story. The construction barricades around it have been removed, and the building is filled all day with contractors as it moves, like an iceberg, toward occupancy. It is a building of some elegance, but its ground floor retail remains mysterious, and what effect the infusion of its occupants will have on the neighbourhood more so.

Further west on the south side of the street the bars and restaurants open and close without much fanfare or local interest. But even so, the Italian and Portugeuse women’s and childrens clothing stores that have been there for decades blink out one after another. This is a serious loss of texture for the street, because the goods these shops sold were of high
quality–imported from Italy, which is, after all, Giorgio Armani’s native land. The several contemporary clothing retailers that have bravely opened on the street have mostly met the
same fate, including the badly-named Gigolo’s, which was run by a extremely bright and personable 30-something Portugeuse woman my daughter got along with famously and who I used to buy clothes from when she had a small shop on Bloor just west of Bathurst. I don’t know if she gave up because of poor profitability or because the ongoing fight she was having with her boy-friend/business partner went terminal. What I do know is that the shop predictably outlasted her by only a month or so.

Still further west on the north side of the street past the rows of dollar stores a Sub shop is opening below the strangely mezzanined corner building with a one room second floor hair-dressing salon that looks like it escaped from the set of Moonstruck. And of course, there as elsewhere the restaurants come and go like phantoms, mostly killed off by unreasonable ground rents, chefs who can’t cook, and owners who party with their noses.

Winter isn’t kind to either Bloor or College Street, but then winter doesn’t make a beauty of any part of Toronto save Rosedale, and the ravines that run northwest to southeast throughout the city. The good news—and that’s a commodity we haven’t seen much of this winter since Adam Vaughan got elected to City Hall and became too busy to hang out, is that winter’s end is just around the corner.

March 6, 2007: 3500 words.

Post tags:
Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

More from Brian Fawcett: