Rockin’ a U-Haul in a changing Annex

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JJ7vv3QCfs[/youtube]

On my way home after work last Saturday night, I walked by the corner of Brunswick and Bloor where a three-man rock combo was playing out of a U-Haul parked in front of By The Way Cafe. Named the Dildoniks, they’d outfitted their U-Haul with flood lights, a drum kit and amps running through their rented truck’s battery with a banner on both sides announcing their band’s name. They drew a pretty substantial crowd, with the audience spilling off the sidewalk and onto the road (without, however, blocking traffic on either Brunswick or Bloor).

A relatively new band, Dildoniks member Kire Paputts told me in an email that part of what led them to do the half-hour show in a U-Haul was that it would be entirely “on our terms,” as Kire put it. Now obviously the idea of an impromptu concert amplified from inside a rented truck at eleven on a Saturday night provokes a lot of questions. Add this to the fact that they played at the Brunswick/Bloor intersection, the case in point of recent debates both locally and in the press on how the neighbourhood is changing. With the closing of Dooney’s Cafe and Mel’s Montreal Delicatessen, and the two freak shootings that have taken place in the last two summers, many have been quick to conclude that the Annex is in a steep decline, where beligerant and occasionally violent partiers are setting the terms rather than long-time residents and middle-aged community members.

There’s no denying that with Mel’s and Dooney’s Cafe gone, the old character of the Annex has suffered a significant blow. Yet rather than seeing their departure as the canary in the coalmine, much still remains of the old Annex, but more importantly, much has changed and will continue to change as the neighbourhood evolves with the times and the people who inhabit its spaces.

Take the bookstores, for example. On Bloor St. between Spadina and Bathurst plus one block south on either side, there are a total of eight book stores currently open (not to mention the man often seen selling used books on the sidewalk at Madison or Brunswick), making the Annex still the most concentrated hub of independent booksellers in the city. Book City and the BMV are flanked by three used book stores who’ve been open since who knows when; Ten Editions Bookstore on Spadina, Seekers Books at Borden St., and Willow Books over at Bathurst. As more alternative literature goes, there’s A Different Booklist also on Bathurst, plus the Labyrinth Comic Book store across from the BMV. With at least five more on nearby Harbord St, for booklovers, the Annex is alive and well.

The Annex Billiards Club, Sonic Boom and Lee’s Palace also remain as active as ever. Meanwhile, despite declining attendance, the Bloor Cinema still puts on a wide variety of films, for better or for worse. As food goes, George’s BBQ and Country Style still remain to represent the old guard, while tasty new places like One Love Vegetarian on Bathurst and Burrito Banditos on Walmer definitely inject some well-needed  diversity into the neighbourhood’s sushi-saturated array of restuarants.

And let’s not forget the Annex’s middle weights and how they’ve been affected by the Brunswick Ave patio fiasco; namely, the closing of the Labyrinth’s patio and the early eleven o’clock curfew in place for Future Bakery’s outdoor seating.  As I stood on the corner of Brunswick and Bloor last Saturday, the crowd gathered at the corner to watch the Dildonik’s concert made it painfully obvious how having those patios closed late at night has hurt the street.

For had the Dildoniks not been playing that Saturday night around eleven, the only people who would have been found lingering at intersection, aside from the few in Sweet Fantasy’s tiny ice cream patio and those still lingering at By The Way Cafe, would either be those waiting to get into the Brunswick house or would be Brunswick patrons out for a smoke.  Without the normally packed Future and Lab patios, Brunny partiers become the norm rather than the simply part of a mix of Annex drinkers.  Without the generally more calm — not to mention usually more sober — late night patio-drinkers, the Brunswick and Bloor corner becomes a single-use spot dominated by the Brunswick House. The Dildoniks concert on the opposite corner temporarily evened the playing field, if only for half an hour.

More importantly, however, is the fact that the neighbourhood remains active. In January, blogs and Facebook groups burst to life in defense of Future Bakery and the Lab when it was made public that their patios on Brunswick Ave. were under fire.  And despite Dooney’s Cafe closing, even its owner Graziano Marchese clearly hasn’t given up on the Annex yet: Marchese recently opened a new gallery and jazz bar, The Annex Live, right next to the Labyrinth, as if to buffer the louder, younger students at Future Bakery, the Lab and the Green Room from the light-sleeping members of the Harbourd Village Residents Association. I also haven’t seen that ad projector at Howland Ave. in a while, and my bet is its relocation wasn’t by choice.

The Annex may be changing, but there’s still plenty to celebrate.  Although late night sushi and a mix of inexpensive ethnic food have replaced most of the Hungarian and Italian restaurants of my parents’ student days, for today’s students and locals it remains, as my mum remembers, “a place to find books and meet friends.” And while it might lack the trendiness of Ossington, or the more rigid, scene-specific vibe of other neighbourhoods in the city, what hasn’t changed is that being in the Annex is always, as Kire put it, on your own terms. Its chameleon-like quality means the Annex is always what you want it to be, and whether that means book-hunting, eating sushi, getting your first underage drink at the Green room, sipping sangrias on a patio or even puking your guts out on the dance floor of the Brunny is up to you. And that’s how I like it.

photos by Jake Schabas

2 comments

  1. Great article! I’m amazed I didn’t hear the band last night – I live on Bloor between Bunswick and Dalton. I really like what you’re saying about how the Annex has a ‘good mix’ of people and is always slightly changing. It not being “scene specific” is what really attracted me to the area – sometimes it’s fun to put on a ‘cool t-shirt’ and hit the Green Room’s garden-patio, other times it’s nice to leave on grubby work clothes and go relax on Kilgours’ patio. And within a 3 minute walk, I can get fresh fruit and veggies, sushi, burrito, Indian, Korean… even ‘North American’ (chicken fingers, burgers…).

    And, for those terrified of the Brunny: it’s really only Thurs-Sat late night that gets kinda crazy. I’m sympathetic to those kids. Being cooped up in a university classroom tends to lead a desire to ‘let loose.’ I feel bad for the “light sleepers” on the side-streets, but I’d rather have kids around having fun than it be Deadsville at night. I think a better approach by residents or cops is to make sure kids can go there and let loose, but they should be reminded not to piss on the doors of stores and limits their “woos!” and “yeahs!” when venturing down the side streets to College street; the Brunny is their playground, not the entire area.

  2. As a prospective DC condo buyer I am generally excited about neighborhood turnabout. BUT, as one who considers herself to be an original U Streeter, I am dismayed by the drastic change that has overtaken my favorite section of Choco-City. Nothing against diversity, or White folks for that matter, but U Street now feels more like Georgetown than the heart of Black DC. It makes me feel homeless in a way. Like one of the last bastions of thriving Black DC culture, lifestyle and sociability has ebbed away. Four years ago even, U Street was like fried chicken, your Uncle Rome and gospel music on a Sunday afternoon. No more. No more. My hot joint has lost its flavor and it makes me very sad.

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