It always starts with a Starbucks. It swiftly lands on the neighbourhood doorstep and things start to change. Gentrification. Up-and-coming. Modernization. The landscape changes; not necessarily all Wal-Mart bad, but it changes.
Cabbagetown, the hodgepodge hub of mom-and-pop stores and home to both the city’s rich and poor, is quietly undergoing some change. The city’s historical streetscapes lined with Victorian architecture, struggling artists, panhandlers and an array of independent businesses has undergone a slight renewal in recent years with its continued gentrification married with incoming franchise businesses.
With the neighbourhood’s first gentrification in the early ’70s, many of Cabbagetown’s independent storeowners are now eyeing retirement. And with prosperity flowing into the area, franchise restaurants are staking their ground. With a massive, architecturally-challenged three-storey TD Canada Trust being erected at the central hub of Parliament and Carlton streets (it’s to be opened in May), the change is ostensible.
The modern, redbrick block of a building clashes with the typical historic row houses and turn-of-the-century architecture that the area is known for. With the TD taking up the first and part of the second floor, the remainder will be commercial office space — another unusual step in the quiet, storefront environ. “I think you’ll see that the neighbourhood becomes slightly more prosperous as time goes on,” says Doug Fisher, coordinator of Old Cabbagetown’s Business Improvement Association. “I think what we might see more of quite quickly are younger retailers.”
Once one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto – it turned into somewhat of a slum during the world wars – Cabbagetown has welcomed the bevy of young professionals, artists and social activists in the past decades. Still a highly dichotomized region where panhandlers share the streets with boutique shops, only five years ago prostitutes and drug dealers were common at nighttime. The area – which is generally agreed upon as Wellesley to the north, Gerrard to the south and flanked by the Don River to the east and Sherbourne to the west – also holds multi-million dollar renovated Victorian-era homes amongst the various subsidized housing. Walking down Parliament quickly illustrates the diversity in not only the residents, but the shops – from barista-laden espresso bars and fair trade jewelers to renowned dance studios, burger joints and bargain stores. And now corporate is squeezing in edgewise.
A couple years back, the neighbourhood’s belly grumbled when Starbucks came to town. There was frustration, a small march and much exasperation at the looming prospect. This was fueled from across the street at the independent coffee joint, Jet Fuel, where plaid-wearing artists and newspaper-reading intelligentsia receive their daily caffeine intake. The war brewed. “I think that Starbucks is supposed to be an early indicator that franchises are looking at a neighbourhood, so we might see more of them,” says Fisher. “I think others thought Starbucks showed the increasing prosperity in the neighbourhood.”
Coffee shops work as a signifier in Cabbagetown. Currently, there’s a coffee house for every demographic in the area. A Tim Hortons, Coffee Time, Starbucks, Jet Fuel and two specialty shops, Epicure and Daniel & Daniel, all serve the tight-knit community of just over 200 businesses. In fact, the new TD Bank building is replacing Java Ville Café, which was housed in a 1920s brick building. Five years ago, the Tim Hortons revived a large red-brick cornerstone known as the Winchester. There was quite an upset in the area when the ubiquitous coffee shop came to town, too, worse than when the Starbucks entered the scene. But the Winchester used to house a local “booze can” according to Fisher – and it caused a lot of problems in the area. Tim Hortons restored the building, but did so without plastering their signage all over the historic Winchester, says Fisher. He notes that when franchises do come to the area, they tend to do so quietly, as not to upset the area’s quaint chemistry.
Recently, a number of independents have staked out their territory and made a go at Cabbagetown. Gourmet Burger and Fair Trade Jewelry Co. both showcase this with their young, successful storefronts. But big name business has also marked its territory. Running back only five years, a Subway, Ginger, Tim Hortons, Esso, Starbucks and now TD Bank have set up shop. Ginger, the mini food chain in Toronto, has “revolutionized” the corner of Carlton and Parliament when it was established in 2006. That corner used to see prostitutes and drug dealers as soon as the night rolled around. It’s a suitable analogy for the neighbourhood in general.
“The local ma and pa versus franchise, well, ma and pa has worked. I think it has worked because ma and pa can figure things out and adapt [within the community],” says Fisher. But as Regent Park is renovated — it is estimated that 8,000-10,000 middle-income people will come to the area in the next 10 years — and as Cabbagetown sees a resurgence in its own gentrification with its notable, historic homes, the neighbourhood will see more independent boutique storeowners, but also an influx in chain and franchise restaurants. And with this generational change, Fisher believes that the area will get a second breath. “There’s energy and imagination that will really help this neighbourhood,” he says.
“I think that generational change is coming.”
Ryan Bolton is a contributor to Spacing (and the newest contributor to our Spacing Toronto blog). He works in Cabbagetown as a book editor with Free The Children.