Changing face of Cabbagetown

Corner of Parliament and Carlton Streets, Cabbagetown

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.

26 comments

  1. An interesting take on an old neighbourhood such as Cabbagetown. Well done. I used to live here a long time ago…this kind of makes me want to go back, but not for the Starbucks.

  2. “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’ve been watching this building go up, and I can’t say I agree with your take on it. No, it’s not the most interesting piece of architecture, but as the photo at the top of this article shows quite clearly, three-storey redbrick buildings are *exactly* what the area is known for. The design is mildly respectful of its neighbours. The introduction of more office space is also a positive step towards ensuring the neighbourhood remains vital.

  3. If you want to see what could have happened here, come over to Broadview Avenue a few blocks north of Danforth where the TD Bank occupies the ground floor of the new Albany Medical Centre.

    This building is much taller than the bank in Cabbagetown, and its architectural style does not echo anything of the neighbourhood around it.

    The land to watch now will be the Albany’s old site on Danforth, the low-rise stores nearby and the vacant lot which together would make a tidy development package. What sort of mid-rise monstrosity will we see on the Danforth in years to come?

    All things considered, the new TD on Parliament isn’t half bad.

  4. I remember when my aunt lived in a duplex in Cabbagetown ten years ago. The tv cable to her house was cut several times. She found out from neighbours that this was not uncommon and was likely the act of a junkie looking for an impromptu crack pipe.

  5. I agree with Luke. The modern building is, in my view, a completely appropriate response to its context. It’s scale, materials, massing and mix of uses is perfect for its site. The photo above could not be more ironic given your description of the building as “massive”.

    Perhaps you prefer the contrasting the “Ye Olde” condos that went up a few years ago, a bit further north and on the west side, but I find these unfortunate as they provide no commercial spaces for the street at all and nothing that enlivens it. They are space entirely devoted to private residential use right on Parliament, and I think that’s a shame. And they’re not fooling anyone – we can tell they’re 2000’s Victoriana, since they compare poorly with the real stuff all around.

    This new building is a worthy addition to Parliament.

  6. How can you gentrify a neighbourhood where average home prices are $700,000 to $1-million+?

    “Plaid-wearing artists and newspaper-reading intelligentsia”? What Cabbagetown are you living in? Cabbagetown is dominated by white upper-middle class people in their 50s-70’s. The success of businesses like Tim Horton’s and Starbucks in the area has less to do with gentrification and more to do with a) residents’ dissatisfaction with the hip surliness of Jet Fuel and, b) the efforts of the Cabbagetown BIA. The slight shift in retail operations that we’re seeing is a natural progression of the ACTUAL gentrification process that began forty years ago.

  7. Agree with Luke. That building certainly does not look out of place, and office space is definitely a good thing. A true mixed-use neighbourhood takes more than just residential and retail.

  8. The new brick building is a great addition – been watching it go up. Nothing wrong with it at all – and they seem to be getting the details right.

    Also, there wasn’t much (I can’t recall any) grumbling or opposition to Starbucks opening (the comparison to the Tim Horton’s arrival is wrong – that did get the community grumpy for other reasons – but it has since become a functioning and busy part of the street – and dare I say, a true community hub that is not-unpleasant to be in). Maybe there was opposition *inside* JetFuel itself, but for many (many many) people, the opening of Starbucks was liberation: we (“we” being those willing to pay dumb amounts of $ for coffee) could buy coffee again from people who were actually nice to the *all* the customers. Until Starbucks came in, I went to Tim Hortons or walked to Queen or Church street for coffee. Starbucks’ arrival in the neighbourhood was a good thing, and the end of the JetFuel monopoly was good. To suggest otherwise is likely ideologically based (“chains bad”) or simply the narrow view from inside Jetfuel. Tim Hortons is also ultimately good – the cross section of the area that is inside there is more reflective of the area/Toronto than most businesses on the strip.

    The other huge force on Parliament not discussed here are the massive populations in St. James Town and Regent Park who require different services than Jetfuel et al – so there is a counter balance to gentrifying forces (something people have been talking about for years here – so it’s a tricky discussion to wade into w/out the historical context of how and the rate at which this neighbourhood has changed). Parliament is currently balancing both the higher end stuff (gormet burget yes) but even more shops that no blogs or papers write about, but lots of people go to.

    Also, the building the Starbucks is in — though they haven’t rented the upper floors yet — is also a good contemporary addition to the streetscape.

  9. I think the author has a point here, though. That there is change happening in this locale. And let’s be honest, that TD bank that only had that white wrapping removed recently, completely clashes in the neighbourhood. Starbucks and Tim Hortons kept the old architecture feel this doesn’t. But it’s not necessarily about that, it’s just about the renewal, the “generational change”.

  10. Great article, but I too don’t really understand what was meant by…

    “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.”

    It’s providing increased density and introducing office space and thereby making the area more mixed-use. Moreover, it’s not trying to be faux Victorian (which has already happened on Parliament Street unfortunately) and already seems to perfectly mix into the street. Moreover, Parliament Street does not really have any historic row houses that I can think of.

  11. Steve Munro said “The land to watch now will be the Albany’s old site on Danforth, the low-rise stores nearby and the vacant lot which together would make a tidy development package. What sort of mid-rise monstrosity will we see on the Danforth in years to come?”

    The avalanche has already started.

  12. The Shoppers that Mark links to above is exactly the wrong kind of building for an avenue – Shoppers is fine, but this store needed 3-6 stories above it in this location – offices or residential.

    As it is, it’s just a big box in disguise.

  13. Frances, Starbucks kept what old architectural feel exactly? The starbucks on parliament – I’m pretty sure – is in a new building, or at least it definitely appears modern (I’m having a bit of a mindblock and can’t recall if it’s a new building or if they did a refit, but either way it’s definitely not an old victorian at all!).

    As well, yes, the houses here are indeed expensive. That said, there are a lot of houses that are broken up into apartments, and something like 4 or 5 big co-ops in the area as well. So it’s definitely not true that all cabbagetowners are “white upper-middle class people in their 50s-70’s”. However, you did say “dominated by”, so I’m not sure if you mean in terms of population numbers (which I’m not too sure about – walking around the neighbourhood, I don’t get that sense) or in terms of who has pull on the BIA (in which case, I’d agree!).

    Finally, about the surliness of jet fuel. Seriously, what is that about? I really tried to like it there – it’s seemingly full of ‘my people’ (cyclists, activists, lefties, whatever). I heard that you have to go several times before they’ll be nice to you, so I went several times times, and I was still met with so much rudeness that I just can’t do it. Maybe my ego is too fragile, but I just can’t subject myself to being talked to like that.

  14. I’ve been going to Jet Fuel Cafe on and off for years, and I don’t see surliness, or rudeness, or any negativity of the sort. All I see when I walk in there is happy people, chatting, making friends, discussing things, exchanging ideas.

    They certainly won’t patronize you like the big chains with loud voices saying “Hello sir, how are you today, my name is Jenna, our special coffee today is (insert special of the day here), how may I be of service to you today?”.

    Also, since most people are regulars, they assume that everyone knows how things are done in there.

    Anytime I took a first timer there with me, I’d tell the staff that it was their first time, and guess what? The staff made them feel welcome. Also, if you open your mouth and say something nice to anyone in there, people will respond in kind and chat with you.

    If you go in there with a surly attitude without smiling and without talking, and thinking to yourself, oh people have attitude here, guess how you’ll be treated? With the same attitude you give out.

  15. Peter> Now you’re being patronizing to both employees of chains and patrons. Nobody greets you like that in Starbucks – but they do say hi, and often, how are you, or etc. There is no qualification needed, no getting “in.” Gave Jetfuel numerous tries – and tried to overlook things – no luck. And I’m not alone.

    Indie-business apologists are confounding. Ideology run amok.

  16. Moaning over gentrification is tiresome: everything changes – trees grow, houses get renovated, and old shopkeeps retire and eagerly sell their property to new folk. I’d hate to live in a neighbourhood that resisted change at every step.

  17. Shawn > Tried to overlook what things? It’s a busy happy place. If you personally don’t feel right there, don’t take it out on the establishment.

    No one has done anything wrong. By alerting the staff that someone’s a first timer, they’ll slow down & explain things to them (especially the fact that there’s not coffee menu up on the wall) which does make them feel more at home.

    Sad that you had to resort to name calling, referring to me as a indi-business apologist that confounds you with ideology run amok.

    What’s my ideology? I’m just a guy that likes to go for a great coffee somewhere walking distance from my place, chat with script writers, Spacing magazine readers that care for more bicycling infrastructure among many other issues, green living promoters, and others, and work on things on my laptop. That’s it. 🙂

  18. Thank you Shawn and Karen for writing the comment that I was desperate to write. I’ll just add a thought: this is the only part of Toronto which has real estate values that do not follow the quality of the schools. The public schools have a 50% poverty rate, in the middle of Cabbagetown, for two reasons: there is a lot of socialized housing in the area; and the people who own property are retired, childless, or send their children to private schools.

    My wife and I have a combined income of about $100K, which puts us in a class who don’t live in Cabbagetown (we are house-sitting). People here come in three types: the urban poor with no assets or prospects, a few young renters in or just out of university, the nicely established. There is no ‘middle-income’. It is a boring place to live, and the transit to downtown barely usable. I usually beat the College car to Yonge, on foot.

  19. I live by coffee, but I never went back to Jet Fuel after the first time. There’s nothing cool about that place, but the name.

  20. Mr Micallef: Why do you dismiss eschewal of corporate chains as “ideology”? I don’t understand what’s wrong with valuing localness and business being less alienated from the ownership. Local ownership seems vastly preferable to globally operated chain stores. I understand that chain stores are not bereft of value, but I would always prefer for a store to not be a chain. I mean, wouldn’t you prefer if the same qualities you appreciate at the aforementioned American chain coffee shop were embodied by a locally-owned Cabbagetown shop instead? Further, I can’t fathom how these advantages (greater friendliness, accessibility, etc.) could ever outweigh all the ethical disadvantages (global and local) caused by such chains. Having to tolerate unfriendly employees in a locally-owned shop seems a small price to pay to avoid supporting the sort of practices of chain shops.

  21. Regardless of how any individual person is treated at Jet Fuel, there’s no denying that it caters to a certain clientele, and that clientele doesn’t include an awful lot of the people who live in Cabbagetown. I find it a little odd that this article talks about what a great mix of people live in Cabbagetown and how bad gentrification is, when I’d say Jet Fuel is a prime example of exactly that. The Tim Hortons was a great addition to the neighbourhood, as evidenced by the number of people who use it – it’s almost like a community centre sometimes. They certainly had identified a need in the neighbourhood. The place filled up with people in no time at all, who’d certainly not been patronizing either Jet Fuel or Coffee Time before that.

    I’m a big supporter of Toronto’s indy coffee shops (most of the time – as a few people here have already pointed out, the attitudes sometimes are a little much), but you can’t deny that those shops tend to attract a certain type of customer, thanks to the prices, the vibe, etc. That’s not a bad thing, but you need to recognize that for a lot of people, Tim Hortons is more affordable and more welcoming (and has hours that are more accessible).

    It’s been a few years since I lived in Cabbagetown, but it always felt like two neighbourhoods overlaid on top of one another. There was some mingling in places like No Frills, but otherwise not much crossing over. The Jet Fuel – Tim Hortons’ dichotomy (with a bit of the Coffee Time thrown in) epitomizes the divisions in the neighbourhood.

  22. Peter> No name calling, you insulted the intelligence of both employees and patrons of Starbucks by painting a false picture of how it works. Starbucks, as you say of Jetfuel, is “a busy happy place.”

    Alexander> I like independent stores a lot too, just not ones that make me feel shitty, over an over, when I go there. I tried many times in Jetfuel, always left feeling shitty. Can’t overlook that.

    Apologizing for behavior that makes people feel shitty (I am not alone in this feeling) is ideologically based: better to be indie than good customer service. That’s a symptom of what’s rotten in the Canadian Left.

    james> Some good points as always (I too beat the college car to Yonge often), but completely disagree w your overall feeling about Cabbagetown. Far far from boring – you have exhibited a cynical take on all of Toronto in your comments in the past though, so that may cloud your view of Cabbagetown.

    Lea> I think the Tim Hortons is one of the best things to happen to Cabbagetown. It’s where those two layers overlap the most, and consistently.

  23. Shawn, you are knowledgeable, and have surely traveled to more interesting cities. Rhetorically, how do you suggest one not “[exhibit] a cynical take on all of Toronto”? The gulf between potential and actual is yawning. The other day’s announcement of the province again abandoning the GTA is a prime example of the cynicism and absence of vision in our politics: the seats won’t change no matter what we do, so ^%$#’em.

  24. geronimo> There’s lots to do in Toronto, certainly (this magazine and blog and I argue that all the time) but the more cities I go to I increasingly find (AND hear from people there) that Toronto is far ahead on lots of stuff. When we’re here (embedded!) we don’t have any perspective, and the bad, the lost fights, etc, obscure our view. Lots to do, but pretty good as is.

  25. Actually, if you read up on Starbucks you’d realize that for them to open up a shop, gentrification must already be beginning in the area; their arrival expedites things afterwards.

  26. Gidget: By “dominated by” I did indeed mean the latter. I don’t know the actual population statistics in Cabbagetown, but “white upper-middle class people in their 50s-70’s” are certainly the most visible in terms of real estate and vocal in terms of community activity (ie, the BIA and preservation society).

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