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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Dupont gets it done

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Dupont is the quintessential back — or above — street of the old city of Toronto. For drivers it's a shortcut across the city that avoids busier streets like Bloor or St. Clair. Bike riders and people trying to cross mid-block will tell you it's fast, maybe too fast. Like the servants' side of a British Manor house, things get taken care of on Dupont: a working street that keeps the prettier parts of the city running. This has been its role for years, but Dupont is changing and its look now, like a lot of Toronto, is a heterogeneous mix of styles and uses, sometimes called our "messy urbanism."

My favourite approach to the street is walking north on St. George and meeting it at a somewhat rare-for-Toronto "T" intersection. The sign for People's Foods, a tiny diner, seems bigger than the restaurant itself. Next door the giant Victorian pile that is the Pour House pub — what almost-old-timers will remember as the Red Raven — is a perfect example of a storefront extending out from an old house and meeting the street as residential becomes commercial. Finding hints of the former "houseness" inside buildings like this one provides some amateur archeological amusement.

Nearby is a giant LCBO, an interior decor store, the oft-recommended Nick's Shoe Repair shop, various drycleaners, and a suburban-style "Tiger Convenience" Esso store whose design is so generic and inappropriate that its south-facing doors and windows are blocked by a fence along the sidewalk. This is about as mixed up as a Toronto street can be.

Dupont begins just east of here at Avenue Road, in another T intersection that faces the Hare Krishna Temple in what was once a Presbyterian church. The little sign for the temple always seems to stand out on the old stone building, but it's a high-traffic example of how old British Toronto adapts to and accommodates the new stuff. This first bit of Dupont is a rather nice residential street that has evolved into a busy thoroughfare. A dip in the landscape here marks where the now-buried Nordheimer Reach of Castle Frank Brook once ran.

The Dupont and Davenport intersection is a big one. Downtown-bound cars heading east on Dupont whip around the corner dangerously quick as the streets do not meet at a right angle, and a few degrees mean a lot to a car. It's one of those places where you can stand still and feel why big streets are called "arteries." This intersection collects traffic — automobile- or human-powered — and feeds it into the city like an asphalt aorta. Moving along the surprisingly high CPR railway tracks just to the north, trains seem almost airborne, and make the urban layers here seem almost like a movie set.

Here begins the heterogeneous, sometimes ugly, sometimes pretty Dupont that runs parallel to those tracks all the way to the Junction. It's true that much of the industry that lined Dupont is gone, most from an era when a "mixed-use neighbourhood" meant a factory could be next door to home. This is the Dupont that Alfred Holden so wonderfully evoked in his 1998 Taddle Creek essay "Dupont at Zenith": "Enterprises, as great as Eastern Airlines or as lowly as a corner store, will often die pathetically, with no ceremony or celebration of their achievements. Dupont Street in Toronto at the close of the twentieth century is an open graveyard of such industries, most of which collapsed without so much as a pauper's funeral. Their skeletons lie exposed. They are the parking lots, warehouse loft condos, and retail joints of the post-industrial age." As though itemizing a hero's feats in an elegy, Holden goes on to list the industries that had left Dupont in the 1990s, after the Free Trade Agreement of 1988 sent manufacturing jobs out of the city en masse.

In the 11 years since "Dupont at Zenith" was written, the street has started to sprout again. Rather than experiencing the wholesale gentrified makeover that has transformed Queen Street West, it's as if the high-ended Yorkvilleness of Avenue and Davenport is seeping west and collecting sporadically along Dupont. Little shops selling small, middle-class-cute things dot the street now, sometimes in between lumberyards and luxury car dealerships. There is now a Starbucks on Dupont at Manning, but it's just a block from a ramshackle store that still sells industrial cleaning products and is known to more people I know than I ever expected.

Farther west, the 1970s Quaalude bubble entrances of the Dupont Subway station seem distant as the fancy and fey places are less frequent. Brick homes give way to ones with cheaper siding as the Annex and Seaton Village neighbourhoods become places without widely known names. Before Ossington you can buy an Aston Martin and peek into autoshop windows and see a Ferrari on the hoist, while after there are little European shops where old VWs beaters go to for life support.

In Toronto we celebrate institutions like MaRS in the "Discovery District" at College and University and even the Centre for Social Innovation (site of this magazine's headquarters), but this part of Dupont is another kind of incubator for small businesses, a natural one that passes under most of Toronto's various radars. Behind many of these old industrial facades, inside the subdivided old warehouses and even in the Galleria Mall are start-ups (many that would never fit in what we traditionally think of as a start-up) that couldn't afford rents elsewhere in Toronto.

As the gentrifying flow from Ave & Dav moves west, this low-rent incubation will move on, as transient as it is necessary to the city. Even the Junction, where Dupont ends in a complicated five-point intersection, is seeing much of this kind of space priced out of reach for most. Until then, Dupont will remain a series of snapshots representing much of Toronto, a sort of theme park of its various forms of cityness. Walks along Dupont don't feel like an isolated back route, but rather dense and almost humid, like being in the thick of where things happen.