We moved to Ossington under duress. Middle Nineties we were escaping an evil landlord who had promised us massive renovations and delivered nothing but lies and excuses. Even so, territory west of Bathurst was unknown and Rachel was wary of the neighbourhood, dirtier than she was used to, and seemingly populated exclusively by groups of men loitering outside of pool halls. On the night before we had to decide if we would take the apartment, we hiked over around 11pm. The men cluster-stared as we passed. Wrappers strewn around the parking lot of the KFC across from our prospective apartment caught on our shoes. Rachel noted that there were a steady stream of police cars passing by, and suggested that the neighbourhood was so dangerous it required constant surveillance. I laughed and told her that there was a police station around the corner. Actually, the neighbourhood was starting to grow on me. The huddles of men were content to squint as we passed by. Rachel sniffed the fried chicken air dubiously as I pointed out the benefits: cheap rent, a balcony, 3 separate bakeries within a thirty second walk. Plus we had till the end of the week to move out and this – an apartment in an area we had never considered before – was the first livable place we saw that we could actually afford. In the morning, we took the place.
Ossington. I assume it’s named after some quaint village in England itself named after some quaint English Lord (is there any other kind?). Our neighbourhood revolves around Dundas and Ossington. Here you get the street car east to Yonge and the bus north to Bloor. Banks occupy two corners, a community centre the 3rd and a small drug store the 4th. Stand on the corner and you won’t see too many English gentlemen. Old men push carriages of empties to the Beer Store just down the street, old ladies heft big pieces of dried cod and buy-5-pounds-get-one-free sacks of ground beef. On certain summer weekends, the intersection jams with strange parades: there’s the parade consisting mostly of flatbread trucks carrying not entirely sober fellows grilling sardines and drinking beer; the parade of souped up sports cars waving Brazilian flags and endlessly honking their horns; and a religious parade featuring children dressed in white waving crosses. It is all strange to me. I am an outsider. When I go the bakery they ask me what I want in Portugese and I’m too tongue-tied and flustered to point to the gorgeous rolls other customers acquire by the dozen. I blush and leave.
At that time, in the late nineties, you didn’t really go too far south on Ossington. Halfway south was far enough. That got you past the seedy strip club (is there any other kind?) to the sprawling hardware store and the garage/car wash where they fixed and washed my Chevy. After that, Vietnamese karoake bars with dark windows mixed with warehouses dedicated to the selling of vats of grape juice to facilitate the local habit of making homemade wine. Then a crypt- like detox centre from which no one ever left. An occasionally operating rat infested hotel/heavy metal club. And the Mental Health Centre – whose dark sprawling campus gave safe haven to not only the ill but also the drunk, the homeless, the addicts and the prostitutes.
But Ossington changed as we changed. In 2000 we once again encountered the vagaries of landlord greed. Inspired by the Mike Harris government’s “Tenant Protection Act” our landlord had suddenly decided that his mother was going to live in our apartment – standard code for all I have to do is turf you out and I can jack up the rent thanks to the Tory government’s new laws. Having saved a surprising amount of money living in a tiny apartment for 5 years, we decided to buy. This time it was Rachel who insisted we stay in the neighbourhood. She had come to like the way the ladies at the bakery addressed her exclusively in European language that evoked red wine and sun-drenched oceans. We bought the smallest house we could find, occupied by a sombre Portugese family being supplanted to the suburbs at the insistence of the family patriarch, a fierce looking construction worker. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were part of a new influx into the community, younger educated hipsters taking advantage of one of the few liveable downtown neighbourhoods still relatively affordable. We moved two blocks west. I walked Ossington with a new kind of confidence – this is my neighbourhood now; my street.
Then came the art galleries. After all, that southern stretch of Ossington featured no shortage of abandoned storefronts ripe for the plucking. Suddenly, the area at the bottom of Ossington and Queen was adorned with galleries opening and closing at seemingly random intervals. We enjoyed walking down Ossington now, which featured drunkards having trouble keeping their pants on staring into windows at the kind of lo-fi art your friends might make. What was happening on Ossington? Something like gentrification but, since the neighbourhood wasn’t exactly a poor hovel in the first place, something more like art-ification or hipster-fication. For the most part, I liked the shift. It made a bleak stretch less bleak and did little else to the flavour of the neighbourhood – the Vietnamese, the Portugese, the bums and crazies and prostitutes ignored the art displayed in their midst just as the gallery proprietors and their hipster clients ignored the outstretched hands of the destitute. And anyway, Ossington and Queen was a different world – misformed fringe of the ultra hip Queen West. My headquarters at Ossington and Dundas seemed uninterested and unaffected, 5 blocks north but in an entirely different world.
I walked by, did a double-take and stopped. I couldn’t believe it. The primarily empty coffee shop and diner just past the drugstore at my beloved trash ridden intersection of Ossington and Dundas had been replaced by...a hipster bar. How did I know it was a hipster bar? The establishment posted no obvious sign – to the contrary, the small bar retained the retro sign of diner. This, coupled with the clusters of stubble-ridden trucker-hat wearing boys and girls chain smoking and drinking pints to the beat of a juke box programmed for Pavement and Pixies made it indisputable. And so it began. Soon after a new restaurant café that didn’t offer threadbare decor and collard soup. Eat, it was called. The first restaurant in the neighbourhood without a giant screen tv showing Euro-soccer and Brazilian soap operas. I started meeting pals at the bar – The Communist Daughter – and having brunch – brunch! – with Rachel at Eat. But I still slurped green soup, ate padash buns and deep fried cod fritter things. This was, after all, Ossington.
Ossington, my Ossington! What has happened to you? In one year, everything went crazy. How could a hipster grotto called Communist Daughter have been the vanguard of such rapid gentrification? They tore down the garage/car wash and replaced it with town-houses. Fancy colonnades guard the doorways of brand spanking new sprawling residences. I amble down Ossington in amazement. After the soon to be occupied townhouses there’s a new neighbourhood bistro. A bistro! There’s an Italian eco-furniture design outlet and a company that sells wine online. A vegetarian organic café sits next to a used book and record store. I go in to the bookstore and buy a Steve Earle album and two books – Cloud Atlas and Warsaw memoir by Issac Bashevis Singer. I’m the only one in the store and the guy running the place – who looks like he’s 12 years-old – seems surprised I’m actually buying something. Don’t worry, I want to tell him. Business will pick up. Past the wine juice factories at the bottom of the street, another hipster bar. Sweaty Betty’s it’s called and from an armchair in the window you have a great view of the foreboding detox centre across the street and anyone waiting for the Ossington bus going north. I meet a friend and we sit there, watching the neighbourhood at night. Quiet. The prostitutes have moved on, it seems. And though the mental health centre remains, where are the muttering wild-eyed hunched figures panhandling and pacing? I order another pint. And suggest a toast. To what? Ossington, I suppose.