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2007 03 10
The Junction: Hip Arts Hangout

In an effort to identify the "it" factor that makes the west Toronto Junction area a happening locale for arts and culture, the current Eye Weekly lists some of the neighbourhood's attractions. In a review, ostensibly of the Hole in the Wall (a narrow, brick-lined bar on the south side of Dundas just west of Keele), reviewer Edward Keenan's gaze seems captured more completely by the streetscape stretching beyond the confines of the eatery he's reviewing.

And that's hardly a wonder, given some of the more prominent Junction-area attractions Keenan points out: the Rue Morgue House of Horror, the home of Rue Morgue, a "horror in culture and entertainment" magazine (and yes, it really is located in a former funeral home), Pandemonium Books (a great source for local poetry and classic records), Big Daddy's DVD shop on the north side of Dundas near Clendenan, not to mention (although Keenan does) the Dundas strip's collection of dollar stores and cheque-cashing outlets and the occasional daytime street-walker.

Clearly the Junction is a neighbourhood in transition. And yet, Keenan finds himself reaching to define the qualities that make the Junction interesting. It's not prohibition, the Junction's dubious claim to fame, ending only in 1998. It's not the eclectic collection of pubs and restaurants serving a surprisingly easy mix of middle class and derelict patrons. It's not even the (very short) list of "indie arts notables" Kennan cobbles together.

Keenan describes the Junction as combining a mix of "pre-" and "post-gentrification" qualities. And perhaps this mixture is what makes the Junction unique. Because, unlike the Queen West triangle, say, where the local arts community is engaged in a violent struggle over development planning, the neighbourhood transitions here have, for the most part, been far more gradual and lower key. That may change as pressure for higher density growth in the city core reaches the Junction, but as Keenan observes, it's a big of a slog from the Junction to downtown. Rail lines press in on the community from several directions. Apart from the annual Junction Arts Festival, the most exciting event here in the past year was the suspicious fire in a local slaughterhouse. Our most identifiable community centre is the No Frills on Pacific.

And, perhaps above all, the residential mix here is what distinguishes the Junction from Parkdale, the Annex, Kensington Market, or other Toronto neighbourhoods where gentrification has become a hot-button issue. According to the City of Toronto's current Social Profile (.pdf file; further summary information is available here) of the Junction area, the population is divided equally between renters and homeowners, an especially significant figure in an area comprised mostly of houses and low-rise apartments rather than high-rise apartment towers. Twenty percent of the local population is classified as "low income". What this means, in practice, is that any Junction street is likely to consist of a variety of single-family and tenant-occupied homes. We have few large rooming houses, and most of those are fairly discreet. The architecture here isn't interesting enough to attract the most stereotypical gentrifiers: most of the people buying homes here (and, yes, pushing up the real estate values) seem to be young families starting out. It's a standard pattern here for new homeowners to rent out part of the house while paying down the mortgage in the first years, prior to beginning the long process of renovating one story at a time. What this means, in the end, is that the kinds of rapid, vast transformation occurring in Parkdale seem less likely here because the Junction, as a neighbourhood, does not exhibit the same kinds of radical polarities between rooming house renters and developers with dollar signs in their eyes. Many Junction residents are a little of both. In many ways, perhaps, like Leslieville in the east end, we're a small town in the middle of the city, a balanced neighbourhood whose form and fortunes shift gradually from decade to decade. As a Junction resident and one-time urban planner, I hope I'm right on this.

What does this all mean in terms of arts and culture in the Junction? Well, while Keenan is kind of enough to mention me in his short list of the Junction's "indie arts notables", he might well have added many more. Liz Forsberg, lyricist and guitar-player with The Phonemes (and contributor to the new edited anthology, The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto; Coach House, 2006), rocks out here. I'm told that Basil Papadimos, author of The Hook of it is (Emergency Press, 1989) lives in the neighbourhood. And the Junction's been home to arts notables for many decades. In Toronto: A Literary Guide (McArthur, 1999), Greg Gatenby lists "High Park North" as having been home to Toronto poets Gwendolyn MacEwen and Raymond Souster. Souster has written extensively about this part of the city, as does author Terence Green in his Junction-focused novel A Witness to Life (Forge, 1999).

If you want to see the Junction in its purest form, I suggest you pay a visit to the visibly unassuming Baker's Dozen donut shop, located where Dundas West meets St. Johns Road at an angle. If you buy coffee and a pastry and sit out on the umbrella-dotted patio on any mild morning, you'll encounter a vivid mixture of southern Europeans (Malta Village hasn't given up the ghost entirely, not yet), representatives of the local constabulary, parents with strollers, artists, writers, BIA representatives, and a couple of guys from the Salvation Army hostel, all holding forth on the weather, the community, and life in Toronto. That's the Junction on a Saturday morning.

[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris contributes commentary about Toronto literature and city culture on an ongoing basis.]

[Junction image by Lone Primate and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 03/10 at 01:49 PM

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