The last days of Toronto's 'low-rent haven' on Queen Street

Artists made Toronto's Queen Street West an attraction in the '80s, but developers' designs on the district seemed likely to force those artists out.

Longtime businesses and artists faced being forced out by developers in 1985

An unidentified singer performs somewhere on Queen Street West as CBC News looks at the threat posed by developers to the "funky, outrageous" character of the area. (Monitor/CBC Archives)

Artists made Toronto's Queen Street West an attraction in the '80s. But real estate developers' designs on the district seemed likely to force those artists out. 

In February 1985, reporter Christina Pochmursky visited the strip she described as "funky, outrageous, jazzy and free" for the CBC current affairs program Monitor.

"Stretching between University and Spadina Avenues, this is the place where anything goes," she said. 

Art, fashion, music, good food and good times all came together on the stretch, which lay adjacent to downtown and to much of the city's garment district.

'On a collision course'

Toronto's Queen St. West under real estate pressure in 1985

38 years ago
Duration 3:14
Longtime shop owners lament the changes that come with increased real estate values in 1985.

"If Queen [Street] West is just reaching its prime, it's also on a collision course. As Toronto's downtown core expands, the street has become a prime piece of real estate," said Pochmursky.

A building housing four shop fronts — including a bookstore, an artists' clothing shop and a men's clothing store with 42 years' tenure — had escalated by 400 per cent in value in just over a year,she said.

Housing addresses from 306 to 310 Queen St. W., the building had been sold to a foreign buyer for over $1 million.

(It stood on what became the empty lot where The Pursuit of Happiness filmed much of their 1986 video for I'm an Adult Now. Mountain Equipment Co-op has since built a new store on the space.)

Back in 1985, the new owner was planning to demolish the building and had already given notice to the occupants. 

'Low-rent haven'

A sign in the window at Hollywood Jobbers, a men's clothing store that had been in business for 42 years, thanks customers for their support. (Monitor/CBC Archives)

That meant clothing designer Paul Kelman, owner of a shop called Plash, had to leave his "low-rent haven," said Pochmursky.

"We can't find anything that's less than two to three times what we're paying currently," Kelman told her. "We don't want to leave the area. I love Queen Street."

Hollywood Jobbers was "just as much a part of Queen West as the funky punkers," said the reporter. And they were just as reluctant to move from their longtime location.

It was "the only place in town where you can still get 12 pairs of socks for $10."

"We have customers who virtually break down when they hear we're going out," said Sam Warner, in his shop crammed full of racks of men's clothing. "[Moving] is ... giving up something that's both pleasant and business wise."

According to reporting in the Globe and Mail, the occupants of the building got a "reprieve" on the same day this CBC-TV report aired. The owner had granted them a one-year lease extension and the building would not come down before January 1986.

Another Yorkville?

Resisting gentrification on Queen West

38 years ago
Duration 1:53
Toronto city councillor Jack Layton hopes to protect retail and commercial space in the "colourful" district in 1985.

Even though Kelman, Warner and their fellow shop owners were temporarily off the hook, those who called the "colourful" neighbourhood home remained on alert.

The camera captured neon signs for The Queen Mother Cafe, Garbo's restaurant and the Peter Pan eatery (but also the El Mocambo, which wasn't on Queen Street).

Among them were artists, garment workers, and small businessmen, said reporter Mary Wiens on Feb. 22, 1985.   

"Foreign investors ... as well as local businesses, like CityTV and MacLaren Advertising, are pushing for changes," she said. "Changes that could turn this area into another Yorkville, or a Chinatown."

Rents could 'skyrocket'

Paul Kelman, who sold paint-spattered clothes like the one he is seen wearing at his Queen St. store called Plash, said rents elsewhere would cost him two to three times more. (Monitor/CBC Archives)

Local city councillor Jack Layton said the tradition of people living on Queen Street West was under threat.

"If developers come in and redevelop these properties, the rents are going to skyrocket," said Layton.

Wiens said Layton hoped the city would consider turning some buildings it owned into "low and moderately priced housing." 

And he seemed to think Queen Street West might be in need of special treatment by the city.

"We really haven't tried to protect a retail commercial strip like this before," he said. "They've always carried on pretty much on their own.

"But this one is under threat, in transition, and we're going to have to use all the creative tools we can find."

Residents respond

Developers, architects and merchants got together to review blueprints for a new building on Queen West. (Monitor/CBC Archives)

Paul Mahoney was spearheading an effort to get residents together and make sure any development would be good for the artists of Queen Street West.

"It is the artistic community that is responsible for the viability of this area as an artistic attraction for tourists and Torontonians," he said.

He said he was looking for accommodations from both residents and developers so that "nobody loses out."

The first public meeting on the matter was slated to take place the next week.

"For many of these residents, the area they've helped develop could become one they can't afford," he said.

A neon sign lights up Queen Street West in 1985. (CBLT Newshour/CBC Archives)

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