Get to know the Humans of the Danforth

A multi-platform photo exhibit captures small business owners and their pandemic struggles

A multi-platform photo exhibit captures small business owners and their pandemic struggles

The GreekTown neighbourhood in east Toronto runs along Danforth Ave., from Chester TTC station to Dewhurst Ave. (Jennifer Williams/CBC)

In partnership with the City of Toronto and CaféTO, CBC Toronto's Serving Up Change series is profiling business owners in five neighbourhoods across the city who, on top of innovating and working overtime, have received incredible community support.

The CBC Toronto community partnership series Serving Up Change makes its final stop in East Toronto.

One of the east end's most recognizable neighbourhoods is GreekTown, a stretch of Danforth Avenue, just a few blocks east of Broadview Ave. In 'normal times', the Taste of the Danforth festival brings in the masses, but this Greek neighbourhood, the largest  in North America, lives up to its moniker year-round.

Vasha Zindros has spent her life immersed in the Greek culture of the Danforth. She took over as manager of her family-run restaurant, Mezes, just six weeks before the pandemic shut down indoor dining.

"Suddenly everything my parents worked for and sacrificed seemed lost. Most of our staff have been with us for at least a decade, and suddenly their livelihood was gone," Zindros recalled. 

I was meant to be the leader through that devastation. I did the only thing I could do: I told the truth. I didn't try to hide how scared I was. In doing that, I learned unequivocally what a special group of humans I'm surrounded by. They didn't expect me to lead; they took my hand and we started moving on together.- Vasha Zindros
Photos of multiple GreekTown business owners are featured in the windows of the Pape Library. The series, which took inspiration from the popular Humans of New York project, allows viewers to scan a barcode beneath the photo to hear an audio interview with the featured owner. (Jennifer Williams/CBC)

With a supportive staff behind her, Zindros pivoted to takeout. And, with her community in mind, she offered an incentive that only a tight knit community like GreekTown would support with fervour.

"We decided that for every meal ordered for pick-up, we would donate a meal to the East End Community Food Bank," Zindros said. "We had neighbours order meals to fill their freezers, just so that they could make an impact on donations, donating meals in kind, and countless offers to help with delivery to the community centre. That early experience of generosity was truly the light that led us through the months that followed."

For Zindros, and other surrounding business owners and patrons, the survival of the neighbourhood is symbiotic.

"I've never known any other home than Greektown. The Danforth has been the backdrop of my life. I was the little girl shopping at the fruit market with her grandfather. I was the girl whose dad risked everything to start his dream of owning a restaurant. I was the girl whose dad died on the Danforth, steps away from his new restaurant, out celebrating the early success he'd found.

Giving back to Greektown, for me, means making sure that we continue being able to welcome guests to our dining room, so that we can share this community with as many people as possible."

Zindros is featured in a new multi-platform photo exhibit called Humans of the Danforth, an East End Arts initiative led by photographer Henry VanderSpek, an east ender himself.

"Humans of the Danforth is about celebrating the hard-working business people of GreekTown on the Danforth," VanderSpek explained. "Like small business people everywhere, the experience of repeated lockdowns was extremely hard on all of them. Each of the businesses featured has a unique story of how they got started. They now have equally moving stories of how they supported the community, and how the community supported them, through the tough times of COVID-19."

Vasha Zindros was one of the 26 GreekTown business owners featured in the Humans of the Danforth project. This photo is featured in the window display outside Pape Library, with an accompanying audio interview on the STEPS Public Art app. (Henry VanderSpek Photography )

VanderSpek hopes the exhibit will inspire people to support their local businesses, ultimately helping them weather the storm of COVID. Despite the many small businesses lost to this pandemic, he is optimistic moving forward.

"It needs to be acknowledged that quite a few GreekTown businesses had to shut down this past year, some that were around for many years. That loss was felt keenly by many of the business owners I spoke with," VanderSpek said. "That being said, the community really supports them, and they are equally dedicated to giving back to the neighbourhood." 

I heard many restaurant owners share how they don't view other GreekTown businesses as competitors but express the conviction that when their neighbour succeeds, everyone succeeds.-Henry VanderSpek
Henry VanderSpek takes photos and conducts interviews for the audio component of Humans of the Danforth.The multi-platform photo exhibit was developed by East End Arts and the GreekTown on the Danforth BIA. VanderSpek was chosen based on a previous photo exhibit, Taxi Drivers of Toronto, which shared the experiences of taxi drivers in the city. (Jennifer Williams/CBC)

As difficult as it is for Zindros to recognize the loss around her, she's committed to working toward the future. 

"Last summer, on the weekend that would've been Taste of the Danforth, our neighbours in the back alley sent us photos of our staff dancing between shifts the year before," Zindros recalls. 

"The caption was: 'We can't wait to get back to this view.' It wasn't a reminder of what we were missing, it was a reminder of what we were looking forward to. Beyond the food we serve, I think our hearts have been seen by this neighbourhood. They've known our joy, our pride, and they didn't forget, even when everything became harder and stranger."

The outdoor exhibit, Humans of the Danforth, will be on display until Sept. 5. To check it out, grab your smartphone, download the free STEPS Public Art App, and head over to Danforth Avenue between Chester TTC Station and Jones Avenue. 

For more neighbourhood features, check out CBC Toronto's complete Serving Up Change series.

Humans of the Danforth features both large portrait installations, displayed in store windows, and an interactive component. Download the STEPS Public Art app and scan the QR codes under the featured photos to learn more about the corresponding business owners. (Jennifer Williams/CBC)

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