Toronto

Why losing Mirvish Village is like losing a piece of Toronto

A tree-lined side street so unique to Toronto that it became known as a village will empty out next month with some concerned the city is losing an important piece of its history

'It was only a block long but it really was a village,' says one business owner

Mirvish Village, a row of businesses and artists' spaces, will soon be changed forever. Longtime tenants are being evicted, while a developer is planning to build a several condo towers in the area. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

A tree-lined side street so unique to Toronto that it became known as a village will empty out next month with long-term tenants bemoaning a loss of an important part of the city's history.

Mirvish Village, the stretch of Markham Street located in the shadow of the iconic Honest Ed's building, has been home to art studios and one-of-a-kind shops tucked into brightly painted century homes for decades. But by the end of January, approximately 70 tenants — including those who have worked on the block since the 1970s — will be evicted.

"The magic of walking a few meters from Bloor where the car traffic is heavy and noisy and finding a village, it was only a block long but it really was a village," said Darrel Dorsk, one of the residents who has received an eviction notice. 

Dorsk, who opened his Green Iguana Glassworks shop in 1978 and will be moving it to a new location, said the street's appeal is that time has not changed it. Until now. 

"I have mixed feelings about it obviously," he said, surrounded by packing boxes years worth of work and clutter. 

Darrel Dorsk explains how he started off on Markham Street 1:04

Community relationships before business 

Mirvish Village is part of the 1.8 hectare parcel of land at Bathurst and Bloor Streets that Westbank Development Corporation bought from the Mirvish family in 2013.

Westbank plans to build a new rental and retail project in the area in an effort to "breathe new life into this unique neighbourhood." Those plans, however, have not been approved by the city and may not be until the spring.

Westbank spokesperson Anne O'Hagan said the plan is to preserve many of the heritage houses on Markham Street, while interspersing townhouses and slim towers that could be up to 29 storeys tall.

Darrel Dorsk has been working in the village since the late 70s. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

At Suspect Video, a VHS and DVD rental store where the door jangles open with surprising frequency, owner Louis Ceriz calls the plans another cookie-cutter development project.

"I think Toronto is losing something really unique and replacing it with something shiny and glossy which is what Toronto seems to do these days," Ceriz said.

He said Mirvish Village is about as neighbourly as it comes in a big city. It just doesn't have the same "psychology" as other parts of Toronto, he said, echoing a sentiment also shared by Dorsk. 

Louis Ceriz's store, Suspect Video, has been around for 25 years. When he closes in the new year, it will move online. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

"I have a lot of customers who have been coming in for 25 years, so I've seen their kids grow up," Ceriz said from behind the cash register of his store, which will soon shift online. 

He notes that relationships with people often came before business on the street, an aspect he believes is the cornerstone of the community's strength.  

Cheap rent was key

Westbank is hoping a mixed-use design for the neighbourhood, if approved, will create community with a park on the west side of Markham Street as well as artist studios and pop-up store spaces.

But many question whether the space will be affordable for younger generations — once encouraged to move to the area by the Mirvish family, who set rents far below market value in order to attract creative entrepreneurs. 

The Mirvish family kept Markham Street rent cheap in the late 70s and early 80s to attract artistic entrepreneurs. (City of Toronto Archives)

"I'd be very surprised if the rent comes close to what we pay here," Jane Irwin said, crediting part of her success as an artist to being able to stay for 25 years in Mirvish Village studio.  

Tenants paid $150 per month in the 70s, with some still paying $1,500 today to rent a house. 

"I looked around briefly, knowing we were going have to move, and there's nothing comparable," Irwin said.

Honest Ed's, back in the day, at the corner of Bloor and Markham Streets. (City of Toronto Archives )

While she says she feels lucky to have been the beneficiary of the Mirvish family, especially Anne Mirvish who also had an art studio on the street, Irwin is closing up her shop and fears for the future.

"I can't begrudge that things are changing, but I feel badly for younger people starting out and the rents they'll have to pay in Toronto." 

New 'Village' needs approval

Tenants' leases expire on Jan. 31, but city officials say the future of Mirvish Village likely won't be finalized until the spring of 2017. 

Westbank released these artist renderings of its vision for Markham Street's future. (Courtesy of Westbank Development Corporation )
 

A spokesperson in Coun. Mike Layton's office said city planners have sent developers back to the drawing board three times to make revisions, based in part on public consultation. 

The size of the proposed park, currently set to be 900 square metres according to Westbank, as well as the density and height of the proposed condo buildings remain outstanding issues.

About the Author

Amanda Margison is a journalist based in London, Ont. She has worked for CBC all over Canada and is happy to be back in her hometown.

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