With all the hubbub surrounding the 2015 Pan-Am/Para-Pan Games and the neighbourhood being created to house it, Toronto has largely overlooked the 2014 World Pride festival, and the neighbourhood that’s being cast in aspic to host it.
That’s the job of the Village Study, hosted by the 519 Community Centre, and funded by the Toronto Dominion bank under the auspices of TD Asset Management’s COO and frequent LGBT collaborator Tim Thompson.
“In the absence of a vision, anything can happen,” says the 519′s executive director Maura Lawless.
“A village will only exist if it is relevant to the LGBT community,” Thompson says. “It would be unfortunate if the village just faded away, and everybody laments its passing, realizing something has been lost. If there are some simple steps we can take to keep the village thriving, we ought to consider them, and that is what this project will examine.”
City Summer 2013: Click here to read our full Pride Week preview
The basic idea is this: Toronto has a gay village. A gay village is a good thing for a city to have. The way cities evolve, however, there is no guarantee the city will always have a gay village, so let’s look into taking decisive steps to ensure the gay village stays the gay village.
To those who have been following the evolution of Toronto as a home for the LGBT communities, this may seem retrograde. For at least the last decade, the previously static borders of the gay safe zone, which ran down Church Street roughly from Charles to Granby, have become permeable, thanks to cultural, social and personal forces that led to more mixing, more freedom and generally less parochialism. Isn’t getting all het up keeping a little strip of not-so-entertaining street a gay enclave a sort of fetishism, roughly equivalent to demanding the preservation of truck-stop pick-up spots when gay social life has evolved beyond a need for it?
But that, according to Lawless, would be Toronto-centric of us.
“For us, what’s important in this is the neighbourhood that’s the touchdown point for people,” she says. “It’s known internationally. This is the first place people come when they’re refugees or visitors or tourists. You may land here, you may spend some time here, and then you may move on.”
Despite the general social move towards various forms of tolerance and acceptance, there are still very few clearly defined LGBT urban spaces in the world. Even Manhattan no longer really has a spot, though cute couples are still seen getting their pictures taken at the corner of Christopher and Gay. The West Village and Chelsea sure are gay-friendly, but they’re not, for the most part, specifically gay.
So the 519, and the TD Bank, which has taken to sticking big gay billboards in the village (and, latterly, elsewhere), thinks there’s positive, global value in keeping Church Street queer. To that end, they put up an online survey (now removed) through the latter of which they received about 1,400 responses regarding how the village might be maintained or improved.
And on May 14, they held a public meeting, which they called the Church Street Check-In. Harold Madi of The Planning Partnership, which has been hired to marshal the study, was there.
“We met with about 150 people and the response was overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “What has come to light throughout the study so far is that people are passionate about the neighbourhood. The community has clearly expressed that it is ready for positive changes that will increase the vitality and livability of the area, while at the same time they want to protect the village scale and character. Social inclusion and meaningful integration of a wide range of communities within the overarching LGBTQ community is a widely held core value. Our study process and the emerging Neighbourhood Plan reflects this core value which is one of the aspects that makes Church-Wellesley Village unique socially and culturally.”
With the Church Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area another partner in the affair, a big part of that is expected to be the cultivation of more LGBT-specific businesses.
Despite the rainbow-emblazoned street signs, and a couple of die-hard bars, there are, in fact, precious few explicitly LGBT businesses in the village at the moment. In fact, over the past few years, chain stores have taken up a lot of the space, and though Timothy’s, for instance, has been appropriated in much the same way the late-lamented Second Cup and its Steps were in a previous era, there’s a limit to how gay a Subway or Hero Burger can be.
“There really are some opportunities to doing business development differently, and to look at how you foster a cultural hub,” Lawless says. One possibility, she says, is to make nearby cultural features like Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and the National Ballet School more central to the neighbourhood’s sense of self.
Like the Canary District, the newly studied village is being kicked off by a circus coming to town. Though then Pride chair Tracey Sandilands ludicrously predicted World Pride would draw five million people and bring in nearly a billion dollars, it is still expected to be a big deal, despite the event’s chequered history of postponements, underfunding and papal interdiction. Given the city’s extraordinary same-sex-friendliness, as well as the simple fact of the village being a clearly identifiable piece of geography, the event is likely to solidify Toronto’s place in the LGBT world map.
“No one asks if Chinatown is relevant any longer, or is Little Italy relevant anymore,” Lawless says. “I think it’s amazing that there are so many places in this city that are at least more tolerant, but I don’t think that, from our perspective, negates the value of having a home base, for lack of a better expression.”
Toronto celebrates Pride Week June 21-30, wrapping the festivities with its annual Pride March on Sunday.
Bert Archer is Yonge Street’s development editor. He frequently reports on neighbourhood issues.