By Paula Last and Bria John

The G-Word on Danforth East: Who has a say in gentrification?

The G-Word on Danforth East: Who has a say in gentrification?
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Gentrification. Most people agree it’s a loaded word.

Depending on where you sit on the property ladder, it could mean enjoying the boon of higher property values, or the fear of being displaced by them.

The east end of Toronto is no stranger to gentrification. Queen Street East in Leslieville was once littered with syringes, the universal symbol for a rough neighbourhood. It’s already been 10 years since the New York Times christened it as the new Queen Street West.

The latest neighbourhood in the east end to see this kind of change is the strip of the Danforth from Greenwood Avenue to Main Street, which for this article we’ll call Danforth East.

Danforth Ave. Greenwood to Main

In the midst of its decline it was sometimes called the other Danforth. But it’s recently been rebranded The Danny by the local Danforth Mosaic BIA.

Billy Deritilis, owner of Red Rocket Coffee, is the chair of the Danforth Mosaic BIA.

“A big part of the rebranding process involved understanding the appeal of the neighbourhood,” Deritilis said. The idea, he explained, puts emphases on the neighbourhood’s “mom-and-pop shop owners,” businesses that are often run by one’s own neighbours and, therefore by people who have the area’s best interest in mind.

“By building a feeling of community, we have something to offer that other businesses areas in the city don’t,” he said.

“That rebranding is a more recent initiative to revitalize what was once a desolate streetscape filled with empty or run down storefronts.”

The Danforth East Community Association (DECA) is the local residents’ association, which initiated a highly successful pop-up shop program to help rent empty storefronts. Their weekly newsletter has 1,119 subscribers as of Nov. 20 and notifies the community whenever a new business opens.

But the signs of exclusivity have also appeared. Torn down houses are being replaced with new builds and frequently break the million-dollar barrier. The ultimate gentrification calling card, Starbucks, is making an appearance at Monarch Park and Danforth Avenue.

Has Danforth East embraced the G-word?

Many involved in revitalizing this part of the city consider gentrification to be inevitable, but they’re doing what they can to make the community more livable and inclusive.

A brief history of the other Danforth

Danforth East has seen its fair share of ups and downs.

“I’ve seen this area right here as the dark age, back to life again, and then again back to being dark age,” said Sebastiano Dinatale, owner of Seb’s Cappuccino.

His business has been serving up some of the best coffee in the city since 1991 (four years earlier than the first Starbucks arrived in Toronto) and is one of the oldest establishments on this part of the Danforth.

With his shop located right across the street from East Lynn Park on Danforth Avenue, just west of Woodbine, Dinatale is happy to see the space being used by families again.

“The only sad part about this whole area right here is the fact that the originals that were here all moved out,” Dinatale said. “Business originals, resident originals, they all moved out because a lot of the people who had business(es) lived in the area. So once they couldn’t make the money, they moved out.”

Take a look inside Seb's Cappuccino, a Danforth East favourite.

Steve Wickens is another local community activist and amateur historian who has seen all the changes this part of the city has gone through. He leads an annual Jane’s Walk along Danforth East heading west from an old watering hole with a rough history, Wise Guys, to the recently revitalized Linsmore Tavern.

“I’ve lived in the east end my whole life,” Wickens said.

“I would say if it bottomed out at any time on the east Danforth, it was the early 1990s when there was a deep recession. Lots of stores were closing and places like East Lynn Park, which is now quite a lively place with a Farmer’s Market, was a good place to go get mugged.

Wickens reminisced about the neighbourhood in the early 90s.

“I remember hearing tales about parents going out and picking up needles in the morning,” he said, referring to East Lynn Park. “We don’t have those concerns anymore and I think overall we’re getting more life on the street on the Danforth.”

Steve Wickens runs the Jane's Walk every year along Danforth East. A great admirer of Jane Jacobs, he talks about some ideas to re-invigorate the strip.

Which leads us to today.

The push for urban renewal

“Absolutely. Gentrification is happening.”

That’s according to Diane Dyson, director of research and public policy at WoodGreen Community Services. WoodGreen Community Services has partnered with DECA to administer their successful Pop-up Shop Project.

Dyson says they keep their eye on the importance of inclusivity.

“Part of the tension in our work is making sure that it doesn’t tip over into gentrification so that poor people are pushed out,” Dyson said.

According to Pop-up Shop Project co-coordinator Gay Stephenson, 29 shops have been hosted since 2012, and six landlords outside the program have received help securing tenants.

And then there’s the ripple effect. Popular gastropubs are now lining the street, and successful shops from other parts of the city, such as the Toronto Tool Library and Kops Records, have chosen the Danforth to expand.

Local businesses are routinely named to NOW Magazine’s Best of Toronto list, and two former pop-up shops won this year, LEN: Democratic Purveyors of Find Art and Beautiful Things for best design store, and Merrily, merrily for best consignment store.

Leslieville showed how a community can come together when a development threatened a key community resource, The Red Door Shelter. Coun. Paula Fletcher and the community rallied to save it.

“We were able to all work together with the developer and they were able to keep the Red Door Shelter exactly where it’s been for many many years, while at the same time offering new locations for people who want to move into the neighbourhood,” said Andrew Sherbin, chair of the Leslieville BIA.

But not everyone has survived the increases in property values and rents on the Queen Street East stretch of Leslieville.

As a business owner, Dertilis was prompted to move Red Rocket Coffee to its new location by an increase in rents.

Red Rocket Coffee, owned by Billy Deritilis, used to be in Leslieville before rent increases drove them out. Now in Danforth East, Deritilis is part of the local BIA and hopes to stay there for a long time to come.

What the experts say

How can a neighbourhood know for sure that its efforts are inclusive?

Recent research and the experiences of another gentrified community in Toronto suggest that creating a livable community isn’t as simple as attracting families with more disposable income and creating more places for people to shop, even though that is a big part of it.

It takes strategic public investments in infrastructure like transit, housing and community services. It takes a concerted effort from the federal government to address issues such as income inequality and precarious employment.

Maureen Fair is executive director of West Neighbourhood House (formerly St. Christopher House). Her organization was the initial community partner for the Neighbourhood Change project, led by University of Toronto urban and social planning expert, Dr. David Hulchanski.

Hulchanski is also author of the well-known three cities report that put the stark reality of income inequality onto a map that’s been pretty hard to ignore.

While Fair acknowledged the benefits of mixed-income neighbourhoods, she also says that avoiding the negative effects of gentrification takes more than what local organizations can do.

Emily Paradis, a senior research associate with the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Cities Centre at the U of T, is project manager for the research project, now called The Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, which focuses on income inequality and socio-spatial polarization trends in major metropolitan areas across Canada.

“A big part of what drives that of course is housing and housing costs,” Paradis said. “A key concern is displacement of lower income groups who have long made their homes, have built networks of social support in these neighbourhoods, who become dispersed as housing costs increase, and also as the costs of services and amenities increase as well.”

Paradis believes that local grassroots initiatives and networks are important to keeping neighbourhoods inclusive, but she agrees with Fair that the real changes need to happen at a policy level.

“We need housing policy that can help address the needs for housing that’s affordable to lower income groups,” she said. “We hear quite a bit about affordable housing from the new elected government, and that’s great to hear, because certainly we haven’t heard much in that regard in the last 10 years.”

Paradis added that affordable housing can mean many things.

“Affordability has to be seen, at least in the case of low and moderate income household affordability, as rent that is no more than 30 per cent of household income,” she said.

This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

“It breaks my heart every time I’m standing at the corner of Queen and Dufferin, and looking at the new towers that have developed in Liberty Village … thinking about all of the affordable units that could have been created there, and were not. Emily Paradis, PhD, Project Manager for the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership

Inclusive zoning that mandates developers provide units at 80 per cent of market is one option. But the City of Toronto needs the province to give the city power to enact that policy.

Paradis said it also means an increase in social housing stock, and repairs to currently existing units.

“We also need a big expansion of rent subsidy programs to lower income households, a subsidy that’s income tested, and makes up the difference between people’s incomes and the rent they’re paying.”

Both Paradis and Fair lamented the missed opportunity to create affordable housing in the downtown core during the condo boom.

“It breaks my heart every time I’m standing at the corner of Queen and Dufferin, and looking at the new towers that have developed in Liberty Village thinking about all of the affordable units that could have been created there and were not,” Paradis said.

Dyson said that WoodGreen is consulting with community organizers in Parkdale to learn from their experience with gentrification. One idea being explored is the idea of land trusts.

“Community land trusts essentially buy buildings and land for community and then preserve it so that it can be used by all, as opposed to used by those who happen to have the most money,” Dyson said.

This model is already commonly used in U.S. urban centres like Manhattan and Boston.

“You set up almost like a non-profit corporation and they become the owner for these new commercial spaces,” Dyson said.

While changes at the policy level sound daunting, Fair doesn’t want people to discount their power in influencing public policy.

“It shouldn’t feel so far away just because it’s located in Queen’s Park or Ottawa,” Fair said. “I do encourage people to think about getting involved in provincial and federal public policy.”

The grassroots contribution

In the meantime, what’s a neighbourhood to do?

“We were formed not to oppose something, but to do something,” said DECA chair Sheri Hebdon. “It was just a group of neighbours that came together in someone’s dining room, to help improve the neighbourhood.”

Coun. Mary-Margaret McMahon for Ward 32, Beaches-East York, was one of the first community members to take steps to improve Danforth East. That was before she took office.

“The Globe and Mail called the areas a ‘no man’s land’,” McMahon said. “Them’s fighting words.”

While one of the group’s first projects with local businesses was helping with rebranding, eventually the issue of empty storefronts was put on the table. The group wanted to approach local landlords about beautifying their spaces to help get them rented.

“What they learned was that a lot of the landlords had no interest in doing any kind of streetscaping,” said Hebdon. “They had a vested interest in keeping it vacant for the tax credit.”

Not letting that dampen their spirits, former board member and Toronto Star reporter Catherine Porter, told the group about how Newcastle, Australia filled their empty storefronts. When the man behind it, Marcus Westbury, visited Toronto in March of 2012, 100 people were there to greet him, including all four city councillors within DECA’s boundaries and local MPP at that time, Michael Prue.

“Within a couple of months we had our first pop-up shop,” Hebdon said.

The current coordinator Gay Stephenson was the first landlord they approached. Not long after, DECA and WoodGreen received a grant to hire a full-time staffer to administer the program, and the rest is history. Stephenson shares that position with Tina Scherz.

But Paradis cautioned that efforts like this need to be wary of excluding the earlier residents of a community.

“The Pop-up Shop [Project] as an example, is something that could go in two directions,” she said. “It could either contribute to the ‘hippification’ of a commercial strip, and contribute to an overall rebranding of the neighbourhood as a place for a certain type of white middle class consumption, with cupcakes and handmade card shops.”

“On the other hand, an initiative like that could be incredibly important in sustaining commercial viability for the many different groups who live in the neighbourhood, highlighting the cultural diversity of the neighbourhood, and the diversity of not just consumer preferences, but consumer needs.”

She referenced anti-gentrification protests at a London-based shop called Cereal Killer to illustrate the complexity of the issue. The shop was selling bowls of cereal at up to $6 a pop.

“On the one hand, it’s totally understandable that something like that would be the target of people’s anger,” Paradis said. “On the other hand, these two probably pretty precariously-economic-group-positioned young people are just playing a role in a much, much bigger pattern.”

“The bearded lumberjack guys who run that shop, they’re just trying to start a small business,” she added, “And they probably don’t represent the financial elite who are really benefiting from gentrification.”

A recent DECA initiative in the spring of 2015 shows that this neighbourhood is eager to celebrate everyone in it.

DECA asked their newsletter subscribers to tell them about their favourite gem in the neighbourhood. The field was then narrowed down to three and the community voted for their favourite.

“It was just overwhelming how many people were engaged,” Hebdon said. “It was like a love-in for the neighbourhood.”

Paradis said that this is exactly the kind of initiative that fosters inclusion.

“That stands in stark contrast to other kinds of initiatives by resident associations that might have a less critical outlook, where they unwittingly contribute to the marginalization of those exact same businesses,” Paradis said. “Not out of any ill intent, but just because they’re not thinking about paying attention to that stuff.”

Finding the Toronto solution

Dyson said she believes there’s a Toronto solution.

The DECA and WoodGreen Pop-up Shop Program has sparked what could become a movement. Together they hosted Building Vibrant Main Streets and the Power of Local, an event designed to share the knowledge gained with the community of business owners, residents and experts in attendance and analyze the policy changes needed to ensure good progress.

Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner for the City of Toronto was the keynote speaker. She highlighted the city’s plan for complete streets, a vision for moving people around the city and making streets more walkable. Keesmaat shared her concern that her regulatory powers as chief planner don’t include making inclusivity a priority.

“I can persuade developers, but I can’t regulate the decision.”

Lancefield Morgan, an attendee, was realistic about the effect of the event.

“I think in any conversation like this, it’s really a matter of being honest,” said Morgan. “There are some honest and fairly hard conversations that need to happen.”

For him, race and culture are important factors to keep in mind.

“There may be a community that wants to name something from back home. That makes perfect sense to them but doesn’t necessarily resonate with the broader Torontonian sense. Invariably you have to have conversations about power – who has the right to name something and who doesn’t? And then how do people live with those decisions.”

But this is just the beginning.

“I think in the long run an event like this can really start the conversation, put the questions out there and see people take it up and take it back to their own organizations and spaces where they’re doing work. If enough of us have these conversations in different spaces, then I think you see the movement, then you see the broader change.”

Stay tuned for upcoming instalments in this series. We’ll be delving into property values, crime and speaking to more local residents.

About this Special Report