The great debate

There’s a battle brewing over what makes for a vibrant homo life on Church St.

What leads to safety and a solid gay ghetto? How can residents and the night life meet?

Certainly the neighbourhood has changing radically. Twenty years ago there was hardly a gay bar on Church St.

“When I came to Toronto,” remembers City Councillor Kyle Rae, “There wasn’t ‘Church and Wellesley.’ There was The 519 and there were one or two restaurants – maybe there was a bar. The 457 might have been the first one – the Barn was on the other side of Carlton.”

That all started to change after 1981, when City Council amended the zoning for Church St from Dundonald to Alexander, to include commercial uses.

Before that, most gay bars were located on Yonge St – the St Charles, Stages, The Parkside and Quest. They were also straight owned. The change in zoning allowed for the shift to Church and the creation of what is now called the gay village.

But is that drive now out of control?

During the same years, the number of eligible voters in the riding has more then tripled (to 49,000 up from 15,000) – with a huge concentration of new housing in the heart of the gay village.

“We’ve been able to keep the downtown a safe place where people want to live,” says Rae. “People put in co-ops, non-profits, condos – a really interesting mix. And that’s why you need to be able to regulate uses. The first thing I need to do is make sure that the residential population is protected.”

Local residents El-Farouk Khaki (a gay man) and Christina Nielsen (a straight woman) are concerned about the nearly 30 licensed establishments in the small area. They have opposed the opening of a new gay pub on the strip, The Hair Of The Dog, at the corner of Alexander.

With the closing of off-Church gay spaces like Boots and Industry, “It concentrates it even more,” warns Rae, who has supported the liquor licence application from Hair Of The Dog.

Khaki and Nielsen are very aware of the behind-the-scenes financial pressures that motor many of the conversions. They say an area landlord is considering converting yet another pair of residential homes into commercial use.

Landlords can collect much higher rents from a business than from residential tenants.

Once a residential space has been converted, there is little the city can do to control what business sets up there. “There’s no way that the city can regulate commercial uses of a certain nature,” says Rae. “Bars are just another retail use.”

Rae says that the concentration of bars along the strip is damaging the earlier “village” concept for the area. “You’ve got residential all around, but you can go shopping on Church St in that neighbourhood village sense,” he says. “I’d like to see more diversification of uses on Church St. It’s mostly focussed on bars. I’d like to see a bakery on Church St.”


(At least two bakeries have failed in the last few years, however.)

The commercialization of Church is only going to continue. According to Rae, residents on Granby and McGill are eager to see the retail strip move south of Maple Leaf Gardens. “They want to see more grocery stores and more dry cleaners,” says Rae. “I’ve been trying to get a liquor store on Church St. The liquor board would love to move off of Yonge St onto Church. There’s these kinds of changes that happen on urban streets.”

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