Gentrify Me

How a savvy group of Toronto residents took neighbourhood revitalization into its own hands through pop-ups and social media

When Natasha Granatstein was on maternity leave in 2006, venturing out with her baby was a fairly dull affair. Though she lived minutes from the Danforth, she was east of Greenwood where the commercial pep of Greektown had well petered out, yielding to empty storefronts and discount variety stores. She could get coffee at the Tim Hortons kiosk in the Shoppers Drug Mart, but what she really wanted was a place with couches and Wi-Fi where she and other parents could sprawl for a few hours. “There wasn’t a decent restaurant for four or five blocks, and the places that were there didn’t necessarily have things that you needed,” she says. “People didn’t really walk on that part of the Danforth.”

The neighbourhood, which runs roughly from Greenwood Ave. to Main St., was home to Greek and Italian immigrants after the Second World War and, more recently, to newcomers from Ethiopia and Asia. In the past decade or so, it’s become the latest “it” neighbourhood among young urban professionals, lured by what seems like the city’s last pocket of affordable, subway-accessible homes with decent yards. This past week, a house on Rhodes Avenue, a fairly typical and modest street, nabbed headlines for attracting 25 bids and selling $170,000 over its $549,000 asking price.

But the classic trajectory of gentrification has not really applied here. For a long time, despite all the SUVs and strollers, the strip remained stubbornly indifferent, a mix of defunct stores, faceless chains, and some of the old merchants still hanging on. The upscale boutiques and niche businesses—love them or hate them—didn’t follow the influx of white-collar dwellers as had happened in nearby Leslieville or on Kingston Road. “Lots of people who’ve lived here a long time say they settled here 20 years ago thinking the neighbourhood was about to turn around,” says Granatstein, who moved to the area in 2004 with her husband. “And we thought that, too.”

Rather than carry on hoping for an eventual turnaround, Granatstein and some neighbours formed the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) in 2007 with the idea to steer the evolution of their neighbourhood. In its first years, the group debuted on all requisite social media and launched an arts fair, a weekly farmers’ market and annual yard sale. The events got people out and mingling, but it was hard to ignore the incongruous dead zone on the Danforth. So, as its membership and confidence grew, DECA, which now has around 200 paid members and more than 900 blog subscribers, focused on the more daunting and difficult task of commercial renewal.

In the past few decades, gentrification has transformed a number of Toronto neighbourhoods from derelict netherworlds to gritty hipster enclaves to unattainably expensive villages. Consider Parkdale, Roncesvalles, or Bloordale, to name a few west-end examples. By definition gentrification entails displacement, and the process introduces us-vs.-them tensions: As the newcomers, with their preference for macchiatos and artisanal cheese, attract boutiques, street bustle, and soaring property values, former residents and local businesses get squeezed out, leaving a demographic monoculture. By the time people sound the alarm, the momentum is tough to break.

On Danforth East, it helped that DECA—not condo developers and faceless investors—was piloting neighbourhood renewal. “In the early days, a lot of the work we did was letting people know about the businesses that were there,” says Granatstein. “Places that people weren’t sure of.” Early on, DECA members recognized the value of the neighbourhood’s original sheen; they weren’t looking to craft another Bayview or Mount Pleasant, but rather a strong community with good local amenities. They hoped to land in that sweet spot between a little gritty and a little upmarket. To do it, residents would embark on a sort-of urban experiment. Using innovative approaches that involved existing businesses and longtime residents, DECA hoped to cultivate a better brand of gentrification.

The road to renewal began with revamps. Inspired by similar efforts in Parkdale, DECA volunteers offered local mom-and-pops free labour and expertise in graphic design, marketing, decorating, and carpentry. A few businesses required a scrub and a paint job; others were fully reimagined.

In 2008, they helped modernize the stalwart Michael’s Meats deli, which had just changed owners. On evenings and weekends over a few months, volunteers cleaned, painted, and reconfigured the layout. A marketing expert took on the rebranding—a new logo and a new name, Plank Road Market, a nod to the company that built the Danforth. A year after the transformation, sales jumped markedly and the owners were able to buy a bigger space a few doors down. The shop has remained the go-to neighbourhood deli.

Volunteers performed several facelifts over the next couple of years, but the overshadowing dinginess of neighbouring deserted storefronts remained, despite Facebook updates and blog posts encouraging residents to patronize the strip. Then, around 2011, someone from DECA read about a pop-up experiment in Newcastle, Australia, an economically depressed coal town whose main streets were scarred with vacant buildings and vandalism and crime. In 2009, a group called Renew Newcastle convinced property owners to donate unused space for a month at a time to creative or fledgling enterprises in the hope that they would breathe life into the town. Since then, 59 properties have been filled with 129 new businesses (lots of galleries, studios, and first-time shops). Within months, vacancies in the city’s once-derelict Hunter Street pedestrian mall dropped from 20 to just three. As people began shopping there, businesses that had once abandoned the strip returned.

This model appealed to DECA’s aggressively DIY approach. Pop-ups allowed the community a level of control over the sorts of businesses that would emerge, and could include, not alienate, longtime landlords. What’s more, simply enlivening a dreary, dusty storefront could kickstart foot traffic, and might signal to prospective tenants that residents wanted to shop local.

Starting in 2012, volunteers visited every empty building on the strip, which numbered at least 50. It was tedious, tiring work—not only tracking down the landlords, some of whom had long left the neighbourhood, but trying to convince them to give up their space for free. A screening committee assessed business applications, which poured in. (Free retail space for a month!) More than a year later, 23 temporary businesses have sprouted up: a gift shop, a kids’ clothing store, a cupcake place, an art gallery, among others. Three eventually signed multi-year leases.

Fa.real Custom Tees is one of the success stories, a pop-up-turned-permanent business. Situated on the relatively happening little stretch between Coxwell and Woodbine, Fa.real is run by Allister Thomas, an affable 37-year-old, and his wife, Tracey. They started the company in 1997, selling their logoed shirts at festivals and events, then out of their Scarborough home. Tracey saw DECA’s Craigslist ad and convinced her hesitant husband to apply. In February of last year, Fa.real made its Danforth debut.

It was a rocky start. The month was predictably bad for sales, plus Allister’s vinyl cutter needed repairs and was out of operation for half the time allotted to him. These sorts of snags led DECA to tweak the original concept, which offered up empty spaces more as vibrant placeholders until real businesses moved in. DECA wanted to draw viable businesses from the get-go, and the best way was to charge rent.

Tenants now pay $750 a month ($700 to the landowner and $50 to DECA), as well as any additional costs to run the air-conditioning or heating as requested by the owner. The pop-ups also get six months in the space—enough time to discern sales patterns and build clientele. The requirement to pay rent, albeit very reduced, attracted fewer, but more viable businesses.

There’s been no shortage of interest, but some landlords remain unconvinced. Apathy is also likely aided by a city rebate program that gives commercial building owners a 30 per cent tax break on their vacant retail space, an arrangement born in recessionary times that was intended to prevent foreclosures.

“Among the old-school thinkers, pop-ups sound like too much work,” says Gay Stephenson, a former realtor and local property investor who was the first landlord to host a pop-up. In 2012, she lost her longtime occupant, a nail salon that moved into a bigger space. For Stephenson, having DECA volunteers clean and ready her space for a short-term business while she courted permanent tenants “seemed completely sensible.” Stephenson, who has the sunny presence of a pre-school teacher, has become a local fixture, checking in with pop-up properties, beautifying a window display here, chasing down a landlord there in her never-ending quest to get more of them on board.

Of the roughly 50 landlords within DECA borders, eight have participated in the program. Randal Clark was the second. The retired high-school teacher had run a hopping little arts café out of his 1,600-square-foot building until 2009. The space sat empty for years, and in late 2012 he loaned it out first to a boys’ clothing store and then to a bakery, which was close to signing a lease at the end of its successful stint. For Clark, swallowing a few costs and the slight burden of temporary tenancy was worth the exposure, both for the neighbourhood and his property. “Something new [like pop-ups] always brings good publicity,” he says. “And they did. They brought more shoppers into the area, and even business owners looking for retail space.”

As Stephenson is quick to point out, the pop-ups that have endured, like Fa.real, as well as an eclectic gift shop and a clothing thrift store, offer reasonable price points that don’t exclude lower-income shoppers. A healthy ratio of dollar stores to French patisseries can help avoid the mass decamping that’s characteristic of commercial gentrification.

DECA’s success might be best measured by the string of new shops that have surfaced, independent of the group. The revamps, along with shop-local campaigns and social media blitzing, have announced to businesses that residents want to spend money on Danforth East.

Of course, the marker of any upscaling neighbourhood is a good coffee shop, a hub for the stroller set and loiterers with laptops. In early 2012, Red Rocket filled that void, just east of Greenwood. The owners, brothers Billy and Liako Dertilis, had opened the original Red Rocket on the edge of Leslieville at Queen and Greenwood in 2007, “when [the neighbourhood] was still pretty sketchy,” says Billy. “There were still needles on the ground some places. Then, within two years, it was all baby stores.”

As is often the cruel cycle of unchecked gentrification, Billy and Liako found that they could no longer afford the rent, and were forced to leave the neighbourhood whose transformation they helped cultivate. In coming to Danforth East—where rent is a quarter of what they would have paid on Queen—the brothers are acutely aware they may be stepping into the same trap. Still, they’ve been heartened by the tempered pace of change on Danforth East. A handful of new bars and fitness centres have opened, and Billy has noticed at least one of the original eateries nearby “trying to turn themselves around,” presumably to capitalize on the new clientele.

In the last two years, pubs like The Wren (the ’hood’s first hipster joint) and Morgan’s have opened near Greenwood. There’s also Sauce, a proper cocktail bar serving classic highballs and fancy cheese plates, and a cutesy ice-cream parlour called Carter’s across from East Lynn Park. Last year, two neighbourhood moms opened Oaks ’n Acorns, a kids-and-parents activity studio that has a smooth, stark Scandinavian aesthetic. After looking at almost 100 properties, they settled on Danforth East, where rents were cheaper and the clientele plentiful. “While we were renovating the space, we were quite pleased with what we saw out our window every day: stroller after stroller after stroller going by,” says co-owner Winnie Standish. “I think if it weren’t for DECA, this neighbourhood would be in pretty rough shape.”

In the fall of 2013, a study by University of Toronto urban studies graduate students calculated Danforth East’s commercial vacancy rate at 9 per cent, down from DECA’s 2012 figure of 17 per cent. (These are buildings that are either vacant, for lease, or appeared abandoned.) Though vacancy fluctuation is common in any neighbourhood, it’s not a stretch to credit some of this new commercial energy to DECA’s efforts.

Meanwhile, some of the old Italian grocers like Masellis (a bit west of Danforth East proper) and Jerry’s Supermarket have made efforts to update, offering organic and fair-trade products. “You still want some of the old businesses here, because that’s the patina of the neighbourhood,” says Liako. “You want that little bit around the edges…because the problem of gentrification is lack of character.”

Places like Jerry’s or the former Michael’s Meats have an appealing charm and history that DECA hopes to preserve. Urban renewal doesn’t have to mean total reform; for the savvy business owner, affluent consumers offer opportunity, not ruin. And, as local property values attest, this demographic seems to be settling in.

During the last several years, semi-detached homes in the area have shot up from $300,000–$400,000 to $600,000 and $700,000, while some of the larger detached houses have gone for more than $1 million. Though a bit of wealth can be good for a neighbourhood in terms of services and safety, it presents a challenge to groups like DECA, who want to maintain a level of socio-economic diversity. The organization recently partnered with WoodGreen Community Services (Toronto’s largest social-services agency) which funds DECA’s two paid positions, while annual funding from the Metcalf Foundation mandates that DECA’s efforts help improve social and economic opportunities for low-income people.

While farmer’s markets and arts fairs may not appeal to all socio-economic and cultural groups, DECA has made efforts to include all businesses in shop-local campaigns, and has brought longtime merchants into the selection committee for pop-ups. “Local businesses know the commercial composition and what the customers look like,” says Mirej Vasic, one of the authors of the recent U of T study. “They can bring a vital perspective on how to revitalize.”

Though it’s tough to know the extent to which the socio-economic dynamic of a neighbourhood can be engineered, the goal of more inclusive urban renewal is likely better guided by residents and groups like DECA. “Sometimes residents have to force the change because the market doesn’t always provide for certain establishments that cater to everyone’s incomes and what the community needs,” Vasic says. “Not taking matters into your own hands is what invites wholesale gentrification and displacement.”

This story appeared in The Grid, now defunct.

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