This past Sunday I attended our last performance of The Tale of a Town, a story about the how the cultural ecology of Queen West is changing. Over the last 30 years Queen West has been a hotbed of artistic and entrepreneurial activity- galleries, performance spaces, bars with live music, theatres, owner operated stores for food, fashion and all manner of things. One thing that is distinct about the strip is that it is a sanctuary of independent shops where you can actually meet the people who own the store, restaurant, bar or gallery you go into. In economic terms it is a diverse culture of people who each have control over their own financial opportunities and have contributed a lot to make this a desirable neighbourhood to be in or visit.
What is concerning to some is that there is a familiar pattern going back to Yorkville, which was a “bohemian” centre of activity in the 60’s and a breeding ground for the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Margaret Atwood. But its “cool” factor then, which was the product of its independent, entrepreneurial businesses and artists, drew big businesses who wanted to commodify that “cool” to help sell their products. That drove up the rents and all the people who created the neighbourhood’s attractive qualities could no longer afford to live or work there. In fact, Yorkville now has the third most expensive retail space in North America.
So it is with some trepidation that we welcome Joe Fresh today to our neighbourhood. We wonder if it will be a harbinger of higher rent for the local fashion shops that are characteristic of Queen West, thereby driving them out. And it was with some sense of irony that I read an article in today’s Toronto Star about the store opening and five reasons to check it out. Reason number five is: “More than 90 per cent of the staff lives in the diverse Queen St. W. neighbourhood- from OCAD students to artists to young mothers. Who better to ask about the latest bar, bistro or hip happening on that strip?” I suggest it might be good to shop at the local stores and ask the folks who are running or working in those independant shops about “hip happenings”. They are the ones who need your business in order to make sure that the “hip happenings” keep happening.