Saturday, June 20, 2015

off the grid: retro t.o. the birth of queen street west

This installment of my "Retro T.O." column for The Grid was originally published on April 17, 2012.

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Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

With Silver Snail’s impending move to Yonge Street, one of the few remnants of the original Queen West strip is departing the scene. The ongoing transformation of the stretch between University and Spadina into a row of chain stores is just the latest evolution of the street. Back in the winter of 1979, the Star and Toronto Life devoted lengthy articles to the birth of what would become, as one headline put it, “gutter glamour on Glitter Street.”

The Star depicted pre-hip Queen West as such:
Six years ago, the unwary Saturday afternoon browser who slipped off Yonge St. on to Queen St. W. unwittingly fell off the edge of the known shopping world. At that time, deepest darkest Queen St. W.—notably the few blocks between John St. and Spadina—had little to offer the inquisitive, well-heeled young shopper with money to spend. There were the old, antique shops, the porno shops and the Turner Wine Store at the corner of John and Queen with its down-at-heel clientele of listless, hungry men, the greasy spoons, office buildings and machine shops. Even the more adventurous would go scurrying back to Yonge St. or north to Bloor, with its classy, high-priced Yorkville.
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Toronto Star, February 2, 1979. Click on image for larger version.
Toronto Life characterized the area as a marginal strip on the fringes of the clothing trade, where the streetscape was “inhabited by transient winos and the ethnics who had failed to prosper in the new country, ‘old-country good-for-nothings’ in the eyes of their more successful compatriots.”

Several explanations were given for why the landscape changed. There was the influence of Ontario College of Art graduates who stayed in the neighbourhood. Rent was far lower than in Yorkville, which provided better profit margins for the new business owners whose average age was 30 to 35. There was the allure of nearby cultural attractions like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Alex. Frequent streetcar service and plenty of on- and off-street parking didn’t hurt.

Queen Street looking west from St. Patrick's Market, June 7, 1981. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526,  File 76, Item 29. Click on image for larger version.
The result, according to the Star, was a neighbourhood where “the spirit of trend” had “raised her elegant skirts” and nestled “among scores of bright, funky craft stores, highbrow art book and comic book shops, new antique emporiums, elegant eateries and purveyors of the crazy, imaginative baubles that attract the moneyed restless.” A few reminders of the old days, like the A. Stork and Sons poultry store and a touch of industrial pollution, lingered on.

Both articles viewed the refurbishment of the Peter Pan restaurant as the turning point for the strip. With a history as an eatery stretching back to 1905 (and under its present name since 1935), the diner at 373 Queen St. W. attracted three partners who discovered old booths, counters, and fixtures gathering dust in the basement. After a refurbishment, the new Peter Pan was, according to the Star, “an art deco wonderland, a smash hit with the city’s young affluent.” That is, it was a hit if you could stand the servers, who Toronto Life declared the representative figure of the new Queen West (“the narcissistic waiter who’s in a punk band”).

Queen Street looking west from Beverley Street, June 7, 1981. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526,  File 76, Item 30. Click on image for larger version.
Of the 27 businesses listed in the Star’s “Where to shop in new village” guide and a few others included on a map, only four will continue on Queen West following Silver Snail’s departure: the Black Bull, Peter Pan, the Queen Mother CafĂ© and Steve’s Music Store. Even in 1979, merchants worried about the street’s future. “I don’t want too much change in the original street,” noted Peter Pan co-owner Sandy Stagg. “Change will come, I know. I just hope we can keep it under control.”

Additional material from the February 2, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star and the March 1979 edition of Toronto Life.

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