In her classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird, author Harper Lee describes a small, tired village: “There’s nowhere to go and nothing to buy … and no money”.
Ms. Lee’s characterization could’ve been about a short two-block stretch of retail and restaurants that intersects the Forest Hill neighbourhood – except for the “no money” part. Surrounded by a half-dozen shuttered shops, misplaced franchises and a host of once grand-looking low-rise apartment buildings, there remains a few lone witnesses to a time when Forest Hill Village resembled a Norman Rockwell painting.
For over half a century, the Village was a charming pastiche that served the prospering neighbourhood with folksy proprietary stores that were rich in service and quality. A snapshot of street life in the 1940s looked like a still from a Frank Capra movie. The Village featured gourmet food shops, two gas stations with mechanics you could trust, one of the original Loblaw stores, a movie theatre and a candy-filled Stop and Shop variety store. Cut to present day, and the same village is suffering from a slow rot evident in revolving-door retail and the lack of quaint architectural character that once defined the Village so many years earlier.
The Forest Hill Barber Shop opened its doors in 1931 and its owner, Nick Vitantonio, 71, has been cutting hair for more than 50 years. On the day I dropped into the shop, the question I posed about the stagnant state of Forest Hill Village immediately turned off the heated debate over Habs versus Leafs.
Mr. Vitantonio is fast to offer his opinion on why this prime stretch of real estate, surrounded by the glitz and glamour of its residents, has never morphed into the kind of distinctive streetscape that defines Toronto in neighbourhoods such as Rosedale, Leslieville and Roncesvalles.
“You can’t call it a village anymore when all you have is franchises, banks and chain stores we don’t need. Where is the butcher shop, the post office or a quality grocery?” he says. His son-in-law, Terry Caris, who works alongside Mr. Vitantonio, adds: “No one wants Rodeo Drive, but the Village is now famous for gouging rent and thousands of parking tickets. What’s charming about that?”
Forest Hill dates back to 1923, when it was incorporated as a village, and later annexed by the City of Toronto in 1967. In spite of a derailed attempt to construct a highway that would run from the 401 to downtown Toronto via Spadina Road – which would have destroyed the Village – Forest Hill quickly became one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in Toronto. It boasts two of Toronto’s most prestigious schools and houses that sell for $4– to $5-million. While many consider Rosedale to be the setting of Toronto’s elite, Forest Hill has been home at one time to many of the city’s great moguls, including the Weston and Rogers families.
Veteran realtor Roman Gofman, who has been selling big-ticket real estate in the neighbourhood for nearly 30 years, says the Village lost its identity years ago. “The landlords charge sky-high rents while they wait for zoning for redevelopment or another franchisor with deep pockets,” he says.
He also points to a sad stretch of the Village featuring four dilapidated storefronts that have been boarded up for nearly a decade, and fast-food outlets and retailers who come to the neighbourhood without understanding the demographics and quickly fail.
“Did the Village need a Baskin Robbins when we had a great local ice-cream shop? Do we really need a Subway?” Mr. Gofman asks. “Did we need a Blockbuster across from a local video store? All of this contributes to a lack of individuality and drives people to shop elsewhere.”
Enter Peter McClelland, the chairman of the Forest Hill BIA. He has watched over the Village for the past decade and is trying to improve things. Mr. McClelland agrees that the state of retail could be much better. “The Village is a double-edged sword with name brands that don’t work and excessive rent that can’t support bespoke retailers. The residents don’t want a Nike or Roots store. We have to be patient, find the balance and be realistic. This village is in transition. Things will change.”
Another concern is that large retailers that can afford the rent often lack the vision to create something that reflects the history of the Forest Hill Village. Mr. Gofman points to the newest addition to the strip, a large LCBO store. It’s a box-like structure with the architectural sparkle of a munitions plant in Kabul. Both Mr. Gofman and Mr. McClelland agree that this was a stunning mistake. “Both the builder and the LBCO had an opportunity to produce something special,” Mr. Gofman says. “It would’ve been wonderful to create an homage to The Village Movie Theatre that was located on that same spot 40 years ago.”
In the growing age of the multiplex, the theatre was closed and the location eventually became a dry cleaner before being torn down to make room for the LCBO outlet. Curiously, in a neighbourhood that has many great private cellars, this LCBO features a miniscule Vintages section with fewer than a dozen bottles. “Why they didn’t build something similar to the iconic Summerhill location, or make the whole store a Vintages, is staggering,” said one of the managers on duty on the day I visited, who didn’t want to be identified.
“The district manager is reviewing the situation,” he says.
Lionel Schipper was just a young boy when he first lived in Forest Hill in the ‘40s, before moving south of St. Clair years later. He recalls a different kind of place. He paints a vivid canvas that had the movie theatre where he watched weekly sneak previews, a friendly local gas station to fill bike tires each summer, and the Min-A-Mart bakery where his mother bought chocolates and a pint of ice cream.
“It was a bustle of activity and a destination,” Mr. Schipper says. “I still love it, but it’s sad that it’s not what it should be.”
Mr. McClelland is aiming to execute a master plan to bring back some of the Village’s lost character. “I can’t control the landlords, but I can focus on improving the streetscape,” he says. His plans include building out the patios, tree planting and the recent addition of a $500,000 park that he says will act as a gateway to the Village. The BIA is also trying to mediate a debate on how best to solve the parking issue. Residents are divided on a plan to turn the lone, small parking lot into a multilevel structure with retail.
Mr. Gofman thinks the parking issue is irrelevant. “Local residents have long abandoned the Village for retailers like Pusateri’s north of the Village, or the shops on Eglinton Avenue where there is plenty of parking. These are people that shop in New York and Palm Beach. What are we offering?”
Damir Sulejmani and his brother Izzy have been retailers in the Village for 18 years. Damir has tried elevate the village retail experience by using his modest-sized gallery and framing shop to feature iconic photographers such as Albert Watson, Mary McCartney and Lillian Bassman. But he says the Village is its own obstacle. “Residents have to speak up and demand a standard for the Village. Big-box retailers and franchises should not be allowed [here].
“The BIA thinks that dropping in a few metal benches makes a village a village. Ridiculous! The $500,000 spent on a park no one is using could’ve spent on street banners, festivals and better parking.”
Mr. Caris agrees: “Mom and Pop have been replaced with corporations. We are a high-end neighbourhood with a lot of low-end stuff.”
And yet, this is hardly a desolate strip. On any day, the Village is alive with animated chatter outside coffee shops and there is a steady stream of traffic. You can easily identify the savvy retailers who have figured out what works. The handsomely expanded Track Fitness and Aroma Espresso Bar are jam-packed, as is the Kitchen Table grocery store. Hands-on veteran restaurateurs such as Banfi, Mashu Mashu and Edo have prospered, offering personal attention and a consistent menu tailored to the neighbourhood.
Aside from Mr. Vitantonio, the barber, a few old-time players such as the Village Chill ice cream shop also give the strip some much-needed character, and a few new additions like the Type book store and Apotheca drug store aspire to transform the street.
But, as Mr. Sulejmani says, locals want more. “We can’t survive with a village that offers exercise and coffee.”
Barry Avrich is a filmmaker/marketing executive and a Forest Hill resident.