For two days in the summer, Salsa on St. Clair transforms the street into a vibrant dance party. With the street brimming over with potential patrons crowding onto patios and shelling out cash for street fare such as tacos and burgers, it looks as if a business owner’s dream come true. But for some, it’s a nightmare.
Toronto hosts dozens of street festivals every summer across the city, blocking off sections of main arteries from traffic to host music, art and food events. They draw crowds of hundreds of thousands – or one million, in the case of the Taste of the Danforth – and are billed as celebrations of the city’s vibrant communities. But behind the scenes of Toronto’s street festivals, there are people who aren’t as enamoured with the events and it’s a cause for endless tension among the organizations tasked with hosting these festivals.
“Every year, it’s a debate,” says city Councillor Joe Mihevc. His ward is home to the Salsa on St. Clair festival, a Latin food and dance party that runs for the 10th year this weekend.
“Some do better than others, depending on the nature of the festival and [at Salsa] a lot of food is eaten so the restaurants do better than, say, the cleaners or the hairdressers.”
Street festivals tend to disproportionately benefit restaurants and bars, while service and some retail stores have their regular customers blocked out. Some still find the foot traffic benefits their business and will make efforts to cater to festival-goers by offering different wares or hosting sales, but for other businesses it’s all bad news.
“I actually lose business because of Salsa,” says Winston Burnett, a co-owner at Spectacular Sounds Ltd, an audio equipment store on St. Clair. Since most of his products are large speakers and equipment, his customers need to be able to easily load their purchases into a car. No cars means no business.
“Maybe it helps the restaurants, because a lot of them have outdoor patios and all that, but for my business? No. It kills it.”
Spectacular Sounds Ltd. is a paying member of the Hillcrest Village Business Improvement Area (BIA), the business collective that pays Canadian Latin broadcast company TeleLatino to organize and host the event each year. TeleLatino originally cooked up the idea for Salsa based off of the Calle Ocho Cuban festival in Miami. They approached the Hillcrest Village BIA, who was eager to participate, as they’d been looking for a festival to focus a spotlight on their community. Though the neighbourhood wasn’t necessarily a centre for Latin culture, the BIA and TeleLatino hoped to build one through Salsa.
“We have a Little Italy. We have a Chinatown. We don’t have a Little Havana, but this festival has kind of created this hub in Toronto,” says Bruna Aloe, the public relations manager for the Salsa festival.
“It’s Canada’s biggest street dance party and so it’s managed to unite Latinos and Latino lovers over the course of the weekend in an area that, 10 years ago, was desperately searching for this revitalization.”
But each year since the festival started, the debate over the costs and benefits to various BIA members gets more tense.
“The only people it seems to benefit in this area are bars that can do extended patios. For us, it’s a break-even proposition,” says Kirby Azuma, owner of Noir Coffee and Tea, a coffee shop on St. Clair and also a member of the BIA. To counter the crowds, Mr. Azuma has to bring in extra staff for the weekend, a cost he says is rarely covered by in the increased revenue.
“There are so many places that just shut down for the weekend and it’s really criminal for them because they’re paying into the BIA. Their taxes are going to fund this thing and they lose the revenue for the weekend.”
A newly opened bake shop on St. Clair has opted to close for the weekend – though the owner says she wasn’t fussed over the lost revenue – as has The Stockyards restaurant and Roast, a local butcher shop. Roast’s owner has instead decided to set up a barbecue stand in front of the shop, but his regular business will be squashed by Salsa.
Even some bar owners who participate question if the festival is of benefit to their business.
“It’s certainly profitable for me for those couple of days so I participate willingly and we try to have a good time with it all,” says Liz Guerrier, a member of the BIA and owner of Dave’s … on St. Clair, a craft beer bar. She says the festival drives away her regulars and she doesn’t think it’s worth it for the small gains she makes in revenue.