The pace of gentrification in downtown Toronto is truly astonishing. Queen West, Queen East, Leslieville, Little Italy, the Junction, Parkdale - one by one, downtown neighbourhoods have been infiltrated by galleries, coffee shops and yoga studios, while house prices on the surrounding streets soar.
From my own door step near Dundas and Dovercourt, I've had a front-row seat on this phenomenon. When I bought my house two decades ago, I told my father how much I'd paid. "A quarter of a million to live in a slum, eh?" he helpfully remarked.
In his eyes, sketchy downtown neighbourhoods like mine were something you escaped, as he himself had done when he moved away from his childhood home near Queen and Woodbine, across from the noisome race track, and settled in genteel Moore Park. Today, my generation, and even more so the generation after, are flocking to what used to be called "inner-city" neighbourhoods, where they can walk to stores and schools, take transit instead of a car to work and step out for a drink at Henhouse after dinner.
Prostitutes used to patrol the corner of Queen Street just south of me. Now cabs and limos line up outside the urban-chic Drake Hotel. My comfortable middle-class kids used to cringe when we drove past the vagrants and rundown storefronts of Parkdale. Now the vagrants have been joined by hipsters in search of the exquisite little gift shop or the perfect grind. One new addition to the strip, the Mascot, offers "art, coffee, magazines" in a renovated former T-shirt shop furnished with old-fashioned wooden school desks made for small children - uncomfortable, yes, but what is pain next to the lure of being cool?
Most astonishing to me has been the transformation of Dundas West. When I moved in, it was a gritty collection of car-repair joints, sports bars and Portuguese groceries offering tubs of salt cod. There was none of the nice old Victorian architecture that gentrifiers adore. A less promising destination for hip urban revival is hard to imagine. And yet it is changing at light speed, with a new gallery or bar opening every week, it seems, and top-end restaurateurs moving in.
That is the way with gentrification, of course. It is the very grittiness of streets like Dundas that draws today's bourgeois bohemians, who abhor the antiseptic uniformity of the suburbs and seek out the hubbub of dense downtown life. Gentrification is a worldwide phenomenon, beginning decades ago with the transformation of neighbourhoods such as Greenwich Village in Manhattan and spreading to cities as disparate as Sydney, Minneapolis and even Beirut.
It is easy to sneer at all this. Downtown hipsters with their one-gear bikes, condo dogs and rolled-up yoga mats make an inviting target. "Parkdale needs upscale, hip cafes/galleries? Give me a break!" wrote one Toronto blogger about the opening of the Mascot. "I take it you mean that what is really 'needed' in the neighbourhood is to have the poor folks go back into the apartment buildings where they belong, so that the streets can be cleared up for the 'cool,' 'cultured' folks who have disposable income?"
Progressive thinkers often condemn the gentrification crowd as urban invaders, forcing the poor out of familiar downtown neighbourhoods that have become too costly for them to afford. In fact, at least one study in 2008 by U.S. researchers found that low-income people don't move out of gentrifying neighbourhoods at a greater rate than any other kind of 'hood. Many even benefit as their area gets more inviting and their house prices rise.
A recent tale of woe on the front-page of a local newspaper told of an elderly homeowner near Little Italy who had seen her property taxes more than double to $3,156 over the past dozen years. What it didn't say is that the rising value of her own home has added many times that figure to her net worth. It has to be a good thing for the city that the value of downtown house prices is rising, recently outstripping even the rate of the usual bigger gainers such as North Toronto.
Like many places around the world, Toronto is on its way to becoming a consumer city, a kind of urban playground that attracts skilled residents not just for its jobs but for its sophistication and sense of fun. Downtown gentrification has made Toronto a more vibrant, far more interesting place. And my slum is now on the leading edge of cool.