This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.
Before he was arrested, Felice Scala liked to call himself the “mayor” of the Junction. As he watched the street from the front porch of the house he’d owned on Quebec Avenue for more than 30 years, and as he went for walks with his son, Ralph, down Dundas Street West, neighbours knew to stay out of their way.
But as the neighbourhood began to change in the early 2000s – his working-class immigrant neighbours began moving out and younger couples and professionals in – the dynamic began to shift on his street. The “mayor” and his son felt threatened by the changes, neighbours said, and clashes ensued. For the next eight years, the father and son terrorized the neighbourhood, resulting in neighbours old and new having their windows smashed and car tires slashed over any perceived slight.
“It was a turf thing,” said Karen Hoffman, a Quebec Avenue resident who saw 17 of her tires slashed over a three-month period. “Gentrification – perhaps they felt threatened by it.”
The Junction, known for its rough-and-tumble past, has seen rapid changes in the past decade: Used appliance shops and empty stores with old tin cans in the window no longer represent the Junction so much as reclaimed furniture shops and brunch spots do. But for some residents of Quebec Avenue, the Scalas’ arrest in the summer of July, 2008, was the real turning point, the moment that crystallized in their minds that the Junction had gone from rough around the edges to officially up and coming.
Anyone who doubts the Junction is changing need only look at the intersection where Felice and Ralph were arrested, Quebec Avenue and Dundas Street West, and the dramatic changes it has seen in the four years since the police takedown. Instead of empty storefronts and run-down buildings, the intersection today has all the obvious signifiers of gentrification: a Starbucks, two specialty coffee shops, and a doggy daycare. But with changes happening so quickly, residents are wondering whether their strip of Dundas Street West could some day go the way of Bloor West Village or Queen Street West.
When Felice Scala bought his Quebec Avenue house in 1975, homes in the Junction were cheap, due largely to pollution from the nearby railway tracks (hence the name “Junction”), and odours that would waft down from the abattoirs and meatpacking factories in the Ontario Stockyards up on St. Clair Avenue West, where many of his neighbours worked. But two key developments in the 1990s caused all of this to change: the Stockyards shutting down in 1993 (where the site has since been rebuilt into big-box shopping centres) and residents voting in 1997 to strike down an almost century-old law banning the sale of alcohol. On top of that, the city undertook a major revival of the area’s streetscapes in 1999, burying unsightly overheard wires and transformers underground, and putting up new streetlights.
After these changes, restaurants and businesses, attracted by the area’s cheap rents and proximity to High Park and downtown, began moving into the empty storefronts on Dundas Street West, and were soon followed by young families.
These days, it seems like there’s a trendy new business on every block of the Junction ― one of the newest being 3030 Dundas West, a 4,000-square-foot bar and restaurant that plays host to a range of events including live concerts, movie screenings and trivia nights. Because of the neighbourhood’s unique mix of residents – families, artists and long-time residents – businesses in the area need to be creative in catering to a range of demographics, said Nathan Hunter, 3030 Dundas West’s programs manager.
“When we started doing this place, we were really geared towards people who graduated from the Ossington and Queen West scene,” he said. “But a lot of nights, we put on a concert and I see people in their early 20s standing next to people in their 50s.”
On a recent afternoon in the Junction, residents both old and new co-existed happily, with old bakeries selling their cakes and cookies next to shops offering vegan, gluten-free ones, and elderly customers at the trendy new coffee shops eyeing mason jars filled with artisanal pickles. Down the street at a local bar, a greying regular flirted with his 26-year-old bartender, joking that “she won’t stop calling me – she has me under ‘C’ for cuddling.”
But while most residents seem to agree that the changes to the neighbourhood have been generally positive, some worry about incoming development like a proposed seven-storey condo building on Dundas Street West, and a new 554,000-square-foot retail mall being built on St. Clair Avenue West named “the Stockyards,” and the potential impact these could have. Others worry about the area becoming too expensive for long-time residents.
“There used to be one of everything: banks, produce stores, hardware stores” said Ellen Dooley, who’s lived in the Junction for 14 years and worries that higher rent prices will squeeze out the smaller independent retailers. “A lot of them are gone now.”
Sal D’Angelo, a real estate broker in the Junction, said that average rental prices for commercial space have doubled in the past five years, from about $10 to $15 per square foot to $20 to $30. He said average home prices also doubled in the past five years, with the average entry-level home now selling for around $450,000. A Quebec Avenue house that Mr. D’Angelo helped sell in September last year for $638,000 was flipped and sold for $850,000 earlier this year.
Despite this, long-time residents like Shirley Carter, who is 69 and has lived in the Junction all her life, aren’t too worried. She’s seen the neighbourhood go from boom in the 1950s, when streetcars would deliver cars full of shoppers, to bust in the latter half of the 20th century, and back up again now. Though she’s not pleased with the idea of condos going up near her, she’s been in the Junction long enough to know that these things come and go. “When I was a kid growing up on Indian Grove, they tore down the rows of houses to build factories,” she said. “And what happened after? They tore down the factories and built rows of houses back up again.”
These days, when people talk about the “mayor” of the Junction, they likely aren’t talking about Felice Scala or his son, Ralph. After Ralph pleaded guilty to 49 charges in 2009, including vandalism, threats and intimidation, and Felice was charged for failing to comply with his probation, neither are allowed near their Quebec Avenue home (Felice owns a condo in Etobicoke, and both have charges due in court in January).
Instead, they’re more likely referring to Dave McManus, 61, a local musician who helped to build the Junction’s now lively music and art scene. Initially, Mr. McManus said, his musician friends nicknamed him “King of the Junction” for corralling other artists to come to the area, but he didn’t like the name.
“How about something more democratic?” he suggested to them. “How about the mayor?”