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The Junction: for art and design types, ‘It still feels like anything is possible here’

Kristina Skindelyte, executive director with the Junction BIA, at Latitude 44 on Jan. 18, 2013: ‘The community feels very artistic.’

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Many Torontonians will recognize the phenomenon: A formerly unremarkable neighbourhood is touted as both "up-and-coming" and the "next big thing." The latest area in the trendsetters' crosshairs? The west-end neighbourhood known as the Junction.

This time, though, these bold forecasts are based on very real evidence. Some two dozen art and design businesses can be found on the 1.4-kilometre stretch of Dundas West between Keele and Runnymede streets alone – most of which only cropped up in the last decade. As the third annual Toronto Design Offsite Festival  showcasing the best of Canadian design, kicks off this weekend throughout 10 Junction venues, the area's Business Improvement Area agrees that the 'hood is well on its way to being one of the city's top art and design destinations.

"It definitely feels that way," said BIA executive director Kristina Skindelyte, noting that three local businesses are also participating in the upcoming massively attended Interior Design Show. Add to that the concentration of various galleries and design shops in the area, and it's tough to ignore the hype.

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Artists certainly aren't. Gallerist Jessica Bradley set up her second space near St. Clair and Old Weston Road in 2012. Along with Narwhal, it can be counted among the city's most exciting contemporary-art galleries, according to Vanessa Nicholas, exhibitions assistant co-ordinator at the OCAD U student gallery.

"In my mind, the Junction is definitely an exciting destination for arts and design-interested folks," says Ms. Nicholas.

In the time-honoured tradition of urban gentrification, the artists arrive first and young professionals then follow. In the case of the Junction, the two are flocking there at once, though the neighbourhood's isolation keeps the area from changing too fast.

Kristin Weckworth, the mastermind behind Narwhal and its sister gallery Magic Pony, describes the Junction as "Brooklyn without the Bedford subway stop" – a gentle jab at the Toronto neighbourhood's off-the-subway-map co-ordinates.

"It's diverse with a strong sense of community, energy and independence," she observes, noting that those singular traits were the impetus for the gallery's recent move from Queen West. "It still feels like anything is possible here."

Kalpna Patel, who designs the window displays for Queen West's Type Books in addition to running her own jewellery and design business (appropriately named Old Weston) out of a Junction studio space, has lived in her family's Junction home since 1986 – her entire Toronto life – and watched the creative community blossom around her.

"Not leaving home was the best thing I could have done," she half-jokes.

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Ms. Patel attributes the neighbourhood's boom in creative enterprise, at least partly, to real-estate prices. "There are a lot of artists living here right now, since it is one of the few affordable places in the city and there are affordable studio spaces," she observes. But, while people may be attracted to the Junction for pragmatic reasons, they stay for its charms.

Micah Lenahan can attest. The owner of design shop Russet & Empire, Ms. Lenahan is renowned for hosting massive themed parties at her store, with prodigious turnouts.

"It seems weird to think that 500 people are going to come to a party in the winter in the Junction and take the subway to Dundas West station, then take the 40 bus, " she says. "But people do it. They do it in droves."

Ms. Lenahan joined forces with fellow area business owner Paul Mercer to form the Junction Flea in the spring of 2012. The monthly outdoor bazaar of locally made and sourced goods proved so successful, it's continued into an all-season event with a winter home in Queen West's Great Hall.

"You have a lot of flexibility to play around with your ideas, because there's not so much money riding on everything," she agrees. "There's more creative freedom."

"There is so much creativity in the neighbourhood that echoes both from the people who live here – and many of them also shop locally – and the businesses too," says Ms. Skindelyte. "The community feels very artistic."

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