On a Sunday afternoon at the corner of Byron and Danforth, worlds are intersecting.
Bedecked in traditional white robes and caps, Muslim men stroll past on their way to and from the Madina Masjid. Mostly, their walk takes them past the halal shops and Islamic bookstores that have sprung up around the landmark mosque. But at the end of the block, they encounter a rather different crowd - a crew of mustachioed old-time East Yorkers taking a break from the vices offered inside the corner's off-track gambling site to smoke and pace the sidewalk.
If either group is uneasy with this arrangement, it doesn't show. Like most of the establishments along the other, grittier Danforth - the one that stands in stark contrast to booming Greektown, where Taste of the Danforth is expected to draw more than one million revellers this weekend - they have both been around long enough to have mastered the art of co-existence. For the ethnic eateries, the old-school diners and the rough-and-tumble sports bars that line the strip all the way east to Woodbine and beyond, it's live and let live.
Only a slightly less-visible constituency might beg to differ. Since that constituency is rapidly taking over the residential streets that surround the eastern stretch of Danforth, it might have expected to get its way. By all appearances, it's not.
What was once working-class East York is being taken over by young professionals - newlyweds and parents-to-be who have no time for the suburbs, but can't afford to buy their first houses downtown.
The nearby neighbourhoods, filled with houses that predate the Second World War, offer a compromise. They're safe, there's a plethora of nearby schools and the Bloor-Danforth subway line means easy access to the rest of the city.
And if you've watched what's happened in countless other rapidly gentrifying segments of Toronto, there's the reasonable expectation that the main drag is on its way to bigger and better things.
THE NEXT RIVERDALE?
Here, that means the trendier version of the Danforth moving east - a development that is supposed to be only a matter of time.
"What used to be a pretty ordinary strip along the Broadview-Danforth area has become more upscale, more desirable, because people started moving east," says Pat Silver, who heads the sprawling new Danforth Mosaic business improvement association, which runs roughly from Jones to Woodbine. "Now, that is continuing, I think, that eastern movement."
Constable Rob McDonald, a 19-year veteran of 55 Division with enough enthusiasm for the area to double as its tourism officer, shares Ms. Silver's optimism. "It's trending toward becoming the new Riverdale," he says. "It's still affordable for young families, where other points of the street are not. And with that comes the expectations of what families are looking for, so then you see more restaurants pop up and more shops. It's really positive."
This all makes sense, but for one small problem: Save for a brief stretch east of Pape Avenue, the Danforth isn't visibly changing much at all.
Up until Jones Avenue, there's legitimate Riverdale creep. Greek restaurants. Starbucks. A women's shop offering, among other things, organic menstrual products. And then it stops.
Suddenly, your watering holes are more likely to come in the form of sports bars populated by middle-aged men with eighties concert T-shirts and questionable dental work, whiling away their weekday afternoons drinking beer on patios. Your restaurant meals are more affordable, but likely involve neither flaming cheese nor pad Thai. You encounter fewer baby carriages, and when they do pass by, the women pushing them aren't dressed as though heading for a night on the town.
Chris Wood can attest to all this. The proprietor of the Hargrave pub has succeeded in turning his appealing little establishment - a haven for upscale beer drinkers and dart players that sits west of Greenwood, just a few blocks from Jones - into one of those expected neighbourhood hot spots. But it's a lonelier experience than he had anticipated.
"When I came here nine years ago, I could see that it wasn't the greatest neighbourhood in the world," he says. "I had expected that the good part of the Danforth had pretty much only one direction to go, and I was expecting that it was obviously going to make it down to me. But it most definitely is taking longer than I thought. People have come and gone, but this particular stretch of the Danforth remains the same."
That means a lack of surrounding businesses to create pedestrian traffic. "It's kind of nice to be the nicest little place around," he says. "But competition is good - it brings people to the neighbourhood. Anything we can do to get people out walking by, that would be the way to go."
GENTRIFICATION STOPS HERE
Mr. Wood, who moved into a nearby bungalow, has the misfortune of being at one of the deadest spots on the Danforth - the stretch between Donlands and Greenwood.
Indelicate though it may be to mention, demographics play a role in that.
With roots dating back to the 1970s, the Madina Masjid - just to the west of the Hargrave - boasts about 2,000 members and anticipates eventual growth to 3,500. Many members have moved to the surrounding area, creating a thriving block around the mosque. In a sense, it's achieving exactly what has been prescribed for the east Danforth - an influx of independently owned restaurants and stores. It's even doing its part to beautify the strip, with a massive expansion project that promises to create a spectacular 25,000-square-foot structure complete with minaret and dome.
Inadvertently, though, it also serves as a buffer. The businesses that thrive to the west have no market there, and neither do the Muslim community's own establishments have much pretense of catering to a wider clientele. "They don't really participate in the neighbourhood," Mr. Wood says. "They're very self-contained."
To continue its eastward expansion, Riverdale would have to leapfrog a close-knit, insular community that is not going anywhere. And that's all the more difficult because of the landscape that surrounds it.
In most downtown areas, gentrification of the major throughway means converting storefronts and renovating small buildings. But between Donlands and Greenwood, the Danforth has the barren markings of 20th-century suburbia.
Even when they are in full use, its utilitarian structures and spaces - a funeral home here, a car rental lot there, an LCBO popular among residents of a neighbouring low-rent apartment building - give the street an oppressive sterility. When they sit empty, as the Roxy Theatre has for years (it's now destined to become an Esso, though the gas station has pledged to restore the theatre's historic facade), they make things worse. And the detox clinic and week-to-week rentals across the street don't do much for the ambience, either.
"There's a lot of things on that strip that deaden it," acknowledges Toronto Councillor Paula Fletcher, whose ward covers the south side of Danforth west of Coxwell. "This is a challenge that the Danforth has there that the other section of the Danforth simply doesn't have.
"Nothing is going to be going on on that street at night - it won't have lots of people walking along there. It'll be different. But just farther to the east is far more animated."
Sure enough, the Danforth regains a bit of its mojo east of Greenwood. The new home buyers expecting it to suddenly become the new Greektown are still in for disappointment: The buffer zone is just too big. But for those weary of gentrification's sanitizing effects, that might have its upside.
STEADY EVOLUTION IN THE FAR EAST
The Danforth Mosaic, which recently combined two nascent business associations to become the largest one in the city, is so named in honour of what Pat Silver calls "the United Nations right here."
Along the east Danforth, immigrant families have carved out pockets for themselves. And from the Italian bakeries that date back 40 years to the cluster of Ethiopian eateries that have sprouted up in recent years, they've maintained a modest middle-class sensibility that differentiates them from flashier alternatives elsewhere in the city.
None of it would qualify as bustling, but there are enough hidden gems and eccentric holes-in-the-wall to lend a sense of discovery to a stroll along the strip.
Ms. Silver's group is planning beautification efforts - street banners and flower planters among them - aimed at creating more of a collective identity. But working alongside the BIA, Ms. Fletcher seems intent on celebrating the area's character. She admits, as does Ms. Silver, that she could do without the sprinkling of rub-and-tugs. But she's fine with it maintaining a bit of its grit.
"That's the east end," Ms. Fletcher says when asked about the sports bars. "Having an interesting mix is sometimes what younger people like. You don't always want pristine."
Her fellow councillor, Janet Davis, whose ward includes the north side of the Danforth east of Coxwell, is of a similar view. "It's our neighbourhood, it's local, it has an interesting character and we're building on it," she says. "It's an urban environment that reflects the ethnic diversity of the neighbourhood, but also is in a transition to something else."
That transition, though, is not nearly as drastic as it could be. It has seen some nods to the influx of young professionals, notably the celebrated farmers' market that has set up shop every Thursday this summer at East Lynn Park, west of Woodbine. But because Riverdale is effectively blocked off, it's happening at its own pace.
"To me, what's great is nobody's being pushed out - everybody's being kind of blended in," Constable McDonald says. "They all have their place, because they all cater to a different clientele, and it really makes the section unique. It's not like people are going out saying, 'Okay, we need a cookie-cutter form of business or residence.' It's all different."
"Different" may not be what every new homeowner is looking for. But in a city where Roncesvalles is no longer Polish and Queen West is only borderline bohemian and Greektown isn't all that Greek, there's something to be said for a stretch that doesn't toss away its identity in the name of progress.
If the Madina Masjid faithful can get along with the off-track gamblers, perhaps the refugees from downtown will content themselves with co-existing as well.