The neighborhood might look like an anarchism … but Jacobs insisted that its layout remained an urban ideal…with relatively cheap rents, and cheap rents encouraged a diversity of residents. Most important, the streets were mixed use, filled with apartments and retail shops and restaurants, which meant that different kinds of people were on the street for different reasons at different times of the day. The end result was a constant churn of ideas as strangers learned from one another. Jacobs coined a telling phrase for what happens in these densely populated spaces: “knowledge spillovers”. – Jonah Lehrer on creativity in cities, Imagine: How creativity works
Transformation of uninhabitable cityscapes to bustling neighborhoods became of an interest to me ever since I read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How creativity works. In the book, Lehrer explores several factors that contribute to creativity and innovation on individual and collaborative levels. Most pertinent was the section on the role cities play in providing the right environment to foster creative ideas. Reviewing Lehrer’s arguments, I found myself at a loss of why nucleation of these neighborhoods in our own backyard was so hard to find. After all, over the last several years Toronto became globally more recognized for its attributes in diversity, creativity and hipness. Most recently Vogue proclaimed Toronto’s Queen West the second hippest neighborhood in the world and the city was ranked as the 10th best to visit in 2015 by the Lonely Planet.
As a certified nerd, I tend to think of neighborhood gentrification as having several steps. The beginning and end represent the unflattering states of a neighborhood. The mid-point is the optimal point at which the general population of the city gravitates to the neighborhood – it has been tried by the early adopters, extended by developers and grown enough to please the general crowd. Most of the time, many arrive to the area only after it has successfully gentrified.
Call me a hipster, but what makes my eyes twinkle is the beginning. Several areas in the GTA are on track to that sweet spot today. The speed at which they get exposed by media significantly reduces the amount of time those who wish to savor the nucleating minutes have to enjoy. As I am writing this piece I am conscious that it will, too, add to this effect…but Geary Avenue is too good to not share.
A perfect dead-end industrial street filled with mechanic shops and warehouses, the avenue might be in the beginning stages of transformation into a creative oasis in the periphery of those not paying attention. Home to one of the biggest button and whole food chocolate factories, costume house, several bakeries, cycling shops as well as urban housing, this street is the epitome of diversity Lehrer argues to be necessary to drive creativity. As curiosity got hold of me, I set out to get to know some of the avenue’s dwellers and their reasons for ending up here. For those who share the craving for diverse pockets of Toronto still left untouched, here’s some of Geary’s Anatomy.
It was a brisk afternoon before winter holidays as I made my way to meet with Kristjan Harris, one half the duo behind a steeple Bloor West bar, Saving Gigi. Kristjan has kindly agreed to show me around a new establishment that him and his wife and partner, Amelia Laidlaw, are currently redeveloping on Geary Ave – the Mercury Social Club. Part concert venue, part restaurant and part café, Mercury Social Club will be a great new addition to the street already bustling with local residents but also new heaven to the creatives choosing to move into the area. “Every established city has a Mercury,” points out Kristjan, “Toronto deserves one too, but not like the others. The social aspect of it is something that is important to us and we would like to foster it by providing areas for gatherings over food as well as live music acts.” Kristjan and Amelia’s place will take over an old mattress shop on the northeast corner of Geary Ave and Dufferin Street. “We opened Gigi out of the clear need for a neighborhood bar in that area,” reflects Kirstjan, “back then there was nowhere for the locals to hang out in the stretch between Annex to Bloor West Village. Naturally, Gigi gained rapid popularity. Some of the best live acts were willing to play there just because they appreciated the vibe – there aren’t too many places like this around the city. At the same time we started running the annual Bloor Ossington Folk Festival and realized that there was a need for more remote indoor concert venues to showcase some of this talent around the year.” At first Kristjan and his team had their eyes on the glass box at Dupont and Ossington. After going head-to-head for the space with the Bellwoods Brewery folks and not scoring it, Kristjan stumbled on the Geary Ave property with a giant “For Lease” sign. “It was perfect: a large space in an industrial area that is still accessible to the rest of the neighborhood and existing Gigi clientele, with a side driveway for the acts to enter and two main walls facing the street! The Rehearsal Factory is down the road, which constantly hosts great artists – it was all falling into place,” recalls Kristjan. A lease was signed two weeks later and Kristjan has been drafting plans since then. The space is set to roll out Geary Ave-facing café mid-February. “There are a few food places on the street but not many of them are open early enough during the day,” notes Kristjan, “it might be convenient for the neighbors to have the café available for quick pick-ups and sit-downs.” The entire space is set to open sometime near May and no later than June. “The sooner the better, of course,” smiles Kristjan.
Kristjan’s value of creating social interactions interestingly aligns with what Lehrer proposes propelled the development of Silicon Valley into the innovation hub we know it as today. “Every year there was some place, The Whagon Wheel, Chez Yvonne, Rickey’s, The Roundhouse, where members of this esoteric fraternity, the young men and women of semiconductor industry would head after work to have a drink and gossip and brag and trade war stories …” cites Lehrer on schmoozing in Silicon Valley.
As I parted ways with Kristjan and made my way further down the avenue, I passed more mechanic shops, The Brick furniture warehouse and the infamous Rehearsal Factory, pooling quite a few people outside it for in-between rehearsal smoke breaks.
“You cannot miss it”, the email said, “it’s the one with the mural on the doors.” Indeed there it was, brightly painted and all. Unlike other studios that harbor a cold institutional feel, Geary Lane, despite its size, is quite cozy. There was a small table with a theater style lamp at the front to serve as a collector’s booth for the event happening later that night. Set up at the other end of the studio is a modern living room and kitchenette area. The rest of the space is open for fun. Jason Pollard and Justin Adam greet me as I make my way to them through the venue. “This is an experimental project. Really it’s just a temporary home to our curating endeavor, Man Finds Fire,” says Jason. The two are long-time friends who bonded over their love for live music while working at the Drake Hotel a while back. “We got tired with Toronto’s predictable venues and events they hold and decided to do our own thing. There was never an intention to give Man Finds Fire permanent four walls though. On the contrary, the idea was to have pop-up style, carefully curated events in random places,” recalls Justin.
This all changed when the Jason stumbled upon the space on Craigslist. Previously Primrose Studios, it had the ominous feel that was the right match for Man Finds Fire. It would provide the “adventure in the city” type of experience rather than the typical bar with some tracks vibe that Justin and Jason wished to avoid. The space is co-owned by Rick Shadrach Lazar, an award winning percussionist, creator and artistic director of the Samba Squad, and Gili Zemer, the founder of Drum Artz Canada. “They share our philosophy and the way we look at curating events, which certainly helped in establishing this relationship,” explains Justin. “We had a collaborative agreement of sorts”, chimes in Jason, “I was to curate events in the space and Justin, as a branding wizard, would help with revamping its identity.” First things first, the duo changed the address. The space previously facing Primrose Ave on the other side, was redirected towards Geary Ave, to encompass the street in the name and allow direct access through the garage door of course making it receptive to the neighborhood. Man Finds Fire curates monthly quality shows at the venue, many of which have been getting some really positive attention from NOW and Exclaim! magazines. “You know you are onto something when the response is so great,” points out Justin. Additionally, the duo help booking the space for events ran by other promoters and organizers. “There are no neighbors to worry about and the location far away from the core really seems to appeal to electronic music scene as their type of vibe typically stipulates that,” concludes Justin. Through both, their own events and hosting those of others, Jason and Justin became quite the connectors repping the street and bringing it a fair amount of attention.
Man Finds Fire was hosting their closing event of the season that night. As I helped them assemble a twig tepee (why not, right?) the partners mused about Geary Lane’s future. “Because this project is experimental, we are not sure what will come next,” starts Jason. “It is possible that we might involve younger people to help us with running things,” concludes Justin. “Besides, we might benefit from a younger perspective and ideas.”
Geary Lane had me considering staying for the closing show, but I was off to meet another avenue resident creative, David Fradkin. We caught up at Porta Nova café down the street from his studio space. The first thing I noticed about Nova is that most of the staff attempted to speak to me in Portuguese. “Oh this is not unusual,” David notes, “just the other day some guy was trying to outrun me while we were both making a right-hand turn. He actually got out and yelled at me in Portuguese,” laughs David.
A Ryerson alumni, I met David several years ago while he was still a co-founder of the We Can Pretend collective. Working on award winning shorts such as The Apostles and a series of Call Of Duty, Finding Makarov teasers, which gained widespread recognition from the gaming community, David has been recently focusing on what I deemed “cool shit” – exhibit one: his collaborative project for Nuit Blanche, the Kaleidoscope. Exhibit two: organizing crazy events worthy of Thump‘s coverage in his Geary Ave space. Not having caught up with David in some months, I naturally inquired about how he ended up on Geary Ave. “I took over a family business that was originally located in Richmond Hill. However what I needed was an industrial space closer to the city that can double as a workshop for both the business and whatever creative endeavors I conjure up from time to time,” explained David. Similar to the rest of the street’s residents I’ve talked to that day, reasonable property pricing, accessibility and being an industrial pocket made Geary Ave an appealing choice. “There aren’t too many industrial places left in the core of the city. Unlike cities like New York, for example, which is significantly bigger and has a more extensive and robust public transportation system, anyone here looking for this kind of thing is now forced to consider areas further North, East and West in their search. Geary is still reasonably close to the rest of the city. It is not Mississauga,” reasoned David. Again, I couldn’t help but reference Lehrer’s point on suburbia being closely related to poorer performance on variety of urban factors including innovation. As David took me around his shop, I noticed Dave-isms: ax-throwing board, giant pad for his dog, a cage chair, a saddle that will be a chair, some fixtures he’s working on were all merrily interspersed with tubing and tools necessary to run his family’s business. Blending of the two spaces for work and play further reinforces why Geary Ave is attracting people like David. It is not much that is needed to make ideas happen, but the very little that is needed is no longer present in the core of the city.
Shortly, David took me down the street into the basement home of S.H.I.B.G.B’s and the frequent punk shows they host. Greg Benedetto, one of the organizers, also found this space on Craigslist. As I watched a group of guys put together tape packages in preparation for the night ahead (yes, tapes…the ones our generation used to troubleshoot with a pencil), Greg echoes the common underlying sentiment of the day: “This area provides the bare necessities for truly underground culture. You can be noisy and not bother anyone. Once upon a time we were able to throw these in the east end, but the condominium developments took over and we had to go elsewhere.”
The underground factor is not only a necessary stage of any developing creative culture, but also seems to be the hip factor much of our easily-bored generation seeks and values today. For creatives underground element harbors the no hustle, no bullshit sentiment that often doesn’t come with more organized event spaces. For those interested in the scene, it harbors a level of authenticity of something new about to be born. Yet, by commercializing areas in our city, leaving very little of these pockets readily accessible to those who need it, it is not unreasonable to think that gentrification presents certain drawbacks.
As Lehrer pointed out, knowledge spillovers are more likely to occur in areas with reasonable rent prices and spaces that pool a diversity of people for different reasons. Kristjan, Justin, Jason, David and Greg are some of the individuals who have recently gravitated to Geary Avenue, for what at first seem to be different reasons. However upon a closer examination while they were following their own intuition, they increased the chance of Geary Avenue becoming the next enclave for cultural development – the birthing of this enclave is already happening, you just gotta look away from King West to appreciate it. “I’m not against gentrification at all. If a low rise was built here, I’d probably be curious but there’s use for these raw spaces that perhaps is not considered by the city’s developers” adds David. With this sentiment in mind, I left Geary Ave that evening wondering what the optimal solution is for a city like Toronto to continue provide the necessary environment for cultural expansion without compromising its growth and regeneration.