Leslieville: a new kind of gay village
As political gains have been made and queer people become more visible and accepted in society, the need for a specifically queer “ghetto” as a place of safety and security has diminished. John McCullagh explains.
In recent years, specifically gay spaces across the country have declined as queer people have become more integrated into the culture at large and the internet has changed how we meet. This loss of gay space is particularly noticeable in my home town of Toronto. Once the vibrant focus of gay life, the downtown Church-Wellesley Village is today a shadow of its former self.
While some may decry this change, I welcome it. Why? Because, as an activist, this is what I’ve fought for. As political gains have been made, and queer people become more visible and accepted in society at large, the need for a specifically queer “ghetto” as a place of safety and security has diminished. Queer experience has also diversified with an increasing number who don’t identify with the kind of gay life they associate with the Village.
This has resulted in the development of various neighbourhoods across the city where the presence of queer people of all stripes is welcomed. I live in one of them. I’ve always known it as South Riverdale, although local business owners have recently rebranded it with the more upscale moniker of Leslieville.
Settled mainly between 1880 and 1924, and centred along Queen Street east of the Don River and the streets running north and south of it, it was a gritty working class neighbourhood. The modest homes housed the families of the men (for they were almost all men in those days) who worked in the local factories - Dunlop rubber, Colgate toothpaste, Consumers’ gas, Wrigley’s chewing gum - or the many warehouses, metal processing shops and tanneries along the lakeshore.
When my partner Arnold and I moved here in 1979, however, the neighbourhood was in flux. Most of the businesses had closed or had moved to the suburbs, taking their workers with them. Many of their old Victorian and Edwardian houses were being bought up by artists and young professionals who valued these affordable homes close to downtown, although prices have since risen with the neighbourhood’s growing popularity
A large proportion of these newcomers were like Arnold and me - gay couples buying our first home. And so it has continued to this day, although now there are as many lesbians moving into the neighbourhood as gay men.
One of those gay men was my school teacher friend Bruce Mackie, who lived on De Grassi Street in the heart of South Riverdale for many years prior to his untimely death from cancer in 1997. In the 1970s, he offered his encouragement and his home to a pair of young filmmakers, Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood, in the making of a short children’s film that would go on to become the inaugural episode of one of Canada’s most beloved television series. The Kids of Degrassi Street told the story of a diverse group of children growing up in an urban neighbourhood. Degrassi grew along with its performers, following them through Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High to graduation and beyond. Several of the characters portrayed were, true to the local demographic, queer.
Bruce’s enthusiasm for his diverse neighbourhood was contagious and Linda and Kit embraced the essence of the Leslieville community and their work was lauded for its portrayal of real life in east end Toronto.
While the residential streets to the north and south of Queen were lively, the commercial strip along Queen Street itself long remained down at heel. This was no doubt due to the presence of a shopping mall that had been built in the early 1970s, further north on Gerrard Street, and to the proximity of downtown stores. In recent years, however, Queen Street East has seen a remarkable explosion of restaurants, espresso bars, specialty food stores, galleries and boutiques that has transformed the strip into a lively destination not only for locals but also for people from across the city and beyond.
For years, a visit to Leslieville was, for many gay men, synonymous with a trip to The Toolbox, one of Toronto’s oldest gay bars. With its overgrown greenery, discrete signage and boarded up windows, it provided a home for leathermen and bears for two decades until it was sold in 2004. Arnold and I were regulars there. It was a comfortable place to socialize because the owners, Bob Saunders and Matt Shields, made sure that everyone was welcome and felt at home whatever their age, race, ethnicity, body type or ability. I know that many guys miss it, not least for the large “maze” in the patio out back that provided a space where - how shall I say? - one could get a little action with one’s beer.
While The Toolbox has now been converted into townhouses (the city has placed an historical plaque there but, oh, how those walls could talk!), another very different bar welcoming both gay men and lesbians has now opened on Queen Street itself. Named WAYLA (an acronym for What Are You Looking At, below right), it’s a friendly place with a nice bar and cosy patio, with an emphasis on cocktails and live bands. It’s definitely the kind of bar that a younger generation of queer folk would feel comfortable in.
Joy is another bar and bistro with an inviting patio that goes out of its way to welcome queer people as does The Tango Palace, a long-established coffee shop. Indeed, spend any time in the neighbourhood and you’ll soon see how many businesses are queer-owned or queer-friendly.
So yes, while Leslieville may not be the Church-Wellesley village, for those of us who live here, and for an increasing number of visitors, it reflects the kind of diverse, welcoming city that Toronto has become and that we want to live in. So come to Leslieville to dine or have a coffee, to browse the stores or walk the neighbourhood streets. Hold hands with a same-sex partner and no one will bat an eyelid.