At the Junction
Toronto’s emerging enclave of creative energy.
The Ethiopian cabbie’s first question to me when I climb into the back seat to head over to Toronto’s Junction neighborhood is, “How is your life?”
I love this kind of question because we can dispel all the trivial talk and drill down to more substantial conversation. I tell him I am well but a bit off-balance from staying at the palatial Four Seasons Hotel. Such luxurious quarters are foreign to me. I mean, a “turndown service”? And, by the way, how did the doorman know my name when I had never before set foot in Toronto, or a Four Seasons at that?
“It’s a little trick they have,” he says with a smile, checking me out in the rearview mirror.
I toss his question back to him, and he answers that he has lived with his brother and his family in Toronto for three years, learning English by watching television. He came to this diverse city, where currently 50 percent of the population was born outside of Canada, for more employment and educational opportunities — the same reason I will hear from many cabbies over the next few days, no matter their country of origin.
Toronto is home to between 45,000 to 50,000 people of Ethiopian descent, according to the Greater Toronto Area’s Ethiopian Association — just under 2 percent of the city’s 2.7 million residents. They hold jobs in all sectors of the business community. Muluken Muchie, for example, came to Toronto in 1986 and nine years later launched Toronto’s first Ethiopian newspaper, Hawarya. Director and dramaturge Weyni Mengesha is a major artistic force in Toronto’s theatre community, directing plays at the city’s renowned Prince of Wales Theatre. So many aspects of Ethiopian Canadian cultural heritage — from cuisine and music to dance and festivities — have become an integral part of Toronto’s own cultural heritage, said Mayor John Tory, that March 2015 was declared “Ethiopian Canadian Heritage Month.”
My new friend’s wages support a dozen family members back in Ethiopia. His wife and son still live there, he tells me, and he misses them tremendously. He shows me a photo of his son on his cell phone. The boy is beyond handsome.
He drops me off on Dundas Street West, in the heart of the Junction’s business district and not far from Bloor Street West, where there are several restaurants featuring Ethiopian and other African cuisine that my friend recommends. I offer blessings to him and his family, and I’m off to explore the neighborhood.
The Junction, named for the intersection of several railroad lines still in use, is in a state of upward transformation. Formerly a manufacturing hub, the area fell into decline in the last years of the 19th century and, for decades, it was literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Once called West Toronto, the area was an independent rural town until it was incorporated into the expanding tentacles of Toronto’s boundaries in 1909. On payday, raw-knuckled railroad men and factory workers would bust up the bars with fistfights that would spill out into the streets. The rowdiness became so bad that residents banded together and in 1904 imposed an alcohol ban that lasted, incredibly, until 2001.
Jessica Myers, the ebullient executive director of the Junction Business Improvement Area, gives me this history over strong coffee at Dirty Food Catering. The same arty hipsters that you might see in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, San Francisco’s Mission District or Berlin’s Kreuzberg are deeply absorbed in serious conversations around us as indie music spills out of speakers above the counter. Cappuccino culture has infiltrated the Junction.
“This was a seedy, vacant no man’s land for a long time,” Myers says over the staccato hiss of the espresso machine. “For years, people who lived here would say they lived in West Side Park instead of the Junction. Now it’s a cool thing to say you live in the Junction.
“No one was willing to take a chance on opening a business here. Now it’s really booming, even though it’s still under the radar,” she adds.
“This is what Toronto used to look like in the 1950s and ‘60s — small independent shops and not much development. And because we are far away from downtown we’ve been able to maintain that small-town feeling.”
Probably not a coincidence, but the renaissance of the Junction began around the same time as the first drinks were poured in 2001. Cheap rents attracted the underpaid and underappreciated artist and musician set, followed by young families looking to purchase and rehab the stately homes in the neighborhood.
Those artists, musicians and families soon wanted to do business in the neighborhood instead of trekking elsewhere. Cue the yoga studios, design shops, organic grocery stores, and dentists’ and lawyers’ offices. Add chocolatiers, massage practitioners and baristas, and presto! A hot new, self-contained Toronto neighborhood on the verge of gentrification with the usual ensuing rent and mortgage increases.
Still, the Junction feels like a frontier outpost far from the downtown skyscrapers, an urban alcove that belies the frenetic activity of the largest city in Canada. Many of the majestic homes in the residential area are still in the hands of long-time owners, and Dundas Street West has maintained its original, low-rise, century-old architectural authenticity. Because of that authenticity and a lack of internationally recognized franchises, movies and television series are often filmed here. The LD Variety store is a favorite among directors. Open seven days a week, this corner store on Dundas sells everything from kitchenware to lotto tickets.
A commitment to local goods characterizes the more than 200 small businesses in the neighborhood. I first feel it, or rather smell it, in the pleasantly odorous apothecary store Helen + Hildegard, where 85 percent of the potions come from Canada and the furnishings come from nearby SMASH, an antique store that also supplies vintage props to theaters and movie companies.
“There is a lot of cross-pollination among the businesses,” Helen + Hildegard owner Sonya D’Cunha tells me. “It’s more of a collaborative atmosphere instead of a competitive atmosphere.”
John and Juli Baker’s “lifestyle shop” Mjölk (Swedish for “birch”), housed in a repurposed Victorian, features high-end designs of furniture, utensils, textiles, lamps, and you-name-it from Japan and Scandinavia. Whatever the item, each embodies that rare partnership of beauty and practicality. The store seems less retail space and more gallery, where products are displayed against an aesthetic of generous white space. Never before have I been so awed by the gracefulness of a kitchen dish brush.
Across the street is another business that exudes quietude: Latre, a clothing shop run by apparel designer Brian Vu. Maybe it is the incense or the soft New Age music, but I feel as though I am entering a personal shrine when I walk in. Should I remove my shoes?
The apparel is hung like icons: unisex hand-dyed indigo jackets; African patterned, hand-woven cloths; Vietnam War–era trousers; Hudson Bay Company blankets; and even Vu’s own clothing line. First Nation and Native American jewelry is presented like a museum display. The stuffed wolf, however, is not for sale.
Vu came to Canada from Vietnam as an infant and later studied fine arts at university. He wears an indigo shirt that looks as if it came right off the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and a tweed flat cap. But I am drawn to a photo of his parents sitting with a 3-year-old Brian and a younger sibling in Vietnam. In the photo, his father wears a Vietnamese military uniform, the very kind Vu now repurposes and sells.
“The shop is based on a couple of notions — natural and nature,” he says. “It has to be handmade and natural. That’s the cornerstone of the whole shop. I bring African and native Canadian clothing to this space because the artists of the clothing are very nature-oriented and very hands-on. I take their world and infuse it with my own ideas.
“The Junction is known for creative thinking, so the neighborhood is perfect for what I’m doing.”
Later at the Indie Ale House, I sip a Broken Hipster beer while devouring the Bison & Belly burger — a quarter pound of fresh ground bison with barbeque pork belly and a hunk of smoked gouda. While I also tuck into a more-than-generous, heart-clogging helping of hand cut Yukon gold fries, I return to my driver’s question: “How is your life?”
Today, at the crossroads, or junction, of an emerging creative community, as I reflect on the images and voices of a neighborhood that is increasingly distinguishing itself among the 140 neighborhoods in Toronto, the answer is, “This life is pretty good, if not perfect.”
Art supplies, small gallery, community studio and workshop space, all under one charming roof
2928 Dundas Street West
Handmade organic Fair Trade chocolates and ice cream
3040 Dundas Street West
Apothecary featuring local products and good smells
3036 Dundas Street West
Independent craft brewery with pizza, salads, burgers and entrees
2876 Dundas Street West
Eclectic apparel and jewelry
2988 Dundas Street West
Design shop and gallery featuring one-of-a-kind Japanese and Scandinavian products, ranging from furniture to household items to works of art
2959 Dundas Street West
Four-thousand square feet of vintage antiques, salvage oddments and unique stage props
2880 Dundas Street West
Near the Junction
Eritrean and Ethiopian food
977 Bloor Street West
Authentic Ethiopian cuisine
869 Bloor Street West
Travel writer Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His most recent book is Going Driftless: Life lessons from the heartland for unraveling times.