(THE STRAND) Neighbourhood Nostalgia: Recollecting Lost Neighbourhood Gems / by Clarrie Feinstein

Personal Essay:

When I discovered that Honest Ed’s would soon close, along with The Central, Victory Café, and the other stores and restaurants on the east side of Markham St, it wasn’t just a feeling of momentary sadness for me; it felt like someone was taking away a chapter of my youth. This sounds overly dramatic, but I believe there is a concrete explanation.

People have very vivid memories of their childhood. These recollections can be slight: the smell of your grandmother’s perfume, the image of your dad reading the morning paper, picking out matching outfits with your older sister, watching movies in your parents’ bed (which always seemed like a massive, comforting cloud of coziness to my five-year-old self). When these sweet snippets of memory are taken together, they are a mosaic of sensory images—tangible moments that inform my past and therefore my present.

One of the first developmental stages children undergo is the creation of interpersonal relationships—the desire to form a connection with another person. As we get older we become aware of our physical surroundings; the connections we make with the outside world compose our social environment. Eventually we develop attachments to specific places, like schools, the streets where we play hockey with friends, the local movie theatre, and the park swings we compete to jump off of. These are the components that form the composite DNA of our childhood.

I grew up in The Annex, which allowed for a diverse upbringing.  My clear memories of growing up there have shaped my childhood. Since my family lived in the downtown core, I experienced all the advantages of city living. I could walk to Chinatown, Koreatown, and Little Italy, and I was a short streetcar ride away from Queen St West—the coolest parts of Toronto. Every year before school started, I would go to an art store called Midoco to buy school supplies and colour-code my pens and notebooks (a strange fixation; luckily it was just a phase). I still recollect going to Queen Video to rent VHS movies (for those of you who don’t know what VHS is, you’re too young for me) to watch on a Friday night with my siblings and parents. I vividly remember waiting in line to buy the next Harry Potter book on the day of its release, back when the Bloor St location of Book City was still open.

All of these childhood moments have created a safety net of happiness to which I retreat in moments of isolation or stress—entering adulthood is not an easy ride. But most importantly, these memories have cemented a strong sense of self. I speak about who I am in relation to my local surroundings, as they are integral to my personal interests. It makes sense, then, that when change happens to the neighbourhood you’ve lived in your entire life, it isn’t just a change; it’s a significant personal transformation. The special associations you have formed are extinguished in a second.

There have been many scholarly sources written about the positive and negative impacts of gentrification on inner-city neighbourhoods. Often it can have massive socioeconomic benefits for certain communities, as it can drive out crime and create successful local businesses. Gentrification is a double-edged sword, however, as it introduces a privileged upper-middle class mentality into lower income neighbourhoods. The new, expensive businesses create a domino effect: their establishment often causes rent to skyrocket, forcing lower-income families to migrate to other areas of town. While all of these sources discuss the political, economic, and social impacts of gentrification, none talk about the negative psychological impact that gentrification has on the individual.

When the new plan for Honest Ed’s was unveiled this past March, the public seemed pleased that innovative thought and creativity had gone into the new development plan. The layout involved constructing residential buildings no taller than 2.5 storeys, and included retaining 14 of the historical houses on Markham St. There also seemed to be a strong desire for the plan to incorporate and promote local business, an admirable goal that is not often seen in downtown development.

While I was glad to see that Toronto urban planning was seriously considering what to do with this public space, I looked at this plan and did not see an Annex that was representative of one I knew. It’s a selfish thought, I know, but it remained prominent. Why not keep the façade and just transform what was inside? Why feel the need to completely demolish the trademark exterior?

The plan was to showcase a new Toronto, a gentrified Toronto that no longer reflected or represented the Toronto of my childhood. Living in the downtown core my entire life, I notice the small changes occurring across this city, and it makes me wonder what this urban landscape will look like in the next ten or 15 years—unrecognizable, I bet. As more people move to the urban centre, the demand for these changes will only increase. I feel as if my negative response is outdated and unpopular.

A couple of years ago on Dupont St, the now trendy and hip diner-restaurant Rose and Sons used to be a greasy spoon called People’s Diner. My family and I would go on Sunday nights and order an $8 hamburger and milkshake: every child’s dream dinner. Each table had its own little jukebox that would play rock ‘n’ roll ‘50s and ‘60s classics. Now Rose and Sons is filled with young professionals who gladly buy overpriced food and are served water from manufactured antique looking jugs. To me, the image is self-aware and over-produced, with the sole purpose of selling a certain lifestyle that seems to be in high demand these days.

I already sound like a jaded old lady, but places like People’s Diner, Honest Ed’s, and The Central (where I managed to go during high school and occasionally get away with buying drinks underage) have informed my early developmental years. As I see Toronto rapidly changing for a shifting demographic, my heart will always remain with that flashing, blazing, in-your-face Honest Ed’s sign. The store invited you to “come in and get lost,” but it will never be lost in my fond memories of an older Toronto—my past Toronto, my childhood Toronto.