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Bathurst Street's gorgeous bones in words and pictures

Every city has its neighbourhoods, but on top of that basic grid, often more psychogeographic than official, many cities have other layers. Manhattan, for instance, has its numbered intersections, that give residents an instant snapshot of where you're talking about. Paris has its quartiers and quais in addition to its arrondissements.

In Toronto we have a strip like Bathurst, between Bloor and Dupont, a busy street but one that exists somewhat anonymously between more famous neighbours. Though it has a distinct commercial character, it is, in fact, mostly residential, cut in half as it is by an almost exclusively residential strip in the middle. And though the strip has been there, in one form or other, since the early part of the last century, it's just now going through a shift. For years, it's looked west to Seaton Village for its business, but starting a few years ago, most noticeably with the arrival of the distinctly twee Madeleines, Cherry Pie and Ice Cream, a café, confectioner and caterer just south of Bloor, it seems to have started looking east, towards the higher-end Annex, and possibly even north to Forest Hill.

Barbara Edwards, who opened her eponymous gallery at 1069 Bathurst on Oct. 1, says she chose Bathurst for a couple of reasons, the relatively low rent being one of the less important among them.

"It was en route for many of my clients who live in Forest Hill and Rosedale," she says, saying Bathurst is one of the preferred thoroughfares north, even for Rosedalians, who she says take Bathurst north and then cut quickly east across Dupont.

"When I moved in, I just became part of this group of entrepreneurs that really support each other. I wear the designs of the designer's studio (Ewanika), Rapido supports my events and sends me croissants, and the photographer up the street (Tynan Studio) takes pictures for me."

Edwards feels certain the strip is on the verge of gentrification. It's something she's looking forward to.

But Susan Oppenheim, owner of Java Mama, isn't so sure. As a result of several large landlords, and some zoning restrictions that she says makes it easy to turn commercial space into residential space, but not the reverse, she figures the strip, which she moved into after buying the building 8 years ago, will likely stay the eclectic, jumbled-up strip it's been for years.

"Who owns the property, that's the defining feature," Oppenheim says. "If someone owns something, by not developing or repairing it, that would cause the strip to look the way Bathurst looks." There are water problems in the bottom of some of the buildings on the strip, she says, speculating that it may have something to do with the buried Taddle Creek that used to flow in the area but was built over.

Oppenheim is not entirely satisfied with the way the strip is being handled, either by the city or its landlords. She figures the street is too busy, without enough crosswalks and traffic calming, and that a building like 1000 Bathurst, once a hardware store and now, for more than two years, boarded up and falling down, ensure parts of the strip will stay in the doldrums for now

And she may be right. But she also says that she chose Bathurst because of the idiosyncratic business she operates: she roasts and sells coffee, but also sells items on consignment for the homeless and functions as a social worker (she's a graduate of George Brown's community worker program), offering counselling services to those in need.

"Eight years ago, Bathurst was cheaper than Bloor," she says, adding that there was nothing on Bloor under her $500,000 spending limit. She won't reveal specifically how much her building at number 1075 cost, but it sounds like it was in the $400,000 range. There aren't many strips as central as Bathurst that could have offered buildings that inexpensive.

In addition to the larger landlords, the strip houses a good many owner-landlords. The proprietors of Dedora own their building, as do the owners of Le Parisien hair salon, Kos diner, and, until recently, the Hungarian florist just south of Dupont. It is these landlords that form the basis of that community of entrepreneurs Barbara Edwards referred to, and who provide a counterpoint to the strip's more raggedy aspects.

John's Café just opened in December, the third outcropping of the John's Italian business whose first two locations are on Baldwin Street (another of Toronto's characteristic strips) and Queen West. Marco Henao, who runs John's on Bathurst, says he and his brother, John's owner Julian Henao, found the property, the former Telepizza, on the west side of the street three years ago.

"We were very fond of our customers in the Annex," he says, adding many of the delivery orders at the other two locations tended to come from the neighbourhood. "We saw the potential of the Annex growing, and it's growing north and west." John's is still in the process of getting various permits to open a patio, and has plans, if they're successful, of adding a second floor to the restaurant, possibly once they buy the building from its current owner, an arrangement Marco says is currently in the works. "We love this neighbourhood."

Madeleines owner Kyla Eaglesham, who's rented her beautifully renovated space at the north end of the strip for six years, would be happy to see the whole street gentrify. "As far as this neighbourhood goes, this building was renovated and it's gorgeous," she says of her shop, with its molded tin ceiling and well restored woodwork. "The quality of workmanship put into it makes me wonder why some of the other buildings aren't being restored, because they've got gorgeous bones."

She's right – it doesn't take too much imagination to visualize the strip as another Yonge-Summerhill area. But just try to imagine One Love, the tiny start-up Jamaican roti and corn soup joint, or Oppenheim's Java Mama, existing at tony Summerhill, and you'll see the fine balance that makes the Bathurst strip what it is. It may not have been engineered this way, but the various forces at work have ensured as diverse a commercial ecosystem as you're likely to find in the GTA.

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