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The evolution of Toronto's Church Street Gaybourhood -- a photo slideshow and essay

Mandy Goodhandy opened a bar down at Richmond, but for the most part, the gay bit of Church Street is where its been for as long as most of us can remember. At the top it starts around Isabella, where you're greeted by Java Jive's pink sign on the right, and a big banner that says "There's no place like home" on the left, courtesy of Robin Wood Management, who rent out the apartments at 608. It ends at the site of many whimpers and bangs over the decades, The Barn and The Stables, the club and bar, respectively, where thousands of men have come and gone over the years.

But as barriers have fallen and battles have been won at a rate few would have expected, the role of Church Street, you might even say its identity, has been changing, never more so than in the last few years.

Traditionally, businesses on the Church Street strip have fallen into three categories: those that are born gay, those that achieve gayness, and those that have gayness thrust upon them. In the beginning, they were almost all of the last sort, business that happened to be on Church Street when it started turning gay. Dudley Hardware at 511 is a good example of the breed. The utility businesses, like Novak's Drug Store, the dry cleaners and the old Laundromat just above Wellesley, where the new Pizza Nova expansion is now, all fall into this category.

Then there was the much less common second category, the businesses that were not inherently gay, but became touchstones and unofficial community centres. The best example of this was This Ain't the Rosedale Library, a small bookstore set up by two young American men, Dan Bazuin and Charlie Huisken, who came up during the draft dodging years. It wasn't a gay bookstore and Bazuin and Huisken weren't gay. But they could always be counted on to have the good gay books and magazines -- and those Bruno Gmunder calendars Ė among all the other good books and magazines. 7/24 Video is another example, but the one that became the icon was The Second Cup just south of Wellesley, a chain store that evolved into gay ground zero. Whenever Xtra wanted to take the pulse of the community, they'd send a reporter across the street to the red tiled steps in front of the cafe and ask whoever was sitting there. Good for cruising, schmoozing, sitting and reading or as an understood meeting place before cell phones let us all make our plans on the fly, The Steps, as they became known -- and made more famous by the Kids in the Hall --  were a 24-hour cross-section of Church Street's communities and was perhaps the beginning of the sort of social density still found on Church Street sidewalks.

But it's the first category that's been the real bellwether. The bars were first -- in addition to the Barn and Stables, there was Woody's and Sailors, Tango and Crews, Bar 501, Slack Alice (now Slack's) and Statler's (piano and bingo bar) -- and then Xtra upstairs at 491, but starting in the 1990s, others started sprouting. Out on the Street is the poster child, three-floors at 551, selling lube, greeting cards and, most conspicuously, clever t-shirts that in the days of ACT UP and Queer Nation were also powerful political tools whenever they were worn off Church. Ma Zone, Flatiron's, the OUT TV storefront (briefly) and Zelda's followed.

Most of these businesses opened during what might be called the age of gay expansionism. It was the same era during which the Pride celebrations became enormous, and the ultimately successful fights for adoption, marriage and the rest were being fought. It looked, at the time, like an ever-upwards spiralling trend. Soon, it seemed, there'd be his & his jewellers, hers & hers real estate offices, maybe a gay car dealership, and the banks would start having same-sex imagery on their posters of people spending money. We are DINKs, hear us roar.

But as popular and political culture caught up with Church, its own cultural difference diminished, and after one last great gay push, when Priape expanded and Steamworks moved onto the strip around the mid-2000s, the growth, and it's been considerable, with rents sky-rocketing, has been much more mainstream, much of it built on the ashes of the old Category 1 businesses.

The 501 went under, and then the Second Cup imploded after a particularly stupid decision to actively discourage people from gathering on its steps. Ma Zone moved, as did This Ain't the Rosedale Library and last year, Zelda's, the sprawling drag queen-themed restaurant, downsized over to Yonge.

The businesses moving onto the strip seem to be making their business decisions less on the strength of the strip's identity than on its centrality and increasing condo-born density and constant pedestrian presence. Instead of the 501, there's the popular Churchmouse and Firkin down the street, a first category business replaced by a second category chain pub, gay-friendly rather than gay, and even that more by nurture than nature. The newest shops to come to Church have been Subway, Ginger's, Hero Burger and Pizzaiolo. Pizza Nova doubled its size, and the standard complement of ethnic restaurants, in the form of Sakura, A La Turque, Yefseis and Crepe It Up, have moved in. The banks never changed their posters, and when the Flight Centre opened up a few years ago, it didn't feel the need to either.

When the Second Cup re-engineered itself out of existence, people scooched their butts down the street a bit to the steps in front of Timothy's and the heterosexually branded BMO. They're not as high, these new steps, and not as diverse -- the average age  seems north of 40 -- but they're still there, like Woody's and Out in the Street. It's not a straight street by any means -- the street signs are now even rainbow themed from Gloucester to Carlton -- but it does seem well on its way to being gay-friendly, more like the West Village's Christopher Street than, say, the Castro. And with much of the rest of the city opened up to explicit gay-friendliness, thanks in large part to the focus the late Will Munro was able to bring to his dance nights and, later, his bar, maybe things are simply developing as they should.

This is the second in our series exploring neighbourhood strips. The first, published last month, poked around Bathurst Street.

Bert Archer is Yonge Street's Development News Editor and author of the book The End of Gay.

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