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A neighbourhood that brings the old & new together

Before Juli Daoust and John Baker decided to move to the Junction and open up their Japano-Scando-Spanish design shop, they needed to be sure the area had a good coffee shop.
"We dated the neighbourhood," Daoust says in the second-floor apartment she's sharing with Baker and their infant while their home above the shop is being renovated. "We went to Cool Hand, had coffee at Crema."
The first date went well, as did the second and third. They'd been flirting with other neighbourhoods. They figured their shop was idiosyncratic enough that it didn't really matter where they opened it; it would be a destination store, or it would fail. You don't get a lot of walk-by business for $75 Swedish-designed concrete toilet brushes. So the city was their oyster. They just needed to be sure wherever they went was grown-up enough for them to get into a serious relationship.
Since the city annexed the Junction (at the time known as the City of West Toronto) in 1909, the railway tracks that gave the area its name made this an industrial sector, once the largest meat-packing district in the country. That ensured the rents were low and the neighbourhood, such as it was, undesirable. In the 19th century it was one of the spots British immigrants landed, but by the 1920s, it had become a hub for a new Maltese community that has only recently given way to the sort of mild gentrification Daoust and Baker represent (the Maltese Society of Toronto at 3132 Dundas West, founded 1922, is one of the few remnants). As High Park and Bloor West Village to the south evolved into desirable urban enclaves, the Junction lagged, partially as a result of its idiosyncratic drinking law (about which, more later), and the TTC's 1968 decision to stop the Dundas streetcar at Dundas West station.

One of the upsides was that the various development booms never hit this strip of Dundas, leaving the area with much of its old architecture and small-shop density, the sort of thing gentrification's shock troops just love. As late as 2005, Shawn Micallef (writer and former managing editor of Yonge Street) was still able to refer to the Junction as "my secret corner of Toronto." But that's about when things started to change and the Junction began to join the mainstream of the city's westward evolution, when it began, in urban terms, to grow up.
Crema, part of that evolution, was one of the things that convinced Daoust and Baker The Junction was ready for them.
Geoff Polci and Alana Duggan had opened the coffee shop on Dundas at the corner of Quebec the year before, having come to a similar conclusion: The Junction, whose caffeine needs had for many years been presided over by the Baker's Dozen, an amiably ramshackle doughnut shop at the end of the strip just past St. Johns Road, was ready for a $5 cup of coffee. Like Daoust and Baker, they had decided to live in the neighbourhood, as well, buying a house just a block or so off the strip.
Polci and Duggan decided to take the leap in part because this was an (at the time) underdeveloped strip, because he figured he could attract clients up from the higher-end High Park and Bloor West Village neighbourhoods to the south, in part because it was pretty cheap, and in part because an organic grocery store, The Sweet Potato, had just opened a few blocks east of where they eventually decided to set up shop. You could go a little further back and say that hip eatery Cool Hand of A Girl—which opened in 2006 a little east of what turned into the main strip, which runs between Keele and St Johns—paved the way for Sweet Potato.
So, Cool Hand begat Sweet Potato, Sweet Potato begat Crema, Crema begat Mjölk, and après Mjölk, le deluge (in no particular order): Locomotive, Izzi Camilleri Adaptive Clothing, Tailwaggers, Curry Twist, the 3030, Junction Craft Brewing and the Indie Ale House, which opened this month.
This past summer, the neighbourhood hosted the first annual Junction Flea, a direct reference to the Brooklyn Flea, which has twitched some residents' antennae, a possible sign that the Junction, a formerly industrial and working-class neighbourhood, will, like Brooklyn, be swallowed whole by a giant hipster.
"The only bad thing about this place," says Daoust, "is that maybe the landlords think this is the next Ossington, the next Queen West, and therefore inflate their rent prices."
"The long-term goal would be not to choke the neighbourhood so quickly," Baker interjects. "That's what it feels like: too much, too quickly."
The couple mentions a friend who was looking to rent a storefront at 3026 Dundas West, but was repelled by a rental rate that was several degrees of magnitude out of her range. The landlord knew what he was looking for, and got it: It's now a Gabby's, the second chain store to open in the 'hood, after the Starbucks that opened about 18 months ago across the street from Crema.
They may not need to worry, though. Compared to West Queen West, ignited by the Drake in 2004, or the Ossington strip, which seemed explode outwards from Sweaty Betty's in the space of about a year, the Junction has been moving at a relatively reasonable pace, a result not only of its geographic extremity and its proximity to the railway tracks, but of its strong local culture and history.
As many Toronto history buffs know, the Junction was the city's last dry neighbourhood, allowing its first beer to be served in 1998 after 94 years of teetotaling inspired by what the Toronto Star described in 1904 at a riot of "5,000 strangers... half-crazed with liquor." Junction residents and business owners don't seem to respond that urgently to pressure. Though there are plenty of new business, there are still plenty of old ones, too (including what for my money is the best slice place in town, Dundas Pizza, which opened up under the ownership and chefsmanship of Tom Hoang about 15 years ago), which show few signs of going anywhere any time soon.
When you walk down the strip these days, you get the sense that the Junction never will be a Queen West, an Ossington or even a Dundas and Dovercourt. The demographic's too diverse. With the low-rent apartments to the east of the strip, and its property value-dampening convergence with the tracks to the west, it's more likely that the kilometre-long Junction strip will evolve into a sort of west-end Annex, a Jacobsian idyll protected from overdevelopment, perfectly happy to be an andante second string to the subway-served Bloor West Village.
When Michael Coren wrote his ode to the neighbourhood in 2004, by which time he'd already been living there for a decade, he praised its stolidity, pointing to its longstanding Maltese community (which is now fading), and saying "nobody is going to write love poetry about the local length of Dundas, but nor does one lock the doors at night in fear of home invasion."
Though the Dundas strip has changed considerably since 2004, when Vesuvio (established in 1957 and still apparently going strong) was the only restaurant of note, Coren's description is still at least half right. One doesn't feel in any way unsafe here, day or night (one recent neighbour-bullying scandal aside).
"We're so spoiled living on Dundas," Doaust says. "From my window, I can go across the street to the Early Years Centre, across the street from that is a bookstore, across the street form that is art lessons, music lessons; I don't have to go anywhere in a car with this baby."
It may not be poetry, but it does sound a lot like love.
Bert Archer is, among other things, Yonge Street's development editor.
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