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A possible Kodak moment: Our visit to Mount Dennis finds a storied community at a crossroads

Mount Dennis has always been working class, and in a city that's becoming increasingly gentrified in one way or another, from the Junction to Long Branch, and Ossington to darkest Leslieville, that makes Mount Dennis something special.
There have been factories in Mount Dennis, whose main commercial strip runs along Weston Road roughly between Eglinton and Jane, for decades. The biggest of them was Kodak (which helped define the look and feel of the neighbourhood, building 2,500 homes for workers during its century there). The Kodak plant is the one people outside the neighbourhood sometimes know about, the one whose closure in 2005 led to predictions of disaster. But there were others before: Continental Can, Double D electrical, Johnson Matthew and Jack Greedy excavating, to name a few. Irving Tissue, formerly the Royale Tissue plant, is still there, just north of Jane, a reminder of the sort of industrial landscape butted right up against the residential neighbourhoods where many of the workers lived that used to define Mount Dennis. These days, with the factories mostly gone the place can seem like a margin without a centre. But only if you don't look too closely.
Like the Dupont strip, another example of the now mostly extinct breed of urban industrial neighbourhoods, Mount Dennis has to find some new direction. Dupont's future is being subsumed into the Annex, with bakeries and cafés opening where peanut factories and type foundries used to be. But there's no Annex near Mount Dennis. The Junction's not that far south, but it's only just getting on its feet itself after walking the wilderness of its own post-railway career and has no aegis yet to spare.
But disaster? It depends how you define the word. It's a neighbourhood with history, much of its still in evidence, but one that's moving away from its roots and has yet to find much fertile ground. New plans from Metrolinx for the Kodak lands, a potential LRT stop and nearby developments are may redefine Mount Dennis place in Toronto for the better.
There are vacant storefronts. One of the more popular spots is the Coffee Time at Weston and Ray Avenue, where sandwiches and meat patties seem to outsell doughnuts. The outlet has a bank of four computers with Internet access for $1 for 30 minutes, $1.50 for an hour. On my three visits, they were well used. The low-rent housing on the northeast side of the diagonal strip, much of it just behind Coffee Time, houses a local population whose diversity is defined not only by race but by class.
According to 2006 Statistics Canada numbers, the number of visible minorities and recent immigrants are higher in Mount Dennis than much of the rest of this diverse city. So is the number of homes where neither English nor French is the primary language. Spanish is the top non-official language in the area, some of it Latin American, some of it Caribbean, which is well ahead of runners up Portuguese, Vietnamese, Somali and Korean.
From 2001 to 2006, Africans topped the list of recent immigrants to Mount Dennis, followed by Europe, Caribbean and Bermuda, South America and Southern Asia. But the neighbourhood has been reshaped by every wave of immigrants that Toronto has experienced, with Europeans making up the largest ethnic group (3,615), followed by Caribbean (2,295), African (1,980) and East and Southeast Asian (1,835). Compared to the rest of Toronto, the number of renters and single-parent families is much higher, as is the number of dwellings requiring major repairs. Incidents of low income increased between 2001 and 2006, with 29.7 percent of economic families, 48.2 percent of individuals and 31.7 percent of private households being considered to be low income. Grouped by income levels, the largest cohort is the $30,000-$39,000, but the second largest group earns less than $10,000. So it makes sense that the neighbourhood is one of Toronto's priority areas, calling for greater investment in city services.
While there are prostitutes who hang out on the street, often before nightfall according to one local business owner, and lots of bars, there are probably more churches, mostly storefront affairs with congregations counted by the dozen. There are a couple of music stores, an African shop or two, a few West Indian restaurants, and a fish and chips place called Golden Crisp. It's modest from the outside. Modest from the inside, too, with seats for about 20 and a take-out counter where most of Golden Crisp's business gets done. Above the bay window, there's a little chalkboard sign that says "Store Policy: If you want more chips, just ask." (I tried it out; they'll give you as much of the fresh, soft fries as you like, no extra charge.) But it's the sign at the bottom of the window that really caught my attention. It says "1961-2012: 51 years." That's a long time for a fish and chips place in this city, a long time for a business of any kind in a neighbourhood with a word like "disaster" associated with it.
But that sign only tells part of the story. If you talk to Harry Vandekamp, the barely middle-aged Christian father of five who owns the shop and lives above it, you'll learn fish and chips have been sold on this spot since 1935, when Harry Vickers and his wife converted a bakery; 1961 is the year Vandekamp's parents bought the place.
Vandekamp's big on Mount Dennis history. His father once told him Weston Road used to be the most heavily trafficked cattle road in the country, back when the Stockyards development—now under construction at St. Clair, soon to be 600,000 square feet of retail—were actual stockyards. He feels connected to the neighbourhood still—he's chosen to raise his family here—and though talking to him long enough about the subject will elicit some concerns about the hookers, the number of bars, and "the people you wish weren't here," he has far more good things to say about it than bad. Though he takes his family to one down Eglinton, he's a fan of the strip's churchy bent. He admires the entrepreneurial, grassroots attitude of the small congregations.
"The cost of building churches is formidable," says Vandekamp, "so it's going back to what it was originally 2,000 years ago: little house churches, a congregation of 10 to 30 people. That seems to blend into the community quite well, it doesn't stand out. You hear some nice singing when you go by."
The number of vacant storefronts isn't much worse than what you'd have seen in the Junction five years ago. And there's a not-terribly active BIA—formed in 1974 and nominally headed by the ward's councillor, Frances Nunziata—that runs from just south of Eglinton up to Ray Avenue (not quite far enough up to include Golden Crisp).
"We're doing baby steps right now," Nunziata says. "In the past couple of years, we've been able to put flowers up. We're getting planters."
In April, Metrolinx revealed it had purchased 58 acres of the Kodak lands to use as a transit vehicle storage and maintenance facility. Many residents were not pleased with the news; Nunziata had hoped the property would be given over to mixed-use development. But Metrolinx has said the facility will be a "mobility hub," more like Eglinton West Station on the Spadina subway line than a traditional repair yard. An environmental assessment of the site is expected to begin in fall 2012 and residents are waiting for more details of what Metrolinx intends to do. 
An additional announcement by Metrolinx last month that the Eglinton LRT would, by 2020, go through Mount Dennis, all the way to Jane, came as a relief to the BIA; there had been worries it would stop at Black Creek, further isolating the neighbourhood. With the Metrolinx plan for a mobility hub, it seems likely that Mount Dennis will get its own LRT stop—and then some.
First Class Delites could end up being one of the chief beneficiaries of that stop. The Jamaican and Caribbean restaurant is run by Grace, who was wearing a red beret the afternoon I had my $2.99 Tuesday special of fried chicken served on rice and beans with macaroni salad. The shade might have been raspberry. She didn't want me to use her last name, but she was otherwise voluble. Originally a dressmaker from Jamaica, Grace opened Delites 11 years ago. A member of the BIA, she gets there a little before 7am and stays till about 11pm every weekday, with people to help out on Saturdays. She pays less than $3,000 rent a month for the 1,400-square-foot place, a bargain in a real-estate-crazed city.
It's slow, she says; too slow, and the profit margin is too thin. She thinks a wider range of businesses on the strip would help more than anything else. The thing that worries her most is what they're going to do with the Kodak grounds. She's heard rumblings about a mall or business park of some description.
"If they put a business district in there, the community is finished," she says, arguing that the margins of her fellow small business owners on the strip are so wafer thin already, any little hit would crack them to pieces She says when the No Frills opened up recently, several more vacant storefronts popped up where West Indian grocers used to be. Those 600,000 square feet of retail down at St. Clair probably won't help any, either.
But as I sit at my table for an hour or so, I see people coming and going, many getting their food to take away. Most of them know her, either by name, or enough to joke with her. And those that don't—she jokes with them. There's a preponderance of city workers among her clientele: TTC drivers and a road worker in a reflective yellow vest who wonders what she's got that's vegetarian. Nothing, as it turns out. She wants to make vegetarian, she says, but there's not enough demand to have something prepared every day. "Maybe tomorrow," she says.
A lot has been written about the creative class, those people who move in to inexpensive neighbourhoods, pretty them up and make them fascinating for the class of people who pay $750,000 for a loft-style condo. Spots like West Queen West or DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) or Distillers Row in north Portland become attractive because low rents let people try stuff out, start up quirky businesses or operate unprofitable galleries. Some of these businesses hit it big (House Spirits in Portland, for instance, with its Aviation Gin and aged aquavits), but the neighbourhood as a whole benefits from the ambience created by the relatively low financial pressure system.
We tend to make less noise about the effects on people and culture of places like Mount Dennis. There are no pop-up stores, but the same low pressure has created, in places like First Class Delites and Golden Crisp, atmospheres in which people interact with people like people interact with people, not like service industry employees interact with consumers. It's a good feeling, and one that can be as attractive as its hipster equivalent.

Mount Dennis hosts a Jane's Walk on Saturday, May 5. Details here. For info about other Jane's Walks in Toronto, check here
Bert Archer is Yonge Street's Development News editor.
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