| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


The role nightlife plays in building and dividing Toronto

Jeff Cohen of the Horseshoe Tavern.

Formerly Tonic & System Soundbar, the corner of Peter & Richmond being developed into condos.

The Linen Chest taking over the old Republik club space.

Changing Richmond Street West.

Wrong Bar on Queen St West in Parkdale.

Nightlife in Parkdale.

The Ossington.

The Saint on Ossington Ave.

It goes without saying that a healthy cosmopolitan city will have a correspondingly healthy nightlife. That infrastructure of music venues and social spaces is not only vital for attracting tourist dollars, but also to help make the city a more enjoyable and vibrant place for its residents.

Nevertheless, the relationship between nightlife and City Hall in Toronto has historically been more antagonistic than positive. And, as residential density soars, the potential for conflict intensifies as a growing demand for after dark entertainment rubs up against an increasing number of people trying to sleep within earshot of the party.
"Our job as councillors is to facilitate a conversation between residents and club owners," councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20 Trinity-Spadina) says, whose riding encompasses both the Entertainment District and Kensington Market. 
"But every now and then, both sides dig in and lawyer up and force you to take a side. In that circumstance, a good night's sleep trumps a good time out at night every single time. The visitors and bar owners don't vote for me, the homeowners do." 
There are signs that dynamic may be shifting though. In reaction to a recent study funded by Music Canada comparing the live music industries of Toronto and Austin, councillor Josh Colle (Ward 15 Eglinton-Lawrence) has cerated a new music working group with the goal of shifting the tone of the dialogue.
"One of the things we learned in Austin is that their whole music promotion strategy initially came out of some of the issues that downtown councillors like Adam Vaughan and Gord Perks (Ward 14 Parkdale-High Park) are currently trying to deal with," Colle explains. "They were trying to make this work and turn it into a positive, instead of just chasing places with noise violations. What happened is that the industry got organized, and they created an advocacy group." 
"For some reason we haven't been treating music in the same way as we treat the film industry," he continues. "Austin knows it's the golden goose that keeps on giving, and they've found that, now that the industry is organized, they are policing each other, so that they don't all get dragged down by a few bad apples."
In an attempt to bring some of that approach to Toronto, Colle reached out to one of the industry players consulted in the original report, Collective Concerts' Jeff Cohen, who is now the chair of the new working group called 4479. Cohen sees this initiative as a great first step, but admits there's a long way to go. The City has endorsed a music city alliance with Austin, and Mayor Rob Ford is travelling down there for further discussion this week, but still Toronto has been slow to move on any of the working group's additional efforts.
"The city still won't acknowledge the working group as official, or give it any funding, and they still haven't created a music office. There is still a long way to go before we get to where Austin is," Cohen says.
While this new working group is directed primarily at live music, the issues created by DJ-oriented venues are strikingly similar. Founder of Ink Entertainment and the owner of massive nightclubs including the Guvernment and swank lounges such as Cube, Charles Khabouth sees similar strategies being effective with the types of venues and events he runs.
"The best way to learn is to go to other big cities to see how they deal with these issues. We need to have a better formal relationship between the industry and city hall—some kind of working group," Khabouth says. "Miami has exactly that, and it works very well. Of course there are going to be issues, but you have to make it work, and you can. We are a big cosmopolitan city, and we need entertainment. You have to have it, or the city dies."
Vaughan agrees that better co-operation between the City and the industry is needed, but is less optimistic.
"Trying to create a context for a conversation instead of an argument is essential, but what we tend to get with working groups in Toronto is that all the good operators show up and none of the bad ones do."
Instead, he sees the only solution being in giving the city more power to regulate and shape nightlife.
"If I could pull the license from a bad operator, that would make a big difference. Once we grant a license, you can't pull it away. We can't tell the bars in Kensington that they have to close at 10 pm, and that we'll give them midnight if they behave. We need to be able to compose the business model to make sure it fits into a neighbourhood." 
One of the new regulatory strategies that is being experimented with in Parkdale on Queen West is restricting the concentration of bars and restaurants to 22 per cent. While councillor Gord Perks cautions that this was an approach designed specifically for Parkdale, he does believe that using zoning to shape the ratios of different business types in an area should be considered. He also feels he's been unfairly characterized as being anti-nightlife, and insists he does appreciate the need for it—just not so much of it in his riding.
"If we're trying to figure out how to create new nightlife, I think an interesting place to imagine would be the distillery district. There's no residential, you've got a really funky layout, and you have a pedestrianized area to get rid of the automobile conflict, and there's TTC access to help with drunk driving," he says.
"I do think one of the interesting challenges for us is to start thinking about it regionally. Why isn't there any fun in the 905? I think places like Brampton should have a nightlife too." 
Unsurprisingly, Cohen is less enthusiastic about the idea of using zoning to shape where bars and clubs can operate. After all, it's hard to picture the Horseshoe or Lee's Palace flourishing in areas without the population density and accompanying vibrancy of the downtown.
"You live in downtown Toronto because you want to be around the restaurants, the bars, and the action," he says. "If you don't like the noise that comes with that, maybe you shouldn't live in downtown Toronto."

Benjamin Boles is a Toronto-based music critic and freelance journalist. He's been a weekly contributor to NOW Magazine since 2001, as well as appearing in publications like Vice, Huffington Post, and Toronto Life.

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts