Last Wednesday a huge fire consumed 14 buildings on Queen Street West, demolishing homes and businesses, and leaving dozens of people homeless. Among the 14 lost buildings was independent stereo store National Sound, and Duke’s Cycle, which had operated on the site since 1914. The disaster saddened many Torontonians for whom Queen Street, which spans the entire downtown core, often seems to emblematize the heart and spirit of the city itself.
Out of this destruction, some are seeing an opportunity. Once the rubble is cleared away, archeologists are hoping to gain access to the site, believed by local historians to be the location of a 19th-century army barracks, built to afford the British government some protection after William Lyon Mackenzie’s 1838 rebellion. It may turn out that the fire has uncovered a telling historic layer in the fabric of Toronto, but it’s also revealed the social dividing lines that criss-cross our city.
Since the fire, Facebook users have created groups to coordinate donations to the victims, benefit concerts have been organized, and even the illustrious Fairmont Royal York Hotel opened 10 of its rooms to those who had lost their homes.
One might suspect the fire would have elicited cheers instead of charity if it had occurred 20 metres down the street on the northwest corner of Queen and Bathurst. A few weeks ago, the Globe and Mail ran a lengthy feature on the Queen-Bathurst intersection, reportedly responsible for more 911 distress calls than any other intersection in the city, except one. The Globe article, entitled “At the corner of crack and pizza” lamented the problems caused to the area by drug traffic, which mainly centres on the northwest corner at the Meeting Place, a dropin centre for homeless Torontonians. Neighbourhood residents believe the Meeting Place and its homeless clientele are a menace to the community. It’s hard to imagine the Royal York issuing invitations if the Meeting Place went up in flames.
Sure enough, just hours after the blaze began on Wednesday morning, news outlets were already speculating that drug addicts living in the apartments above National Sound were responsible. Rumours—apparently unfounded—of a drug lab accident quickly circulated. The CBC evening news actually used the word “crackheads” to describe the suspected culprits.
But as chatter spread across Toronto blogs, suspicion was also cast on another Queen Street menace: gentrification. Reportedly, a number of corporate interests have eyed the properties on that stretch of Queen Street for years, because the now-demolished buildings stood next to a parking lot too small to allow for any substantial development. The buildings that housed Duke’s Cycle and National Sound were recently declared historic sites, and could not be knocked down. But since the fire has left the properties in ruins, there might be enough space for someone to build a condo or a big box store. After all, most of the property owners had no insurance, so who else has the money to build on Queen Street besides Best Buy or Home Depot?
The multiple explanations for the blaze reflect the different faces of Queen West. From the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at Ossington, to the addicts at Bathurst, to the boarded-up bars at Spadina, the dangerous and the unseemly always seem to linger on the margins. Further down the street at the Drake Hotel, and the $500,000 condos at the Bohemian Embassy, gentrification threatens to suffocate the independent spirit of downtown’s west end beneath a tide of $10 cocktails.
Then there are those who consider themselves the “real” residents of Queen West: the independent store owners, the artists and musicians, the young and stylish families, all of whom bought their first bicycle at Duke’s, and are determined to defend their way of life against drug crime and corporate encroachment. Toronto’s young urbanites will foster a sense of community at charity events and fundraisers in the coming weeks, but there’s something else going on here than attempts to recover from this fiery calamity. There is an ongoing struggle being waged on Queen Street’s battleground to define the nature of life in our city.