City on Fire

By local standards, this post is coming late. Newspaper articles have been written. Photos have been uploaded to Facebook. Donation jars have been installed in our local bars. That said, I’ve never promised to be bleeding edge.

Last week, on Wednesday the 20th, a fire broke out on a patch of historic Queen Street West buildings. If our morning paper had been delivered, I wouldn’t have known until much later, but as luck would have it I found myself walking to the corner store at Queen and Shaw and saw a massive plume of black smoke not far in the distance. I trotted home, told my wife there was a fire and switched on the local TV news. Before our eyes, we watched a 6-alarm fire gutting three businesses that were stalwarts on Queen West: Suspect Video (one of the best DVD/memorabilia stores in the city), National Sound (one of the few places which stocked turntable supplies – I bought my stereo there), and Duke’s bicycle shop (itself an institution). Gone. Wiped off the map.

It wasn’t until yesterday, when I came upon a couple of friends on Ossington, that I realised I’d been avoiding seeing the remains. I told them I was going to take some snapshots around the neighbourhood (a habit I’d all but stopped in the latter part of 2007) and they asked if I was going to go to Queen and Bathurst – where the fire struck.

“I can’t.” I said.

I mentioned how it had broken my heart to see it on TV, to know that these stores (and others) were forever gone. It wasn’t just the stores themselves – it was the location which mattered just as much. Queen West has been fighting a losing battle against gentrification and with the loss of these three historic buildings it just seems inevitable that something rich and ghastly will step into their place, without credentials or care for such. The street which launched a million inspirations, a thousand bands, which housed countless artists of a myriad disciplines is being swallowed by real estate speculators, generic retail chains, and the sort of brazen cultural co-opting that wouldn’t sound convincing if it were fiction.

Last night, after band practise, I walked down Bathurst to Queen. It was evening and the sides of Queen were fenced with black security gates to protect what was now a scene of investigation. I walked east for a bit until I stood across from the charred carcases, obscured by bulldozers and demolition equipment. I pressed forward until my face nearly touched the fencing, staring at the remains in the night, lit indirectly by street lights. Behind me, people kept walking past. I was in their way. These are the same people, I thought, who will welcome the Pottery Barn, who won’t think twice about the Tim Horton’s and American Apparel outlets which inevitably take the place of independently-owned businesses. They are impatient for convenience and similarity – they don’t trust those thorny things which can’t be slickly marketed to their lifestyles: video stores with semi-pornographic gore magazines, audio stores which aren’t driven by underpaid commission sales staff, clothing stores which don’t produce the same uniform styles and colours that you see at the mall.

I love Toronto. I hate Toronto. And when I stood there in the night, staring at the wreckage, I wondered whether I was long for it. Whether some day I will simply say: “I’m tired of waiting for my city’s soul to come back.”.

In the meantime, I will give. I will donate to those who lost their businesses and their homes, their livelihoods (thankfully not their lives). Everyone I know – friends who matter, at least – care about this loss. They care, not as consumers, but as citizens and members of the community. My hope is that this tragedy will inspire more like them.


One Reply to “City on Fire”

  1. I think that the soul of every city is under siege from multinational chain stores. I was shocked again when in Montreal in October and rue St Denis was all Aldo and Starbucks stores. Ten years ago it was all independent stores, but now its an outdoor mall. New York has a similar issue.

    Still, I miss the old Queen West.

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