Kathy Shaidle on the decline of Toronto’s “Village”, once the second largest gay neighbourhood in North America:
I wasn’t exactly “the only straight in the Village” but sometimes it felt that way. Back then, the stretch of Church Street from Bloor as far as Gerrard was replete with rainbow flags, gay-owned/friendly establishments, and their sometimes disturbingly clone-y patrons. Alongside bars like Sailor and the Barn Stables, gift shops dealt in pink triangle lapel pins and Joan Crawford-themed birthday cards. Zelda’s, with its drag-queen-trailer-park-themed décor, was a beloved brunch destination.
On residential offshoots like Charles and Maitland, homes and gardens were lovingly, even competitively, tended. For Pride (which grew in length from a single summer day to a whole month during my tenancy) and “gay Christmas” (Halloween), festive decorations were hung early and often. “Any excuse for a party” was a phrase you heard almost as frequently as “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” Even the rare misanthropic gesture screamed “gay,” like the fellow who strung colored lights on his balcony to spell out “FUCK XMAS.”
Then, slowly, over the course of a decade, “pop and pop” neighborhood anchors like the Priape sex shop gave way to tacky “breeder” franchises, like fake British pubs and pizza joints. Perversely, the Second Cup demolished its famous “steps,” which had long served as the Ghetto’s 24/7 public square.
The Village took on the grim, grimy atmosphere of an off-season amusement park.
If you’re thinking “AIDS,” think again. I would have predicted the same cause once upon a time, as the 1990s saw more and more skeletal figures shuffling along the sidewalks, until they became names inscribed on the memorial in the same notorious park where the living still stubbornly cruised for sex and drugs.
But gay and straight observers alike agree: it wasn’t low T-cells but low interest rates that emptied out the Ghetto. Lifelong renters — like me — could suddenly afford homes of their own, but not in Boystown, where even a dilapidated house listed in the high six figures. Gays started colonizing (and, predictably, beautifying) new neighborhoods where buyers could get more house for their money: Cabbagetown, Leslieville, and even the once unthinkable Parkdale (now nicknamed Queer Street West).