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Urban Planning + Architecture

A Toronto Community Mourns an Honest Loss, and a Vancouver Luxury Developer Moves In

Westbank is making a big play in TO. A new film tells the tale, screening at DOXA fest.

Dorothy Woodend 11 Jun 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here. Dorothy was formerly the director of programming for DOXA.

Honest Ed’s in Toronto is long gone. The iconic discount department store that once stood at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets was bought by Vancouver developer Westbank in 2016. Not long after, the famous orange and yellow façade came tumbling down.

Film director Lulu Wei found herself in the middle of the story, her apartment smack dab in the middle of the block that housed the Toronto landmark. As the community rallied and organized, what else was the filmmaker to do but pick up a camera and capture the action?

In August 2016, Wei, with her somewhat reluctant partner Kathleen in tow, began documenting the changes wrought in her neighbourhood, beginning with the announcement of the store’s closing. The result is the new documentary There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, screening as part of the upcoming DOXA Documentary Film Festival.

Ed Mirvish, the eponymous founder of Honest Ed’s, opened his store in 1948, and over the course of 60 years the store welcomed wave after wave of shoppers, especially those new to the city. As one interviewee notes, the store was something of a port of entry for many immigrant families. It was cheap, unpretentious and, most importantly, welcoming.

Bins festooned with hand-painted signs in primary colours and filled with piles of furry snow boots, frying pans and toques are captured in archival footage. Honest Ed’s was famous not only for its low prices on everything from housewares to clothing, but also for something more profound — a sense of acceptance, community and an idiosyncratic flair, both humble and human.

Mirvish had a taste for putting on a show, whether it was giving away turkeys at Christmas or the marquee-style letters that emblazoned the building’s exterior. But the family also carried on a tradition of philanthropy, giving back to the city itself. In addition to the store they established the Mirvish Village, a block of houses that supported galleries, artist studios and small shops. As one long-time tenant states, they offered the cheapest rents in Toronto. In addition to offering artists affordable places to live and work, Mirvish was also a great contributor to the city’s theatre scene, refurbishing the Royal Alexandra Theatre as well as building the Princess of Wales Theatre.

The same spirit of generosity has not so widely been ascribed to Westbank, the site’s current owner, described in the film as a “Vancouver luxury condo developer.” The Westbank development planned for the site, entitled Mirvish Village, is celebrated in the breathy copy of marketers thusly:

“Honest Ed’s was beloved for bringing the community together in any and every way possible.... The history of these lands is also multi-layered, and has meant many different things to many different people — as a landing pad for waves of Jewish, Italian, Portuguese, Jamaican, and many other immigrants, as an artists’ colony, as a model of entrepreneurial success, and even simply as the place where many young university students bought their first frying pan.... The product is a fine-grained, innovative project that we hope will continue to serve as a centre of community — a living room for the neighbourhood.”

The development of purpose-built rental housing is planned to open in summer 2022, and construction gallops along with five towers and a build of over a million square feet. As the film notes, Toronto is fast growing, with the population expected to swell by one million in the coming decade. Density is key in addressing this surge, but as Toronto Coun. Mike Layton says in the film, “Supply doesn’t equal affordability.”

Julie Mah from the University of Toronto puts it even more bluntly: “Who are these rental units being built for?”

A healthy dose of skepticism about Westbank’s intentions is shared by other interviewees, despite the developer’s efforts to reach out to the community. As Wei’s partner Kathleen pointedly asks, “It’s hard to tell if they’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a sheep in hipster clothing?”

As the gap between the rich and the poor continues to increase, housing, as Vancouver well knows, is a central, critical issue. Increased density isn’t necessarily a cure-all and may well further exacerbate underlying issues, creating increasingly polarized cities with socioeconomic fault lines riven through communities.

In 2018, Ontario’s provincial government did away with rent control for new buildings. The average rental for a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto is currently sitting around $2,300, calling into question what affordability really means.

Initially Westbank received $18.75 million in federal government grants to create a piddly 85 affordable housing units out of 800 in its Mirvish development. In January, $200 million more in support from the government was announced, swelling the number of designated affordable units to 366. That’s a $550,000 subsidy per unit.

Affordable rents were assessed on 30 per cent of Toronto’s median income.

Professor Deborah Cowen from the University of Toronto notes the funds go into the pockets of Westbank, and in the long run may do more harm than good. Cowen says in the film that, based on a median income of $80,000 over a year, rental rates would still be $2,000 a month. Even as Mirvish Village is touted as a positive model to be emulated, it is still largely out of reach of poorer people.

There’s No Place is mostly an amiable stroll of film, following a number of folks who’ve called the neighbourhood home for years, including Toronto’s historic Black and Caribbean communities. Rather than take direct aim at the development, Wei follows a series of former residents who’ve been displaced, including herself and her girlfriend. It’s a bit of a safe approach, underscored by mournful tinkling piano and overhead drone shots of the area.

The people followed in the film are all charming and sweet, including Itah Sadu, who runs a Different Booklist bookstore, 86-year-old artist Gabor Mezei, as well as academic firebrands Cowen and Mah from the University of Toronto. Wei also takes pains to offer representation from both sides with Westbank representatives and a couple of milquetoast politicians rounding out the cast of characters.

The film wanders along as people pack up and look for new digs. There’s surprisingly little rancour, and occasionally you might find yourself wishing that folks were angrier about the situation. To be fair, there are some good things that arise, though we won’t spoil them. Life goes on. Even the city planners who initially talk about the fight of a generation to get additional affordable units seem placated at the end.

Is it wrong to want a little more fire?

Precarity is not only destabilizing, but in the long run it’s exhausting. Even as the community fractures and disperses, there isn’t a great deal of righteous fury on display in the film. Most people seem resigned to the inevitability that, despite all the fiery speeches and community engagement sessions, developers will ultimately get their way, offering a few trinkets like bike valets and public art installations.

And there are other losses, less visible but maybe more deeply felt.

The people that Honest Ed’s originally served — new immigrants, families and poorer people — have been forced out of the city centre to the margins and can’t make the trip into the city to shop the way they once did. Mirvish’s son David, as well as a few long-time employees of the store, note what made Honest Ed’s a beacon for so many different people wasn’t the bargain basement prices so much as the sense that you could feel at home, accepted, free to do your own thing.

Cities change, that’s their nature. But increasingly they seem to change in only a few, often very selective directions, all largely predicated on maximizing profits. In the process idiosyncratic places and people are wiped away, leaving behind them a generic, homogenous landscape, as bland and boring as cottage cheese.

Profits over people isn’t exactly revelatory, but the documentary raises a number of other important issues about who cities are for, not only now, but a hundred years down the road. As Toronto Coun. Joe Cressy asks in the film, “Are we building a neighbourhood or are we building buildings?” It’s a statement echoed by many in the community. “Is there any hope?” one attendee plaintively asks at the community meeting at the Different Booklist store. The answer is not a reassuring one.

But as recent events have demonstrated, the future can swerve suddenly. Things that seemed once inscribed in stone can vanish like mist, revealing new vistas, new possibilities. Not all of them emblazoned with Westbank’s corporate logo.

There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace is available to screen as part of DOXA’s online Virtual Festival from June 18, 12:01 a.m. to June 26, 11:59 p.m.  [Tyee]

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