At West Queen W: 48 Abell
Multimedia artist Michael Toke used to have a studio space in the last of the artists lofts at 48 Abell St. He painted happy faces on the building so that the workers will feel sad taking down the building.
STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
No building better represents the transformation of West Queen West than the three-storey warehouse at 48 Abell St.
For years, it was home to many of the artists who turned a once derelict neighbourhood into the city's most vibrant and creative community. Today it sits empty, a short block south of the streetcar stop, awaiting the wrecker's ball. It's making way for yet another condo tower.
In this part of town, the condo boom is concentrated in a triangle between Dovercourt and Dufferin Streets, south of Queen. It's the biggest blast of a gentrifying process ignited a decade ago.
For multi-media artist Michael Toke, among the last to vacate 48 Abell this fall, it's the end of the kind of neighbourhood that attracted the boom in the first place.
Demolition and high rents have forced artists out, except for the few who landed work spaces in the new towers. Some scattered across the city; others moved right out of the country.
"It's a creative drain," says Toke, 47, who was ready to follow the exodus until he got a teaching offer from the Art Gallery of Ontario. "It's a sad thing to stay to the end and watch it implode."
Worse, high rents make him pessimistic about West Queen West's once dynamic art community sprouting "organically" elsewhere in the city.
Toke moved into 48 Abell St. in 1991. "It was a really rough neighbourhood — lots of drug dealers, lots of prostitutes, lots of crime," he says. "The Drake and the Gladstone (hotels) would close down every once and a while, and the main brothel would move from one to the other."
At its peak, the Abell building was home to about 100 artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians and faculty of the Ontario College of Art — all attracted by its cheap rent and large spaces. The building wasn't zoned for residential use, so tenants were technically there illegally. But nobody cared.
There was no avoiding creative interaction. The best place for it was a cabaret called The Cave, a "raw space" in 48 Abell where performers and artists could test or exhibit new material.
"It became famous across Canada and the U.S.," Toke says. "I remember Mike Myers coming out and testing some of the songs and jokes for Austin Powers before the (movie) series came out.
"If you were a young comedian and you could make it through the gauntlet of heckling at The Cave, that was something," he adds.
Some of the building's residents would eventually become key organizers and participants of Nuit Blanche, the city-sponsored, dusk-to-dawn celebration of art.
The building, like the neighbourhood, had its seedy side.
"Of course there were also brothels and drug dens in there over the years, and lots of other nasty businesses, people running booze cans and some long hallways where people averted their eyes because they didn't want to be seen there," Toke says.
In time, the concentration of artists attracted art galleries. Toke gives credit for sparking the movement to curator Katharine Mulherin, who in 1998 opened BUSgallery. Later, the Drake and Gladstone hotels were renovated, restaurants flooded in, and the neighbourhood's transformation was complete.
It became trendy. Real estate prices skyrocketed, and developers with condominium projects swooped in.
In 2004, the Hollander family, which owned 48 Abell and ran a lamp store there, approached the city about adding a fourth floor and making the building a residential and work space. The Star's Christopher Hume reported there were doubts it could be brought up to building-code standards, and underground parking would have to be added. So the owners turned to a developer, and the condo plan was designed.
Saving the building from demolition became a local cause célèbre. For many, it embodied the spirit of the neighbourhood. But in 2006, city council rejected a motion to designate the Victorian-era building a heritage site.
The city was also slow to respond to Active 18, a residents' group that wanted to influence design plans for the whole triangle area. By the time then-mayor David Miller decided he was opposed to the condo plans, developers had already gone to the Ontario Municipal Board, which eventually ruled in their favour. Several towers in the triangle have since been built and more are going up.
Particularly galling for Toke was how developers used the neighbourhood's artistic identity to sell condos — the very identity created by the artists the condos were pushing out.
One ad for the Bohemian Embassy condo used the image of a sexy young woman dressed like a groovy '60s character in an Austin Powers film. It became fodder for a Toke video parody.
He projected his video in a booth across the street from the condo's ad. It showed his then-wife dressed as the woman in the campaign, drinking wine until she threw up. He called it Bohemian Embarrassment.
"It became very popular," Toke says. "People would stay there all night and drink in front of it."
The developer wasn't laughing. Lawyers sent Toke a cease-and-desist order, but eventually dropped the legal skirmish.
Toke has moved into a smaller, dingier place three blocks west of his old studio. He's busy with the latest installment in a series of artworks based on a vacant lot behind the Abell building. The lot used to be a hub of activity: prostitutes offered their services on an abandoned couch, a guy made wine in a broken-down trailer, local kids moved mounds of earth to build a BMX track, and a small shantytown rose up over the years.
His work makes a simple point: even a vacant lot is full of culture and human interaction — more, Toke argues, than in the condo tower that replaced it. But the point is made obliquely, with a study of the colour blue in the pictures, paintings and videos that make up the installation.
"I like things to be ambiguous and strange," he says of his work. "I think it will be creepy as well."
Just like the neighbourhood used to be.
Artist Michael Toke moved into 48 Abell St. in 1991. At its peak, the building was home to about 100 artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians and OCAD faculty.
STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
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