By Brian Sharwood…
If you ask people in Toronto where in the city to go to find the latest in restaurants, bars, art galleries, fashion retailers, theatre and music, the likely answer you’re going to get is Ossington. The neighbourhood is booming with development. But only a few short years ago, it was a forgotten corner of the city – a strip of auto mechanics, empty storefronts, derelict houses, storage facilities and industrial buildings. Much of that has changed. Local artists, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs have moved in and taken the diverse and forgotten buildings that make up the neighbourhood and given them new life.
The strip of Ossington between Dundas and Queen was an entry point to old Toronto from the west as Dundas turned south and joined up with Queen. At some point it became a corner of the city that planning forgot – or didn’t care about. The mix of buildings on the street is as diverse as Toronto’s cultural mosaic with no set theme of residential, industrial or commercial. However, like the city’s population, Ossington changes and evolves to combine the old and new, and bring in the diversity of architectural and design styles reflecting the mixture of people moving into this new city oasis.
What likely attracted the initial change on Ossington was one of the main characteristics of the buildings on the street – the narrow storefronts and long deep retail locations, which seven years ago were mostly empty or occupied by owners who used the locations less as retail facilities and more as hang-outs for friends and colleagues. To a young restaurateur or watering-hole entrepreneur this is the prime location – cheap rent, location close enough to the expanding Queen street strip – throw in some taps and a small kitchen and you’ve got a business.
But the street is so much more than those types of storefronts. Beside retail locations, you’ll find houses – some beautiful heritage houses squeezed in among storefronts – and others 60s style row houses with faux brick fronts. In these scattered sections near Queen, usually no more than ½ block long, Ossington looks like a residential street. Further north a more recent residential development, built 10 or so years ago, reflects the state that Ossington was at the time.
Besides retail spots and residential, the industrial locations on Ossington also make up a big part of the street-front. There are 2 large self storage facilities, a cigar factory, and a mechanic’s shop as well as a number of other buildings which are reminiscent of the industrial history – a local bar, The Crooked Star, and a local coffee shop, I Deal Coffee, built of cinder blocks and only painted over by the recent entrepreneurs to the area. As goes Toronto and the evolution of downtown areas from industrial to residential, commercial and retail, two other large locations are in the process of conversion to modern and eclectic looking mid-rise condos – one previously occupied by a car dealer and auto repair shop, the other by a large electrical equipment supply company.
The charm of walking down Ossington comes from never quite knowing what you’re going to find next. The auto mechanic shops are cleverly being changed – sometimes to condos, as mentioned above, but other former mechanics have been converted into a brewpub, in the case of Bellwoods Brewery, and a high end restaurant by the name of Bohmer. Look a little at the designs of these locations and you’ll see that, despite the renovations and recreations, the structure of the buildings remain: garage doors in front and back, wide open boxy spaces, and solid concrete floors.
The one truly notable building on the street which modern entrepreneurs have more thoroughly evolved is at the northwest corner of Humbert Street. This is the home of Levack Block (below), a heritage block building with fantastic brickwork and design, including a bay window on the second floor that looks southwards on Ossington. This building – which had a number of empty retail spots only a few years ago – is now fully occupied by Toronto’s hottest bars and restaurants including such popular posts as Delux, OddSoeul and the aforementioned Levack Block, a hip place where Toronto’s twenty-somethings meet up late on Friday and Saturday nights.
Asking what the architecture of Ossington between Queen and Dundas is like asking what kind of people live in Toronto. All kinds of people live in Toronto, and the city’s demographics change every day. Those people, like the buildings themselves, are constantly in a state of flux, building new lives, and incorporating their heritage into the ventures they create.
Brian Sharwood is the founder of the blog OssingtonVillage.com which he co-writes with Melinda Medley. They have been chronicling the change on Ossington for five years and expect many more changes to come.