Toronto vs. Toronto

From a local’s perspective, the east and west sides of Toronto seem like total opposites with practically nothing in common, but the only real difference is their respective positions on the map. Discover the two most interesting sides of Canada’s largest city.

Text: MARTÍN ECHENIQUE @martinechenique   photos: JAIME HOGGE @jaimehogge
       

 

 

It’s my first night in Toronto, and the city’s geographic fetish is obvious: most of the streets end in a “W” for west or an “E” for east, speaking to an almost obsessive eagerness to indicate what side of the city they’re on, in a kind of repetitive (and frankly odd) bipolarity.

I get to Queen Street W, where I take the trolley west to The Beaver, a bar recommended by local bloggers as a westside essential. I take a seat and order a craft beer at random. Next to me at the bar are Noah and Maxime, two twentysomethings in flannel and long beards who quickly offer me a warm welcome, recognizing my status as a solitary tourist.

The ice broken, I spread my map out on the bar and tell them I’m in Toronto to debunk the separatist myth of its cardinal points, the idea that the east and west sides have nothing in common. And, of course, they give me a funny look. Noah tells me that the last time he was on the east side was seven years ago on his way to Montreal, while Maxime reveals that he’s never set foot “over there.” I have to admit while Toronto is a far cry from Berlin in the middle of the Cold War, the Ws and Es, the divided geography and the imaginary wall comprise an identity that – inevitably – can’t be denied.

 

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Leslieville is an up-an-coming neighborhood on the east side of Toronto.

 

The Other West Side: Dundas West & Junction

I follow the recommendation of the hipsters at the bar and begin my journey through the west side. Dundas West and Junction are the two latest victims of a gradual gentrification that has brought independent galleries, shops and fashionable bars to a neighborhood that as recently as two years ago went unnoticed by Torontonians.

A good starting point is the corner of Ossington and Dundas Street W. Restaurants and taverns come to life, one after the other, at around six in the evening, as diners order glasses of wine and pints of beer in a pit stop on their way home. Bellwoods Brewery is one highlight, with a carefully selected but powerful menu, including 40 kinds of house-made beer with labels created by neighborhood designers that hang like posters throughout the bar. If you’re hungry, try the bruschetta with ricotta, honey and nduja (a delicious, spicy Italian sausage) and a cold glass of Paper Tiger #4, a brand of beer that, for $7.50 Canadian, will have you raising your glass in a toast to Toronto’s growing microbrew scene. If you visit Bellwoods before the harsh Canadian winter, take advantage of its refreshing patio.

 

  • Bellwoods Brewery

 

I bid farewell to beer paradise and continue down Dundas Street W even further west. The neighborhood slowly loses the pretentious shop windows and the terraces filled with people who look like they’ve just arrived from a runway show. Further west, Dundas Street W offers an original, suburban feel, thanks to places that you won’t find in the official guides to the city, like The Communist’s Daughter, a small, cozy bar featuring live music.

Other essential stops include clubs playing Latin music (check out Lula Lounge), an endless parade of Portuguese restaurants and bakeries and charming bookstores like Monkey’s Paw, where you won’t find a single copy of Eat, Pray, Love or Fifty Shades of Grey. This bookstore is a tribute to unusual, eccentric and strange fare published before 1980 – think lunar maps and histories of witchcraft –with a focus on the visual and aesthetic.

The art scene also has its eye trained on the west side. The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) closed its doors in June to move to Junction, a neighborhood that borders the west side of Dundas, and is expected to reopen in the winter of 2016-2017. Galleries have begun to spring up on residential streets like St. Helens Avenue, where traditional houses with broad porches and front lawns co-exist alongside old industrial warehouses that today serve as important galleries on the Toronto art circuit. Don’t miss the installations of Clint Roenisch and the avant-garde art curated by Portuguese native Daniel Faria, both on St. Helens.

 

  • Bonjour Brioche, en Leslieville. // Daniel Faria, one of the curators of St. Helens Ave.

 

The New East: Leslieville & Broadview

The Es appear on the streets signs as I head east down Queen Street E on a trolley bound for Leslieville and Broadview, two eastern Toronto neighborhoods in a state of constant change. Here, I meet up with Dana, a 27-year-old Leslieville resident I met the night before at Zipperz, a bar near downtown in the neighborhood of Church & Wellesley. Like Noah, she hasn’t crossed the “border” in two years.

As we walk, Dana tells me that, three years ago, the eastern part of town was basically made up of houses where the rent was considerably cheaper than elsewhere in the city, home only to diners, light industry and simple clothing shops. As such, it gained a reputation as a marginal neighborhood, compared to the west side. Today, Leslieville and Broadview are experiencing a slow process of gentrification, just like Dundas and Junction. There’s a distinct suburban air that invites you to stroll the narrow, traffic-free streets, where thrift stores abound and there’s not a Starbucks in sight.

 

  • The Rooster Coffeehouse,

 

Coffee culture is strong in this part of Toronto, and The Rooster Coffeehouse is an excellent example. Before heading to the center of Leslieville, I visit Riverdale East Park, where this charming café – inaugurated just five years ago – offers incredible panoramic views of the skyline, as well as pastries baked by a local neighbor and some of the best coffee in the city.

I take the trolley back to my downtown hotel, a neutral zone in this supposedly “divided” city that reveals a striking truth when explored properly. Both the east and west sides of Toronto are becoming creative and extravagant neighborhoods. While geographically separated, they reflect one another. It’s just a matter of time before the two meet. in

 

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