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Then & Now: Queen Street West

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The creation of a cool new area often follows the same pattern: property prices rise, immigrant-industrial enclaves in a big city suddenly look like a good option, artsy types adopt the area, gentrification kicks in and voilà, a trendy neighbourhood is born.

Local Torontonians have known Queen Street West as one of the cooler neighborhoods in the city for sometime now, with its abundance of unique coffee shops, trendy retail, and hundreds of galleries, it has become the hallmark of hipness. Definitely one of the most desirable neighbourhoods to live and work out of – but has that always been the case? What was the Queen West of decades past?

Previously known as Lot Street, today’s Queen Street served as an important artery to the town of York. In 1783, Lot Street served as the baseline for the city, becoming the first east-west road laid in the area. Forty-one 200-acre lots were placed along the north side of the street and given to Royal officials that were willing to forgo the modern amenities in cities to take residence in the largely forested York. It was from this arrangement that the city of Toronto began to take shape.

Plans for York harbour along Lot Street, 1793

Through to the 19th century, “Queen West” (renamed in 1837) became home to a collection of ethnically-based neighbourhoods, the earliest example being the Irish immigrant Claretown, which coalesced around Bathurst Street. From the 1890s to the 1930s, Queen West served as the southern border to ‘the Ward,’ a largely Jewish immigrant neighbourhood and then later became thriving Chinatown. Through the 1920s to 1970s, Queen Street West also served as the heart of Toronto’s Polish, Ukrainian, and Portuguese immigrant communities until 1980s, when the Queen West art scene began to take shape.

Artists began moving in along the street in the early 1980s in search of cheaper rent. The prior decades had given the Queen West neighbourhood a reputation for poverty and petty crime, and with the departure of industrial manufacturing, left many vacant warehouse spaces for the artists to commune. Artist live-work spaces started appearing all over Queen West in the 1990s and became a significant catalyst in the revitalization of Queen Street West. Soon after, the Candy and Chocolate Factory Loft projects were launched, the Gladstone Hotel was renovated, followed by the Drake Hotel. Shortly after, Queen West took hold of Toronto’s cultural scene. It became a place for tastemakers, trendsetters, and early adopters.

Today, we’re seeing a Queen West that was transformed from a downtrodden area into one of the most dynamically cultural and artistic neighbourhoods in the world. Many attribute this sudden shift to the development spearheaded by the Drake Hotel, which we will profile in more detail next week. For now, please enjoy this collection of historical photos of Queen Street West from the Toronto Archives: