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A brief history of the Church Wellesley Village

Posted by Ab Velasco / June 27, 2013

Church Wellesley VillageToronto is celebrating Pride this week. The major events are centred in the Church Wellesley Village - with parts of Wellesley Avenue and Church Street closed down for a weekend street party. The Village - as the neighbourhood is nicknamed - is regarded as the heart of Toronto's LGBT community, but this has not always been the case.

In the early 1800s, prominent Scottish merchant and magistrate Alexander Wood purchased 25 acres of land at Yonge and Carlton streets that extended north to Wellesley and east to Church.

In 1810, Wood was involved in a scandal when it was discovered that he used his position of power to make sexual advances towards other men. While nothing was proven, Wood left town to escape the controversy and returned two years later. His land was mockingly called "Molly Wood's Bush"; molly being a derogatory term for homosexual.

Wood died in 1844 and his land was developed in the 1850s, including the opening of Alexander and Wood streets. In Spring 2005, a statue of Wood was established at Church and Alexander streets, to honour him as a forefather of Toronto's modern gay community.

Alexander Wood"It's important that we have a statue there to show that there's been a long history of queer people in the world," says Dennis Findlay, a longtime activist and volunteer at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

The late 19th century saw Church-Jarvis-Sherbourne transformed into the city's chic neighbourhood; its prestige characterized by mansions and prominent residents like businessman Robert Simpson.

When the Depression hit in the 1920s, the Church and Wellesley community became a seedy rooming-house strip. It was not until the 1950s that gentrification lifted the neighbourhood back up. In 1954, Toronto's first high-rise apartments - City Park - were developed between Alexander and Wood streets.

"These spaces offered single people an opportunity to move away from family into affordable rental spaces downtown, offering them an opportunity to live their lives with more freedom. Many happened to be gay men and women," says Findlay.

In the early 60s, Toronto's gay subculture existed with some concentration along or near Yonge Street between Bloor and Carlton - with other locations around the city. During that time, most of the bars, dance clubs, and bathhouses were straight owned. In the 70s, the epicentre of the community shifted to Church, as businesses found more affordable spaces on this street. During this time, more businesses became gay owned.

519 Community CentreIn 1975, the 519 Community Centre opened and marked the first time the City purchased a building for a community centre, after dedicated community members lobbied for the establishment of a meeting place. The original building was built in 1906 as an annex to the elite Granite Club. It also once housed the 48th Highlanders Legion Hall, which opened in May 1946.

Over the years, The 519 has provided a safe and welcoming space for a diverse range of community groups, of all backgrounds. Its programs have included: the first gay community program, Gay Youth Toronto; a social club for gay seniors; self defence classes; and a parenting program for LGBT individuals and couples interested in starting a family.

"(The 519) has been an essential community centre for a huge community, including the LGBT community - but a community of much diversity," says Findlay. "The community centre was very responsive to that community in all its diversity. It was a place where AAA meetings started happening, where Out groups started meeting and they were all made welcome."

On February 5, 1981, Toronto's gay community was rocked to its core after monumental raids on five downtown bathhouses. Police arrested over 300 gay men, charging them as keepers or found-ins of a common bawdy house. This incident became one of the largest Canadian mass arrest, second only to the 1970 FLQ crisis in Quebec. Bathhouse owners reported tens of thousands of dollars in damages.

The gay community erupted in anger, their reaction best described by a headline - "RAGE!" - in The Body Politic, one of Canada's first significant gay publication. The enraged community quickly mobilized and, overnight, organized a protest that drew 3,000 people who marched from Wellesley and Yonge to Dundas Street, over to 52 Police Division and eventually to Queen's Park.

"No More Shit" and "Fuck You 52" became the mantras of the furious and galvanized citizens. This event became Toronto's version of Stonewall, the landmark 1969 riots by New York City's gay community following a police raid.

"The significance of the bathhouse raids was that it was an attack on the (gay) community and humans rights to freedom," says Findlay, who was among the protestors and who later played a role in helping those affected by the raids.

"Within the queer community, all the differences that various groups had with one another disappeared the night of the raids. It brought the community together and politicized the community and individuals in a very significant way - such that when AIDS happened (in the years to come), we were organized and ready and we understood how to go about organizing around an issue."

In 1980, prominent gay activist George Hislop ran for - but lost - Toronto City Council; he was the first openly gay person to run for office in Toronto. Hislop situated his campaign office in Church and Wellesley. Following the bathhouse raids in 1981, Hislop, who co-owned one of the raided bathhouses, ran as an independent candidate in the provincial election to protest the raids. He also lost this election, but with a strong showing of 9% of the votes. Hislop passed away in 2005 and a park in the Village is named in his honour.

Pride Parade TorontoFollowing the raids, the Pride Toronto celebrations - founded in the 70s and established as an annual event in 1981 - were observed by a much larger and politicized community. According to Pride Toronto, 1984 saw a revival of Pride's political aspect with the theme: "We Are Everywhere: 150 Years of Faggots and Dykes." The festivities attracted 5,000 participants to Cawthra Park, on Church Street, north of Wellesley. For the first time, Church Street was closed and people danced in the street.

Every generation of the LGBT community had, has and will discover its own popular meeting spots within and beyond the Village. Findlay fondly remembers the earlier bars and dance palaces along Yonge Street, such as the St. Charles Tavern, the Parkside Tavern, Stages, the Quest, and Club Manatee.

One iconic hangout was The Second Cup, which opened south of Church and Wellesley in 1984. The "Steps" at the front of the cafe, which became a 24-hour operation in 1992, was a hangout for gay youth and people of all ages. It was not uncommon to find crowds congregating at the Steps in the early morning hours.

In 1993, Church Street entered pop culture consciousness, when The Kids In the Hall introduced The Steps to audiences around the world. Group members Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson had worked at the Second Cup in the late 80s. In recurring skits, characters on the show hung out on a studio recreation of the Steps, discussing topics such as gay marriage and AIDS.

"It was the focal point of the village," local business owner Dennis O'Connor told gay community paper Xtra! - founded on Church Street in 1984 - at the time of Cup's closure in 2005. At the time, O'Connor was chair of the Church Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area, established in 2002. "The Steps were an important point of what made the village what it is... It was a place to meet people... to talk about politics. It was a place to decide what needed to be done about this, that, and the other."

From 2000 to 2005, the Village would appear again in pop culture on the drama series Queer As Folk. The 83 episodes were shot in Toronto - including filming on Church Street and nearby gay establishments like Woody's and fly nightclub. This time, Toronto substituted for Pittsburgh; with Church Street playing the role of Liberty Avenue.

Today, the Village is still considered the heart of Toronto's LGBT community, but for the first time in a generation, its future relevance seems uncertain. Gay-friendly businesses are opening up in other parts of the city, such as Leslieville, Parkdale and Queen West. Condo developments, rising rents, and the arrival of bigbox store, like Loblaws, are taking a toll on businesses. At the same time, the once concentrated LGBT community is spreading out elsewhere across the city.

"Loblaws is sucking the life blood out of the businesses on the street," says Findlay. "What the community has to realize is that Church Street is still a commercial street, which provides essential services to people who live around it. One of the things they must realize is that in order to keep the amenities that are being provided by the grocery stores, clubs, bars, coffee shops, hardware store and other businesses, we have to have density - and enough people to support these businesses. If you don't have enough people to support going to Loblaws and to Pusateri's, one of those places is going to disappear."

Realizing the challenges and seizing an opportunity to revitalize the community, The 519, the Church Wellesley Village BIA and other organizations partnered to launch The Village Study earlier this Spring, inviting the community to have their say on what kind of neighbourhood Church and Wellesley can become in the coming decades.

With the study underway, the message the planning group has been hearing is that the community wants to preserve the Village as a queer destination.

Harold Madi, partner with The Planning Partnership, told Xtra! in May: "It's been a really inspiring process... What I hear the most from people is that need is still there. This area is still the place of arrival and transition for LGBT people across the country, especially those in smaller communities. They know Church and Wellesley. Gay youth and adults that are finding their identity, they come here..."

Fetish FairAlexander Wood statue from Franco Cignelli. Top photo from Randy Macdonald in the blogTO Flickr pool.

Discussion

21 Comments

Justin TURDeau / June 27, 2013 at 11:30 am
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This is exactly why I avoid this area of Toronto like the plague.
Sarah / June 27, 2013 at 11:46 am
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Great article!
Molly Bush replying to a comment from Justin TURDeau / June 27, 2013 at 12:10 pm
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This article had about 50 points of interest. I'm on the edge of my seat trying to figure out what your reason for avoidance is.
Mistral Wind / June 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm
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Safe/walkable, a variety of restaurants, shops, bars, cafes, patios, downtown living, near transit and community centre.
I also wonder why Turd avoids?
j-rock replying to a comment from Justin TURDeau / June 27, 2013 at 12:23 pm
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I am sure that they miss you terribly down there, douche.

This was an interesting article.
Troll / June 27, 2013 at 12:42 pm
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"brief"
Cooke replying to a comment from Justin TURDeau / June 27, 2013 at 01:00 pm
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Don't fight it baby, feel it.
Jonathan L. / June 27, 2013 at 01:47 pm
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I don't avoid it; I love it. It was where I found out who I was at 15. I'm upset to see the absence of single room occupancy housing for GLBT people who are low/no income and desperately need a safe living space, rather than chance it on the streets or figure out how to pay $900 for a sleeping room. Gentrification has fucked everything up for those of us without extraordinary, disposable income and the luxury of earning a masters/doctorate degree. Move further away from the city? A Metro Pass will cost you an extra $100+ a month. These options are no longer realistic for those gay people arriving with little money from smaller communities. The 'Y' no longer has single room occupancy (SRO) rooms for long-term rent because I'm guessing the liability is too high. Developers make no money off low cost housing either. But you'd think with all the successes of the 519 Centre, there would be some plan to utilize available space within the village for low income community members who wish to stay in the area so they are within walking distance to needed services, jobs, recreation and support systems. It's very hard to make friends in Toronto when you're gay because of the attitude that is given off by the elite, arrogant guys who walk around as if they're starring in their own movie. But if you get to know enough people and find your niche, you'll find some good people to be around. I don't believe that scattering us all around the city to fend for ourselves in terms of finding new gay hangouts is the answer. The Village is our place. Yes to accessible, affordable housing and, dammit, no more condos!
John Labatt / June 27, 2013 at 02:01 pm
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I am a strait man and the hommo`s in the village welcome me with open arms, the village has excellant bathhouses and is a great place to buy a big dildo and lube. The gays have a great place to live and i enjoy going there from time to time. Thanks you Hommo`s Gays and Lesbians Dykes T-Girls and Twinks and a special thanks to the trannnys. God bless you all
cat / June 27, 2013 at 03:16 pm
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Great article!

SimonsMom / June 27, 2013 at 04:20 pm
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Coming from you, that is very VERY funny! Thank you.
Timmy / June 28, 2013 at 05:19 am
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No sodomite will escape the wrath of the almighty.
BequiaT replying to a comment from Timmy / June 28, 2013 at 07:54 am
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Timmy, your "almighty" created man and woman in his image, including the "sodomites". Get out of an old fairy tale and get into the 21st century. Love your fellow man as "the almighty" told you,a nd get off your pontifical stool!!!
John Labatt / June 28, 2013 at 02:27 pm
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Hi Timmy i am a strait man and i love getting Sodomy in the gay village, you should check out the bathhouses first before you start shooting off you load. The gay hommosexual queer dyke and lesbian community of Toronto will help you out also check out the trannys and t-girls. These people have been helpfull to me.
Cori / June 28, 2013 at 09:59 pm
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Live Proud & Let Love Toronto! http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=375800105854856
Joe Clark / June 29, 2013 at 10:05 am
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The American Automobile Association met at the 519?
Clark replying to a comment from Justin TURDeau / June 30, 2013 at 12:50 pm
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@Justin TURDeau, that is fine with everyone here as we don't need turdism in the Village. Have a great weekend escaping what ever it is you are running from, and I hope you succeed.

Great article, but unless I missed it you seem to have omitted the fact that Isabella Street(and Boots/Buds on Sherbourne St) was the heart of the gay area mid '80's just before Church Wellesley caught on. Chaps on Isabella (now a Rabba) moved to Church St and was renamed "Woodys". It and the Second Cup became the heart of the new community.
jb replying to a comment from Timmy / September 1, 2013 at 06:43 pm
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No sodomite will escape the wrath of the almighty.

"...the almighty"? Rob Ford??
Shopping Info / October 1, 2013 at 03:59 pm
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Best of luck for the following!
Micahel / June 28, 2014 at 11:06 pm
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Well...I grew up in Toronto..and after a breakup..moved into 50 Alexander..so I know the area...b4 that..I remember a couple of gay bars and restaurants on Yonge street...Jog your memory...El Sombraro..and the Chinese restaurant next door...there was a club..I want to say 511 just south of Wellesley on Yonge..and there was a night club beside the surplus store upstairs of laundry mat two doors north of Wellesley on the east side of Yonge. Letros on King Street and I forget the name of the bar on east side of Yonge near the New Yorker.......
stopitman / June 29, 2014 at 11:05 am
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I wouldn't say it's necessarily a bad thing that the area is becoming a smaller concentration of gay people - in fact, i think the fact that there is no longer a need to concentrate into one area is a sign that gay people can live openly in other neighbourhoods without problems or prejudice.

It's much like how immigrants form concentrations of their own groups, but after 1 or 2 generations start spreading out elsewhere and become a part of the "normal" fabric of their neighbourhood or city.

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