Vanished Bohemia: Remembering Gerrard Village and the Golden Age of the Coffee House
Before there was Queen West or Yorkville, there was Gerrard Village, a long-gone artists' enclave described as "Toronto's Greenwich Village," and in operation as such for much longer than either of these legendary bohemian hangouts. There's not much left today except a conspicuous stand of onetime Victorian homes running along a short block on the north side of Gerrard between Bay and Laplante Avenue, an isolated island of weathered brick in a forest of office towers, condos, hotels and hospital buildings.
There was some public agonizing this week over the ongoing gentrification of the Church-Wellesley "gay ghetto," which made me wonder at how permanent a neighbourhood can seem when it's thriving, and how utterly it can seem to have disappeared when its residents move on with the fashion and the times - either voluntarily or with a developer's hand pushing firmly at their back. Don Cullen remembers Gerrard Village all too well, back when the actor/writer was the proprietor of the Bohemian Embassy, its most famous coffee house.
"It wasn't very big by today's standards of artsy fartsy districts, you know," Cullen recalls. "It was only a couple of blocks long, and not everything revolved around painting and writing and music. There was The Coffee House, and it was kind of an interesting place. It was relatively small, but it wasn't unusual for someone to stand up and read some poems or recite something, or for somebody to be playing a guitar or whatever. It was kind of a scuzzy place, but it was a nice scuzz, if you want to put it that way. It was a nice little treat to be there and hang out and have a cappuccino or whatever."
Cullen opened the Bohemian Embassy in 1960, by which point hospital expansion and real estate speculation meant that "the days of that era were numbered really, by the time I was part of it." Still, Bob Dylan showed up and almost played a few songs there, and Cullen's sometime employer, the CBC, captured a madcap night onstage at the Embassy during Toronto's first "happening."
The Embassy was located a few blocks north of Gerrard Village, in the former hayloft of a onetime livery stable on St. Nicholas - an address now occupied by fetish merchants Northbound Leather. "I think pressures were being made on that district by hospital expansion and real estate speculation and that sort of thing," Cullen remembers, and the drift northwards to Yorkville had already begun.
Like everyone else who spent time there, Cullen describes the Embassy and Gerrard Village in general as a respite from Toronto's famously Presbyterian character, but it was that character - and the city's draconian liquor regulations and famously strict blue laws - that he's come to credit for the uniqueness of cultural life in the village. Like any coffee house, the Bohemian Embassy never had a liquor licence, which meant that Cullen could stage 40 consecutive Sunday nights of chamber music at the club paying the musicians union scale, and promote music whose gentle quality would have been lost in the clamour of a bar.
"I really feel that something is really lost with the lack of the coffee houses, and you can't compete with the bars," Cullen says, and remembers musicians showing up for his chamber concerts in shorts and bare feet, and a stout young man named Nelson Dempster playing Bach's cello suites. "I was so moved by the beauty of it. I was in tears," he recalls. "I feel so delighted that that happened."
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