toronto street festivals

How did some Toronto street festivals get so boring?

You've been to dozens of them by now, in fact, we recommend going to a lot of them. Every spring, summer and fall some of Toronto's largest, busiest streets close down to car traffic and open up to family style fun.

Fair rides, stages with entertainment, dancing, food vendors and businesses pour onto the streets crammed with crowds. These festivals make for a city alive with activity during the summer, and many people are happy they happen.

So how did our street festivals get so generic and boring?

I won't name names, OK I will, Big on Bloor, Taste of the Danforth, Taste of Little Italy - they've all become part of what seems to be a machine. Same rides, similar food, commercial vendors that don't even exist on that street - many of them have become one in the same.

This doesn't speak to all street festivals by any means, and even the ones I mention above are filled with die-hard local businesses and participants who love their neighbourhood. But if you care that much, put some back into it!

The Dundas West Fest is a street festival doing just that. Run exclusively by the neighbourhood BIA, this one is only four years and is actively acting different.

"Its main aim is putting out onto the street, what exists on Dundas 365 days a year," Helder Ramos, coordinator of the Dundas West BIA says. "The neighbourhood itself is going through a transition and that is reflected during the festival. So it's not an established, fully gentrified community yet with roots form other times. The commercial mix is different too."

Ramos believes that because it's a relatively new street festival there's room for it to grow, breath and experiment with the community it represents. "Frankly I think it's fine the way it is now," Ramos says of the festival's manageable size. "I don't think it needs to grow at all, but it will inevitably, so it's a question of managing that growth."

This fest has a few more things going for it and they're found in its restrictions.

"Dundas is slightly narrower by a meter and a half less that College, and that's enough to be fairly restricted with what we can place on the street," Ramos says.

"Unlike Bloor we can't place any stages on the street because we have streetcar wires and if we put anything through the wires we have to sell one of my kids to be able to pay off that Hydro cost."

Speaking of kids, he actively works against fairground cheesiness. "As a parent I don't really like bouncy castles," he says. "What they represent for me as a parent is I'm waiting half an hour in line with kids to spend three minutes in there. They're noisy and they need generators which means you need to make noise."

OssFest, which took over Ossingtonfrom Dundas to Queen for the first time this summer, is another festival trying to stand out from the crowds.

"We didn't even think about the other festivals, we knew about them, but being the newest BIA in Toronto it was kind of overwhelming," says Nicky Potter. The woman behind The Painted Lady as well as head of the Ossington BIA.

"There are 82 BIA's in the city and X number of street festivals every weekend. When you start thinking of that it's like, oh my god, should we even do this? Does it even matter? Why another one?

"We didn't have time or energy to fight against all the noise at there and just focused on energy on our little section between Queen and Dundas and we wanted to do to contribute something meaningful."

It's a good thing they pushed forward. Potter together with four other locals created the BIA to be able to throw the street festival, which included a criterium bike race in the middle of the street. This festival stood out and got the attention of the cycling community.

"People on our board brought on a man who helped organize events for the Pan Am Games," she proudly says. "We're registered as an official criterion race, we're now officially part of the Crit circuit in Canada and Garneau even sent three pro's from Montreal to our race."

Organizers expect registration for the race to grow by three times its size next year. Not only do they include the entire street in the festival, asking them to pour themselves out onto the street during the 12 hour closure, but they brought a new kind of event important to many folks in the city, to the forefront.

"In the press [Ossington is all] developing too slow, or too fast. Is King Street now on Ossington? It's super cool, oh wait it's too cool. The hipsters are there, the hipsters have left. Who's left? The Portuguese are left. Omg the hipsters are back. Everything is opening up North. Omg there are too many bars, shut the bars down, open them up again... all this fucking drama," Potter says laughingly.

"I've been on on this corner for 10 years dealing with Joe Pantalone's moratoriums and everything, fighting for our rights to grow organically and let the free market dictate what stays." In the end Potter and the neighbourhood just want to showcase their little corner of the world to make Toronto a better place.

"A lot of tourists when they come [to Toronto] they visit the crystal at the ROM, and the CN Tower, we wanted them to have somewhere else to come," she says. "We want our street to be on the radar as well. We have a vision beyond local to international."

Sure, some of the other street festivals started out as small reflections of themselves but eventually grew into money hungry, roasted corn spewing, lemonade guzzling machines. But is it too late for them? Never!

Newer festivals like Dundas West Fest and OssFest are all striving to do things just a little differently. Shining a light on the amazing people and business who keep the street alive 365 days a year.

Photo of Dundas West Fest by Jesse Milns.


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