This street is about to be Toronto's next big thing
An area once known for manufacturing bicycles, flags, and fire hydrants is shedding its industrial skin to take on a different persona: the neighbourhood for contemporary art.
The transformation is in its final stages: after multiple date pushbacks, MOCA is finally set to open at the end of May. With the goal of drawing 400,000 visitors annually by 2020, there's no doubt the area will soon be a bonafied tourist destination.
As of right now, Sterling Road is still relatively quiet. Running parallel to the West Toronto Railpath, it takes just ten minutes to walk its length from Dundas up to Bloor, with only a handful of things to see – for now.
Smell-wise, though, the area is incomparable. If you've never experienced this street before, I recommend jumping off from its southern entrance on Dundas, because the scent of chocolate coming from the Nestle Factory is the best thing you'll experience all day.
Operating 24/7, this confectionery factory is one of the oldest in Canada (it once housed Cowan's Cocoa, then Rowntree before Nestle took it over in 1988). As you walk below its skyway, you'll see names of their products enticingly lining the factory's eastern walls.
Just a few yards away is where the centre of attractions begins. Nestled within the same old building, a few heavy hitters work side by side: the venerable Canadian publisher Anansi Press, Henderson Brewing, and Drake Commissary, its most recent addition.
Built in 1906, this building that once manufactured flags, tents, and tarps for Scyco, then condiments for T.A. Lytle, has only recently become a hotspot for folks in the area looking for brews and a good read. You'll also find a Family Service Toronto and design company Ray Inc. there.
Henderson was the first to arrive: in 2015 the brewery took over a derelict space that once housed T-Dot Tumblers – a gymnastics school for kids now located at Galleria Mall – and transformed it into an airy production house that now acts as a hub for nearby businesses.
"We see ourselves as stewards of this community," says Henderson's co-founder Steve Himel, whose Toronto history knowledge is impressively extensive.
The brewery is often abuzz with free monthly events, like Anansi's book nights in the fall and winter, Myseum talks and vinyl gatherings where people can show off their records – so Steve was apprehensive when he heard about MOCA's impending arrival.
"We as a community want to work together so we don't become another retail destination," he says. "I hope that the influx of a huge number of people doesn’t change the area too much."
While he describes MOCA as "incredibly great partners", one of Himel's main concerns is traffic. Right now, nearly everyone frequenting Henderson arrives on their bike via the rail path – "the secret artery to the city" – hence the area's minimal parking.
"Someone coming off the rail path is someone who is invested in the community," he says. "All these extra people, I don't know how we're going to manage them, and I suspect they’ll be car people."
According to Himel, a new monthly meeting called 'On Sterling' is aiming to bolster the community's sense of security.
Facilitated by local businesses and MOCA itself, there are currently 60 people on the mailing list for the monthly gathering where members can hash out concerns.
"It highlights smaller voices now that there are some bigger voices in the neighbourhood," he says. Those voices, while independent, are plenty.
Across from the old Scyco building is the squat brick building branded as Studios on Sterling, which houses several video production companies like Habibi Films.
Further down the street at 161 Sterling is a three-storeyed complex (where rent has already increased over the few years) comprised of dozens of businesses like eco-friendly renovators Greening Home, art workshop space Studio 163, and the photography studio Luminous Weddings, just to name a few.
Continue down the road around the bend and you'll encounter an even larger building, 213 Sterling, which hosts the offices of Azure Magazine, RDH architects, and the renowned photography purveyor Studio Blu.
Lest you confuse the neighbourhood for a strictly design-based area, let it be known that athletic artists make up a large percentage of Sterling's community. Auxiliary Crossfit and Cirque-ability, the circus school, reside in this building as well.
In fact, Sterling is home to six circus businesses, says Angola Murdoch, owner of LookUp Theatre.
Located at 221 Sterling Road (just past the fork in the road leading to Perth), Angela's studio is a work-living zone, meaning her business and home – where she lives with her daughter and partner Eamon – share the same space.
With massive 18-foot ceilings, she says the property is prime for circus practitioners, of which there are four others in the same building.
The complex is part circus, part woodworking; known as the Sterling Studio Lofts, LookUp shares land with famed furniture duo The Brother's Dressler, furniture designers urbanproduct, and the Junction Workshop.
"When we heard MOCA was moving in, there was a big unknown," says Angola. "Do they care and know that we're here? And how are they going to support the neighbourhood as it already is?"
From rent increases to the looming threat of zoning switch-ups plaguing her building, Angola's 15 years on the street has seen a lot of change, but MOCA's inception will be the biggest one.
It would be easy for the 75,000 square-foot megalith to take precedence over the people living and working in the area. So Angola attended a 'On Sterling' meeting, and brought 15 circus performers and other artists along with her.
Her verdict: "They [MOCA] know they're going to change the culture no matter what, but they want to make sure they're respecting what was here," she says, echoing the general sentiment in the area that MOCA has played its part as a community collaborator.
"I think that our area is really unique and it’s been sort of sitting there... This neighbourhood died and came back to life. I’d like to see that come to full fruition."
With the finalization of the museum just over a month away, there's a general sense on Sterling that very soon, foot traffic will reach an all time high.
Matt Williams, the vice president of Anansi Press, says the retail store attached to the publishing house will have to brace itself for an influx of customers.
"I think we will adjust to have more retail hours," he says. The store has already seen more customers with the arrival of the Drake Commissary, and Bloor's UP Express station nearby plus both Bloor's and Dundas' TTC routes provide easy access to Sterling.
At the top of Sterling Road – past the small strip of houses lining the narrow street – is a dramatic end to the stretch: a set of lights plus an incredibly confusing three-way-on-green sign makes it one of the worst intersections in the city.
Elizabeth Rohrich, owner of Noble Coffee sitting at the southeast corner, says the intersection has seen its fair share of accidents, honking, and bad drivers. New MOCA visitors should take it as a sign: just ditch the cars and use the rail path instead.
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