Creativity, Community, Innovation: Toronto, Canada

Two weeks ago, we set off on a month-long expedition across North America in search of creativity, community, and innovation. Our latest dispatch explores Canada’s largest city.

Two weeks ago, we set off on a month-long expedition across North America in search of creativity, community, and innovation. The second city on our journey was Toronto, Ontario, Canada’s largest city and the fifth most populous on the continent.

Toronto is considered one of the world’s most livable cities, a title it’s earned due to its cleanliness, low crime, diversity and high standard of living. 49% of Toronto’s population were born outside of Canada, making it one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world (or the most, according to the Torontonians we met.) Little Ethiopia, Little Portugal, two Chinatowns – Toronto’s multitude of ethnic enclaves gives the city a distinct cultural texture, arguably unmatched anywhere else.

Beyond its clean streets and colorful neighborhoods, Toronto is home to a growing entrepreneurial community that is playing a large role in the development of some of the city’s more underdeveloped areas. On our trip, we explored some of the emerging businesses and neighborhoods that are adding new dimension to Toronto.

Inspiration from Toronto:

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Neighborhood: Parkdale
Just west of Toronto’s young and up-and-coming West Queen West district sits Parkdale, a long neglected neighborhood undergoing a quick transformation from derelict to downtown. While the Parkdale of today still lies largely fallow, an influx of new businesses and creativity is bringing more commerce to the burgeoning area and sparking new energy and entrepreneurship within its local community.

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The Mascot Cafe
Bahamas-born Mike Krupica (top left) and his two partners opened Mascot Cafe about half a year ago. Located on the edge of Parkdale at the corner of Queen Street West and Elm Grove Ave, the Mascot serves as a coffeeshop, gallery, and occasional pop-up store. Mike and his partners had – and still have – other jobs in addition to running Mascot yet manage to find the time to meet their patrons, serve them coffee themselves, and chat with their steady stream of regulars on a daily basis. When we asked Mike why he decided to become an entrepreneur in Toronto, he explained that it was the community’s openness and support that helped make it possible – a generosity that seems harder to come by in cities denser with business and competition. He told us he would often go to his friend’s coffeeshop and ask for advice and tips on opening Mascot – which she’d offer freely, seeing his success as bringing something positive to the community, not as a threat. One patron, an art buyer who helped with one of Mascot’s recent exhibitions, put it simply: “People are nicer here. People want to help each other out; they want to work together. It’s not cutthroat. It’s collaborative.”

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The workroom, one block down from Mascot on Queen Street West,  is Toronto’s first ‘sew & craft by the hour’ shop, a sort of coworking space slash modern knitting circle offering fabrics, equipment and tutorials in sewing, quilting, and other handicrafts. The store’s owner, Karyn, freely offers tips on crafting and other DIY endeavors on her blog, which is inspired by the work ‘learned and made with you.’

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Parts and Labour

Parts and Labour is another recent addition to Queen Street that’s bringing new attention and verve to Parkdale. The 5,000 sq feet space holds a chic restaurant, bar, and basement music venue, which hosts dance parties and live shows nearly every night of the week. A rooftop garden provides ingredients for some of the food on offer, the first installment of a larger rooftop gardening initiative (called Parks and Rec) led by the founders of Parts and Labour. We asked Richard Lambert (above), a founding partner of P&L as well as co-founder of the nearby club The Social, why he chose Toronto for his ventures: “It’s smaller, growing… Parts and Labour, and the Social, are in areas where you can afford to get in there, run a business… The opportunity is there – whereas in larger cities, it’s more squeezed out, or been done over and over again. ”

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Philistine – Vintage dominated the clothing shops we came across in Toronto, a reflection of its unique demand and supply in the city (vintage is “Canada’s third largest export,” one owner explained to us). We happened upon Philistine, a hip vintage shop just down the road from workroom and Mascot, a few days after its opening (the owner was painting the doorway when we arrived). Though retailers like Philistine are still somewhat rare in the area, the collective growth of fashion, nightlife, and food ventures in the area signal a changing current in the community and the wealth of business and creative opportunities there.

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(top 2 images via citynoise)

Regent Park Revitalization

We had the chance to visit the grounds of the soon-to-be “revitalized” Regent Park, Canada’s largest and oldest social housing project and the country’s most ambitious (and perhaps controversial) urban redevelopment undertaking in history. The original Regent Park was erected more than fifty years ago, designed with the intention of creating a mixed high and low-rise housing community for transitioning low-income residents. Since its creation, Regent Park has become one of Toronto’s poorest neighborhoods, a result of its geographic isolation, poor planning, and high rates of crime and drug use, among other factors. The revitalization plan, proposed and implemented by Toronto Community Housing and the Daniels Corporation, is a reboot of the great ‘social experiment’. When completed, the new Regent Park will include housing for double the number of residents as the original project (from 7,000 to 14,000) and a modernized infrastructure and layout meant to increase safety, sustainability (all buildings are LEED certified), and community cohesion.

As citynoise explains, “The new neighborhood is planned according to new urbanist ideas – mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods, mid-rise buildings studded with taller ones” – and intends to serve as a model for similar socially innovative development around the world. The five-stage development, to be completed over the next several decades, will result in the same number of affordable housing units as the first Regent Park, but will also include market-rate housing units, community gardens, a six-acre park (to be the biggest in Toronto), an arts and culture complex, a job placement and training center, and various retail shops and restaurants. For more about the revitalization effort, visit Toronto Community Housing.

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