St. James Town: in the Middle of Everything

Remember that song, “Stuck in the Middle With You?” I’ve got another version, for my neighbourhood at Sherbourne and Bloor streets: “Gay to the left of me, ethnic to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” 

Few places in Toronto are as ethnically and socially diverse as St. James Town. Take the area’s largest apartment complex, for example. On certain Saturday evenings in the summer, you can come up out of the Sherbourne subway station accompanied by the sound of a steel drum band. Follow the music south and east for a block, and you will find a large gathering of people in a tiny park surrounding a basketball court, with the band at one edge of the park, and tables of different national foods around the other edges. In the apartment buildings looming over this green space, at least 90 different linguistic and ethnic groups live together. 

Most of these people probably never heard a steel drum band till they moved to Toronto. Yet here they all are, sharing each other’s food and enjoying the music, while kids from several continents bounce basketballs together, between bites.

You could, on the other hand, cross Sherbourne in the opposite direction, and immediately encounter a different sort of culture. This area is still known as the “gay ghetto” of Toronto, despite the fact that many gays and lesbians have now dispersed through the rest of the city in recent years. It’s a good “starter neighbourhood,” though, for newly out young people to get their bearings. As you stroll west on Isabella Street, shaded under a canopy of beautiful old trees, many apartment windows and balconies display the rainbow flag.

The nearby intersection of Church and Wellesley was made famous in the 1990s by The Kids in the Hall, the ground-breaking Canadian comedy group, when they placed the flamboyant character of Buddy here, in a fictitious gay bar. A gay friend of mine from Virginia came to town a few years ago, and immediately wanted to visit that intersection, as a sort of pilgrimage. Bars and stores cater to the gay and lesbian community all through this area. And early in the summer, Pride week fills the neighbourhood with parties, music, and of course, two parades that run along Yonge Street to the west.

Farther south down Sherbourne, there are residences for physically disabled people, who move in their mechanized chairs through the shops and along the sidewalks with as much ease as everyone else. The trendy district of Cabbagetown is just a couple of blocks east, so there is no shortage of antique dealers, restaurants, and specialty stores.  This sounds idyllic, as though people of all different ethnicities and social status live here together in perfect harmony. The neighbourhood is not without its problems, however. 

While many tiny parks are set like small green jewels among the apartment buildings, stores, and pubs, these spaces occasionally host drug dealers doing surreptitious (and sometimes not so hidden) business. Hookers stroll through once in a while, looking for customers, and groups of homeless people view certain parks as handy places to congregate. On weekday mornings these individuals are often seen, weary and tattered, petitioning for spare change from workers walking toward the subway station.

Contrast this with Rosedale, the neighbourhood across Bloor to the north. Many well-to-do Torontonians still live there, even if it’s no longer the richest district in the city. Huge houses with wide bay windows dominate beautifully landscaped gardens, while people jog or walk their dogs on Sunday mornings before heading out for a leisurely brunch. There aren’t many little grocery stores on corners in this area, but if you have a yen for designer clothes, expensive accessories, or high end furniture, this is a good shopping district. There are fewer homeless people in parks in this neighbourhood, while many more homes are guarded by fences, locked gates, and electronic security.

But there is some interaction even between Rosedale and St. James Town despite economic differences, particularly on special occasions like Pride week in June, or when Cabbagetown throws its annual street festival in August.

That’s the thing about the neighbourhood radiating south from Bloor and Sherbourne: there is something for everyone at various times of the year. People of all social, economic, and ethnic groups seem to pop in for a visit eventually. Whether you’re looking for a great little ethnic restaurant, a neighbourhood where you can be out and proud – or a place to enjoy summer nights to the music of a steel drum band – St. James Town is “stuck in the middle” of all of it, just waiting for you.

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