Gentrification tugging at roots of Queen West neighbourhood

Abraham Shalechi realizes he’s caught between old and new Queen West eras.

His shop is packed to the ceiling with antique mirrors, old microphones, Star Trek lunch boxes and tired-looking mannequins once used in Toronto department stores.

Abraham Shalechi stands behind the cluttered counter greeting the occasional customer, wandering in from the cold. He greets his patrons with a warm smile and allows them time to peruse his many treasures freely. Seldom does anyone purchase one of Shalechi’s unique wares.

Shalechi, 62, is the owner of Abraham’s Trading Inc., an antique and oddities shop, at Queen and Bathurst streets in downtown Toronto. Shalechi has operated this business for 24 years at this location and said he witnessed a complete shift in the neighbourhood.

“Years ago we had squeegee kids,” Shalechi said. “They would come in off the street, pick up one of these guitars and play. …(Today) it’s a different planet. Everything has changed.”

Traditionally, businesses in the Queen West Business Improvement Area have looked to the BIA to spruce up the area. But Shalechi doesn’t see that happening right now.

“I don’t see any (work). No lights, no flower pots,” he said. “The BIA should beautify the area and help the businesses to grow.”

Business on Queen West is not all bad, however. In Farshid Sahami’s coffee shop, the whistle of the gleaming espresso machine is nearly drowned out by the din of chatter and fervent typing. Customers sitting at the crowded tables are young; they all have laptops, and they are the changing face of the neighbourhood.

“Fall is the busiest time of year for us,” said Sahami, owner of Early Bird Espresso and Brew Bar, now in its third year of operation. “We have people from offices, people with start-ups; they come in and work.”

He added that his shop appeals to a younger, professional crowd.

“Many of these other business (on the street) have been here for 20 or 30 years and their customers are different,” he said.

Sahami said he wants to see more evidence of BIA initiatives to improve the area.

“What I heard is next year they are coming to fix the sidewalks,” he said. “But I’m not sure.”

Spencer Sutherland, executive director of the Queen West BIA, said his association works to increase business and to beautify the neighbourhood.

“We have volunteer staff that research and talk to businesses; they do interviews and discuss the neighbourhood,” he explained. “We found out that the city would be redoing some sidewalks next year. … So we worked with them to also include new trees, new bike racks, new lighting and parkettes.”

Sutherland did suggest that businesses and the neighbourhood demographic are changing, but not its vibe.

“People come to Queen West for something unique; it’s been a trend-setting neighbourhood for decades,” he said. “Our demographic is young at heart. Not necessarily young, but with youthful energy!”

Business owners Shalechi and Sahami say they do not feel connected to, or served by the BIA. Sahami said the BIA never contacted him at all. Shalechi said the BIA collects money from his property taxes, which he suggested do not go to good use. He estimated he contributes approximately $300 each year.

“I think if (business owners) are paying the BIA money, they are responsible to bring that money to the street,” he said. “So people can see it. It has to be seen.”

Toronto Coun. Joe Cressy sits on the board of the Queen West BIA and said the city begins revitalization work along the street in 2017.

“We went through a multi-year design exercise; worked with local business,” Cressy said. “The businesses pay into a levy (and) each business contributes. The city matches the funds they put in to do this enhanced work. (The city) has allocated more than a million dollars towards it.”

Cressy said this development work will maintain the spirit of Queen West.

“It’s the vibrancy; that’s the fun part of Queen West,” he said. “Do you want to see a live music show? Do you want to grab a beer? Do you want to pick up records? Everything is there!”

Business owner Abraham Shalechi remains optimistic that customers will come back to his shop and all it has to offer.

“(The store’s) a mix of anything and everything,” Shalechi said. “It could be brand new; could be made yesterday or 200 years ago. There is something here for everyone and it is beautiful.”