Every day for the last 19 years, Salim “Sam” Hadad, his daughter Mary and his son-in-law Emel were up at 7 a.m. to open Milk Mart Convenience at Pape and Cosburn avenues in Toronto’s Pape Village.
Milk Mart serves hundreds of customers daily, all with different needs and wants. Hadad said they’ve been around so long they’re like family to many East Yorkers. Even when people at the youth shelter centre up the street stole from his store, Hadad said he offered help.
“I wouldn’t say anything, but I would follow them. I’d say, ‘Look, if you need help come to me. Ask me … I’ll give you free, but don’t take it,’” he said.
For many, the store is an institution in the community, but in April 2017 the Hadads are leaving Milk Mart.
Hadad, now 75, realized it was time to move on after his second heart surgery, so he decided to sell his business.
“Before (when) I worked 15 hours, I didn’t care but now if I work for an hour I have to sit,” he said, “This is my life here, but after 75 years, of course, you have to relax.”
The Milk Mart is the latest in a series of changes to the intersection, which has seen a dry cleaner’s close and sit idle for over two years, and a jean and fashion store shuttered and empty to this day.
While Hadad’s decision was made mostly for health reasons, experts say that gentrification of the neighborhood can also play a role in the disappearance of these long time independent stores in East York and elsewhere in Toronto.
According to the Toronto Star, Toronto’s increasing property taxes will drive the price of a home up by eight per cent in 2017. Re/Max Realtron Realty forecasts that affordability would decline, as the average price of a single detached home in Toronto will jump to roughly $783,000 from $725,857 last year. Gerald McGiverin serves as manager at a Remax office in East York. He said climbing property taxes can also apply pressure on small businesses, but in the midst of the increases, Milk Mart Convenience managed to survive because of its prime location on Pape Avenue.
“It’s hard to say whether (forecasts) will affect businesses in East York, but they should be able to adapt,” he said.
McGiverin said East York homes sell for upwards of $600,000. Most newcomers buy a home and renovate it for equity, which he said would ultimately push property prices higher in a neighbourhood.
“More and more we see older homes (in East York) being bought and torn down,” McGivern said, and while East York isn’t as redeveloped as downtown, he confirmed that some parts of the neighbourhood are gentrifying.
Change is coming and it may not be for them. Craig E. Jones
Craig E. Jones is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of British Columbia. According to Jones, businesses in gentrifying neighbourhoods might not survive rent increases as a result of a property tax hike. That’s why, he said, some might close.
“If you’re getting a more affluent crowd, property owners would push to raise prices,” he said. “I don’t think any business would survive their lease going up…unless there’s insane profits.”
Business can also be pushed out, Jones says, because of a demolition clause on the lease, which could cause displacement if the lot is scheduled for redevelopment.
“People in some neighbourhoods see local institutions gone because they can’t keep up,” Jones said. “If there is no clause in the lease, (a business) would be in slightly of a more secure position.”
Failing family businesses, Jones said, are a sign of gentrification, even though rising property values can benefit realtors and developers, although he wasn’t speaking directly about Milk Mart.
“(Signs of gentrification) lets them know that change is coming and it may not be for them,” Jones said.
Alan Redway’s take on East York’s gentrification
Alan Redway has seen the commercial progress of East York throughout almost his entire life. A former East York mayor from 1977 to 1982, Redway, now 81, has also done volunteer work in the East York community. He has been living in the area since he was four years old.
According to Redway, the commercial development of East York began with small corner stores, usually in the middle of neighborhoods with houses. In the 1950s, the main East York streets began to have stores in small retail strips, like the one Milk Mart is located in.
Redway says he and many East Yorkers are afraid of the current pace of gentrification in his neighborhood.
“That is taking place holus bolus across East York and many people have concerns about that, as I do too,” he said.
Back in the day people in East York would go to their local store and buy groceries every day. For decades, the trend is buying all your groceries at once, every once in a while. This also affects local stores.
Redway says that the lack of on street parking outside places like Milk Mart prevents people from buying all their groceries at the local convenience store. Instead people would rather bring their car to a shopping plaza and just buy all their groceries without having to walk home with them or ride the subway with 20 bags on their hands.
The fact that some of the new condominiums being built in the East York area are planning to have convenience stores right below them gives Redway some hope that local stores can survive, and even find space in the market along with chain supermarkets.
“They want to have some sort of convenience stores on the first floors (of condos). I am sure they can actually co-exist but it is going to be tough, there is no doubt about it.”
Redway’s main concern when it comes to gentrification is the price of housing. Before gentrification gained strength in East York, the neighborhoods usually were comprised of modest homes. which were affordable to the working class. Now with new chain stores and condo buildings the housing prices have dramatically increased.
“My heart aches for the people that in past generations and today will never be able (afford) to buy a home in East York,” Redway said. “They are saying some people are going as far as Peterborough, and commute to work to Toronto, to be able to afford a home.”
The effect of gentrification on housing prices can lead to having big houses turned into rooming houses so that many families can live there at a low cost, Redway suggested. Families being forced to share homes with other families because they can’t afford houses due to gentrification can dramatically affect the development of East York.
Displaced North York
Ismael Nagdee Machado remembers what it was like living at 38 Forest Manor before it was torn down in 2010 to make way for the Emerald City Condominiums across from Fairview Mall. With everyone being so close, you could say that the townhouse complex on the southeast corner of the intersection of Don Mills and Sheppard was a family in itself, he said.
“When the complex was still there we had a lot of things: we had barbecues in the summer and everyone used to come to it,” he said.
Machado, a 17-year-old home-schooled student, fondly recalls the small-knit townhouse community, and activities he would do while growing up there.
“On the weekends we literally had bike races. All the kids, ages seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, all of us would just bring our bikes and we would literally race. Like we actually had an obstacle course and we would race bikes,” Nagdee Machado said.
Machado — who now lives at Village Greenway — says that family feeling isn’t necessarily gone in the neighbourhood, just different.
“Now I guess a lot of the kids have grown up and there’s an older youth generation, a lot of millennial adults that are getting their own jobs and condos now.”
As part of the Emerald City development, the Parkway Forest Community Centre was built, which attracts youths from all over Toronto and neighbouring cities.
“I guess it was different, like now there’s community that’s from other places coming together- which is good in a way, but it’s not really that tight, tight, close, family community that we used to have.”
Machado says there is about double the amount condos, with the problem being that construction is still going. With more people being squeezed into the area, Machado mentions streets are now more congested than before, and stores have noticeably longer lines.
“There’s hardly any space, and the issue is that they’re still building more. The townhouses that I was living in? They still haven’t even built buildings there yet- they’re still in the process of it,” Machado says. “It’s become such a big business, because they’re building these huge state-of-the-art, fully glassed, glamorous, upper class, high-end condos.”
The recent surge of condos in the area has alarmed Machado. At the rate development is going, Machado is concerned that his small tight-knit community might become too crowded in the future.
After graduating from high school at 18, Ajmal Safi of Toronto started working in his brother’s convenience store. He worked there for 13 years, then opened his own store at the corner of Jarvis Street and Dundas Street East.
Initially he spent about $20,000 dollars to establish the store, and worked there seven days a week for up to 15 to 16 hours a day. Safi said he couldn’t afford to keep a helper, for the first nine months, because he didn’t make enough money.
“There were many when I would just sleep in the store after midnight,” Safi said.
He remembers the times where he would sleep just around the grocery boxes in the basement storage area.
Hard worked paid off and after the first year he started to see the business improving. For the next two years he was able to pay off his bills, and also the mortgage for a condo he owns. Suddenly, in the second year of his business, he was given a year notice of eviction. A condo was going to be built where his store was. When the eviction happened, he started looking to buy or establish a new business, but he couldn’t find a place, for the next eight months.
“I had to spend the money I had saved to upgrade to a house from a small condo,” Safi said. “It was tough, and I was stressed out.”
Eventually, he bought a new convenience store at 873 Yonge Street, at Davenport, in the fall of 2016. He said he is actually losing money, because the location is below a senior’s residence.
There are fewer walk-in customers here and he is thinking of leaving this area since he is going into debt, Safi said. To supplement his income, he drives Uber for two to four hours a day on top of the 14 hours he works in the store. Safi is a father of two kids, ages five and three.
Gone but not forgotten
Back on Pape Avenue, customers have been coming in to the Milk Mart all winter, to say their goodbyes before the Hadads leave. It is bittersweet for the family, too.
“We are here more than home… Even our kids spend most of their time here,” Hadad’s daughter Mary said.
“Every wall has a story,” Mary added. “Some people come in tearing…we’re like family with everyone (but) it’s time for Big Sam to rest.”
Sam says even the boys who used to steal from him come back to visit.
“Some came after two years…they hug me…‘Uncle’, they say…They remember what I said to them.”
David Obike, who says he grew up on Pape, recalls grabbing two cans of pop for a cool 99 cents on hot summer days. Even though he now lives away from Pape, Obike said he still stops off at Milk Mart to grab snacks and catch up with Emel, Hadad’s son-in-law, behind the counter.
“I saw Emel the other day and he told me what happened with the store,” Obike said. “I need memorabilia.”