Cities – Urbanius exilius artistus

Urbanius exilius artistus – Easily recognized by their odd manner of dress and intense gaze, the species more commonly known as the “urban artist” prefers burrowing into spaces that are large, cheap and formerly industrial.  Co-habitation with sub-species (such as Urbanius dancerius or Playwriterii dramatis) is common, but the urban artist will seek isolation when necessary.  In recent years, habitats of this gentle creature are being threatened by Yuppibus gentrificatillius.

Perhaps it’s a by-product of being a huge and successful city.  Perhaps it’s because artists are visionaries, seeing beauty in spaces that others cannot.  Perhaps it is corporate greed.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that in Toronto and other big cities, artists are in constant exile.  Just as their communities begin to pulse and thrive, external forces slowly dismantle them.  Upscale galleries replace grittier artist-run affairs; coffee shops come to cater to gallery-goers; funky boutiques fill neighbouring buildings in an effort to create ‘destination’ shopping.  Finally, the old, crumbling buildings that house artists for pennies a square foot are sold to developers and converted to lofts or, worse, torn down for new construction.

Driven from 1960s hippie-haven Yorkville, Toronto artists moved south down Yonge St. and ended up at the first Queen West near Spadina (and the accompanying garment district to the south) by the late-1970s and 80s.  Next, it was Queen to Bathurst, then as far as Ossington.  Ten years ago, they leapfrogged over the Dufferin underpass to Parkdale (now called West Queen West) and spread north to Sorauren Ave. near High Park and Dundas West in the Junction.  Some went gone east to Leslieville’s factories on Carlaw.  But have you seen these areas today?  Condos, condos, condos.


Glass artist/restorer John Wilcox is so frustrated after having been chased from four different spaces since the mid-1980s that he’s planning to orchestrate the next move himself.  When he leaves his current digs at 500 Keele St., it’ll be for the lake breezes, streetcar line and “stock of smaller 60s buildings” in Long Branch, New Toronto or Mimico, where he can afford to buy his own shop.

“By chance or survival, being an artist also means being resourceful and adaptable,” says Ric Santon, a painter and co-owner of Parts Gallery in Leslieville.  He agrees that those areas are a logical choice and, as a result, will experience an influx of artists over the next decade; some of the artists he represents have already made this move.  Going east, Mr. Santon suggests a likely destination will be the O’Connor Dr. strip in East York, since it too has ingredients he considers crucial:  “I believe any neighbourhood that at one time relied on light manufacturing and warehousing and is accessible to public transit is a readymade artist colony.”

But how far will artists go for large, bright, cheap studio space?  Will they stick to the romance of subway and streetcar lines or will they board buses, too?  Many have already left Toronto for Hamilton, a smaller, post-industrial city a 45-minute drive away, but chalk full of old buildings needing new uses.  They won’t go as far as the sticks, will they?!

Tune in to our Cities webisodes  to find out.

Yours in Coolness,


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