South Annex: Toronto Neighbourhood Explorer

Urmi in Neighbourhoods, Neighbourhood Explorer

Ed. Note.  Kicking off a day of free celebrations at Bathurst and Bloor this past Sunday, Mayor David Miller officially declared August 12 "Ed Mirvish Day" in Toronto.  In honour of a man who truly believed in the value of Toronto as a community, we explore a neighbourhood forever changed by ‘Honest Ed’ (1914-2007). 

The story of the parking lot that never was and the legend that was cemented in its wake serves as a reminder: life is little happenings strung together. 

Following the passing of Toronto's retail and theatre impresario extraordinaire, Ed Mirvish, media obituaries detailed his thwarted attempt to convert the properties surrounding his eponymous discount emporium into a giant parking lot for his customers.  When the city prevented the American émigré of Jewish Lithuanian descent from realizing his vision of concrete convenience, Ed took up his artistic wife Anne’s suggestion and created Mirvish Village, a collection of lovely buildings with low rents suited to art galleries and other creative endeavours. 

As a U of T undergraduate bunking down at nearby Trinity College, I was a regular visitor to the South Annex (see Realosophy's South Annex neighbourhood profile for local school and housing stats).  As the tributes began to pile in, I began to wonder anew about Ed’s neighbourhood: does the circus and roses atmosphere still mesmerize? 

I hop on the Red Rocket to get to the brightly-coloured, ADD-inducing sloganeering that is Honest Ed’s at Bathurst and Bloor.  Every square inch of the giant discount store's exterior is covered in the advertising sing-song that was a source of considerable concern to me as an English undergrad.  In delivering his eulogy, David Mirvish, Ed’s son, recalled his father thinking up these crazed catch-phrases at the kitchen table: “Honest Ed’s is for the birds…cheep, cheep, cheep.”  Oh Ed, king of the phunny pun—where have you gone?

While the out-of-control discount extravaganza remains its core, the north-west corner of Ed’s emporium is leased out to a smattering of other businesses.  The cool branding of Lettieri only becomes apparent once you’ve stepped under the colourful industrial-strength plastic lettering and into the euro-style café and juice bar.  However, the storied crowd inside—two elderly Greek men in suits lingering over newspapers and a burly man in tattered painter's overalls generously sharing his views on the global conspiracy that is Starbucks—quickly situate you in the folksy diversity of Bathurst and Bloor rather than the dewy-cheeked rebellion of Queen St.  This is a place where Ed’s Christmas Turkey giveaway for needy families, not the Much Music Awards, is the stuff of legend. 

At the convenience store next door, I duck in to buy a rather questionable-looking disposable camera (judge some of the snaps accordingly).  Counting out my change, the store’s proprietor hums along to a Hindu devotional song blaring from an old tape deck.  As I turn to leave, my eye falls upon a row of Jesus and Mary icons for sale above the photocopy machine.  Clearly, the customer is king on this strip.

New Moving past the circus along Bloor, I turn south down Markham, into the core of Mirvish Village.  Being too late for brunch at the Victory Café, I settle for the runner-up’s prize at the Butler’s Pantry.  Spotting a dark storm cloud intruding on the sunny side of the street, I dash into spa_ce, a basement vintage dress shop with low price tags that seem, well, ‘cheep’ when one is used to shopping at Toronto’s trendier re-users.  While trying on a dress, I eavesdrop on a conversation between customer and owner.  Did Mirvish still own the place?  Yes.  For how long?  Uncertain.  Neighbouring landmarks Suspect Video (eclectic films), David Mirvish Books (art) and Ballenford Books (architecture) are flanked by creatives spilling over front steps, deep in conversation about their projects.  Or the prospect of rent hikes.

Heading west takes you into the beautiful tree- and lamp-lined refuge that is Palmerston Boulevard, with its grand detached brick houses and churches circa the turn of the 20th century.  While marveling at the stately homes, I wonder about prices in the area. (Prices average approximately $533,396 in the South Annex as a whole, though they are well above that on Palmerston).

Dsc00235 While Palmerston is noted for its stunning architectural harmony, the rest of the South Annex is predominated by 2 and a half-storey semi-detached homes in varying degrees of maintenance and good taste.  The effect of this architectural mash-up is delightful (though home inspectors may beg to differ).  Many homes in the South  Annex have been owned by families for generations; residents include intellectuals, well-heeled Toronto families and early immigrants.  Property values are high due to the proximity of the University of Toronto, the development of vibrant commercial and cultural districts and the growing yen for downtown living.  (Given their price tags, these homes tend to be within the reach of HomeBuyers who already have a firm footing on the property ladder.)  ‘For Rent’ signs hang in front of many South Annex homes, and in spite of premium rental rates, the area is home-for-now to many students and young professionals.

With the sun setting, I head for the subway station, located just north of Bloor on Bathurst.  Elderly men chat over coffee on plastic lawn chairs at a local cafe, obviously settled in for the evening.  Across the city parking lot, a crowd of families - a mini-UN of dress and speech - gather on the steps of Palmerston Library in a scene worthy of a sitcom's opening theme song.

Staring at my own reflection on the way home (what passes for looking out of a window when you are on a subway car), I can’t help but think that the South Annex, much like my senior undergrad thesis, is a happy accident masquerading as something more coherent.  Though the area is characterized by a hard-working, folksy charm epitomized by Honest Ed’s, its homes are veritable luxuries.  The neighbourhood's cultural DNA is a cross between traditional ethnic pastiche and non-conforming student bohemia.

I don't think that Ed would disagree with my assessment of the South Annex's rather haphazard charms; after all, he didn't think much of long-term planning, being unable to tell the future and all.  Happy accidents and little happenings.  It's the story of a great neighbourhood touched by a great life lived.

Urmi Desai is a freelance writer specializing in urban issues.  She is editor of the Move Smartly blog.

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