In 2014, “Vogue” named Toronto’s Queen West the second best neighborhood in the world, crediting art hotels, contemporary galleries, local boutiques and, of course, Graffiti Alley.
The area has always had a chic charm about it, which developers and big-box retailers have benefited from. But where did it actually come from and what is still out there among fast fashion, vape shops and high-end restaurants? It’s a matter of myself, Franco Boni and the Bairds in collaboration with Toronto’s Myzeum for the recent Punk, Creed and Cree Metis on Queen West Walking Tour. The tour has been adapted to a digital walking tour accessible from the Myseum website.
When it comes to recognizing key players in cultivating the strip’s rawness, Cree-Metis multimedia artists and storytellers Kenny and Rebecca Baird come to mind. The siblings are two of many who have invested their time and loyalty, influencing Queen West’s increasingly “cool” status.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Bairds existed between Queen West’s “old guard”—the working class—and a new generation of punk and new wave artists entering the area. They worked at various establishments, including Queen Mother Cafe, Rivoli and Chef Greg Couillard’s Parrot. The latter was one of Toronto’s first creative new wave restaurants, and catered to the likes of Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones.
Bairds wash dishes, host and serve tables. At the top of their contribution was the opportunity to display their art in these hip restaurants, which helped them develop a reputation as key members of the Queen West artistic community.
In 1981, the Cameron Public House Tavern was purchased by siblings Ann Marie Ferrara and Paul Sanella and their friend Herb Tucci. Before that it primarily served the working class residents of the area. But artists began to move in from the late ’70s, and thanks to people like Kenny and Rebecca who created and socialized in the area, they became a tight-knit community. When the new owners of Cameron House wanted to modernize the establishment, they contacted Kenny Baird, who was known for his design work in the neighborhood.
Change happened gradually, respecting the old, while implementing the new and leaving no one out. In one year, Cameron House went from a traditional tavern to an art bar. It still served the old timers for their afternoon drinks, but catered to the young creative crowd at night, as well as a place to work and live. Although the working class and art punks clashed, the new aesthetic was about maintaining history, not tearing things down.
It was a time when new businesses wanted to work with the communities they joined; learn their traditions; To improve what needs to be improved and keep what works. They don’t want to take the magic of a community, appropriate it, and then forget about the people who created it.
This mindset isn’t as common as it is today, but there are still elements from this period that remain in Queens West and tell stories by those who were there to see it (and see it happen).
Explore this history using our audio tour, which guides you from the Mysem space at 401 Richmond in the Queen West neighborhood.
Learn more about Myseum programming at myseumoftoronto.com.
That’s what playwright Carolyn Azar told writer Kendra Thompson of Toronto’s Mysium.