Tattoo Shop Symbolizes Yorkville's Ongoing Transformation

Thursday Jun 18th, 2015


Symbolizes Yorkville's Ongoing Transformation

From the stoop of Teatro Verde - a retail aerie of gentility and florals, housed in a facade that is one of the oldest in Toronto - the proprietors of the Yorkville stronghold look directly out to a zippy, new neighbour. It's one that accompanies a motto that blares, "If you think it, we ink it."

The opening a few months back, of the Village Ink, right smack in the heart of the block, was enough to spark just the latest existential demarcation in the hood. On one side: an emporium where tchotchkes stack up for the 21-st century Noel Coward, where there's a dedicated Veuve Clicquot shop-within-a-shop, and where super-socialites the likes of Suzanne Rogers turn for their flower ammo (like she did when she hosted designer Zac Posen at her last charity gala). On the other side: a den of "fine tattoos and piercing," as the sign reads, one to which patrons come asking now, perchance, for a "thigh piece".

Further evidence of a thickening gentrification? Part of a puree of confusion for the area? Or merely a Back to the Future for a village that, in the 1960s, was the crunchy, Canadian counterpart to Greenwich and Height-Ashburty - a hood were young poets including Margaret Atwood did readings at the long-gone Bohemian Embassy, and where the classic, equally misty-timed Riverboat provided a stage to nascent talents a la Neil Young and Joni Mitchell?

"I'm not sure what Yorkville wants to be when it 'grows up'", says the always-droll Bill Marshall, a founder of the Toronto International Film Festival, which during its chrysalis was definitely (and is no longer) a Yorkville affair. Incidentally, his quip came after a recent memorial service for one of the one time-emperors of Yorkville, Michael Carlevale, at the Church of the Redeemer, a place of worship that acts as one of the four corners of the hood. 

Carlevale - who once reigned over the extreme see-and-be-seen Preggo Della Piazza, in the courtyard next to the church where a Strucks now looms (call the symbolism police!) - had passed away, and the reception, following the memorial, was a kaleidoscope of older Yorkville faces.

Some grandees remembered the area's '60s apogee; many definitely carted memories of its Bonfire of the Vanities metamorphosis, in the '80s and '90s, when Yuppies ran amok, and - nudged by the increased film production in town, and the coinage of the term, "Hollywood North" - Yorkville turned into a celebrity fishbowl starring Mel Gibson, Rod Stewart, Cher and the like. 

Man-about-town and interior designer Henry Liska, who was also at the memorial, and has lived in Yorkville for four decades, fondly remembers those years. It was a time, he says, when "the Prince Arthur Room at the Park Plaza Hotel again hosted Toronto's No. 1 power breakfast, anyone who wanted to be seen drank at the Four Season's SRO, and anyone with the inclination to be bad went to Boa on Bellair St."

Conceding that the tony turf ain't what it used to be, Liska says, "as development projects have become larger, and gone higher and higher skyward, the feeling of connectedness and community at the street level seems to be disappearing...(Yorkville) seems to have become a network of many strangers."

It's a lament that tracks with some of the bruising nostalgia of late, following a series of high-profile closures. Gone: era-defining darlings like Maison de La Presse Internationale and the storied Cookbook Store. Poof, after 52-years: the Coffee Mill, a goulash-friendly landmark that once drew the intelligentsia. Burned down: the original Sotto Sotto restaurant, just on the rings of Yorkville. Turned into a Nespresso mega-cafe: the art house anchor that was the Cumberland Cinemas.

Unsurprisingly, some say money is the scourge, with one well-placed source confirming that the rent, in one 40,000 square foot property, recently purchased in the heart of the hood, was in excess of $40,000 per month. Others point plainly to the "cycle" of these things, with Yorkville reflecting what has happened in other places, like Soho in Manhattan, where the loft-dwelling artists were exorcised long ago, and where the culture now is Sephora and Victoria's Secret.

It's a reflection of the homogeneity of metropolitan life in general, where the same brands rule everywhere, where a common taste-level flows on the running tap of the internet, but also of the increased scope of Canada's largest city. The "Old Yorkville" prospered at a time when the city was a much smaller place, psychically, and now there's not only "downtown" and "uptown", but umpteenth different orbits and scenes. 

Regardless of the reason, many of the old-guiard find themselves rather allergic to the area, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. 

"I avoid it on weekends," a certain tastemaker tells me, "because it seems like less like Toronto than some 'Fodor's Guide' idea of Toronto. It's mostly tourists, or people who've come up from north. Even most of the interesting restaurants seem to be opening further downtown."

The pendulum is known for continually swinging, however, and others are encouraged by some new blood. There is the Japanese-style steak house, NAO, around the corner on Avenue Rd., which added some fresh swank when it opened last winter.

Even more promising, perhaps, is the opening of Kasamoto, an ambitious new sushi restaurant, in the spot where the once-stalwart Remy's once stood. Because the restaurant is from the same people begind the Chase and Colette, both of which have added sizzle south of Bloor, fingers remain crossed.

And, alas, even the neighbourhood's newest (and first) tattoos-piercings lair is seen, by some, as simply as what it is. It says less about the debasement of the area than the very mainstreaming of body art in modern society, they argue. Even the queenly Helen Mirren has a tattoo, after all.

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