The anger permeating Parkdale in inner-city Toronto — rooted in worries about housing affordability, disputes over development and questions regarding access to services — isn’t unique.
From Brunswick to the Bronx, the gentrification of working-class and disadvantaged inner-city areas, and the subway-tiled cafes that inevitably follow, is a regular feature of 21st-century urban life.
But in Parkdale, the most visible symbol of change is different. A group of vegan restaurants has moved in — and the backlash has been fierce.
Parkdale’s vegan-vs-locals clash began in earnest when Vegandale Brewery, whose signage bears the slogan “morality on tap”, opened last year.
Since then, along Queen Street — the area’s main artery — “Go Vegan” stickers are scratched out as quickly as they are put up.
Residents are particularly upset by what they see as the insensitivity of positioning a $16 burger as a moral choice when South Parkdale’s median household income is more than $20,000 below the average for Toronto and a third of residents live in poverty.
The brewery is just one of five stores run by the Toronto-based The 5700 Inc, all on the same block. The others include a vegan lifestyle boutique, a vegan ice cream parlour and a vegan diner. The company also runs an annual Vegandale festival in four North American cities and has long-term growth plans in Toronto.
Vegandale Brewery serves See The Light Lager and Principled Pilsner, as well as other beers and vegan fast food. The menu features all-caps admonitions such as “CAN YOU LOVE ANIMALS WITHOUT BEING VEGAN? NO” and “IS VEGANISM THE BEST THING WE CAN DO TO ALIGN OUR ACTIONS WITH OUR MORALS? YES”.
“We want people to reflect on our message and think about the hypocrisy of living in a society that claims to love animals but at the same time exploits them in every way,” said Jenna Owen, The 5700 Inc’s director of communications.
“We ultimately want people to realise that not consuming or exploiting animals is our moral obligation, not just a diet.”
That in-your-face approach hasn’t gone over well with some Parkdale residents, many of whom live in subsidised housing and rely on cheap food options.
“Parkdale is really the last affordable spot in downtown Toronto,” said Professor Cheryl Teelucksingh, an urban sociologist at Ryerson University who has done research projects in the neighbourhood.
“It’s close to healthcare facilities and other services, which is good for people, particularly with mental health needs.
“New immigrants, people with lower incomes, people with mental health issues, people with a whole range of identities saw Parkdale as being home. There used to be a certain stigma to the name, but people who lived in Parkdale had a lot of pride in their community.”
‘Parkdale doesn’t care who you have sex with’
Jim Gilbert, a member of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, said neighbourhood pride was the key to understanding local opposition, which has been vociferous and well-covered in the Toronto media.
Ami Powell, a local computer science student, even designed a browser extension called Vegandale Sucks which turns every online mention of “Vegandale” into “Gentrified Parkdale”.
“What really antagonised people was that there wasn’t any real consideration. They kicked down the door and planted their flag in the middle of the community, hitting everyone with flailing elbows,” Mr Gilbert said.
“They tried to appropriate the neighbourhood name and I think that was when people became completely incensed.
“There’s a lot attached to that name. A lot of people have spent their lives trying to make this community stronger and more equitable and more inclusive.
“Parkdale doesn’t care what colour you are. Parkdale doesn’t care who you have sex with. Parkdale doesn’t care if you do drugs or have mental health issues. Parkdale doesn’t even care if you’re vegan. But you have to be inclusive because that’s how this place works.”
The backlash came to a head in August last year, when the Land Trust organised a “Parkdale Isn’t Vegandale” protest, attended by 250 residents. The meeting issued The 5700 Inc. a list of community demands, including removing Vegandale branding, committing to local hiring and contributing to food-security initiatives.
In response, The 5700 Inc. says it has committed to investing $100,000 in the Parkdale community over the next six years and has already donated to overdose prevention and innovation groups. It also provides two meals to a local soup kitchen, which it says will be a regular commitment.
He still won’t eat there, but Mr Gilbert believes the company is somewhat chastened.
“I hope that what they went through and the response of the neighbourhood gives pause to any other corporations,” he said.
“That will help our ongoing fight. Businesses and developers shouldn’t feel like they can come in here and reinvent the narrative of the community. That can’t work here.”
Civil disobedience in fight against gentrification
Nevertheless, ill feeling clearly remains. When a woman dining at Vegandale in November had an allergic reaction to traces of dairy products in a “vegan pulled pork taco”, possibly due to seasoning that had been contaminated outside the restaurant, the online reaction featured more than a little schadenfreude.
And when two new restaurants bearing anti-Vegandale signage opened on Queen St in recent weeks, rumours quickly spread that they were related to The 5700 Inc. and that the company was trying to have it both ways by commercialising local opposition, a claim denied by company spokesperson Jenna Owen.
“We are not affiliated with IST Snack Bar or Parkdale Pizza,” she told the ABC. “The leases and assets for those establishments were purchased from The 5700.”
Other activists hope the controversy surrounding Vegandale will help attract attention to the other issues facing the neighbourhood.
Bob Rose, a member of the Parkdale Eviction Resistance Network and a local resident for nearly 40 years, has helped to organise protests to pressure developers and the city council to build more public housing. He believes civil disobedience is the next stage in resisting Parkdale’s gentrification.
“We need to increase the stock of affordable housing, safe housing, protected housing for people who need it so that they can actually have homes here and not worry about the fact that they’re going to get evicted next year,” he said.
“Vegandale is a nasty visible symptom but the underlying stuff is much deeper and more frightening.”