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Toronto In Transition: Pushing Neighborhood Boundaries
Joel and Joshua Corea grew up in Toronto's Little Portugal, which lies west of downtown. They can tell you about the park where they played, the streets their parents didn't want them to visit, and give you details of who owned which store.
Now, the Coreas have opened their own place, Archive, a gleaming new wine bar in the same sized storefront where many other entrepreneurs have gotten their start. The street sign on the corner says "Portugal Village" and just down the block are bakeries, banks and a radio station serving the Portuguese community.
But this end of the neighborhood is known by another name: Dundas West, after the street where Archive sits. It is still a little lonely looking area, lacking the polish of a gentrified neighborhood like Leslieville, or the bustling activity of Toronto's Chinatown.
However, Dundas (pronounced Dun-DASS, as in behind) West has now become what's known in Toronto terms as a "micro-neighborhood," and its offerings are growing. In Archive's block, there's a standout breakfast/lunch cafe called Saving Grace, a small art gallery, two coffee bars – Ella's Uncle and Ezra's Pound – along with a laundromat and a travel agent.
It was the idea of starting fresh but with proximity to their roots that attracted the Corea brothers to Dundas West. They had restaurant experience, and a deep interest in wine, especially those made across Canada. "We wanted to create a civilized drinking establishment," explained Joel, who had another idea in mind.
He and his brother wanted to make Archive a hangout for their colleagues in the restaurant business, who were often looking for a place to go after their establishments closed around 10 or 11 p.m. The only trick was finding the right spot.
Creating Archive required a complete tear up, which was a team effort involving the Coreas, Josh's girlfriend Tara Smith, who created the bar's tapas menu, and her brother Brandon, a carpenter, who built the sleek bar, the furniture and laid the floors. The money came from the Corea brothers' savings, plus loans and other help from family and friends.
Neighbors often stopped by to see how the work was going, and the community support came in handy when it was time to pass various fire, health and building inspections. Archive has the only liquor license on the block, which keeps crowds and noise to a minimum.
Still, the work sometimes seemed daunting. "A lot of days, I came in here, shook my head and said, 'what are we doing?'" Joel Corea said.
By contrast, their friend Nicole Angellotti had experience under her belt when she opened Lit Espresso Bar on College Street West, right in the center of Little Portugal. It's her second establishment, and her second foray into a traditionally ethnic neighborhood.
The original Lit Espresso Bar is on Roncesvalles Avenue, in what has been a Polish enclave. But in recent years, it's become one of the most popular areas for young Toronto families, drawn by inexpensive rents and solidly built properties.
While Dundas West is still emerging, Angellotti has Portuguese neighbors to her right, and a sandwich shop to her left. Portuguese is spoken on the street, and traditional foods like sweet custard tarts are easy to find.
Lit, however, seems like the kind of sleek spot that can be found in any North American urban center, from Vancouver to Chicago. Tables are filled with young men and women typing on Macs, while a few spots are filled by moms with squirming children. "It's a community space," Angellotti says.
And, there are signs that like Little India, Little Portugal may be about to modernize, as well. Just down the street from Lit, construction crews are at work on the same kind of low-rise condominium building that's being built across town, its streamlined appearance just as much a contrast to its ethnic neighborhood.
Angellotti, who grew up in the Toronto suburbs, comes from an Italian family, which she says gives her empathy with her family oriented Portuguese neighbors (and also confuses them, since her name makes them assume she speaks Italian or Portuguese).
One thing the two cultures have in common is a love of coffee, especially Italian roast. "One thing my dad always said was, 'pick a business that's recession proof,'" she laughs.
But her coffee is a contrast to what her neighbors are used to. Rather than serve pre-ground espresso shipped in cans from Europe, she's roasting it herself, under a label called Pig Iron. She and her brother Joe, who is her business partner, are so convinced that Toronto will embrace locally roasted beans that they've decided not to open more cafes, for now, and concentrate on growing the coffee business.
The decision has actually been a bridge to her new neighborhood. "We do have some of the younger Portuguese guys coming in," Angellotti says. "I feel like I've won a little battle every time they say, 'this espresso's good.'"
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[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]