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Downtown Toronto continues to shed its grittiness

Social media lit up this week, when a story went around that the so-called "Hooker Harvey's" at Jarvis and Gerrard Streets in east-side downtown Toronto was going to close, the victim of a relentless building boom.

"Nooooo! I love Hooker Harvey's. Is nothing sacred in this city?" one post said. Another marked the loss of this "cultural touchstone" and its "seedy presence." Yet another remembered the time a sex worker got her spiky heel caught in a grate near the entrance and let out a memorable volley of curses.

Never fear, Hooker Harvey's fans. City planning officials say the famous burger joint at 278 Jarvis St. is not, at present, part of the development proposal that came in on Dec. 29 for the block on the north side of Gerrard between Jarvis and Mutual Streets. The proposal envisions a mixed development, including one 25-storey tower, one 10-storey building and 306 residential units, with heritage buildings integrated into the project. Artist's renderings show the new buildings encircling the squat Harvey's on the northwest corner of Gerrard and Jarvis. Its manager said he did not know of any plans to close it.

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In a sense, though, Hooker Harvey's is already gone. The days when Jarvis Street was a busy "stroll" where cars would pull up to the curb at night to negotiate terms with skimpily dressed women are mostly past. In those days, the Harvey's was the centre of a lurid late-night parade. All sorts of sights could be absorbed from its big plate-glass windows. Asked what he has seen over the years, the manager answers: "Everything."

Today, like so many once-sketchy corners of old Toronto, the district around Harvey's is changing fast. New residents who embrace city living are moving in, part of a continentwide trend of reviving big-city downtowns. Two great big holes in the ground just to the south of Harvey's, at Dundas and Jarvis, signal that new towers are about to rise there as Toronto's condo craze continues.

Ryerson University, just to the west, has been expanding for years, adding new residences and academic buildings. The MLSE Launchpad, a youth-focused sports facility on Jarvis supported by professional sports teams, is under construction. The site of Seaton House, a big local men's shelter, is scheduled for an ambitious redevelopment.

That's not to say all that is dark and dodgy has been banished. The local city councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, says the area has ongoing problems with street violence and drug use. On Wednesday afternoon, Harvey's manager had to shoo away a street-weathered young man in a backward-wearing baseball cap who came into the restaurant to ask customers for spare change. Across the street at Allan Gardens, the historic park with its famous greenhouse, a man in a thin jacket was lying passed out on his back in the cold January wind while, a few metres way, two fathers played with their kids in a nice new playground.

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But even this gritty corner of Toronto is yielding gradually to the process that is transforming North American downtowns. One by one, across the city, rooming houses, dive bars, strip clubs and porn cinemas that were the landmarks of Toronto the Bad are disappearing. The home of the former Jilly's strip bar on Queen Street East is becoming a boutique hotel. On Bloor Street West, the old Metro theatre where adult films once screened is now a climbing gym. The Brunswick House tavern on Bloor, where I once watched a couple of guys chew up their beer glasses and spit out the glass, is no more.

The outposts that remain, such as Club Zanzibar on the Yonge Street strip ("Enjoy non-stop nude dancers. Lapdances will jingle your bells!"), have a distinctly antique, not-long-for-this-world air. A few doors down from the Zanzibar stands the glorious, supermodern glass box that is Ryerson's new learning centre. Change is a constant of city life and the rakish honky-tonk Toronto of old is passing. The same thing happened to New York's Times Square, transformed from the sleazy home of peep-show barkers to pedestrianized tourist mecca.

Some lament the change. They complain that modern "gentrified" cities are losing all their character, becoming antiseptic urban Disneylands. That seems a little much. Porn theatres and streetwalking parades are an odd thing to miss.

There is still plenty of grit on Jarvis Street, if that is what you want. There are fewer prostitutes in sight, but Harvey's will still sell you braised beef, double original burgers and Black Forest Cake shakes till 10 at night.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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