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Saying ‘yes, in my backyard’ to Toronto’s historic Matador club

We've all heard of NIMBYs: residents who shout "not in my backyard" when a new bar, shelter or condominium tower threatens to change their neighbourhood. Well, lately, a new breed with a different attitude is coming up. Call them YIMBYs: Residents who say "yes, in my backyard."

You can find some of them in Toronto's West End, where a dispute is simmering over the Matador, a historic club at College and Dovercourt. Close neighbours are fighting the owner's attempt to reopen the old landmark, where music giants from Joni Mitchell to Leonard Cohen to k.d. lang once played. They worry about the threat of noise, traffic and public drunkenness.

YIMBYs counter that reopening the club would save a part of Toronto's musical heritage, help the city build its reputation as a live-music magnet and add spark to a changing part of town. They have been pelting city hall with e-mails, letters and posts, pleading with officials to clear the roadblocks that have stalled the owner's seven-year quest to bring the Matador back to life.

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"People come up to me all the time to say, 'I can't wait for the Matador to open,'" says Erella Ganon, a 57-year-old artist who lives nearby and runs the Friends of the Matador Facebook page. "Every time a cultural investment like this is made, the whole city benefits."

She is right. The Matador is a Toronto treasure, a diamond in the rough. It was built as a dance hall in 1915. Soldiers on their way to the First World War are said to have gone there for a last dance. It later became a bowling alley, then a dive after-hours country music joint. Johnny Cash was another of the many musicians who played there.

It went dark a decade ago, and narrowly avoided being turned into a parking lot. Paul McCaughey has been trying to reopen it since he and his brother bought the place in 2010. He got a liquor licence last year. Though he has promised to limit the club's hours and reduce its capacity to 650 from 800, he is still wrestling with city officials and a local residents group over when, in what form and even whether he can open his doors.

He says that unless he gets some traction soon, he might just sell the valuable site to a condo developer. "Me and my brother are fed up," he says over coffee. "Seven years is ridiculous. The city has to decide whether this is important or not."

The obvious answer is yes. The Matador is important for at least three reasons. First, because it's a heritage asset. You don't find century-old dance halls on every corner. The Matador is unremarkable from the outside, except for the well-known sign that announces "Dancing." But the hall inside is a marvel, with classic wood floors and a high, vaulted ceiling. On the backdrop of the stage, you can see where performers from Stompin' Tom Connors to Randy Bachman signed their names. Wouldn't it be great to have that space filled with music and people again?

Second, it's a cultural asset. Toronto has dreams of being a live-music capital such as Austin, Tex. The Toronto Music Strategy (yes, there is such a thing) seeks to "maximize the tremendous potential of Toronto's music sector" by, among other things, "removing unnecessary bureaucracy" and acknowledging "the value of pre-existing music venues."

Then why, you have to wonder, is city hall still hobbling Mr. McCaughey with red tape? How can a city that claims to champion the music industry stand in the way of relaunching such a legendary space, especially when so many other old music spots are disappearing or are at risk?

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Third, the Matador is a neighbourhood asset. Look at how the rebirth of the Drake and Gladstone hotels a few blocks away on Queen Street transformed the surrounding area, bringing new life to the street and raising house prices for neighbours who at first worried about the disruption. With the buzzing Ossington, Dundas and College strips nearby as well, the Matador area is likely to enjoy the same uplift. Mr. McCaughey promises to work with his immediate neighbours on their perfectly understandable concerns about noise and other issues.

What is encouraging here is that so many local people see the Matador's reopening as an opportunity instead of a danger. Rather than reflexively opposing change in their neighbourhood, they are welcoming it. That breath of YIMBYism says good things about the city's evolution. Could it be that we are growing up a little?

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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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