Toronto’s Gay Village: An Interview with David Wootton

We sat down for a Q&A with David Wootton, former General Manager for the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area, to hear his thoughts about the present and future state of Toronto’s premier Gay Village.

Q: Tell us a bit about Business Improvement Area for the Church-Wellesley Village.

A: The Business Improvement Area for the Church-Wellesley Village presently consists of about 121 members, meaning 121 business properties or services, that are all under the geographical designation of this BIA. Our BIA runs from north of Wood Street to south of Gloucester, straight up the corridor on Church Street, and just about as wide as the service roads that run parallel to Church Street. It’s a small BIA but busy because of the destination we are, and also because of our presence in downtown Toronto.

Q: What is the goal of the BIA?

A: The goal of the BIA is to provide visibility and promotion of the businesses and services that are located here. The property owners are charged an extra tax to become part of the BIA, which the city matches, and the property owners in turn charge their BIA membership to their tenants. So the amount of money that you contribute to the BIA depends a lot upon the size of your property.

Downtown Yonge has a large BIA with large buildings and large properties; therefore their BIA levy is higher. Our properties mostly consist of small mom and pop shops, so it’s a smaller BIA with a smaller budget. But we operate very efficiently within that budget.

Q: Do you live in the Village yourself?

A: Yes, I live in the south end of the Village in a co-op around Wood Street.

Q: How long have you been living in the Village?

A: I moved into the co-op just about a year after I moved to Toronto, so that would be 20 years this year. I locked in there on a great deal, and it’s a great place to live.

Q: What would you say is your favourite thing about living in Toronto?

A: I like the diversity of Toronto. I like the fact that after 20 years I can discover places that I’ve never seen before. I’m a walker so I love to walk anywhere downtown. But the thing I really like about Toronto is the opportunities that are available at my doorstep living downtown.

Q: Do you have any favourite hangouts in the Village?

A: I frequent some of the coffee shops on a regular basis. I don’t really go out a lot in the evenings anymore. I have a partner now and he has different hours. I try to get out at least when friends decide to go. But I don’t want to just be focused in this one area. I try to suggest, let’s go to Queen East, let’s go down to the lakeshore, because we live in this wonderful city and I came here to enjoy it. The Village is great, but I want to make sure I see the other parts of the city as well. Which is why I applaud the other gay villages in Toronto – it’s great.

Q: How would you say that LGBTQ culture and acceptance has spread beyond the Village and across the city?

A: I think it’s spread as it’s spreading nationally and internationally, as it needs to evolve. The coming out process has escalated so much in the last 10, 15, 20 years, it’s making it so much easier for people to have visible identity. I think it’s a good thing. We have many Asian villages and communities in Toronto, so why would we not have more than one LGBTQ Village?

Q: What are some of the challenges facing the Village today?

It’s hard now with high property taxes because small business can’t just drop in and open that boutique or that retro cleaning shop in the Village, since the rent is so high. And that’s happening all over – London, New York, Toronto. Even in the smaller communities, the small queer spaces are gone because they’re usually in central, cultural areas downtown and they can’t compete.

So part of our project, our campaign behind “I Love my Village,” is to really grab the gay community and say, “This is a Gay Village for you, this is where you can have your rainbows and have your visibility and have your events and be a political space. But we must keep it that way by supporting those businesses that have been supporting us.” Because a large operation could open up here very easily, and there would be no guarantee they would put a flag in the window, no guarantee they would participate. So myself as a resident here and as a gay man, I feel I owe that back. It’s all evolution; I don’t think we’re dying, just transforming – metamorphosing.

Q: How have you seen the Village change during your time here at the BIA?

A: We worked really hard on the first Board I started with at the BIA to establish better visibility for our members. We tried to reconnect with the members so that they knew they were part of a bigger picture and that we needed their participation. We also created more of an aesthetic to the community and reached out to establish new partnerships, such as with the rainbow gateway markers.

The gay community is really only looking to see change, that we’re making effort to create more of a presence. So we’ve been successful at that. We added Christmas lights every year. We invested into pursuing the gateway markers at a high level. Meanwhile we got World Pride. There were a lot of things that came into our favour, and now as a BIA we’re getting a lot of assistance from our Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, as well as some great partnerships that we’ve become part of, such as The 519 and PrideHouse Toronto. And that in itself has put some weight behind us.

But I would say that the biggest change has been the change in visibility and the presence of the membership. Because that’s our priority. Our priority is the membership.

Q: How would you say that Toronto’s level of acceptance and diversity compares with other cities that you’ve been to?

A: I would say we’re leading that, to a certain degree. Because (a) The Pan Am 2015 is aiming to be one of the most LGBTQ-inclusive sports events ever, and (b) Kristyn Wong-Tam is working hard on trying to position Toronto as the most LGBTQ-positive city in the world. Meanwhile we [the Village] are trying to hold our own as the premier LGBTQ community of Toronto while supporting our sister communities east and west. So I think we’re leading that way.

Granted, I haven’t been to a lot of cities. But I hear over and over again from people that visit our Village that we have a presence, and I think it’s because we’re bookend – small and tight. There’s a little oomph in there.

Q: Let’s say I’m a first time visitor to the Village. Where would you recommend that I go?

A: I’d recommend that you go to The 519 Community Centre. First and foremost because it serves a great purpose here and there are a lot of really nice people who can help you in any capacity. And it has a lot of information on the Village.

I’d also recommend that you check out some of the local restaurants, because you can get lots of information from the service staff. I can’t give any specific recommendations for bars because that’s your choice and they’re only open certain hours. But I’d definitely advocate going into a public place and getting support and answers to your questions there.

Q: What do you see as the role of the Village in modern-day Toronto?

A: The role of the Village is to leave a legacy to the city of Toronto. Historically it’s where we [the LGBTQ community] came from – a testament to what we’ve accomplished and the kind of community we’ve developed into. It’s also a place of beginnings. I think we’re playing a greater part now that we’re expanding our realm, so to speak. Before, we were kind of a little ghetto. We were accepted and visited by the very few who felt comfortable here. Now you see people of all sorts of backgrounds, ages, and demographics coming in feeling very comfortable.

I can’t speak for the Board because I would need the Board here to make those comments. But I would feel comfortable in saying that the Board sees our visibility going well beyond just the LGBTQ market now. The Village has to be welcoming to the seniors and children that pass through our street, the gay people and the straight people – it has to work for all of them because we serve all those people as a BIA.

Q: Do you feel any discrimination as a gay man in Toronto?

A: No, I don’t feel any discrimination at all. I grew up in London where there was no visibility, so it was very tough at the time. I wasn’t able to fully come out until I came here for a post-graduate degree at 28 – and this was here. So again, it was the relevancy of the Village being the place where I could connect all these feelings to. Places like this don’t exist in smaller communities.

I’m 50 now so I’d like to live the next 50 years of my life – or at least 30 of them – being accepting of myself and kinder to myself, and not being so preoccupied. Being gay is a big part of who I am, but it’s only one part.

Q: How do you see acceptance of the LGBTQ community changing in the years to come?

A: I see more acceptance and understanding coming from within the LGBTQ community in the years to come. I hope to see us crossing barriers where gay men don’t necessarily have a specific attitude of the lesbian community. Or that we have a better understanding and acceptance of the trans community. I really feel that the changes are mostly going to come from within our own community.

Also, there’s a new generation of folks coming out now who have bypassed all that shame in high school, which a lot of people in my generation have carried forward into adulthood. As a result, we’re seeing richer individuals who will start their gay lives earlier and stronger and prouder. And that in itself will create a different attitude.

Q: How do you see the Village changing in the years to come?

A: I would say that we will serve a greater population, yet maintain our historical and queer aesthetic. We need to draw and serve the LGBTQ community, while also creating awareness for a larger community that’s not necessarily of the same background.

I love that the Village has its established community – our local staples – but I believe that it’s more than that, and that our community has to grow outside. The Village can be the heart of the LGBTQ community and a destination for tourism, and it can flourish for the businesses here on that aspect. But the days of it being gay male-oriented only are gone. I mean think about it, we now have women in the Black Eagle!

Of course, there’s still a problem with lack of representation of women and other groups in the community. But it’s a matter of believing in things to come and that change will happen. And I think we as a community have proven that over the last 30 years, how much we can change.