where nobody knows your name

new snackbar. old sign. why?

I’ve noticed a trend in the last few years here in Toronto though I imagine it’s happening in major cities around the world. (Toronto rarely invents something). This trend is of hip, let’s say hipster, bars and restaurants opening in quickly-gentrifying neighborhoods and keeping the signage, or concept or both of the businesses before them. Let me start off by saying that there is nothing immoral or wrong about this, I just think it’s something unexamined.

The examples are plenty in Toronto’s western neighborhoods that have rapidly changed - dundas west, queen west, college. These are mostly aesthetically conceptual places that have a casual, dive-y but refined appearance, the plates are local, small and sharing, every cocktail is 15 dollars, the wine is skin-contact (a very gross descriptor btw) and every server has tattoos. Yet despite being new in almost every way, barring the concept of trading money for consumables, some of these places have elected to keep the signage of a prior business they have replaced, or further - its concept.

Many of those businesses, pharmacies, neighborhood diver bars, tailors, were run by immigrants and working class people who built out the neighborhoods where we live.

And many of them have frankly failed, though the turnover in the world of restaurants is famously high and not unusual. The relentless hum of capitalism drones on.

On a humid sunday last week, I took a long walk down google maps (you can’t turn left at college and ossington online!) to see just how many examples of this phenomena I could count and I found 8

  • harry’s char broil and dining lunge (same)

  • skyline diner (same),

  • pretty ugly (formerly salvadore darling)

  • pharmacy (previously a pharmacy)

  • superpoint ossington (formerly vo vogue)

  • imanishi (formerly cafe regional bar and grill)

  • communist daughter (one of the og’s on this list - nazaré snack bar),

  • Schmaltz appetizing (formerly walterman’s pharmacy).

And yet why have these new businesses elected to actually keep the aesthetic vestiges of storefronts gone by? A facade, after all, is an important part of a business’s identity.

I posit that there is intentionality on behalf of the businesses and yet many of us don’t think much about those intentions, and in part that is a result of their success.

I don’t think it’s cynical to suggest that this is a form of branding that confers authenticity and a sense of automatic neighborhood belonging to these newcomers. It’s maybe a form of cultural grift that endears residents of these changing neighborhood to their new neighbors. “See! Nothing’s really that different. We kept the sign, this neighborhood is still recognizable to you”

Many restaurants present this as a form of homage, in fact they often position it as a posture of respect, talking about continuing a great tradition and taking up the baton from the former owners.

Nate Young of Harry’s said as much,

"It should still be familiar, still be approachable”

But of course, these new places are never the same, they change the menu, hours, and - most of all - prices. The old businesses, often affordable while maybe lacking in modern aesthetic charms, are quickly overtaken by the same hipsters and yuppies (full disclosure - yeah probably me!) who voted with their dollars those same old haunts out of existence.

Again, this isn’t bad. What I call for though is greater introspection into the motivations of the new owners.

Are they not trading in the brand equity (not monetarily recompensed for, as far as i know) of the old owners? Are they not buying (for free) the goodwill of their neighbors? Are they not endearing themselves to the neighborhoods they enter?

The loss of neighborhood staples and their evolution into mere aesthetic shells of their former selves should force our communal gut check: how do we all contribute to the success or failure of our neighborhoods? And why do we not question our new neighbors when they fly under the radar, disguising a new business under the auspices of a storied old one? Maybe it’s because they don’t want us to.