Leslieville, the little hood that could, has finally arrived and now is the time to take note and give it a high five. Forever known as the one of the “up and coming” neighbourhoods of Toronto, and sometimes trumped up in the real estate industry as “Lower” Riverdale just to push things along, Leslieville has delivered its promise of casual gentrification with the guidance of a caring community spirit. From the early pioneer days of brickworks, pig farms, and garden nurseries, Leslievillians have had an amazing history of being a tight bunch, looking out for each other, and keeping their neck of the woods protected from the outsiders. Defined by east of the Don Valley, west of Coxwell, south of Gerrard and north of Lakeshore, the bridges separate Leslieville from the rest of Toronto.
Even today, taking a trip “over the Don,” for most west enders is considered as daunting as space travel. It’s as though there is an invisible force field that changes the air’s atmosphere, western hipsters have distrusted the east as a threat to their breathing airways, but most probably because they would have to explain the meaning behind their ironic tattoos and feel foolish. Leslievillians are hip, but not pretentious. Let’s be clear here, they wear the cowboy boots because they ARE the cowboys.
Understanding the current vibe of the neighbourhood is enriched by knowing its colourful history. Leslieville got its name from George Leslie (1804-1893) a Scot who came to the area to simply work as a gardener. His business became prosperous and although he wasn’t as wealthy as the Ashbridge family, he was revered for his benevolence in the community. He dabbled in politics for the Reform Party, he was one of the founders of the CNE, and along with his garden business, he was the original social media manager. He owned the local post office at the corner of Curzon and Kingston Road (now known as Queen Street) which is why the newspaper dubbed the area, not yet a part of Toronto, as “Leslieville” in the 1860s.
The more affluent families in Leslieville, with those familiar street names of Pape, Logan, and Jones married each other and ran businesses like market gardens, brickworks, and abattoirs. Because they were separate from the city, they were their own police force and any thieves that dared to cross over the Don to steal produce or livestock, would be dealt with vigilante-style. Lynchville would have been an appropriate nickname.
In the mid 1800s,Leslievillians were mostly of Scottish and Irish descent. They were working class, heavy drinking, gnarly badasses. The strip was full of taverns and saloons, some legal, some not, with all sorts of shenanigans going on like cock-fighting and gambling. Even the Torontonians would cross the Don for some of that action. In fact, the Morin House at Queen and Leslie is now currently the Duke of York. If those walls could talk, the stories they would tell. They would give Netflix a run for its money.
LESLIEVILLE Fun fact: Industries such as Gooderham Distilleries polluted the water in Ashbridge’s Bay so badly that it was unfit for human consumption. People drank beer instead, even the children. This explains a lot.
With the industrialization of the 1900s and the division of the local businesses, Arts and Crafts-style semi-detached bungalows were built as new developments, selling at $10 a square foot. Soon homeownership became a viable option for people. Factories were built and soon the farms were turned into cheap housing, which filled up quickly. “Better to buy than rent” became the maxim. Once they figured out the sewage system, which is a metaphor for life in general, everything else evolved. The old and the new merged and Leslieville grew into a middle class working community.
Fast forward to the present: The last 25 years have seen an influx of change. The dodgy part of Queen Street East, with the ghosts of cock-fighting past and the route to the more “desirable” Beaches neighbourhood, began showing the first tell-tale signs of gentrification with its hodgepodge of cheap and cheerful antique stores. As mid-century modern furniture became hugely popular, this stretch of Queen Street was the best source in the city for scoring Danish teak and other atomic age finds. People would cross the bridge for an original lava lamp.
Coinciding with the burgeoning film studios along Eastern Avenue, a.k.a. Hollywood North, a handful of trendy restaurants and independent coffee shops opened up. Soon the neighbourhood became a hotbed for first-time buyers because of its affordability compared to some of Toronto’s other neighbourhoods, including Riverdale, Leslieville’s more posh sister hood to the north. The distinct personalities of Toronto’s neighbourhoods, even if they are in close proximity make for some hilarious and incongruous real estate dichotomy. All you have to do is cross Gerrard Street, wander uphill, and you’re going to need a much deeper pocket for your monogrammed handkerchiefs even just to rent a basement apartment.
Then one day in 2006, a Starbucks, the red pin marker of all real estate explosions, opened up at Queen and Logan. The gentle wind of change suddenly turned into a tornado. Lofts, condos, and conversions, oh my. In this climate, things could easily go awry but the spirit of the original badasses of Leslieville have stepped up as a coalition and made sure big box construction doesn’t happen. And as the Zagat Guide gets filled with new and exciting additions to its restaurant list, the old school diners, bars, and other businesses are still embraced by Leslievillians, those who have been here for years and the interlopers who have landed here from other neighbourhoods, including those pioneering hipsters from the west who braved crossing the newly lit Riverside Bridge and Instagrammed it with the caption quoting the sign: “The river I step in is not the river I stand in.” #Leslieville #GoEastYoungHipster
The eclectic charm of both old and new is what gives a neighbourhood a special character and Leslieville has welcomed its growth with grace and aplomb. And rising property values. So blow that in yer fancy hankie and stuff it back in your pocket, Riverdale, or maybe we should start calling you “Upper” Leslievile.