Dark night for Abell artists

FAC­ING WRECKER: Nuit Blanche un­der­scores an irony for arts dis­trict

Toronto Star - - Gta Weekend - MURRAY WHYTE STAFF RE­PORTER

Sab­rina Sac­coc­cio was in a meet­ing for Nuit Blanche, tonight’s much-hyped, dusk-till­dawn city-spon­sored arts ex­trav­a­ganza, when she heard the news: City coun­cil had voted against pre­serv­ing the stu­dio build­ing she and dozens of other artists call home.

“I’m do­ing a project for them, and they’re al­low­ing my build­ing to be torn down. It’s strange to be part of some­thing that doesn’t sup­port you in any way,” Sac­coc­cio said.

The irony here, dead-cen­tre in the city-des­ig­nated “Art + De­sign Dis­trict,” is thick in­deed: Just days be­fore the city pre­pares for per­haps the grand­est, most broad-rang­ing and am­bi­tious cel­e­bra­tion of arts and cul­ture in its his­tory, it made a de­ci­sion that cut dozens of artists — many of whom helped cre­ate the dis­trict the city now em­braces as a creative hub — adrift. When Nuit Blanche be­gins tonight, its ac­tiv­i­ties will be in full view of the build­ing, a rough, sturdy brick ware­house at 48 Abell St., one block south and west of Queen and Dover­court, in the heart of the city’s most vi­brant and ac­tive art gallery and nightlife zone. The build­ing was re­fused his­toric des­ig­na­tion at city coun­cil on Thurs­day, ef­fec­tively neu­ter­ing the ef­fort to save it from de­mo­li­tion and re­place­ment by a con­do­minium tower. Jes­sica Rose, an artist and cu­ra­tor who is among the or­ga­niz­ers of Nuit Blanche, has lived in the build­ing since she was a teenager. She called it a “cel­e­bra­tion of a new be­gin­ning, and a re­ally sad end­ing.”

Nuit Blanche “brings con­tem­po­rary art to a whole new level, but it’s bit­ter­sweet as it comes at the death of my build­ing — the place I make my art.”

The build­ing, brick en­cased in flat grey stucco, is a throw­back to the area’s in­dus­trial past, and the cat­a­lyst of its sud­denly-rosy present as the city’s pre­mier cul­tural des­ti­na­tion.

With rough old wood floors and 16-foot ceil­ings, 48 Abell has been a home to artists, and the nu­cleus of the area’s creative ac­tiv­ity, for decades. The Hol­lan­der fam­ily, which owns the build­ing, started rent­ing spa­ces to artists in the ’70s, when Aris­to­crat Light­ing, their prin­ci­pal busi­ness, started to slow. Over time, 85 stu­dios — none zoned res­i­den­tial — evolved into un­of­fi­cial live/work spa­ces, and a col­lab­o­ra­tive com­mu­nity of artists took root.

“It’s not just a phys­i­cal an­chor, it’s a spir­i­tual an­chor for the whole area,” said Margie Zeidler, who was in­volved in restor­ing the nearby Gladstone Ho­tel.

Zeidler works with Ac­tive18, a group of com­mu­nity ac­tivists in the group com­mit­ted to sen­si­tive de­vel­op­ment of the area. They’ve been fight­ing to save the build­ing as af­ford­able hous­ing for artists. The loss of 48 Abell is a black eye for Mayor David Miller’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has gone to great lengths to cast it­self as a friend to the city’s cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties.

“The city has a vi­sion of this area as a creative hub. This is an op­por­tu­nity to show lead­er­ship — say for ev­ery­one to hear, ‘This is what it’s all about,’ ” Zeidler said. “If the city has such a strong vi­sion for the area, they should be stand­ing with us. But they’re not.” Change has been sud­den, and rapid. Com­ple­tion of the Drake Ho­tel in early 2004 sent de­vel­op­ment into over­drive, caus­ing a spike in prop­erty val­ues.

It made build­ings like 48 Abell ripe to be de­mol­ished and re­placed by profit-gen­er­at­ing tow­ers, many of which trade on the art-driven iden­tity 48 Abell helped cre­ate. One, in the old Gib­son Tex­tiles build­ing on Queen St., is called The Bo­hemian Em­bassy, promis­ing “a con­do­minium so stylish and cool, it prom­ises to re­de­fine the way this city’s hip­sters live.”

Terry Ni­chol­son, the city’s man­ager of cul­tural af­fairs, can ap­pre­ci­ate the para­dox. “In the process of re­de­vel­op­ing a neigh­bour­hood, you shouldn’t be de­stroy­ing the very thing that cre­ated it in the first place,” he said. Through its arm’s-length agency Artspace, the city main­tains a hand­ful of non­profit artist live/work spa­ces around the city. 48 Abell, which is pri­vately owned, is a sym­bol of a prob­lem with which the city has grap­pled for years. “We need to find a way to cre­ate space in the city that is af­ford­able and sus­tain­able, so that the creative com­mu­nity doesn’t keep get­ting moved. So far, we haven’t been able to fig­ure that out,” Ni­chol­son said. “If we’re go­ing to suc­ceed in this sec­tor, it can’t just be mar­ket forces.”

But for 48 Abell, and the en­tire Art + De­sign dis­trict it­self, time is run­ning out. A hand­ful of other po­ten­tially his­toric prop­er­ties nearby are slated for re­de­vel­op­ment as well. “Pretty soon, you’ll have an Art + De­sign dis­trict with no artists,” Sac­coc­cio said. “It’ll end up be­ing an outof-date his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence, or a mar­ket­ing term — if it isn’t al­ready.”


Jes­sica Rose, who has lived at 48 Abell for 15 years, is among the ten­ants likely to be dis­placed — along with the rest of the build­ing’s colony of artists, who have helped build the dis­trict’s spe­cial am­bi­ence.

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