I’ve been cooking a lot more than usual lately, but as a treat one night last week I grabbed some takeout from Sho Izakaya, a local Japanese restaurant in my Toronto neighbourhood, Parkdale.
I knew the city had barred dining in to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but it was still jarring to see the stacks of chairs filed neatly alongside empty tables; a wall of polaroids showing customers’ grinning faces, my own included, seemed haunting now.
The owner, Steven Lam, 39, was the only person there when I walked in. He told me I was the second order of the evening, and that the night before, he’d had a total of just three customers. The upbeatness I’d walked in with was replaced with a sinking feeling as I realized that this isn't a blip, but a monthslong ordeal that’s going to lead to irreversible change.
When we look back at this period in time, we’ll all have moments when things became real for us. Not necessarily the big news moments, like the World Health Organization declaring the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic or Canada closing its borders, but smaller, more personal markers.
For me, one of those moments came when I took an evening stroll, thinking about my conversation with Lam as I passed by empty establishment after empty establishment. Most of them had signs, ranging from positive, “We’re all in this together!” to stern, “If you are SICK please DO NOT come in the store.”
Even before this crisis took hold, Parkdale had become a microcosm for the gentrification story being told the city over. The neighbourhood people love to describe as “gritty” is home to many low-income folks and immigrants, including a thriving Tibetan community. Sure, it’s a little dumpy, and the sidewalks are nowhere as pristine as nearby Roncesvalles, but that’s also part of its charm. There are hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants that are gems, despite not looking like much from the outside. There are a million family-run markets that make it easy to mostly avoid the toilet paper-hoarding crowds at big box stores. When I walk around Parkdale, I feel accepted, even if I know some people would (fairly) consider me a gentrifier since I only moved here four years ago. It’s not a place where you have to worry about dirty looks if you’re smoking cigarettes.
But soaring rents, an influx of condos, and a vegan takeover (I’m not joking), mean neighbourhood haunts have started to disappear, including the notorious King Street McDonald’s and the Coffee Time at the end of my block. People make jokes, but those places served as de facto community centres for many residents. Now, the coronavirus means the library is gone too. Because of the risk of transmission, some of the shops that remain open aren’t accepting cash, which is an issue if you don’t have a credit card or a bank account.
“We all are day to day surviving,” Garab Serdok, owner of Tibet Kitchen and Momo House, told me over tea. Serdok, a smiling community fixture, took over ownership of Tibet Kitchen in 2012; both his restaurants are known for their inventive momos (the chilli momos are a personal fav).
Three years ago, he said the landlord doubled his rent at Tibet Kitchen to $8,000. If social distancing lasts more than a couple of months, he said he’ll have to shut the restaurant down. He’s already laid off half his staff.
“It’s sad,” he said. “I have so much attached to Tibet Kitchen… I’m here because of Tibet Kitchen.”
Serdok said he’s hoping the government will give businesses enough money to get by for the next few months. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced an $82 billion aid package that includes a wage subsidy for small businesses and the big six banks have agreed to mortgage payment deferrals. But there’s nothing to address the rent faced by merchants who as of right now, have little to no revenue.
Serdok showed me a Facebook status he made in January, predicting that 2020 would be a relaxing year.
“I have a great sixth sense,” he said with a wry smile. This year, he explained, will be relaxing “because no business.”
Despite, or maybe because of, the grim situation, there’s a sense of community in Parkdale that feels poignant right now. Walking around Friday, I saw Skyline Restaurant employees handing out pay-what-you-can meals to anyone who wanted one. I talked to the owner of the produce shop I frequent, a place that spoils my dog with treats, who reassured me she was stocking up on beans and rice and would be staying open as long as she could. I checked in with the older couple who run a convenience store next door to me, where I get all my plants, and told them to be extra careful, even though I’m sure they know it. Every day I get emails from my local F45 gym offering home workouts for free. I feel a surge of warmth for all of these people and places that I interact with daily. But I can’t help but worry that they won’t be here when all of this settles down.
Big brands like Winners and Longos have already set up shop just outside Parkdale, making the edges of the neighbourhood feel more and more like an extension of Liberty Village, the soulless adjacent neighbourhood of glass condos, startups, and corporate pubs. In six months to a year from now, it’s feasible to think that only chain retailers and restaurants—those with deep enough pockets to withstand social distancing and gentrification—will remain or move into the empty storefronts.
Lam told me he wants to fight for Sho Izakaya. He’s come up with take-home ramen packages in an attempt to generate new business. He’s trying to sell some of his personal insurance to give himself extra cash.
He doesn’t want to close the restaurant, and seems hopeful that the government will be fair. But he also has perspective.
“In a situation like this, everyone needs help,” he said. “Some people may need the help more than us. We may just lose our business, but they might lose their life.”
Throughout our conversations, he kept telling me to stay positive, seemed convinced that it could make a difference.
I want to try, but it’s hard. This morning I walked by my local grocer, the place that spoils my dog.
They are closed indefinitely.
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