To some, Toronto's Galleria Mall is a "time warp"—a memory cave made of stucco and yellowed tile, a baseball card vending machine, and run-down rides shaped like speedboats and video game characters. To others, it's just a place to buy groceries and liquor in the city's semi-industrial—but evolving—northwest end.
But on Saturday night, it was all that and more. In the cavernous mall atrium, Toronto punk bands Teenanger and S.H.I.T. played across from a snack booth staffed by irate old ladies. In an empty storefront, DJs spun minimal techno at what was effectively a club inside the mall, line out the door and all, called "Shoppers Dance Mart." The name seemed to be taking the piss out of the massive signs bearing budget brand logos looming over the bands outside.
In one corner of the mall sat a giant fake bird head illuminated by multicolored lights. In another, a dude dressed like Steve Jobs in jorts danced to Top 40 pop in front of a motion-capture device, which outfitted him with a giant, swinging, paint-splattering dick on the screen behind him. It wasn't exactly the usual scene for a mall, where the most exciting thing likely to happen to you is the aftermath of downing some of its suspicious-looking sushi for sale.
The mall's transformation was the work of party crews Long Winter and It's Not U It's Me. Long Winter is an annual music and art event series that's maintained some semblance of underground cred over the years, thanks to its founders being members of Toronto punk mainstays Fucked Up, and being adamant about running all-age shows. It's Not U It's Me is a crew of DJs and party-throwers. The two groups came together to run the event, which quickly became one of the year's most-hyped parties so far—the line to get in, if you didn't have a ticket, wound around the outside of the mall.
"The cultural scene in Toronto is made up of people who come from smaller towns, and I think there's something about this space that opens that up for people," said Mike Haliechuk, Fucked Up member and Long Winter organizer. "Whether it's a vision of an easier time or something smaller, it's more manageable than the way other things in Toronto are happening. Downtown is all about the fast-paced life and expense."
"I think it's like a time capsule," chimed in Brian Wong, who heads up It's Not U It's Me. "In a way, [the mall] hasn't changed in a way where a lot of Toronto has vastly changed. There's a lot of weird otherness coming here, and maybe it can suggest that you can re-envision any weird space to be a utopia."
But let's back up for a second. What made a Saturday night mall party such a huge deal, besides the novelty factor and charm? Well, Galleria Mall is not long for this world. A condo developer in the city recently purchased the property, marking the mall as a sign of Toronto's changing skyline and its associated demographics. In a word: gentrification. Even though Haliechuk and Wong seemed reluctant to mention the word in our interview, it still hung heavy over the gathering. The whole thing had the emotional undercurrent of a going away party, or maybe a wake.
"People value it because it's a mall full of these strange old stores instead of the same corporate stores that you see everywhere," said Julia Dickens, a Toronto-based visual artist who was helping run the Bunz Trading Zone outpost in the mall. "It seems unconcerned with the rest of the world, and there's something really charming about that. I think people feel like maybe it's going to be a bit of a loss when it's redeveloped, so it's nice to have everyone in this space that's weirdly beloved."
At least one band made the tense undercurrent explicit in its performance. VCR, a band of mutant kids who play what sounds like the B-52s meets Black Flag, taunted the crowd, saying, "The highest-paying gig has the worst crowd," and, "Fuck you all." The lead singer had what looked like American cash stuck in his headband and threw them at people while making Danny DeVito faces. "You guys are all assholes, especially the cops," he shouted, "But I'd expect no less from Fucked Up's Cop Fest 2016, but like I said, we're in it for the money."
They weren't exactly subtle.
The comments were, presumably, in reference to the heavy security presence as well as the mall's looming redevelopment and hyped-up going away bash. Long Winter's events are usually well-staffed in the muscle department, in my experience, but the party at Galleria Mall was on another level. Every one of the 700 or so people who went through the entrance had his or her bag thoroughly searched and was patted down, perhaps even more thoroughly, by a line of guards. Although some drugs inevitably made it into the mall, one can only imagine what the collection of confiscated party favors looked like by the end of the night.
Speaking of the end of the night, by the time the second-to-last band, psych-folk band The Highest Order, went on, things were winding down. The scene inside the mall became calmer and more familiar. Groups of people wandered the tiled hallways together; others canoodled on the benches in the atrium, looking a lot like the elderly couples who may have been there just hours before in the day.
It was a Saturday night at the mall, just like it used to be.
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