Fifty years ago, if you’d asked anyone where Cabbagetown was, they’d have directed you to a notoriously shabby district of well-packed Victorian homes on either side of Parliament Street south of Gerrard and north of Queen.
Today, everyone knows Cabbagetown as the neighbourhood to the immediate north, as the old Cabbagetown long ago disappeared underneath the urban renewal of Regent Park, and nobody would call what’s taken its place shabby, or dare to use the word “slum.”
Bounded by the Don River to the east and Sherbourne to the west, Cabbagetown is nothing like the area immortalized by Hugh Garner in the 1950 novel he named after the neighbourhood, and described as “a neighbourhood almost without tenements … lined with single-family homes, many of whose upper stories accommodated a second family.” The homes remain, but the second families are gone, replaced by the prosperous and house-proud, all immensely pleased to have an address in one of the city’s most picturesque districts, a place synonymous with the word “gentrification.”
Parliament Street remains its main drag, though the run-down character of old Cabbagetown still clings to the stretch south of Carlton, while the addresses north are signs of its present. The House On Parliament is a convivial and welcoming watering hole, while behind a side door at the back of what was once the Hotel Winchester you’ll find Samovar in the hotel’s stunning old Laurentian Room, a jazz-age art deco hangout now serving pricey vodkas to a weekend crowd.
The Winchester’s old tavern room is now home to Stonegrill, where you can cook your own meal on a sizzling slab of volcanic rock, while the old reception area has been taken over by an entirely more prosaic Tim Hortons. There’s also a Starbucks, but the coffee epicenter of Cabbagetown remains the Jet Fuel Café, with its décor of well-worn recycled antiques and bicycling trophies. The Jet Fuel pre-dates the city’s coffee explosion – opened in 1992, before the Dark Horses and Balzac’s, an outpost of youthful caffeination that still feels like a hangout for regulars.
Across the street there’s an outpost of the Gourmet Burger chain, just two doors from Johnny G’s, which boasts the city’s best burgers. Cabbagetown is a neighbourhood that likes to make sure it’s covered its bases — take the Children’s Dance Theatre in the old Carlton Cinema building, just a stroll from the Toronto Dance Theatre.
If Parliament feels like an afterthought, it’s no surprise – the real action is on the adjacent streets, full of impeccably restored Victorian worker’s cottages and townhouses, shot through with back alleys recently named in honour of eminent residents and historical anecdotes (Prohibition Lane, Doctor O Land, Al Purdy Lane and Gordon Sinclair Lane.) A walk east on Winchester takes you to its crown jewels – the only slightly macabre Necropolis cemetery and Riverdale Farm, once the home of Toronto’s first zoo, and now a lovingly recreated rural homestead in the middle of the city. Walk a bit further east for a view that actually makes the Don Valley Parkway worth looking at, and imagine the sense of contentment you’d feel if you could call this place home.