July 21, 2016
The Doherty Building
We all know how the gentrification story goes, however this particular one has a unique fashion industry twist. This is a piece I wrote for the paper, which didn’t end up running due to limitations of time and space. Since the story is an interesting one, and time and space on Final Fashion is infinite, I’m pleased to share it here. Thanks so much to all the subjects for being so generous with their time, and I’m sorry the article didn’t get printed as expected!
The fourth floor at 310 Spadina is empty except for dust catching the summer sun casting through bare windows. The raw beauty of the solid wood beams, floors and ceilings is revealed.
Upstairs, business goes on as usual in cluttered, small rooms with open doors. Sewing machines rumble, cutters spread fabric, fashion designers direct interns, and artists paint. The wood and bricks are clad with scuffed drywall, lumpy linoleum floors and leak-stained ceiling tiles. Pigeons coo on the window ledges. Beyond is Toronto’s iconic skyline.
Sewing contractor Nguyen Kim Thuy is upset. “I am a happy person,” she says, “but this makes me sad.” She points at letters from the property management. A renewed lease contract, followed less than two weeks later by an eviction notice. To Kim, it feels like a bait and switch. It will cost her $16,000 to move all her equipment, including a huge industrial iron unit.
This sudden termination is a financial burden for these small business owners, who rely upon cheap rent in this run down building. They will need to relocate, probably to more remote neighbourhoods. Few comparable buildings exist any more in the fashion district.
The new owners are mysterious. The property manager would only say that the building is in “tragic condition”. Rumours are the top three floors will be occupied by a “marketing firm”. If so, this building will transition from manufacturing to media for the second time.
The Doherty Building was built at 310 Spadina Avenue in 1912. The building was originally inhabited by garment factories. During the Great Depression, the factories closed and several floors were vacant. Throughout World War II, the building held heavier industry, which in the 1950s and 60s gave way to printing businesses. At that time, Toronto’s old Chinatown was migrating west to Dundas and Spadina. The influx of skilled immigrant workers returned the building to its original purpose.
Lisa Zid’s business, Femille Fashions, occupied the fifth floor from 1986 to 2012. She specialized in coats, and had up to 40 employees, sewing for designers like Sunny Choi and Marie Saint Pierre. She chose the location for its proximity to her workforce, but she has no fondness for the place. She remembers Chinatown of the 80s as dirty and chaotic.
After 9-11, outsourcing decimated Canadian manufacturing and the large factories in 310 either went bankrupt or downsized. The floors were divided into smaller units, and two of Lisa’s colleagues, Kim and Paul Ho, started their own small contracting businesses in the building.
In 2008, artist Leah Gold had a driving lesson with an elderly Chinese man named Churchill. She mentioned she was seeking a studio. The instructor directed her to 310 Spadina, where he was superintendent, and showed the available units. Leah says “Churchill was really excited about the space being taken by artists.”
Leah and her friends have shared a studio on the sixth floor ever since. They don’t mind the grime. It liberates them to do the messy work of making art. The atmosphere is a source of inspiration. One tenant, Sydney Smith, created an award-winning children’s book, “Sidewalk Flowers”, affectionately rendering the neighbourhood through new eyes. 310 Spadina has incubated a lot of talent, including Philip Sparks, Eleven Thirty, Leilanni, Paria Shirvani, Rosehound Apparel, Victory Patterns, and members of Whippersnapper Gallery.
Directly below Leah’s unit is the next generation of sewing contractor. Cat Essiambre and Kelly Henderson’s business formed organically as they helped each other with larger jobs. The name of their operation, Pigeons & Thread, is a tribute to the detritus of their surroundings. Their first big client was fellow tenant Jennifer Fukushima, and they benefitted from the mentorship of older tenants Paul and Kim. They are the unique offspring of immigrant manufacturing and bohemian entrepreneurship sharing the same habitat.
Acknowledging the role of their environment in their success, the Pigeons are pragmatic. “We knew this was going to happen.” The Doherty Building’s skeletal glory will be exposed and polished, but without the guts, its brief status as a launchpad for scrappy young industry is over.