Toronto’s West Queen West Ravaged by Pandemic Losses: Interviews


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As the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the iconic West Queen West neighbourhood in Toronto, local retailers and landlords alike are struggling to mend their neighbourhood’s now-fractured identity.

In 2014, Vogue voted the area, spanning from Bathurst Street to Gladstone Avenue, the second coolest neighbourhood in the world. But by 2022, Robert Sysak – executive director of the West Queen West BIA – said the community lost more than one in 10 local shops, more than 60 per cent of which were fashion retailers.

“It’s devastating. It’s cost people their friendships, marriages and lives,” he said in an interview over the phone.

Sysak noted the area’s local fashion retailers were hit hardest. He said because these stores tend to occupy smaller and narrower spaces, their intimate layouts meant they weren’t able to safely operate during the pandemic.

“But being so close to and seeing your neighbourhood tailors and designers is the magic of West Queen West,” he said.

Joseph Gatto, who owns several properties in the community, said the street’s art galleries also suffered at the hands of the pandemic. He said most independent galleries were either forced to leave the area or outright close.

“These galleries created the right kind of texture you need for a place like Queen Street,” he said in an interview.

Gatto also said the neighbourhood’s restaurants faced significant losses. He estimates more than 20 of them – spanning from University Avenue to Dufferin Street – plan on either shutting down or going up for sale.

“Restaurateurs lost the energy and motivation to keep going,” he said.

Sysak said when small businesses stop receiving government subsidies and grants, he expects another 10 to 15 per cent of West Queen West’s shopkeepers to close their doors.

“People, who have lost so much, are going to have to make some really tough choices,” he said.

Queen Street West (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

The ‘end’ of local retailing

Doc Von Lichtenberg, owner of Doc’s Leathers and Motorcycle Gear – located near Trinity Bellwoods Park – said the pandemic is one of many obstacles on the road to recovery for Toronto’s local businesses.

“The days of the small shopkeeper are coming to an end,” Von Lichtenberg said in an interview.

He said local retailers can no longer keep up with rising costs and lost revenue, which he feels are characteristic of today’s economy. Specifically, he believes high taxes are draining vendors of the capital necessary to succeed in a post-pandemic world.

“Like a wounded dog, some businesses may still be open. But they’re either going to limp back to existence, or they’re going to die a slow death of a thousand cuts,” he said.

Joseph Gatto said these high costs also shrink the profit margins of the neighbourhood’s landlords. He said his 1200 square foot property is taxed at around $24,000 a year, which comes to $20 in yearly taxes per square foot. Like Von Lichtenberg, Gatto anticipates these costs are going to destroy local businesses.

“I don’t think they’re going to get their money out. They only have around a few months left,” he said.

On top of this, Sysak said he estimates 70 per cent of West Queen West’s stores owe at least $190,000 in debt or more, with rent alone making up more than 80 per cent of what they owe.

“For some people, it’s going to take years to pay off – if ever,” Sysak said.

Von Lichtenberg, who has been running his store for five decades and counting, said the loss of Toronto’s local vendors will negatively impact the city’s communities. He said beyond retail, these establishments provide an invaluable service to the area – noting how some small shopkeepers maintain their section of the sidewalk, keeping both pedestrians and shoppers safe.

In addition, he believes Toronto relies on neighbourhoods like West Queen West to attract tourists.

“We’re also ambassadors for the city,” he said.

West Queen West in Downtown Toronto (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

West Queen West’s weed infestation

As the state of West Queen West’s economic vitality worsens, some members of the community are also concerned about the neighbourhood’s new herb on the block.

Gatto said cannabis dispensaries have oversaturated the area, occupying retail spaces formerly used by the street’s now-defunct art galleries. Because of this, local retailers aren’t taking too kindly to their presence.

“The cannabis businesses impose themselves on the neighbourhood of Queen Street West,” he said.

Von Lichtenberg echoed similarly hostile sentiments towards the number of dispensaries near his area.

He said big brand pot shops, unlike their non-dispensary retail counterparts, don’t facilitate the right type of atmosphere needed to sustain the charm of a community like West Queen West. Von Lichtenberg said retailers need to provide a sense of warmth and intimacy, something he believes multi-franchised cannabis stores just can’t do.

“Small shopkeepers are the human backbone of this city,” he said.

The road ahead for Queen Street

Although cannabis dispensaries experienced a high during the pandemic, Gatto said the industry’s success on Queen Street West is about to crash – hard. He expects more than 70 per cent of pot shops to close their doors in the next two years.

“We have a vicious cycle going on. First, galleries go. Then, dispensaries come in. Now, they’re the ones going out,” he said.

So, with galleries, restaurants and dispensaries all unable to endure on West Queen West during the pandemic, landlords and the BIA alike are wondering what’s next for the neighbourhood.

Gatto is uncertain. He said the street’s forecast is hard to predict because he feels such a wide array of businesses have already tried and failed to establish themselves in the area, that it now feels like the list of potential newcomers has been exhausted.

But Gatto noted how COVID-19 incentivized a new, alternate source of income for landlords, which he predicts could continue in a post-pandemic economic climate: pop ups.

During the pandemic, Gatto said many landlords in the community tried to offset vacancy-induced losses by leasing their spaces out to short term pop ups. He recalled how another Queen Street property of his – with a square footage of about 4500 – had the potential to make him at least $25,000 in the span of a week when he leased it out as a temporary pop up.

“We were making double the money we would’ve been making with a full time tenant,” he said.

Ultimately, Gatto believes the neighbourhood will only be able to fully recover when its trademark art galleries return. He said these businesses made the street what it was. Without them, there is no West Queen West.

“I’d love the idea of organizations like the Art Gallery of Ontario subsidizing local artists,” he said.

Sysak believes once people begin spending more at their local retailers again, the area can finally bounce back to its pre-pandemic peak. In fact, he hopes the spring and summer will attract more shoppers than ever before.

“People love the sunshine and the magic of West Queen West,” he said.

He anticipates the street’s inherently welcoming atmosphere also has the potential to expedite the healing process.

“When you go into Doc’s Leathers, and you see the quality of the products and the service, it makes you want to come back again,” he said.

And like Gatto, Sysak hopes the neighbourhood will reinvest back into the street that made it – at least according to Vogue – one of the coolest places in the world.

“Most importantly, say ‘thank you’ to those small businesses who have sacrificed so much for their livelihoods, their employees and their communities,” he said.


  1. This article hits home hard. I am the owner of a small business and this article is great journalism that highlights the struggles of small businesses and the problems we are facing. Thank you for putting a spotlight these issues and what we are going through for our communities.


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