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Church & Wellesley: Photos
The Churwell Centre / Appx 680 words / 4 images / 111 K total

Time & Place: Toronto, 1971 / More on Church & Wellesley

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View from Xtra office. File name: cwcc1.jpg

North building
View from 2nd floor office of Xtra,
across Church Street

The Churwell Centre:
home of The Steps

If City Park and the Village Green mark key moments in residential construction, no commercial project has had more influence on Church & Wellelsey than the Churwell Centre.

Opened in 1984, it sits smack up to its lot line, not back in a sea of grass or blacktop, helping define the street. It's only 5 storeys tall, the top floors of the south building (see below) set back to let in the afternoon sun. For its entire length down Church, it offers a covered arcade fronting shops and restaurants just a few steps off the sidewalk.

Unlike those earlier residential giants, the Churwell Centre was designed to foster life on the street. And that's exactly what it did -- more so, perhaps, than its developers anticipated.

The Steps. File name: cwcc2.jpg

The Steps

It may not look like much, but these few risers fronting The Second Cup, opened in April 1984, have become famous as a communal stoop. "The Steps" has been the setting (and the name) of a cartoon series in Xtra, segments on the CBC / HBO hit comedy The Kids in the Hall, and a meeting place impossible to miss. It's occupied 24 hours a day, most crowded in the wee hours.

At first, Churwell's management didn't know what to make of this phenomenon. When people began plunking their butts on the planter walls, little railings (see at the lower right) went up to discourage it. When the AIDS Committee of Toronto tried to rent space in 1987, they got a run- around. But now Churwell is happy to put out banners (there's one to the right of the rainbow flag) calling itself "The Heart of the Village."

"The Village" is the preferred term of the area's business interests -- the same sort who once tried to name other parts of this town "Soho" and "The Lower East Side." Most everyone else, despite occasional lectures, simply calls it "The Ghetto."

By the mid-'90s The Second Cup, a Canadian franchise, got some glitzy U.S. competition across Church Street: Starbuck's, the Seattle- based chain. Sharp- eyed observers soon noticed a growing class divide, as clientele comfortable with a Mocha Valencia (Grande size: $4.55) left the gritty Steps to more hard- bitten loyalists.

Toby's. File name: cwcc3.jpg

Lane between north & south buildings
Behind: Orthopedic Hospital (left);
55 Wellesley Street East

Another shot from inside Xtra's 2nd-floor office. The restaurant, Toby's (another local chain, named for a real if now deceased dog), has offered burgers here since the Churwell Centre opened.

The patio was an especially popular viewing spot in the early years: across the lane was the entrance to Wellesley Fitness -- "Sissy Fitness" to many who worked out there.

Rising behind is 55 Wellesley East, condos built along with Churwell. Beyond is the Orthopedic and Arthritic Hospital, due to close by 1999, its programs transferred to the suburban Sunnybrook Medical Centre.

South building. File name: cwcc4.jpg

South building
Behind: The Village Green

Note here the set-back top floors, apartments with big decks overlooking Church -- more street- friendly accommodation than the Village Green looming behind.

The second floor, once Wellesley Fitness, is now -- with its non-transparent windows -- the Spa on Maitland (entrance around the corner). Unlike many U.S. cities, Toronto did not close bath houses in the face of AIDS. Instead, city health officials working with community groups made them venues for safer- sex education. The Spa opened after, not before, widespread public awareness of AIDS.

At the centre, with the bright cerise sign, is one of Churwell's most recent tenants: Baskin Robbins ice cream. It's seen as a bit suburban for this strip, its garish pink and blue neon interior not kind on the complexion.

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