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33 songs that make you want to explore Toronto’s many neighbourhoods

August 15, 2014

Drake’s ambition to rebrand Toronto as the 6—thanks to the shared digits in our 416 and 647 area codes—is an admirable attempt at civic pride. But we suspect that uniting the city won’t be that simple; for its sprawl, Toronto’s still a city of neighbourhoods, from the glass towers of the waterfront, to the seemingly un-gentrifiable Parkdale, to the underrated Brockton Village, to the finally-living-up-to-their-hype easterly ‘hoods of Riverdale and Leslieville.

We find all of these neighbourhoods fascinating, and naturally, so do plenty of Toronto’s musicians, who write countless songs commemorating their neck of the woods. Track Toronto have been curating the sounds of the city—or, more aptly, the sounds created by the city—and have been building a map studded with Hogtown’s songs. Built by Chloe Doesburg, Lauren Barhydt, and Jonathan Tyrrell—of local folk outfit Ketch Harbour Wolves—the map’s an ongoing project, but already has more than 100 songs referencing Toronto landmarks.

But Track Toronto isn’t simply an exercise in curation. They’ve also erected signs in Parkdale with QR codes that, when scanned, link areas with specific songs; they, for example, pasted a QR code outside the Queen / Jameson Dollarama which led to an Ohbijou song referencing the site. If you ask us, it’s a pretty neat way to connect the city with its music. So, thanks to the trio’s hard work, we’ve detailed some of our fave spots in the city—and songs that align with them. Submit your Toronto songs to Track Toronto Torontoist.]

Parkdale

Despite councillor Giorgio Mammoliti’s efforts to sully its name—he openly feared that all-ages concerts would turn it into a lair of pedophiles—Parkdale remains one of Toronto’s best neighbourhoods. And that’s largely because it’s a diverse, mixed-income ‘hood: Trailer-pushing yuppies occupy its northwest, its southern edges remain stubbornly ungentrifiable, and its Queen St. heart houses loads of venues (see: Wrong Bar, Cadillac Lounge, and Parts and Labour), independent boutiques, and restaurants. Accordingly, everyone from Metric to Ohbijou—who famously name-dropped the Queen-Dunn Dollarama in a song—have memorialized Parkdale in music. Our fave Parkdale song, though, goes to Freeman Dre, who summarizes the din and clatter of Queen West on “Saturday Night in Parkdale.” (Also: Sweet shout-out to the Cadillac Lounge.)

George St.

Few streets seem to reflect Toronto’s seedy past—one where pawn shops dotted King St. and when dumpy arcades ruled Yonge St.—than George St., the dilapidated downtown street just west of Jarvis. Though it’s a street lined with ancient Victorians (many of which should be labelled heritage sites), it’s also in extremely poor repair, something evidenced by the fact that it seems to be perpetually on fire. Local psych-garage slopsters Actual Water—who just dropped Call 4 Fun via Bad Actors—wrote a song about, well, a fire on the street, and it’s making us want to get something greasy from the George St. Diner.

West Queen West

Considering the westward march of gentrification along Queen St. W—anyone remember the “Drake u ho” graffiti outside of the Starbucks on Dovercourt?—it’s surprising that there are so few songs dedicated to the strip. No matter: Al Cameron has us covered with “The Done Right Inn,” a folk track paying tribute to the delectably greasy, Brit-themed bar—which far predated the influx of the ‘hood’s doggie boutiques. It makes us yearn for the Queen West of yore—that is, of course, until we need to buy a paisley doggie bow for our Pomeranian. (JK, JK.)

Village by the Grange

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Y1yM90dUDE

Unless you live in the immediate area, you probably haven’t noticed 105 McCaul St. Sure, you might go by it every day on the streetcar, but unless you’re a hungry OCAD student, you probably haven’t spent much time in Village By the Grange. Indeed, the ancient condo is so overlooked, U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy created a series of films about the strange (yet centrally located) slab of post-brutalism. Local pop-punks Like Pacific did, too, even if their song doesn’t directly memorialize Village by the Grange’s underrated food court.

Trinity Bellwoods

Even if Riverdale Park has the best view of the city skyline, Trinity Bellwoods is indisputably Toronto’s favourite park. (With an honourable mention to High Park and Christie Pits. More on them later.) Yet long before slackliners dominated the park—and certainly long before anyone played bike polo in its hockey rink—Treble Charger dedicated a song to the park, with 1994’s “Trinity Bellwoods.” Sadly, there’s no mention of the kindly bottle ladies.

The East End

Ah, the east. For years, we’d heard that the East—specifically, Queen East—was catching up to the higher-profile western end of the city. And now it has: Leslieville, Riverdale, the Beaches, and the Danforth are all ‘hoods who aren’t just worthy of a namecheck—they’re highlights in the city. The video for Big City Nights’ “Valley of the Malls” and “After Castle Frank” take you on a TTC ride back to an era when the east was still an underdog—complete with wood-panelled subway cars.

The Junction

The image of the Dundas and Keele that Big Rude Jake—a rockabilly singer who’s seemingly been around Toronto forever—paints is far different than the Junction of today. The district, which banned the sale of alcohol up until 1997, is now populated by restaurants situated on gargantuan lots, exorbitant-priced antique stores, and art galleries; the Junction painted by Jake is nothing but a series of junk shops with unwanted garbage spilling out onto the sidewalks. (OK, maybe a few of those stores still exist.)

Cherry Beach

While the area around Cherry Beach is almost universally hated (I mean, does anyone actually like making the trek over to Sound Academy), the beach itself has always fascinated Torontonians. A decade and half back, it was considered universally sketchy—only connected to Toronto by two roads, it was once at the centre of foreboding industrial wastelands. (Legend has it, Toronto Police officers would arrest people and assault them on the then-industrial beach, as detailed in Pukka Orchestra’s “Cherry Beach Express.“) Career Suicide’s “Cherry Beach” is a modern update of the tale, most apparent in when singer Martin Farkas spits “you will soon confess / squirm under the stress / ride the Cherry Beach Express.”

Brockton Village

Anyone who’s lived in Brockton Village, Parkdale or Roncesvalles knows it: There’s few feelings more Torontonian than an after-work bike ride down Dundas St. W. past Ossington. For a certain subsect of Torontonians (read: me), it seems like everyone you know lives on Dundas, between Ossington and Roncesvalles, and that little village—plus the sensation of biking directly into the sunset, which is the best until you careen into the back of a parked car—is summarized perfectly by Corin Raymond’s “Riding West on Dundas.”

King West

For better or for worse, King West has changed irrevocably in the last 10 years. Some have welcomed the street’s newfound bustle, high-end restaurants, and ad agencies; others argue that it’s become Canada’s douchebag vortex. One-time Toronto resident Owen Pallett called the street’s transformation with his 2006 song, “This Lamb Sells Condos,” which clearly namedropped Brad Lamb, the real estate developer behind King West’s glassy condo boom. “I’ve stated publicly that the song is not meant to be an indictment of Mr. Lamb but one of myself and other condo dwellers,” Pallett said, of the song. “[But] the actual quality of life offered by condo living is far lower than the lifestyle that brokers and developers are selling.”

Eaton Centre

As much as hardened urbanites claim to hate malls, we can’t stay away from them. (That’s perhaps a credit to our near-universal suburban upbringings—and the reason why bands like Fucked Up fetishize Dufferin Mall.) Indeed, while many hope to support independent retailers and local-produced goods, there’s something comforting about an Orange Julius, and that’s partially why we visit the Eaton Centre more than we should. Like Pacific, with their second track on this list, know the experience well—”Retail Hell” is written from the perspective of a retail salesperson working there.

Etobicoke

Before Rob Ford became its most-beloved resident, Etobicoke had the Rheostatics (who, by our estimations, are far better representatives of the neighbourhood). “Dope Fiends and Booze Hounds” is situated squarely on Kipling, which, by the songs’s admission is “where the ragged people go.” We’re not sure what Dave Bidini and co. are referring to specifically, though—are they talking about Steak Queen? The IKEA on the Queensway? The Mimico bar Dave Bolland drinks at?

St. Clair West

It’s funny that the Barenaked Ladies would name their song—and the fictional girl within—Jane St. Clair. Not that it’s a bad name (it sounds like something a porn star name generator would invent), but because there’s… not much at Jane and St. Clair. Travel south, and you’ll hit the Junction. Travel east, and you’ll hit Corso Italia. But Jane and St. Clair itself is… essentially a tunnel. What gives, BNL?

Roncesvalles

Though it’s technically in Parkdale, Mitzi’s, the restaurant located at the corner of Pearson and Sorauren, will forever be associated with Roncesvalles (thanks, in part, to its popularity among the stroller-toting set). Shockingly, though, Roncy’s most famed musical resident—Hayden, duh—didn’t pen a song about Mitzi’s; rather, Luke Doucet beat him to the punch. Watch him perform it with his wife, Melissa McLelland, above.

Little Italy

Newer residents of Little Italy and Little Portugal might wonder what dwells inside the Matador Club, whose rusted-out sign still hangs over Dovercourt Road. And why not? The club has plenty of history, including an appearance in a KD Lang video, but its loudest supporter is Leonard Cohen. The poet-singer performed there countless times and was vocal about his patronage of the bar—and he supposedly wrote “Closing Time” about the time he spent at the Matador in the ’90s. The bar closed in 2007, but we’ll always have the song’s video, which was shot inside the club.

Chinatown

Well, this brings us back. Back to a time when Spadina wasn’t serviced by a streetcar—it was serviced by a bus, which was memorialized by the Shuffle Diamonds hit called, well, “Spadina Bus.” The video above takes us through the Chinatown and Kensington Market of the 1980s and those ‘hoods, quite surprisingly, don’t seem to have changed much. The best line in the song? This positively Fordi-an line: “Well, the LRT / That’s not for me.”

Kensington Market

Kensington Market has long been the focus of songs, and for good reason: Along with being a historic landing spots for Toronto’s immigrants, it’s also among the city’s most colourful and gentrification-resistant neighbourhoods, bustling with merchants, activists, and yes, musicians—bands like the Constantines and the Highest Order were famously attached to Paul’s Boutique, a Market music shop. Our favourite Kensington-related track belongs to Jason Collett, whose “Charlyn, Angel of Kensignton” perfectly describes the collision of people—children in empty lots, the fire-eaters of Denison Square, the fish vendors, and so forth—of the market.

U of T

Al Spx, the singer behind Cold Specks, has one of the most haunting voices in Canadian music. And “Elephant City,” for its part, is her most frigidly Torontonian song, referencing one of the busiest—yet soulless—corridors in the city: She namedrops Bathurst, St. George, Spadina and Bay, immediately recalling the concrete brutalist facades that loom over those streets. Also: props to Spx for dropping a Teenage Head reference into the track (“frantic city keep me warm this fall”).

Robart’s Library

Even if you never owned a T Card—I certainly didn’t—you’re surely familiar with Robart’s Library. The building has earned equal parts scorn and derision: Some point to it as an architectural stain on one of the city’s most storied neighbourhoods; others, like the Fuck Yeah Brutalism Tumblr, point to it as mid-century masterpiece. For U of T students, though, it’s the drab place they go to cram for exams—something that GEAK capture perfectly on the apt-titled “Robart’s Mansion.”

Christie Pits

The Fembots’ “History Remade,” taken from 2006’s This City, summarizes our thoughts whenever we step into Christie Pits: Really? A race riot happened here? Of course, that a bucolic inner-city park could house a riot speaks to the sometimes-nefarious history that can lurk under even the most placid of inner-city spots—something, evidently, that the Fembots understand.

The Annex

Though the Annex doesn’t have a premiere blues or country venue (though the Dakota and Cameron House aren’t far), it didn’t stop the Good Lovelies from memorializing their neighbourhood. “Backyard” talks about the need to escape the city, but it also talks about the charm of the Annex: Harbord St., as mentioned in the song, might have a small-town neighbourhood charm, but it certainly ain’t the country. Not that we’d want it to be, anyhow.

Honest Ed’s

While the sweeping, orchestral “Black Ice”—one of Ohbijoiu’s finest songs—doesn’t specifically name-drop the corner of Bathurst and Bloor, it paints a vivid picture of the intersection. “Black Ice”‘s first lines reference the Bathurst bus (which, of course, begins its route at the corner), but the song’s ashen lyrics paint a perfect image of the corner, with Honest Ed’s lightbulbs shining bright, on a grey, rainy fall day. It’s a song that makes us nostalgic for Mirvish Village, even if it hasn’t been converted to condos… yet.

Queen’s Park

Maestro, one of Canada’s still-biggest rap exports, was never afraid to tell people where he was from—even his late ’90s hits, like “Stick to Your Vision,” brought us into his beloved Scarborough neighbourhood. Yet with “Black Trudeau,” the rapper focused his sights squarely on Queen’s Park, and he drops some advice to Toronto’s mayor: “I told Rob Ford stick to Annotate your vision, but when I saw him eat? Bro, stick to nutrition.”

Yonge St.

Bruce Cockburn’s ode to Toronto early-morning loneliness name-drops Yonge Street, but it certainly isn’t the retail strip we know today. In fact, it seems like his version of Yonge even predates Funland Arcade: “I took in Yonge Street at a glance
/ Heard the punkers playing / Watched the bikers dance / Everybody wishing they could go to the south of France.” Punkers? Bikers? Which version of Yonge Street are you talking about, dude?

The Junction Triangle

OK, “Headlines” isn’t just about the Junction Triangle. More aptly, the video plays out like a love song to Toronto. But look closely, and the western neighbourhood is well-represented in the video: It, in fact, spend a heckuva lot of time outside of the grand (yet totally decrepit) Sterling Automotive Tower, which, by our estimation, is the tallest building in the Parkdale-Roncesvalles-Junction neighbourhood. If the building looks familiar, it should: It’s appeared in plenty of music videos, including this one by Greys and this one by Wolf Saga.

Danzig St.

OK, so Snoop Lion’s no Canadian, but Drake’s verse on “No Guns Allowed” is as Canadian as it gets. When he talks of “one summer day gone horribly wrong,” Drizzy shouts out the tragedy on Scarborough’s Danzig Street, where a street BBQ turned fatal. It was the worst mass shooting in the city, but Drake treats the event respectfully. Thankfully.

Burger’s Priest

Burger’s Priest, the religious-themed restaurant with a legendary secret menu, is an undeniable success story: After establishing themselves in the city’s east end, they’ve since successfully franchised out to midtown and the west end. Their burgs—made fresh on a griddle—are consistently ranked among Toronto’s best, and Actual Water (who seem to have quite a soft spot for everything east end-related) worship the beef bishop with “She’s a Priest.” “Fry, fry baby,” the band sings in the song’s chorus. “Every time you come you blow my mind.” That just about sums it up.

The Carlaw bridge

Actual Water might have love for all things right of Cabbagetown, but Lowest of the Low are the original east-end fetishists. “Under the Carlaw Bridge,” taken from their beloved Shakespeare, My Butt, paints a picture of a grittier east end—one where vagrants (like Ron Hawkins) lurk, drinking under the Carlaw Bridge. Its lyrics seem almost quaint now: “Where’re the banners? Where’re the headlines? Those future planners and hungry deadlines?,” asks the song. Well, in 2014, condo developers have purchased Jilly’s, an organic produce store is steps from Dangerous Dan’s, and detached homes cost more than $1 million. Looks like the future planners came. They always do.

The Only Cafe

Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The east end—like the rest of the city—is rapidly changing, but one thing’s remained constant since Lowest of the Low’s heyday: The Only Cafe. The Danforth bar still has one of the best beer selections (and best atmospheres) in the city, and it’s only fitting that Hawkins gave props to the band’s long-time haunt. “The Only was a very left-wing progressive oasis in what was a very working-class, right-wing neighbourhood,” he told the National Post in 2011. And while the neighbourhood’s changed, the Only hasn’t. That’s for the better.

The Danforth

Greektown gets a big-time shout-out from Barenaked Ladies in “The Old Apartment.” The band admits that they’re comfortable living close to the strup: “We bought an old house on the Danforth / She loves me and her body keeps me warm / I’m happy there.” There’s a punchline to be had, here: Musicians buying houses in Toronto? Oh, the ’90s.

Bloor Viaduct

“National Hum” is a song of discontent—who could forget its final line, “youth is not absolution?” That dissatisfaction is clear right from its opening lines, which paint a dour picture around the Bloor Viaduct’s suicide fences. “Your mayor is raising fences to keep bodies off the Don Valley Parkway,” sings Bry Webb. “Send your praises to the mechanics of the state
Singing sweetly from the mess into the valley of the damned.” No, not that valley of the damned.

Forest Hill

Who knew that Toronto Hydro disguised electrical substations as full-blown residential houses? Indeed, there are plenty throughout the city, and they’re often hidden in plain sight: Some look like castles. Others look like leafy bungalows. Either way, there are roughly 300 residential substations dotted around the city, the most famous being 555 Spadina, which the Relmar Boys popularized with the above video.

Mississauga

We’ve lovingly mocked the Peel Region’s attempt at a hometown anthem in the past, but there’s nothing funny about SonReal and Rich Kidd’s “Hometown,” their tribute to Mississauga. Yes, we know, Mississauga isn’t technically part of Toronto (and it is, in fact, one of Canada’s biggest cities), but considering we’re a GO Train ride apart, we’ll include the ‘Saug as part of this list. And, quite frankly, Rich Kidd’s verses make us wish were from Mississauga, too.

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