Small stoop, giant armature

“Meet me at The Steps”: commanding normativities in Toronto’s gaybourhood, 1984–2005

Part three continues a six-part series, posted June 20th to 25th, on an urban design element to emerge organically as a successful social fixture in Toronto’s fledgling gaybourhood (Church-Wellesley Village), and its catalyzing relevance on an evolving community, on citizenships of consumption, and on comprehending a geographic cisnormativity endemic to both the gaybourhood and beyond it. Catch up with the previous instalment, a gaybourhood history of the Church-Wellesley area leading up to The Steps phenomenon.

Following community resistance to the Operation Soap raids of 1981, the long-rundown area of Toronto known as The Track began transitioning from the structure of an imposed ghetto for the gay (and lesbian) community, toward an enclave of agency for economic revitalization and political autonomy. After decades of moralizing incursions by city officials (including police, aldermen, and urban planners) who sought to curb “deviance” and “immorality” by disrupting, corralling, and criminalizing queer Torontonians, subsequent municipal actions began to backfire as the area’s gay and lesbian residents — long held to two discrete, but externally converging geographies — began to hold their ground inside an area which would materialize as the modern gaybourhood. This galvanization of resistance planted itself against aggressive incursions of heteronormativity as it made itself more visible to the public realm. Gay men and lesbian women, as emerging stakeholders within the newly-realized gaybourhood, began to re-imagine their imposed ghettoization as a homonormative enclave. This perceptual shift in the community’s relationship to urban space facilitated a safer terrain by (and for) one another just as the public health crisis of HIV/AIDS was striking at the heart of the gay community. This move toward a geographic homonormativity would re-centre the participatory components of queer citizenship in Toronto away from the public realm and toward consumer-dependent “publics” within the private territories of commerce.

Figure 9. An example of commercial variety, pedestrian activity, and edifice upkeep along Church Street during the ’70s: near Isabella Street, Tuesday, 27 April 1971. [City of Toronto Archives: item 54, file 8, fonds 1526 (Harvey R. Naylor fonds)].

Figure 9. An example of commercial variety, pedestrian activity, and edifice upkeep along Church Street during the ’70s: near Isabella Street, Tuesday, 27 April 1971. [City of Toronto Archives: item 54, file 8, fonds 1526 (Harvey R. Naylor fonds)].

As an early commercial pioneer to (and for) the gaybourhood, the gay bookstore, This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (its name repudiating the conservative, moneyed neighbourhood to the north that was home to many of the city’s stakeholders and “moral” citizens), opened in 1979 just south of The Track before relocating in 1986 to Church Street, south of Wellesley. By the late ’80s, low-order goods and services — greengrocers, delis, and butchers — along Church Street operated next to newly opened bistros, discotheques, and cafés. Developers added new office space. Most noteworthy, however, was the first café franchise to open for business in the newly visible gaybourhood: Second Cup Coffee (Holden 1987, A6; de Saint-André 1985, C1). As these businesses delivered essential goods and services for locals, they helped to anchor an economic autonomy for the gaybourhood, making it practical for a gaybourhood resident to obtain most basic services locally without needing to step beyond the new homonormative enclave; continuing apartment tower development, meanwhile, provided ample, relatively affordable housing for an influx of queer people who sought after a sense of safety and lasting community (Holden, id.).

Churwell Centre’s innocuous steps at Second Cup

Long underserved by a paucity of low-order goods and services, new commitments by the gay and lesbian community toward claiming enclave territories ushered new development within the gaybourhood. In April 1984, a franchisée opened a Second Cup café on the retail ground level of the just-opened Churwell Centre at 546 Church Street. Churwell Centre, a mixed commercial-retail development comprised of a main five-storey, mid-rise edifice and accompanied by a low-rise, four-storey companion to its south, earned its portmanteau for abutting the southwest corner of Church and Wellesley Streets (Xtra! 2005a, 15).

The wide, gentle incline of Churwell North’s terra cotta-tiled steps — five in all — were, architecturally speaking, nondescript. Nevertheless, these steps complemented the late-Modernist, brick-clad façade whilst providing a functional ingress to ground-level retailers from the public right-of-way of Church Street’s sidewalk [Figure 10]. Despite its stark contrast to the area’s older, smaller commercial properties, Churwell’s unexceptional exterior, unburdened by an architect’s ego for prescriptive semantics, worked advantageously. This was an anonymity Habermas criticized for needing “graphics of company trademarks and of neon-light advertisements,” for which “differentiation must take place by means other than that of the formal language of architecture” (1985, 327). While this type of nondescript architecture may not be ideal for new buildings sited where social and community engagement at street level is tenuous at best, the convertibility of Churwell’s design was a well-timed addition to a streetscape undergoing a morphological and social transition. Carr, et al., explain how “legibility is the ability of a place to communicate first that it is open to the user and then what is possible there, once the user is inside” (1992, 188). The flexibility of Churwell’s physical armature not only provided patrons with a functional means to access its retail businesses (as intended), but it also invited patrons to mould the steps into a legible commons for facilitating organic social activity (a fortuitous by-product).

Second Cup Coffee, a Toronto café franchise started in 1975, was still a fairly young enterprise when it arrived to a gaybourhood in need of coffee cafés (DeMara 2004, A4). Joseph Lipson, first owner of the Second Cup inside Churwell Centre, set up tables at the top of the stoop — a covered, but shallow patio setback from the doors — to accommodate sixteen patrons. Churwell management had also installed railings around planters located adjacent to the stairway (Ross 2003, B2). As Whyte (1980) observed, however, following his seminal urban design field work on social configurations in public spaces, “People tend to sit where there are places to sit.” The inherent configuration of Churwell North’s in-built armature proved to be so popular with patrons that overcrowding in the patio area compelled Lipson to remove the furniture, after which the stoop doubled as an ad hoc sitting area (with ample room to let others through without trouble). Churwell’s management was not amused, threatening to evict Lipson if the stoop was not cleared of patrons. He retorted: “Why don’t you tell them to get up?” (Rowlson, 2005, 10). Management acquiesced, and Second Cup, with its Steps, moored itself to the fledgling gaybourhood. The planter railings also came down (Ross 2003, B2). By 1990, the Church Street location was Second Cup’s highest-grossing café; in 1992, its opening hours were extended to seven days, round-the-clock; and by 1994, it expanded to the adjacent suite, while sliding glass walls (to join the café’s interior to The Steps) were added for warm weather months (Radovanovic & Hanney 1995, 124; Xtra! 2005b, 13). The Steps at Second Cup served double-duty not only as a functional bridge between the public realm and private enterprise, but also as a social catalyst during a transitional moment in both queer liberation and in changing notions of public-private spacing.

Under structuration theory, counter-normative models which challenge heteronormative notions of sexual “deviance” inform in The Steps a dialectics of belonging and exclusion, despite social resistances which surrounded the gaybourhood. The Steps was on private property but facilitated public access — so long as one bought something inside one of Churwell Centre’s businesses. Harvey notes how “the café is not exactly a private space… it is a space within which a selective public is allowed for commercial and consumption purposes” (2006, 20). As a quasi-public space, the appeal of The Steps’ design, functionality, and location facilitated social interactions the way an effective city park or parkette might. The Steps was a place to gaze and be gazed (or for gay men, “to cruise” and “be cruised”). It was a place to sip coffee and to smoke. It was a steadfast landmark to help co-ordinate a rendezvous or a re-grouping of friends. It was even a base for launching public events.

The popularity of The Steps was a repudiation against remaining hidden, much as gay men and lesbian women had been before the bathhouse raids, when for many, “they could be members of the society on condition that they keep their stigmatized qualities hidden behind the wall of private life… giv[ing] members of stigmatized groups an out“ to participate as everyday citizens (Alexander 2006, 8). To be seen within this “gay space”, while still technically a private space, was a conscious political act which could subject patrons to being targeted by heteronormative acts of vigilantism. Yet The Steps was a sanctuary for some queer people who could observe how they were neither alone nor deviant. They could be aware of how their visible presence to the public realm challenged heteronormative moralities, but in a critical mass of solidarity, they could also stand in good stead with fellow queer people doing the very same. Within this space, they could (for some, once more; for others, the first time ever) become members of a society — this time, a homonormative one.

Figure 10. “People tend to sit where there are places to sit” — William H. Whyte on the social life of small urban spaces. A daytime view of The Steps during the early 1990s [Andrew Stawicki, Toronto Star].

Figure 10. “People tend to sit where there are places to sit” — William H. Whyte on the social life of small urban spaces. A daytime view of The Steps during the early 1990s [Andrew Stawicki, Toronto Star].

“Everyone knew where it was,” recalls a former regular. “It was kind of a meeting place for people before you went out to bars. It was also fun to people watch. You felt like you were kind of a spectator in the stands” (DeMara 2004, A4). Clustered groups around The Steps helped to convey a veneer of public inclusivity, emblematic of how spaces could inspire the imagination of marginalized populations: “Public space is often celebrated for its supposed inclusiveness, as the site for collective political action and as the place for unmediated encounters with others” (Nash 2003, 57). The Steps’ raison d’être became more than functional: it became a medium for cultivating social spontaneity and producing culture. Lynch affirms: “A good place is one which, in some way appropriate to the person and her culture, makes her aware of her community, her past, the web of life, and the universe of time and space in which these are contained” (1981, 142). For years, The Steps provided social stability amidst the shifting of political and economic currents. Still a private space, the optics of its quasi-public hybridity was well-placed during a broader economic transition away from “mainly-unionised employment in manufacturing to the service sector” (Murdie & Ghosh 2010, 304). It was a geographic locus where working class lesbian women and white collar gay men could co-exist without pretence. The Steps was flexible enough to adapt to these broader shifts toward privatization, paid surveillance, and neoliberal citizenships of consumption — each shift bringing Toronto toward a less conducive incubator for strictly public spacing (Wansborough & Mageean 2000, 187).

Voicing a new citizenship versus the limits of public space

The Steps delivered a venerable venue for sitting where queer Torontonians could affirm and voice themselves in ways which were out of reach only a decade earlier. As a publicly accessible site of consumption, it signified the emergence of a new political economy within the gaybourhood. Defining the gaybourhood’s bounds as “gay space” evolved from tensions between the homophobia of external actors beyond its bounds and the queer people located within. Queer activism during the 1980s and 1990s began wresting cartographies of spacing from heteronormative control as visibly gay and lesbian denizens navigated the gaybourhood more openly. Presence, mobilization, and participation at The Steps meant Second Cup was — caffeinated watering hole notwithstanding — a negotiated commons for flexing queer agency in the face of heteronormative and homophobic incursions.

Second Cup’s presence in the gaybourhood also posted notice to a heteronormative city that the corporate service sector was willing to do business with a marginalized community — that money spent by consumers at their Church Street location was revenue all the same. The Steps as an evolving social phenomenon, meanwhile, effected a political statement to a city that this was an area inside which queer Torontonians were no longer willing to hide, no matter the hour. Dennis O’Connor, later a Church Wellesley Village BIA[14] chair, recalled, “I can remember going out to the bathhouses until very early in the morning and then, as opposed to going straight home, I’d go by the Cup just to see who was there. There were always people there. It never seemed to close” (Xtra! 2005b, 13). Former Second Cup manager Daniel Poitras concurred: “Sometimes at 5am there would be 200 to 300 people out there, especially on a nice summer night” (ibid.).

In relation to the streetscape, the armature of The Steps at Second Cup was noteworthy in that no other gaybourhood node had so smartly capitalized and monetized on the visibility of people when not only gay patrons would predominate, but also when heterosexual patrons could stop for coffee and not fear the stigma of doing business in the gaybourhood. Their Second Cup cup was the same on Church Street as it was on Bay Street. Like bistros, bars, or discotheques, The Steps was a social port of call just as it was a site of consumption. Unlike these, it was a flexible space whose amorphous bounds between the public and private realms were more diffuse than sidewalk café fencing or velvet ropes. That The Steps existed on a managed private property helped its popularity in ways which, at the time, municipal public spaces could not.

Gehl argues how low-intensity contacts, at a minimum, are essential for other, more complex social interactions; sites of circulation, for instance, are mediums “for the unpredictable, the spontaneous, the unplanned” (1996, 21). This is often not possible in an un(der)used city park — especially a boringly or tediously designed park, as Jane Jacobs charged[15]. Absent participant surveillance — which can only occur once a minimum of actors are using a space and are aware of their surroundings — public parks can be treacherous should one be placed by others as visibly differing from prescriptive and normative expectations. This may be particularly so should one’s presence or articulation subvert a prescribed whiteness, masculinity, heteronormativity, and/or cisnormativity.

A history of (well-placed) mistrust between queer Torontonians and Toronto police’s morality squad (as compiled in part two) underscored why private spaces like The Steps were preferable to public parks for meeting and social clustering. Gay men, for example, had ample grounds for fearing police harassment, entrapment, and arrest when cruising for sex in public space. Lesbian women feared the threat of masculinized intimidation (i.e., threats of harassment, bodily harm, and/or sexual assault) for occupying and navigating public spaces after dark — particularly whilst walking alongside a partner. Trans people feared mortal harm for contradicting the gendered mores of a ubiquitous cisnormativity, whether it was to simply navigate that space or to produce informal means for survival income in the face of continuing institutionalization over their citizenship; moreover, if they were gay or lesbian, they could also be subjected to much of the same interference as their cis queer counterparts. The failure of public space within the gaybourhood being accessible to its own community during this period failed what Habermas describes as a principle of universal access: “The public sphere of civil society stood or fell with the principle of universal access. A public sphere from which specific groups would be eo ipso excluded was less than merely incomplete; it was not a public sphere at all” (1989, 85).

Berlant and Warner, however, disagree with this multi-layered dialectic of normativities. They contend that public space is a geography inside which activities associated with the “public” are enjoyed by heteronormative privilege, where heterosexual affection is permissible — an idea they want to see gay and lesbian people echo so that “the street becomes queer” (1998, 562). Their logic, however, becomes ponderous as they further propose that gay and lesbian people must become public spacing revanchists (i.e., retaliators of lost territory) to not only claim a “counterintimacy” presumed exclusive to heterosexual expression, but also to include erotic activity within the public sphere so to build on “self-cultivation, shared knowledge, and the exchange of inwardness” (id., 561). (Moreover, their argument overlooks where femininity after dark in public spaces, which includes heterosexual women, has a history of being regulated by the masculinization of public space.) In short, Berlant and Warner advocate for the intimacy of gay sex in public spaces without criminal repercussions, even as any sex in public spaces, including between heterosexual people, may not be legally permitted. In this sense, to (homo-)normalize a public geography in their vision is to venerate not the commons but the individual: an altruistic citizenship is waived for an egocentric citizenship, respectively. Their vision of homonormativity also flatly ignores people whose social articulations violate a ubiquitous cisnormativity and whose articulation of intimacy with anyone in public is considered threatening to cis people generally[16].

At The Steps, Second Cup’s management removed some guesswork on whom could claim its space: either customers or people perceived as potential customers. Sipping coffee without fear of heteronormative vigilantism provided a viable alternative to a totalizing suppression of one’s social articulation in public space. The Steps enabled an inclusion of social activities beyond the prescriptive rituals associated with bars and bathhouses. Thus, a “counterintimate” act could be as basic as embracing a lover on The Steps in public view. A visible presence at The Steps signified the potential for queer counterintimacies which could, by and large, mimic the public intimacies of straight people inherent to heteronormative geographies.


A complete index of references for the “Meet me at The Steps” series is included with part six.


[14] Business Improvement Area. BIAs are the third arm of a public-private partnership, establishing “new authorities for the community government and ongoing management of the surrounding street and urban square” (Ruppert 2006, 284). Ruppert adds: “While security was highlighted as a central reason for establishing a BIA, other ends such as maintaining the cleanliness and appearance of the area were also seen to require ongoing management by engaged and responsible businesses.” Ruppert uses Downtown Yonge Street BIA as a case study, which includes Yonge-Dundas Square. As privately-governed entities which report to the municipality, BIAs in Ontario have the legal power to levy and allocate annual dues from catchment businesses and the leverage to prescribe uses over public realms (adjacent to its businesses) which once were under the direct purview of the municipality (e.g., street furniture, streetlights, surveillance, etc.). The illusion of a BIA’s regulatory management over public spaces (once purely a municipal matter) is that it blurs “distinctions between private property and public space… creat[ing] a public that is narrowly prescribed” (Mitchell 1995, 120).

[15] Jacobs (1961, 103–5) harshly critiques parks which lack intricacy. She considers intricacy as one of the four essentials needed for a public space to have a positive appeal — centring, sun, and enclosure are the other three. The presence of these features are in addition to good proprietor surveillance. The Steps, despite being a private space, had all four of these essentials.

[16] Meta note: The brainchild for “Meet me at The Steps” originated in 2010 during a critical deconstruction of Berlant and Warner’s essay for Will Straw’s graduate seminar (for which this series was also drafted in 2011).

This unpublished manuscript was drafted August 2011, revised for review in June 2012, and edited for serializing in 2016. It is peer-reviewed by two scholars; two other reviewers rejected the topic posthaste. Composed originally for Will Straw’s Media and Urban Life (COMS675) graduate seminar, fall 2010, at McGill University.

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