And so another rock has been thrown though another window (actually the door, this time) of the lovely and important Elm Cafe at the corner of Charles St and Montreal St, north of McBurney Park and east of the fruit belt. What is that, three now?
I want to situate the place for you because most of the city’s population likely wouldn’t know which way to go if I told them that this was the best place in Kingston now (along with The Juniper) to go for your coffee and sandwiches, and cookies and desserts, and atmosphere, and even decor (have you seen that lemon-yellow beast of a coffee machine?).
The Elm has been open less than a year, and it’s become already something of an institution for those of us who live in the neighbourhood. This part of town has long needed an anchor like this, a place to hang out, and a place lovely enough in its aspirations and its achievements that the whole area ends up elevated slightly, beautified and enriched by its existence.
I’m grateful, I really am, to Logan and Matt, the owners, for believing in these still-humble streets, and in the people who live here. They believe in the area and in what they’re doing. And that’s true even after this latest stupid bit of vandalism. On Facebook this afternoon there was already talk of a community fund-raising effort to save them the insurance deductible. There is a common understanding that they’re not getting rich with this business and need our help right now, just as these city blocks need them to keep doing exactlv what they’re doing in order for us to evolve, to become once again the sort of sociable and caring neighbourhood that relied in years gone by on the Olympia Diner and the No Frills grocery store, its million rats and all.
But clearly not everyone agrees. Someone suggested today that it has to do with that corner in particular, and pointed out that the old laundromat had bars on the windows. But I don’t think that's it. I did wonder briefly whether it was the glass itself, the great big inviting panes of it, like catnip I reckon to a kid with a rock in his pocket. But its not that simple either. The Rexall drug store down the street has bigger windows and a much surlier presence, to my mind. I rememberer being pissed when it opened, with its windows largely covered up, as if its operators wanted our money but didn’t trust us not to dive in head-first if we could actually see the shelves all loaded up with Tylenol and Ex-Lax. The message seemed to be that they just didn’t like us, or trust us very much. I’ve never set foot in the place for that reason. But The Elm isn’t like that. Its approach to the world is one of inclusiveness, of humility and generosity. It’s what we need right now, I’m convinced of it.
But what is undeniable is that there are those who seem to resent the cafe’s presence, or to feel threatened by it. And that has to do, I think, with change, with all the gentrification that has taken place in this part of town over the last decade. Houses around here, a lot of them, have doubled in value. Contractors and renovators are lined up around the block. Volvos are appearing in driveways (guilty!) rather than old bikes just getting leaned against the wall. And rents are going up. Lots of good people who have lived here for an awful long time are feeling pressured to move further north because it’s more affordable. They see The Elm as a threat to their lives close to the downtown core. They don’t give a shit about espresso. They care about the fact that if they move, they’ll be an expensive bus ride rather than a walk from the shops and their jobs. Because that’s what gentrification is all about, right? One population is displaced as another moves in.
I like to say that I live here on Charles St precisely because of the diverse population. And it really is true. I love my neighbours. But what’s also true and undeniable is that I’m here because the living is relatively easy. I’ve got it good. But another part of the population isn’t feeling that love these days. And I understand completely why that’s true.
When there was talk last year that the new high school might get built out behind the beer store down near the end of Bagot St letters flew in, nearly on fire, from people suggesting that they might as well build the school on Mars. The fear and loathing for this whole area was writ large in those nasty little diatribes. Rarely have I been so aware that the old north-south divide was still going strong in Kingston. I was embarrassed and I was angry. And maybe what we’re seeing now, in this shattered pane of glass and duct tape, is another facet of all the old shit that divides us. It aint pretty, and it’s a crying shame. So when The Elm gets a new window (and I’ll be helping with that, when the crowdfunding effort gets going) I’ll be pleased as punch. But it doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect around the inner harbour, or that everyone’s happy.