There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace
(Canada, 75 min.)
Dir. Lulu Wei
When I first tried moving to Toronto, I enjoyed an extended temporary stay on my twin brother’s couch. He lived on Markham Street, just steps from Mirvish Village. The first time we celebrated our birthday with friends in the city, it was over dinner at the Cajun restaurant Southern Accent. (I even got the little plastic baby in cake to win an encore dinner.) We spent many nights at the Victory Café. And I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford the move if not for Honest Ed’s, the store that engulfed those eclectic meeting places and made them possible. Ed Mirvish’s sprawling department store with the gaudy signs and absurdly cheap prices was a blessing for any new Torontonian on a budget.
I’ve since moved on from Mirvish Village to a small apartment in the Yonge and Eglinton area where condominiums spread as quickly as the coronavirus does through the White House. This infection makes the neighbourhood relatively forgettable, overpriced, and (mostly) generic, if replete with all the familiar franchises and conveniences a person needs.
This little trajectory in my life map of Toronto provides a personal connection to the story in Lulu Wei’s There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, which chronicles the closure of Honest Ed’s and the transformation of the Bloor/Bathurst neighbourhood, as well as the city overall, with its departure. This story should touch every Torontonian, and perhaps every resident of a thriving metropolis who worries about how much longer they can hang on to their home. Wei’s film is a personal exploration of the pervasive force of development in Toronto, but also a snapshot of the community spirit that survives in the face of gentrification.
Wei chronicles the changing landscape of the neighbourhood from an intimate perspective. She and her girlfriend Kathleen share an apartment on Bathurst that’s literally in the middle of a development deal. Wei and Kathleen show us their apartment, which is in one of two independently owned buildings whose deed-holders stuck to their guns when David Mirvish sold Honest Ed’s to developers in 2013. As the tacky Toronto landmark comes down, the couple’s apartment stands out like a sore spot in the plans of Westbank development against the massive crater that was once the heart of Mirvish Village.
There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace could have been just another David and Goliath story. We’ve seen those documentaries before and films like Push have already articulated the devastating housing crisis in cities like Toronto when developers build, build, build with community as an afterthought. All the ingredients are in Wei’s doc—a developer from the West Coast marching into town and gutting the distinct character of a neighbourhood, displaced outsiders, and small business owners and artisans fighting to maintain the community they built across decades of work. However, Wei reflects on the role that Honest Ed’s—a big department store in the heart of an eclectic neighbourhood—played in nurturing its community.
The doc looks back on the early work of founder Ed Mirvish and his laid-back business sense that emphasised people over profits. Wei draws upon a wealth of archival footage and interviews to convey how Honest Ed’s became a Toronto institution that helped new Canadians get on their feet with affordable prices and, more significantly, employees who spoke their languages and understood their experiences. The film captures the cheesy signage, offbeat character, and experiential thrill of being lost in the maze of cheap knick knacks at Honest Ed’s. Wei shows how an inherently commercial property can be a source of community unity that adds to a neighbourhood’s distinct character.
Similarly, Wei affords Westbank an unexpectedly positive characterization. As she observes the community meetings set up by the developers and interviews the team even while she and Kathleen find themselves displaced, she learns how the company genuinely seems to want to retain the character of Mirvish Village while meeting its eye for profitability. One can debate Westbank’s authenticity, but Wei’s portrait nevertheless illustrates how the Honest Ed’s location seems to have inspired an effort to listen to the needs of the community.
While Wei keeps her portrait balanced, she nevertheless shares an affinity with Torontonians fighting to ensure that Westbank’s positive spin is not simply lip service. Her neighbour Itah Sadu, for example, holds strong to the hope that her bookstore and community gathering space A Different Booklist will stay where its roots are. Similarly, Sadu’s fight is also an effort to retain the distinct Black history of the neighbourhood as immigrants and new families came together in the Bloor/Bathurst neighbourhood with her shop being a product—and continuation—of that tradition. Artist Gabor Mezei, meanwhile, embodies the struggle that artists face in this culturally rich city. Toronto loves its festivals and arts gatherings, but seems inconvenienced by artists’ right to affordable space to live and work, as Wei sees as she follows her neighbour away from the city centre to see the costs of Toronto living.
Community advocates and intellectuals also emphasize the need for affordable rent in Toronto’s skyrocketing marketplace. This fact receives special prominence in the film, and it should. Westbank leaves a paltry slice of affordable living space among teeny tiny condos with luxury price tags, while the government provides some assistance without reflecting any awareness of the high cost of living. This corner of Bathurst and Bloor, after all, housed a Toronto landmark known for affordability and accessibility. Wei’s film poignantly captures the sense that Honest Ed’s was a piece of a bygone era, while asking the audiences of today what residents should value—and fight for—in their city.