Renter-activist has eye on Queen West

by David Hayes, The Toronto Star, June 14, 2008

Walking the three blocks of Queen West that separates The Gladstone Hotel from The Drake Hotel, Misha Glouberman points out the bars that have opened or are at various stages of construction. “The density of bars in this neighbourhood is incredible,” he says. “People think noise and bars are just life-in-the-big-city but they’re not.”

A fixture on Toronto’s arts scene, Glouberman is a community activist, writer, master of ceremonies and teacher of improvisational techniques, which is a very formal way of describing the irrepressibly subversive Glouberman. With his rumpled suits and nimbus of curly black hair, he’s been described as “a young Zero Mostel on speed” as well as “a mop-topped mix of Peter Mansbridge’s smarts and Conan O’Brien’s wit.”

He hosts the hipster lecture series, Trampoline Hall, and runs alternative workshops and conferences. One, called Terrible Noises for Beautiful People, has been described as “mixing the community choir of small-town North America with the Dada cabarets of Zurich.

He lives with his girlfriend, artist Margaux Williamson, in an oh-so-boho pair of apartments in the neighbourhood. A man of many hats, today he’s wearing the one that signifies his position as founder and head of the Queen Beaconsfield Residents’ Association, an informal coalition of neighbours concerned about the impact of bars in the area.

“The legal situation in Toronto is unusual,” he explains, stopping at a large storefront with a green Liquor Licence Application sign in the window. It’s Nyood, a sleek nightspot owned by the team responsible for Kultura, Blowfish and Colborne Lane. “Right now it’s a very, very upscale, 130-person restaurant with a bit of a bar business,” says Glouberman. “But the owners have just applied for a 30-person rooftop patio and 240-person expansion inside.

“That’s what happens along Queen West. They emphasize they’re going to have a restaurant, then the day it opens it’s more like a bar. Even if bars do everything they can to be good neighbours, when you have 2,000 people who’ve been drinking emptying onto the streets at 2:30 in the morning there will be problems.”

A side effect of a densely-populated city where so many want to live is that it attracts bars and restaurants, which end up adjacent to residential neighbourhoods. The problem is exacerbated when the businesses want to open patios on roofs or along side streets, taking the noise of partying outside. Over the past few years there have been highly public rows over a bistro on St. Clair West, supermarket in Kensington Market and the many clubs that opened along College Street in Little Italy. Even the Richmond Street Entertainment District, which was intended to be a “club district” away from residential neighbourhoods, has come under pressure as more and more condos have been built nearby.

Glouberman lives above a newly-opened clothing store on Queen West that abuts The Beaconsfield. As a tenant, he’s an unlikely leader of what is usually a home or condo owner’s issue. When side street patios are proposed, for example, the city polls local residents using voters’ lists based on property ownership, which often miss renters. But when The Beaconsfield opened in 2005 and wanted to add a 120-person patio on Beaconsfield Ave., Glouberman created the residents’ association to negotiate with the city – specifically Ward 18 Councillor Adam Giambrone – and the restaurant’s owners.

Glouberman admits that some local residents questioned his legitimacy because he’s a renter. “Back when I was a computer consultant in the ’90s,” he says, “I put money into dot-com stocks that went way up in value and I got out before everything crashed. I was about to buy a place but then I crunched the numbers and it didn’t make sense to me. You can put your money into investments and do very well. Is it necessarily better to invest in real estate rather than an indexed stock? I like the flexibility of renting. People say they hate throwing their money at a landlord but when you own property you’re throwing it at a bank.”

Now Glouberman is more involved in neighbourhood politics than most of his property-owning neighbours. Anyone who knows him will tell you he’s all about negotiation and dispute resolution so, in a classically Gloubermanian way, a compromise was reached with The Beaconsfield.

The restaurant has a patio, but it’s smaller, and closes earlier, than planned. And owner Carlos Fernandes consulted with Glouberman on the music to make sure it wasn’t too loud.
To everyone’s surprise, says Glouberman, the music could be loud enough for the restaurant without being so loud that it penetrates his apartment. “But this all happened only because of years of working hard to open up lines of communication.”

Today, Glouberman continues to represent the local residents as bars and nightclubs sprout like mushrooms along Queen West. As you may guess, he isn’t loved by everyone. As he continues strolling along Queen, a man walks purposefully by without making eye contact. “That’s Richard Lambert, who owns The Social,” says Glouberman. “He doesn’t like me very much.”