Look out, Annex, Corso Italia is hot on your heels
The St. Clair strip girds itself for the oncoming streetcar right-of-way construction with banners and rebranding, Deirdre Kelly reports
June 16, 2007
Saluti, Corso Italia!
In case that phrase is entirely foreign to you, it translates as "hello" or, in this case, "welcome back" to a six-block strip of St. Clair Avenue West that for decades has been associated with Toronto's sizable Italian immigrant community.
The area was a retail hub in the 1960s and 1970s when many Torontonians, regardless of ethnicity, used to flock there for the rare selection of imported Italian goods - everything from fine leather shoes and exquisite hand-embroidered clothes for children, to handmade wedding dresses and the tastiest gelato this side of Florence.
But the Corso, as a shopping destination, has taken a couple of hits. It fell on hard times when high-end took a beating and big-box stores took off. And it got a little sleepy with the Italian exodus to Woodbridge, Maple and Concord.
You can't keep a good shopping strip down. Spurred in part by the advancing armies of Toronto Transit Commission workers who, come September, will re-commence construction of the streetcar right-of-way on the Westmount-to-Caledonia portion of St. Clair, members of the neighbourhood's Business Improvement Area have undertaken a costly renovation project that they hope will restore Corso Italia's reputation as a premiere shopping destination.
"We want all of Toronto to know we are here," says Connie Lamanna, chair of the Corso Italia BIA and proprietor of her own 48-year-old family business, Ontario Fashion Textiles, one of 250 stores on the strip.
"Everything is represented, from fashion to food to flowers to football. There's even a cemetery at the end of the block. If I wanted, I could live and die here and go nowhere else in between."
Several storefronts are undergoing facelifts to transform their faÃ§ades and, in some cases, enlarge their windows to better showcase their wares. There will also be new plantings, including trees, the addition of new street furniture, refurbished light fixtures, a fluttering of colourful banners proudly displaying a new slogan - "Coloro che Sanno/Those in the Know" - that is part of a campaign to rebrand the Corso.
The TTC has teamed up with the BIA, which was initially resistant to the right-of-way expansion. For instance, the transit commission will absorb the cost of street tear-ups that might otherwise have compromised the modest $100,000 budget the BIA has cobbled together from local businesses to upgrade the Corso. In large part, it's a goodwill gesture that TTC project manager Scott Duggan hopes will offset the inconvenience during construction.
"We're not going to say it's not going to be disruptive. It is going to be disruptive. Parking will be non-existent during construction and this has some of the local businesses concerned," Mr. Duggan says.
While he hopes construction will be completed by year's end, it will encroach on the busy Christmas shopping season. This could pose a problem, given that Corso Italia is home to two Catholic churches, four banks that annually string up lights and a new Milanese-style cafÃ©, Novecento, that in just two years already has the distinction of being the presenter of the neighbourhood's best nativity scene.
But for those with patience, the disruptions will be worth it. "There will be an enhanced and more efficient transit system that will obviously facilitate bringing people in and out of the area and there will be other elements - flowers, trees, benches - that will improve the look of the area," Mr. Duggan says.
The cost of storefront renovations, roughly $100,000 each, is being footed by the owners themselves, most of whom are also the proprietors of the family businesses housed within. Among them is Lino Colangelo, who owns Ital Records, full of pennants, football scarves and Viva Italia souvenirs; the store has been on the same block for the past 45 years. He recently completed a renovation that he says has already boosted sales.
"I extended the faÃ§ade into the street, replaced the old worn brick with stucco, introduced a bright blue canopy and a vivid green letter signage that has given my business more of a street presence," he says, standing alongside black velvet and gold Viva Italia sports jackets and copies of the imported Italian paper La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"I spent between $90,000 and $100,000. I needed to do it. The building was looking old," Mr. Colangelo says. "But the renovation program pushed me along. It helped me to know that I wasn't going to be alone, that everyone is upgrading."
"The Corso is becoming the new Annex. It is where the young professionals are now going," says Jimmy Molloy, an agent with Chestnut Park Real Estate. "After the street upgrades are finished, look out, the area will probably go through the roof."
Lars Hansen, principal of C2E Consulting, the firm hired by the BIA to help rebrand the Corso, designed the new logo of an ancient Roman portico that, by this time next year, is expected to adorn the stationery and shopping bags of businesses along the strip. He says the renovations are not the main reason why the BIA is expending so much effort to give the Corso its groove back.
"They are looking past the [right-of-way] project and into the future," Mr. Hansen says. "They've got a hidden gem here. But it has value only if other people are talking about it."
The 1982 World Cup was a turning point for Corso Italia. Hundreds of thousands of people squeezed onto St. Clair between Caledonia and Oakwood when the Azzurri beat West Germany 3-1.
A spontaneous outburst of Italian national pride saw the crowds strolling up one side of the strip and then back down the other, eating gelato from La Paloma, waving the Tricolore, greeting neighbours with a heartfelt buona sera.
Since then, festivals have become a regular summer event in the neighbourhood. The 10th anniversary of the Corso Italia street festival unfolds July 6, 7 and 8 with live music, free soccer demos and presentations of regional Italian food.Toronto will also be hosting some of the Canada FIFA U-20 World Cup matches that weekend, meaning lots of footie partying on the strip.