A documentary like "There's No Place Like This Place, Anyplace" happens once in a life
Documentary on the closure, redevelopment and lasting impact of the Honest Ed’s properties in Toronto. Directed by Lulu Wei. Streaming May 28 to June 10 at hotdocs.ca. 75 minutes. STC
(3 stars out of 4)
“A bargain centre like this happens once in a lifetime — sometimes never!!!” reads one of the many exclamatory signs outside Honest Ed’s, the discount emporium and Toronto landmark that closed in 2016 after dominating the corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets for 68 years.
It was typical good-natured braggadocio by entrepreneur Ed Mirvish, who loved to poke fun at himself as he served up ultra-low-priced clothing, home goods, groceries and knick-knacks to customers he lovingly embraced as “the most loyal people in the whole world.”
That love was returned in kind, not just by Torontonians new and old, but also by visitors to the city, who just had to check out Ed’s “Wacky Wirld,” as the retailer playfully called it himself. It was a place where Mirvish, a born showman who died in 2007, would give away frozen turkeys at Christmas while sporting a red clown’s nose and spouting self-deprecating groaners like “Honest Ed’s repulsive, but his prices are appealing!”
Honest Ed’s is now but a memory. Its former site and surrounding city block are currently being noisily transformed into hundreds of rental units by the new owner, Vancouver property developer Westbank Corp.
But deep affection for the store remains, as does serious concern for the future of the Bloor/Bathurst neighbourhood, which has long been a mecca for many immigrants to Toronto.
This comes poignantly through in “There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace,” a documentary by Toronto director/cinematographer Lulu Wei that is titled for another of the hyperbolic signs outside Honest Ed’s.
For much of the past four years, Wei has chronicled the closure, demolition and redevelopment of Honest Ed’s and its adjacent Mirvish Village on Markham St., a row of Victorian-era houses that Mirvish originally intended as a parking lot but benevolently made a low-rent artist’s colony instead.
Wei and her partner, Kathleen, had a front-row view of the teardown, since they lived in an apartment atop a pet services store right behind Honest Ed’s.
They were among the last people to leave the site. Wei used the time to interview others affected by the closure. They include artist Gabor Mezei, an immigrant from Hungary who since 1976 had operated Gallery Gabor, a place to sell art and also to create it, among them his own vivid watercolour paintings of Mirvish Village street life.
Other well-known shops and restaurants that called Mirvish Village home included Suspect Video, a place where hard-to-find videotapes could be sourced, The Beguiling comic book shop and Southern Accent restaurant.
Over on Bathurst St., Itah Sadu of A Different Booklist bookstore and cultural centre talks about how important the neighbourhood is to Black immigrants to Toronto, especially from the Caribbean. “We are a gift to the world,” she says of the area’s artistic community, one deserving of more than just an eviction notice.
Even the people tearing Honest Ed’s down feel sad. A worker named Brandon, watching on the ground as co-workers above him tear down one of the store’s familiar red-and-gold signs, talks about how his immigrant parents from Portugal made a visit to Ed’s a regular event during their early days in Toronto.
“Now I’m taking down my dad’s memories, too, so it sucks,” he says.
Laments for these lost places and their dislocated inhabitants are captured by Wei along with sweeping drone shots that, when combined with composer Laura Barrett’s piano-rich score, gives the film an elegiac tone. It’s not a feel-good memory piece about Ed Mirvish, who is seen only briefly in archival footage.
Wei doesn’t stint on the hard journalism about what the transformation of Honest Ed’s means to Torontonians, both the neighbourhood locals and the city at large.
She packs many interviews — maybe a couple too many — with developers, politicians, activists and other interested parties into her 75-minute running time.
Family scion David Mirvish proudly explains how his dad’s store was a “port of entry” for many new Canadians, where they flocked to purchase low-cost winter clothing and homewares soon after arriving in this country. A changing retail climate, where discount stores are now a dime a dozen — or perhaps a Dollarama a dozen — made Honest Ed’s redundant.
Jonah Letovsky, a development manager for Westbank, talks reassuringly about “how special (Honest Ed’s) is to Toronto” and how his firm is deeply involved in a “community engagement process” — even though Westbank’s original proposal was to make just 85 of its 800 planned new apartments available at so-called “affordable” rents.
That has since been upped to 366 units, thanks to intervention by and funding from governments, including a $200-million grant from Ottawa announced this past January.
It sounds like a victory of sorts, but as concerned University of Toronto professor Deborah Cowen sees it, “this might actually do much more damage than good,” because the definition of “affordable” is calculated on a median annual Toronto salary of $80,000. This would result in monthly rents of $2,000, making the Westbank apartments, scheduled (pre-pandemic) for occupancy in the summer of 2022, anything but affordable for many low-income people.
“That $200 million is really going pretty directly into the pocket of developers,” Cowen ruefully observes.
So the struggle continues, but there’s also a little strange beauty in the ravaging and transforming of the Honest Ed’s site.
Artist Mezei looks up at the giant machines tearing buildings down, as he prepares his final departure from Gallery Gabor, and observes how much they look like rampaging dinosaurs from the movies. He wonders what Ed Mirvish would have made of the scene.
“This is the biggest show that Honest Ed is missing. Maybe he can see it from above!”
(This review was originally published in the Toronto Star on May 26, 2020.)