Saturday, November 8, 2014

London's Old East Village: Stepping up to the Plate

Stepping up to the Plate in London’s Old East Village

By Bryan Lavery

It isn’t surprising that London's Old East Village (OEV) has been selected as the People's Choice for Great Neighbourhood in the 2014 Great Places in Canada contest. The contest is run annually by the Canadian Institute of Planners as a way to showcase the best of the best across the country. Winners of the contest were announced November 7th 2014, and London, Ontario’s OEV received the most votes in the Great Neighbourhood category in online voting by Canadians.

Old East Village is just a stone’s throw east of downtown London. It is bordered to the north by the CP rail yard at Central Ave, to the west by Adelaide Street, to the south by the CN rail lines at York Street, and to the east by Ashland Avenue and the CN/CP feeder lines at Kellogg’s on Dundas Street.

One of the oldest and most culturally-diverse neighbourhoods of London, OEV is known for its affordable homes and its “friendly front porch mentality,” with residents who embrace cultural diversity and not just give it lip-service. The Dundas Street corridor has a reputation for the avant-garde and as a haven for artists, artisans and musicians whose support has helped sustain important cultural venues such as the Aeolian Hall, the Palace Theatre, the Potter’s Guild and an indoor farmers’ and artisans’ market that attracts thousands of visitors on Saturdays. The area is also home to the Western Fair District.

Saying all that, I wonder how many Londoners’ are familiar with the great resource that is the OEV Hub? The mandate of the OEV Hub is to heighten awareness – and attract visitors to – the vibrant and rapidly emerging food and cultural district located in the OEV. The OEV Hub is an informative, virtual and all-in-one resource, with the purpose of promoting businesses, artists, artisans, food and culture.

“The OEV Hub considers culture to be a “lived” and living part of the local fabric here in the OEV. Culture is about the people, the art, the food, the creativity, the history and heritage of a particular location. Culture to us includes: arts, crafts, music, food, sustainability, gardens, restaurants, destination shopping and more.”

The corridor is also known for its high concentration of social agencies, second-hand shops and the St. Regis Tavern.  According to the OEV Hub, “The St. Regis Tavern is the second longest-operating hotel/tavern in London, Ontario, though the exact date “The Reeg”, in its current form, was built remains a mystery. However, the site has housed and operated as a hotel and tavern since 1883 and under the St. Regis banner since 1931. It is a verifiable neighbourhood cornerstone of the Old East Village and has long been a gathering place for the blue collar workers of the OEV. It isn’t too often that a stranger will enter “The Reeg” and not make a friend or two before leaving. Indeed, it has one of the more friendly atmospheres of all the bars in London, and no person is ever made to feel unwelcome. An interesting fact: This tight ship is owned and run solely by women, perhaps lending to its warm and welcoming atmosphere.”

The Old East Village Business Improvement Association (OEVBIA) is directed by manager Sarah Merritt. A grassroots-driven revitalization initiative, it works in partnership with the City of London and the OEVBIA. The OVEBIA has taken a “build it and they will come” stance that’s led to fa├žade restoration and cultural initiatives supported by a range of financial incentive programs that apply to development or property improvements.

Identified as a “food desert” in 2008 by a study co-authored by Dr. Jason Gilliland of Western University, the OEV has since emerged as a burgeoning food and cultural district. In follow-up analysis, it was revealed that the formation of the Western Fair Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market (WFFAM) in December 2006, has significantly elevated the selection and lowered the cost of nutritional foods available in an area that had previously been without access to retailers of healthy, affordable food. Further research, however, confirmed that the OEV was no longer a food desert and attributed the market with improving both economic and physical access to food in the area.

It is in this context that the WFFAM started operating and although the area has characteristically been considered challenging for retailers, WFFAM has had no trouble attracting market-goers. In fact, the WFFAM, draws between 3,000 and 4,000 people Saturdays, and is respected as an informal incubator for culinary innovation and new businesses which can then expand by creating store-front locations in the community and across the city.

Farmers’ markets are ideal “incubators,” Merritt says, because they offer entrepreneurs both low startup costs and opportunities to get immediate feedback from shoppers sampling products. In recent times the area has seen a renaissance of food enthusiasts, innovators, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs.

Creative independent businesses like Unique Food Attitudes and The Root Cellar Organic Cafe with its nano-brewery add another level of sophistication and culinary innovation to the OEV. The Artisan Bakery, Hungary Butcher and All ’Bout Cheese have also contributed in a significant way to that mix and helped strengthen a blend of commercial activities along Dundas Street. The WFFAM itself has an unsurpassed mix of quality culinary artisans.

In the present stage of the revitalization initiative, the OEVBIA has reinforced its partnership with the Western Fair District (WFA) to create a local economic development plan for the Old East Village. With a representative on the OEVBIA Board of Directors, the WFA has been a partner in the revitalization initiative since its inception.

 The WFA receives its non-profit organization (NPO) status because of its agricultural relationship with the surrounding five counties. However, its principal attractions are mostly unrelated to agriculture: music, dining, gaming, trade shows, sports and ice rink facilities. The main agricultural links that the WFA seem to have are the WFFAM, Wine and Food Show and the annual Western Fair. A more prominent role in stabilizing and upgrading the infrastructure and amenities at WFFAM seems reasonable given the WFA’s commitment to agriculture, and would be a much welcomed capital investment in the community and sustainability of the WFFAM.

In the current phase, the OVEBIA, the WFA, and a range of local partners are expected to continue to explore opportunities to develop educational and awareness opportunities around food production and consumption, technological exchange and learning opportunities between farmers and the community, and closer interaction between agri-food producers and users, in order to foster innovation and business expansion activities in the OEV.

In closing, Merrit has stated, “We have undertaken longitudinal research that has established that neighbourhood food production, retail and services are key economic generators in the village. Based on the research and the support that we provide to food-related and other businesses, we continue to focus development efforts on strengthening the OEV food and culture district.”

Read my latest story in eatdrink magazine about revitalization in the OEV and a list of some interesting dining options.

Read more about the OEV Hub

Streetscape Photos : OEV Hub