A year and a half ago, I bought my wedding shoes.
They were perfect then. They were perfect the day of my wedding. They now sit perfectly in my closet.
I bought them at The Imperative, a vegan boutique in Toronto. It was a dream. Vegan shoes aren’t uncommon anymore, but for high-end shoes, I’d been confined to online purchases, which aren’t ideal for shoes.
The Imperative was a godsend to me when it opened in 2016. It was a novelty to walk into a store that had every trendy item I’d long denied myself – floppy wool hats, bold fuchsia lipstick, tooth whitening kits. No checking tags or Googling materials. The cashiers came to expect me every few weeks.
Today, I don’t know if I could walk in.
The Imperative is situated in Downtown Toronto’s Parkdale. Parkdale has historically been home to large populations of people of colour, particularly South Asian and Tibetan. It has long been aligned with poverty, crime, drugs and mental illness. In the mid-70s, the Government-mandated mass release of long-term mental illness patients from the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital led to an explosion in boarding houses (mostly illegal), further stigmatizing the neighbourhood.
But Parkdale’s cheap rent and central location have led to it becoming a hipster Mecca. Trendy barbecue joints, sushi places and men’s grooming shops have attempted to nestle in, clumsily at times, next to thrift shops, dollar stores and Coffee Times. Many vulnerable residents have been displaced, and this Toronto Life piece gained widespread attention (and snark) for perfectly capturing the problem (albeit not intentionally).
Parkdale contains not only The Imperative, but also junk food joint Doomie’s, diner Mythology, ice cream joint Not Your Mother, Vegandale Brewery and bakery Copenhagen. All are vegan, all are owned by Hellenic Vincent DePaul’s The 5700 Inc., and all operate under the banner of “Vegandale.”
When I bought my wedding shoes, “Vegandale” was limited to a mural at The Imperative, which pictured a utopia in which no one ate or purchased animal products. I thought it was cute, a little cheesy (pardon me) and inconsequential. Back then, Doomie’s and The Imperative were The 5700’s only shops in the neighbourhood. It wasn’t until the company paired with vegan chef Doug McNish to open Mythology in the winter of 2017 that the term Vegandale hit the streets. Slogans such as “Bacon jokes won’t stop Vegandale” were plastered on the storefronts’ signs.
That was the first time I saw criticism against the Vegandale branding. An online commentator asked, “Can you at least not rename the neighbourhood you’re gentrifying?”
I was defensive at first, feeling compelled to speak for all vegans. I wanted to tell this person that suggesting that The 5700 alone was responsible for Parkdale’s gentrification was ludicrous. But as a white middle-class woman from a residential neighbourhood north of Greektown, I reminded myself to stay in my lane and bite my tongue. I dined at Mythology with my husband on our anniversary and we enjoyed the experience, although I felt no desire to revisit.
The Toronto vegan food scene has changed a lot since I first went vegan. When I moved to Toronto, getting novelty vegan food meant a trip to Hogtown Vegan and little else.
Now, there’s vegan food for everyone – for upscale foodies (Planta), gluten-free dieters (Kupfert and Kim), the bar crowd (Hello 123), pizza and donut lovers (Apiecalypse Now), sandwich affectionados (Bloomer’s), lazy cafe lunchers (Tori’s Bake Shop) and much more.
Perhaps DePaul was expecting longtime vegans to jump for joy when his company announced all in the same day that it would open a brewery, ice cream shop and cafe in the neighbourhood.
Personally, I shrugged. The older I get, the more new vegan joints and events just mean unnecessary socializing with a crowd I am far too uncool for. I’ll wait until it’s been open a few months, I thought to myself.
But in a matter of days, Vegandale became unavoidable. For the wrong reasons.
Vegandale Brewery began posting Instagram ads with its brand messaging: stating objectively that one cannot claim to love animals without being vegan, that veganism is the only ethical lifestyle and more.
I wasn’t entirely surprised – previous 5700 shops tended to preach to the converted rather than to non-vegans. I used to not mind this, but to my surprise, this time I cringed.
I’d already become worn out with the ever-enthusiastic McNish, whose social media presence had become aggressively promotional for Mythology, and littered with mentions of “Vegandale” every five words – statements like “It’s a beautiful day in Vegandale” and “Come on down to Mythology, we’re open until 11 here in Vegandale.”
The same insistence on “Vegandale” was also present in vegan influencers, the ones who were invited to media nights and special restaurant previews. Numerous bloggers and creators I followed began using “Vegandale” as synonymous with “Parkdale.” Never once in all of the posts about The 5700’s new ventures did I hear the “P-word.” It’s as if Parkdale were profane.
For the first time in my vegan life, I was completely on the side of the non-vegans.
Vegans catch a lot of shit – and if you’re not down with the SJWs (social justice warriors, not smooth jazz Waluigis like you might expect) you may be surprised to know that as much of that shit comes from the far left as it does from the far right. For many, veganism is seen as inherently classist (due primarily to the belief that veganism is expensive and vegan staples exploit poor labour), fat-shaming (thanks largely to the rise of influential “plant-based” bloggers who believe gluten is morally reprehensible), racist (communities of colour are often displaced by agricultural practices, and the mainstream vegan movement is often dominated by white people) and overall not intersectional.
There are defenses against all of this, and I believe these arguments can sometimes erase vegans who are poor, non-white, fat, disabled and more. But I’m also keenly aware, having been involved in social justice long before I was involved in veganism, that the movement is definitely not above reproach.
Not even close.
Ironically, it was the Doomies of the world that had held my hand into believing that I was doing my best, morally, as a vegan. While some found the aggressive messaging hard to swallow, I initially saw the value. While I loved places like Planta, I always resented that the growth of the movement had largely been driven by people and businesses that treated “vegan” like a dirty word. Just as bestselling author Angela Liddon (Oh She Glows) ditched the vegan label in 2015, Planta outlawed the V-word from its menu. While I understood the need to appeal to non-vegans (and pay your bills), I also longed for someone with power and visibility to take a stronger stance. With more and more dietary charlatans peddling green juice, I felt left out – I just didn’t want to eat animals.
Perhaps this is a case of “be careful what you wish for.” Vegandale comes with baggage, and it seems painfully unaware of that.
By the time the three new joints were announced, DePaul had already bragged to media that Vegandale was “only the beginning,” that he envisioned the block as a “Vegan Mecca.” Post-controversy, he’s backpedalled, labelling “Vegandale” has always been a simple marketing term, but in March, when asked by Toronto Life if it was just a marketing term or an actual place, he responded confidently: “It’s both.”
He said in that interview that he views veganism as a social justice movement, and hit on numerous points I agree with myself. But social justice also means accepting that issues intersect. True intersectionality may be a white whale; one can’t expect to solve every social issue at the same time. But one also probably shouldn’t preach moral superiority while being a part of the problem.
In the Toronto Life interview, DePaul also said vegans accept that they live in a “non-vegan world,” that coming into someone’s space and tell them they disapprove of their barbecue was useless. Yet he chose to hang signs in a neighbourhood – situated in a non-vegan world – calling non-vegans babies.
I’ve walked Parkdale on stormy nights, seeing mentally ill people begging not to be kicked out of coffee shops into the cold. I can only imagine how it feels to walk those streets in such a state, only to gaze upon a sign reading “Morality on tap” for a beer you can’t afford. Nor can I imagine how it feels to be a Syrian mother who’s experienced racism on the street, only to walk home and have a finger wagged at you for cooking lamb for your children. Perhaps such messaging would seem inconspicuous in more homogenous neighbourhoods like Summerhill or Leaside. But the context of Parkdale matters.
It should not have come as a surprise that Parkdale residents retaliated. A group held a community meeting on how to approach the situation; a list of demands including the halting of the Vegandale branding and the external “morally superior” messaging was produced. While The 5700 recently committed $100,000 to social justice programs in Parkdale, there’s no word on how it will bend to other demands.
For me, the damage is done.
When I spoke out against Vegandale on Twitter, I saw a lot of support – from non-vegans. From vegans, I was accused of being a traitor, and I witnessed defenses that were as tone-deaf as Vegandale itself – such as assertions that anti-gentrification advocates only came to play when it was to square off against small, independent businesses (never mind that with its morality messaging, Vegandale also insulted other area small businesses).
The mere assertion was laughable, as though no one remembers the outrage when RioCan proposed a Walmart near Kensington Market. And anyone who has been on a Jane’s Walk has likely heard tour guides bemoan the construction of Starbucks and McDonalds locations in older neighbourhoods.
I could chalk that up to bad (selective) memories, but when vegans chided Parkdale residents for “crying over a No Frills closing but boycotting independent vegan businesses,” the twisting of the situation felt like bullying.
Gentrification is complicated, but some things are straightforward. No Frills may be owned by a large corporation, but residents could at least afford to shop there. It also didn’t try to rename Parkdale “Frillsdale,” nor did it hang posters in its windows scolding people for shopping at Metro.
One anti-gentrification activist who was captured giving the finger to Vegandale Brewery was smeared on Twitter for allegedly carrying a latté (a plain white coffee cup, but sure, a latté), as if buying a single espresso-based drink means you can’t also stand up against gentrification.
It didn’t take long for me to just feel tired. Tired, disappointed and embarrassed. It wasn’t enough to say, “I don’t identify with these vegans.” I no longer feel any desire to be “part of the vegan community.”
I am still a vegan, simply because I don’t see any other way for myself. But Vegandale exposed a side of veganism that seemed painfully unaware of social issues, arrogant and downright stupid. This was beyond the 1970’s-era images of vegans throwing red paint at fur coats. This is a new era of Insta-activists, and I’m not certain I fit in.
To any vegans reading this who feel angry at me over this, you are allowed to. But I will remind you: The 5700 Inc. is not a charity. Vegan businesses are not activists. Writing off backlash against Vegandale as insufferable strawman arguments is dangerous – and annoying.
You wouldn’t accept that kind of argument from a meat-eater.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.