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Toronto's War On Dancing: DJ Culture Facing Attacks From Right And Left At City Hall

Dance music fans aren't finding many allies at Toronto City Hall these days.

UPDATE: Council overturned the ban on all-ages raves at Exhibition Place, however the conflict with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario and the Parkdale bylaw prohibiting new dance floors and DJs remain ongoing issues.

On one side of the political spectrum, rightwing councillors Giorgio Mammoliti and Mark Grimes recently pushed through a ban on electronic dance music (EDM) events on the city-owned Canadian National Exhibition grounds, citing concerns about pedophiles and drug dealers at the all-ages parties.

Mayoral candidate David Soknacki summed up how ridiculous he thought the ban was with a YouTube video called "Six Degrees of David Soknaki," which features the straight-laced politician reciting Kevin Bacon's pro-dancing speech from the 1984 movie "Footloose," in which a fictional town outlawed rock music and fancy footwork.

Even Macleans magazine drew the "Footloose" analogy in a column slamming the "moralizing ban...on a genre of music and its culture." But the ban is merely the latest front in Toronto's ongoing war on dancing.

And fight is coming from both sides.

The EDM ban has been broadly condemned by progressives on city council — Mike Layton is tabling a motion later this week to overturn it — but those same lefty councillors are the ones using moratoriums, bylaws and even battles with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario to slow the scourge of dancing as new bars clubs seek to open up in their wards.

In the late 1990s, Toronto boasted one of the biggest rave scenes in North America and the Entertainment District’s clubland was world famous. But an influx of condos spiking real estate prices and NIMBY city councillors have driven out the big clubs from the downtown core and are trying to prevent smaller ones from opening up. So even as more and more young people fill these condos downtown, there are less and less places for them to get down.

Even the city's bureaucracy seems to have it in for dance music, as promoters are reporting an unofficial clampdown on unconventional venues and difficulties getting Special Occasion Permits to sell alcohol in spaces that aren't normally licensed.

In the '80s, recently-deceased house music godfather Frankie Knuckles played his first international gig at Toronto’s Twilight Zone club, and the city's rave and club culture exploded the following decade. But by the late-'90s, anti-rave hysteria nearly led to electronic music events being banned on city property, culminating in a massive party/protest at city hall called iDance.

In that era, it was the right wing of city council attacking raves while the left led the charge defending them. But as downtown condo construction boomed in the 2000s, the progressives on city council switched sides. As the Toronto Star put it in a piece on how the Entertainment District fell from 90 clubs in 2005 to only 28 by 2010, "Local politicians and community groups have waged war on clubland in recent years, replacing drinking and dancing and DJs with condo living."

The condos themselves also helped price out the clubs as land became more valuable to developers and was sold off — and not just in the entertainment district. The giant lakeshore complex of the Guvernment and Kool Haus, long considered one of the best nightclubs in the world, just announced it will be closing next January after 17 years, leaving very few options for large-scale club concerts and parties. Meanwhile Fly, the last big club in the Gay Village, also announced it will be closing after this year's World Pride celebrations, another victim of development.

"The era of the big-box nightclub has come and gone," Councillor Adam Vaughan boasted in that same 2010 interview. "You're now seeing, like on Ossington, Queen West and Parkdale, that the small boutique lounges with a more refined scene are what's carrying the day."

But that simply moved the war on dancing west, as councillors used new bans to fight the influx of bars opening in their backyards.

Journalist and DJ Denise Benson covers Toronto’s nightlife history in her Then & Now column for The Grid, which reveals that most of the legendary clubs where Toronto once danced the night away are now condos or office towers. And it's only getting worse.

"There's just not a whole lot of affordable space left downtown for new ideas and new ventures," Benson notes. "Where are those spaces going to go? Musicians need to be nurtured in their own city, otherwise they're going to keep moving away."

Without many big clubs left to host major touring DJs, those dance parties had been moving to Exhibition Place before the ban. Mayoral frontrunner Olivia Chow was on city council during the original rave ban, and was one of the leading voices fighting it at the time. Her support has not wavered.

"There should be electronic concerts on city property," Chow's spokesperson told The Huffington Post Canada. "The recent decision by the Exhibition Place board puts youth at risk by driving events underground. It also costs the city revenue."

Even Chow's opponents to the right share her concerns about the Exhibition Place ban, which was requested by the owner of the infamous, Rob Ford-frequented nightclub Muzik which also happens to be on the same property and competes with these events.

(Ford has been spotted at Muzik several times — including a recent visit when he was reportedly seen doing cocaine and arguing with Justin Bieber — and his semi-regular FordFest parties have been catered by the club.)

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"The optics of the ban are really disconcerting, considering the allegations surrounding Ford's relationship with Muzik and its owner," says Soknacki, referring to Zlatko Starkovski whose lobbying led to the ban, which was pushed through by Ford allies on the Exhibition Place board. That angle was also noted by mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson, who told us the ban is "ridiculous," and said it "would show favouritism for Muzik nightclub."

The Exhibition Place EDM ban has provoked a boycott of Muzik, a petition which has over 7300 signatures, and a campaign by Toronto music industry group 4479 to rescind the ban, which has already impacted events and could cost the city $1 million in lost revenue.

Councillor Mike Layton is on the Exhibition Place board and voted against the ban. "The safety regulations at the CNE are second to none, especially compared to the private sector," Layton says. "Some rides at the CNE play EDM. Should we shut them down too?"

Layton plans to ask Toronto city council to overrule the controversial ban at their May meeting.

But Layton is also one of the councillors railing against The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario's decision to stop enforcing the extra “conditions” the city had been placing on liquor license applications, including bans on dance floors and requiring seating for all patrons.

"We've always been working in collaboration with the city, and that is not changing," says AGCO representative Jeff Keay. "What's happening is that we've been expressing our concerns with some types of restrictions, which may have to do with the operation of the business, but do not directly relate to the administration and enforcement of the Liquor Licence Act and its regulations."

As AGCO's Tamara Brooks put it in the email that sparked the standoff, "conditions cannot attach to a liquor licence on the basis of speculation." However, councillors like Parkdale's Gord Perks have been using these conditions to ward off potential future businesses, proudly stating his intention is to prevent, say, a mom and pop snack shop from obtaining a license, and then turning around and selling their business (including the liquor license) to a dance club owner.

Layton connects the issue to the fact that bars, restaurants and taverns are all licensed as restaurants, while large nightclubs and concert venues are licensed as “entertainment facilities.” But in Toronto, the latter are next-to-impossible to open up outside the specifically zoned Entertainment District.

So would-be dance club owners are buying restaurants in other neighbourhoods and transforming them into smaller dance clubs at night. In Layton's view, that's breaking the spirit of the rules, even if they are obeying the law.

"You have places that might serve food for a little while, and then after a certain time they push all the tables out of the way and start acting more like nightclubs, and just have some chips behind the bar for sale," complains Layton.

Layton fears Toronto's nightlife scene will devolve into some kind of wild west. So council is now declaring every single new liquor license application "not in the public interest," unless the bar gets a letter of support from their MPP and each manager attends the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Safer Bars program.

As Perks told the Toronto Star, "everyone who wants a liquor licence in Toronto is going to have to go through the meat grinder. Even if you just want to sell a sandwich and a beer, you're going to be treated the same as the guy opening a nightclub for 400 people."

That kind of collective punishment is similar to what's already been going on in Parkdale the past few years. In 2010, councillor Perks attempted to block Wrongbar's application to increase their capacity to 350, as well as their temporary extended last call permits for that year's Pride celebrations.

While Perks lost those battles, it began a larger fight culminating in a surprise one-year ban in 2012 on all new restaurants and bars, inspired by a similar bar ban on Ossington in 2009. A nightlife study led to a new bylaw for the area, currently under appeal, limiting the numbers of restaurants and bars.

But it also prohibits dance floors and DJs, albeit allowing "teletheatre gambling," live bands and other entertainment uses so long as they occupy no more than 12 square meters.

"The prohibition on DJs and dance floors is intended to reduce the conflicts arising from restaurants becoming late night drinking establishments, where serving alcohol becomes the principal use," explains City of Toronto Senior Planner Dan Nicholson. Though he says alcohol, not dance culture, is the target, he does admit that “at 1:00am, bars and restaurants that turn into bars tend to cater to a younger demographic."

Denise Benson says this part of the bylaw sets a troubling precedent for the dance music community. "It's not just about how difficult it is to get a liquor license, but also the issue of where dance floors are allowed to be built, which hasn't been examined very closely by the media. I think the city really needs to revisit that, and take another look at it."

Gord Perks refused to comment on why DJs and dance floors were singled out for prohibition despite multiple requests, but he did say, "There is no 'ban!' Existing places keep what they have, new places cannot do it automatically, but instead have to get a variance through the Committee of Adjustment.”

Perks also declined to discuss how often such variances are approved, but when landmark Queen West dance spot The Social did try and get their zoning changed from restaurant to entertainment facility in 2011, they were denied and subsequently closed down.

"Our goal of having neighbourhoods where residents can walk to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker is undermined by the westward creep of Toronto's night life,” Perks told the Toronto Star earlier this month.

Perks' bylaw may be Parkdale-specific, but since the liquidation of the Entertainment District there have already been prohibitions on new establishments offering DJs and dance floors on Ossington and West Queen West in recent years. Other councillors are also said to be eyeing the Parkdale bylaw as a "pilot project" for their own wards.

The EDM ban could still be overturned, and Perks' bylaw is under appeal, but no matter how successful city council's current or future attempts to limit downtown nightlife are, one thing that won't change is the need for Toronto's young people to have places where they can cut loose.

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