Riverside BIA 40 Years, 40 Stories: The Opera House – Where Were You?

As part of the Riverside BIA: 40 Years, 40 Stories series, we’re putting a spotlight on The Opera House, a long-standing establishment for the performing arts and a cultural landmark of Toronto. We dive into the history and origins of the historic building at 735 Queen Street East, and how this family-owned and run establishment has reinvented itself over the years and persevered as a thriving spot to converge today.

Thanks to Athena Ellinas-Towers and her family for sharing their memories and updates for this article, and to local writer Aarti Sharma for her research and writing for this article.

Ask Toronto’s music lovers to list their (pre-COVID) top hang out places for live concerts in downtown and The Opera House in Riverside is one name that would be at the top for younger and older generations alike.

For more than 30 years, popular and as well as upcoming artists, have been creating vivid memories for their fans on the historic stage of The Opera House: Metallica, Nirvana, Robbie Williams, The Killers, Eminem, The Foo Fighters and Metric are just a few of the hundreds of acts who have elated fans.

While concerts have been king at The Opera House since its opening in 1989, the venue’s 950-person capacity has also hosted a diversity of celebrations and occasions including marriages, charity fundraisers, and film shoots. 

And the well-kept and fairly unassuming red-brick exterior does not give much away about the happenings that have transpired within its walls over the past century so we’re taking you on a trip through time of re-discovery. What we know as The Opera House today has seen many identities under the fostering of its different owners over the past 112 years since its inception….

The birth of La Plaza Theatre:  Take a leap into the Toronto of the early 1900s, when the sound of trotting horses and carriages were still common on Toronto’s streets; and hats and flat caps were typical accessories for many. This was also the time when theatrical settings were budding places for amusement. 

At this time, what was gaining traction was Vaudeville – a live entertainment form that featured singing, dancing, magic shows, comedy and much more. On the heels of this trend, in 1909, the La Plaza Theatre designed by architect Charles Wagner, opened at 735 Queen E as an Edwardian vaudeville stage. For many years, La Plaza reverberated with the cheers of its audience, who were primarily the workers of the industries in the vicinity.

La Plaza Theatre in October, 1963

La Plaza Theatre in October, 1946 – Photo source: Archives of Ontario

1920 City of Toronto Directory

1920 City of Toronto Directory – see 735 Queen Street East – La Plaza Theatre

Interior of La Plaza Theatre

La Plaza Theatre -view of screen from balcony, Toronto , Photo credit: Archives of Ontario

Theatre to Cinema: With galloping technological advancements, when automobile sounds were replacing the trotting sound of horses, the applause of the La Plaza started gravitating toward proliferating cinema theatres, as was so from the 1930s to the 1960s. Acculturating with the drift, the venue converted into a single screen cinema hall. Over the years, owing to the soaring multiplex market, this single-screen setting went back to being the stage for performing arts. With the course of time, the building was passed in the hands of different proprietors and had various names on its façade including Acropolis, the Dundas, Cinema Ellas, and the Off-Broadway Theatre in the 1980s. 

La Plaza Theatre - 1963 -Toronto Archives

La Plaza Theatre – 1963 -Toronto Archives

La Plaza Theatre Auditorium and Balcony (October 27, 1947)

La Plaza Theatre Auditorium and Balcony (October 27, 1947) – Photo Credit: The Archives of Ontario

The Original 1900s projector inside The Opera House from when the building was a one-screen movie theatre

The original 1900s projector inside The Opera House from when the building was a movie theatre (Photo: Riverside BIA, 2019)

The Dawn of The Opera House and a Leap of Faith:

Athena Ellinas-Towers – a member of this family-run business and a Riverside BIA Board member for over 20 years – shared that her brother Gus found the 735 Queen Street East building in 1989 when they were already running the family’s restaurant on The Danforth.

Recollecting the day when her brother took her to see the old theatre at 735 Queen E for the first time, Athena spoke about how she looked at the exterior of the building and exclaimed how gorgeous it was. However, her brother promptly said that she was looking at the Ralph Thornton Community Centre (765 Queen East about a block east) and not the place that they were buying. Soon her excitement was tempered when she saw that her brother had set his eyes on a very old, run-down theatre that had not been renovated in decades. Additionally, back then, this part of the town did not seem as lively and inviting….

However, her belief in her visionary brother’s business acumen and the fact that she did not feel challenged anymore in their existing restaurant business, led them to forge ahead.

All in the Family

Athena, one of the three children of the family, became the new businesses general manager of facilities, along with her eldest brother Gus and younger brother Chris Ellinas, with equal responsibilities and all hands-on with the business.

Mom, Helen, contributed throughout the years in any capacity she was able to, as well as Dad, Adam Ellinas, who passed three years ago, was always contributing in his own way. Collectively, the whole family contributes equally to the success  of The Opera House. 

What inspired the name ‘The Opera House’?

Athena gave ‘The Opera House’ its name. The 1900s vaudeville theatre architecture of the building and the fact that it was formerly a Vaudeville theater inspired that name. The venue has a lot of character which needed to be recognized. The 12,000 square feet grand premise embodies a multi-level auditorium with tiered balcony hanging over a tiered stall (and a licensed bar in the balcony was later added!)

Fun Fact:  Riverside Toronto’s The Opera House hosts everything but the opera; except for just one weekend in the past 30+ years, when an incredible opera event was hosted: it was a Live Opera event called “AtG’s Messiah” staged by Against the Grain Theatre on December 14 & 15, 2013.  What is amusing here? Well, the spectators watched the opera while having poutine and beer.  Without a doubt, the appealingly bizarre combination resulted in a sold-out event.

Fun Fact again:  When the Canadian Opera Company opened, the Opera House received calls from all over the world asking for a line-up.

Pursuits of entertainment in The Opera House:

The kickoff as a Dance Club and Adaption to a Concert Venue: The Opera House embarked on its original journey as a dance club in 1989. However, it hit a roadblock within a period of six months. The frequent patrons, chiefly younger demographics, waltzed their way to the other trending and newer venues.  This left Athena and her brothers weighing out options that could best use this spacious setting.

Glam rock was very popular in those days and many bands were interested in performing on the huge stage at The Opera house. There were not many concert venues back then, so it made sense to re-launch as a concert hall. This fitting transition in these favorable conditions, kept The Opera House busy all the time.

The Opera House concert venue

The Opera House -the busy concert venue we all know and love (Photo Credit: The Opera House)

Lots of grunge bands, and touring bands from Europe, Asia, Africa, US and many other places chose the venue to delight their fans.

The Ellinas family, who originally immigrated from Cyprus to Canada during the Turkish invasion in 1974, have always been very welcoming or diversity. This holds true for the versatile genres of music they’ve hosted including Metal, punk, Indie pop, Folk and hip-hop – to name just a few. 

Realizing the augmenting demand for large spaces with staffing, alcohol and security, the Ellinas family, with their astute business acuity, broadened the horizons for The Opera House by offering its stage for varying needs.  So while the spring and fall seasons, kept The Opera House pulsating with live concerts, the winters brought in fundraisers and charity events. Live theatre, product launches and traditional marriages also felt a warm welcome here. Over years, The Opera House also became the location for the film industry and flaunted its 1900s personality in several music videos and film scenes. 

The Opera House-30 years tshirt-Riverside, Toronto

The Opera House came out with a special tshirt to commemorate 30 years showing a list of many performers and acts (Photo Credit: The Opera house)

Over years, the Opera House also became a go-to location for the film industry both for scenes and space – it’s been featured in music videos (e.g. in this well known music video of Brian Wilson by Barenaked Ladies), TV and film scenes (e..g. guest appearance in film Loser).

A Scrumptious Addition to the Family – Opera House Grill & Patio at 737 Queen E:

Dwelling in a small but mighty space on the eastern façade of the Opera House, adjoining the building’s main entrance, is The Opera House Grill, opened in 2015 to serve concertgoers as well as pedestrians.

This pet-friendly Greek food joint operated by the Ellinas family is the residence of the massive ‘Shaggy Burger’ –ranked among Toronto’s top 25 burgers by Toronto Life, and features their famous Greek fries.  

The Opera House Grill

The Opera House Grill, spacious side patio

The secret behind the Unfailing Footfall in The Opera House:

Be it artists or concertgoers, all are enchanted by the look and the architecture of this establishment. The venue has bewitched many artists, especially European ones. Several bands call The Opera House their home and choose it as their destination when they are in Toronto. 

Alongside these strong emotional strings that pull artists to The Opera House, several commercial aspects also make this place compelling. When it comes to producing events, The Opera House is a trusted establishment, having collaborated with global leading promoters, coupled with their long-time experience in the hospitality industry has hard-wired the owners to know how to make their customers happy. 

What Happened during the COVID-19 Pandemic:

While the pandemic had hushed The Opera House through a long moratorium on live concerts and large-scale events, the sight of this formerly spirited and bustling entertainment abode sitting in the dark, made the owners look beyond what they had come to know as their norm. The Opera House collaborated with PRG, a world leading entertainment and event producing company, and Lemmon Entertainment, an entertainment consulting and brand development firm, to launch The HUB in Toronto – a content broadcast studio. Armed with Lemmon Entertainment’s experience in consulting and producing large-scale events, and PRG’s state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment, the venue of The Opera House was re-imagined as a broadcast studio.

During the COVID-19 Pandemic The Opera House has operated as The Hub in Toronto

During the COVID-19 Pandemic The Opera House has operated as The Hub in Toronto

Working for both not-for-profit and sponsorship, THE HUB is geared to strategize, create, record and broadcast innovative content for diverse ideas and needs. Any event or occasion can be broadcasted live or can be recorded for broadcasting in future.

“The client just has to bring the idea to us and we would execute their vision,” says Athena. Product launches, weddings, branding, concerts, comedy shows and supporting important social causes (such as through The Lost Tapes of the 27 Club) are just a few to name. The HUB will remain until August 2021 with full resumption of live music events beginning September 2021, depending on government guidelines and restrictions.

The Opera House Grill curblane patio- May 2021

The Opera House Grill – May 2021 – curb lane patio as part of CafeTO

In the meantime, while The Grill had been closed for much of the pandemic, the family reopened it to much fanfare for the 2021 patio season – now boasting an outdoor side patio as well as a CafeTO curb lane patio – The Grill is once again a popular spot to watch sports games and check out their popular Trivia Tuesdays ‘Live from Outside of The Opera House’ with plans on adding Comedy Wednesdays, Drag Show Thursdays and Live Paint Nights on weekends – for all types of live entertainment outside until we can back inside.

Athena Ellinas-Towers at the Opera House - The Hub in Toronto

Athena Ellinas-Towers – The Opera House continues to be a family run operation and they’ve grown alongside the Riverside community. Athena has been a member of the Riverside BIA Board of Directors, contributing to the betterment of the neighbourhood she’s been living and working in for more than 30 years. (Photo credit: Karen Lloyd)

Involvement with the BIA

Athena joined the Riverside BIA Board (then called Queen-Broadview Village BIA) around 2000 because she loved then long-time Board member and local business owner Albert Edelstein and his wife Ruth. Also she knew James from the former infamous Dangerous Dan’s Diner who was on the Board at the time, and Steve who was on the Board and who’s family owned 725 Queen E which housed The Blue Moon Bar (that became Boots & Bourbon, and subsequently other venues over the years).

“We just wanted to make the neighbourhood better and activate the Board”, says Athena. She volunteered to the Treasurer at the time. “One of the family members of the former Pari Discount (now Riverside Market) was on the Board, and gave me a shoe box with paperwork to sort and handle” says Athena, “There was no BIA staff at the time, so Board members did it themselves”.

The Future of The Opera House…

Well, certainly this now 112 year-old building has many fresh ideas yet to offer. Without a doubt, this structure stands strong not only from the vigor that it has derived from the electric performances of thousands of performers over the years, but also largely from the zeal and resourcefulness of its owners who are leaving no stone unturned to keep its legend alive.

Check out The Opera House’s website and Instagram page for the latest updates. 

40 years 40 stories graphic



Riverside BIA 40 Years, 40 Stories: Name Change of Queen Broadview Village BIA to Riverside BIA

As part of the ‘Riverside BIA: 40 Years, 40 Stories’ series, we’re sharing the story of the re-naming of the Queen Broadview Village BIA to Riverside BIA. Our thanks go to local historian, author and former BIA Chair Ron Fletcher for sharing anecdotes from the time of the renaming and contributions from local writer Aarti Sharma.  

It was with great pride when our BIA, named Queen Broadview Village Business Improvement Area since its formation in 1980, proclaimed in its summer 2004 newsletter (yes, printed and hand-delivered!):

“In March of this year, the BIA Board of management received responses to the name change questionnaire supporting the change to Riverside from Queen Broadview Village in a two to one majority.” 

This announcement marked both the end and the beginning of a process to revitalize the area.

A hydro pole banner from the 1980s from the Queen Broadview Village BIA (renamed to Riverside BIA in 2004)

A hydro pole banner from the 1980s from the Queen Broadview Village BIA (renamed to Riverside BIA in 2004)

What’s In a Name?

As local historian, author and former BIA Chair Ron Fletcher shared:

“When Stan Jones and I acquired a storefront on Queen Street East in the 1990s, the heritage buildings in the area with their rich red brick patina were very appealing. At the time it was the ‘Queen Broadview Village BIA’ and was one of the very few original business areas in the city that still had an ensemble of old buildings, some by notable architects. Several still had the old tin ceilings.”

“Until 1884, the area was known as Riverside, an unincorporated village with marching bands, sports teams, etc that made it a small but vital community. In that year (1884), a vote was held: should they incorporate, as the village of Parkdale had, or join the city? Toronto promised to build wooden sidewalks to end the muddy street and put in sewers. The City won the day.”

“In our newbie enthusiasm, Stan and I thought the historic name of Riverside might add a fresh appeal – what’s old could be new again. We proposed the idea to the Queen Broadview Village’s Board of Directors, and to our surprise, not only was the idea accepted, but we were elected to the board.”

So, alongside the announcement of the welcoming of the filming of “Cinderella Man” (a historic happening to say the least!), the news of the name change topped the BIA’s newsletter in summer 2004, along with upcoming work by a marketing firm (UP Inc) to help parlay that change into new branding and street presence.


The announcement in the Queen Broadview Village Newsletter (Summer 2004) of their official name change to Riverside BIA

The announcement in the Queen Broadview Village Newsletter (Summer 2004) of their official name change to Riverside BIA


With the Re-Naming Came a Re-Branding!

The work of renaming was followed by the work of rebranding to bring “an appeal of a compelling destination— an area worth visiting, spending time in and worthy of revisiting”, according to discussions of the Board of management at the time.

With these goals in mind, the BIA set out, with the support of a ‘City of Toronto’s Commercial Research Grant’ to contract a professional marketing firm called UP Inc, to develop and launch a marketing and advertising campaign.

Taking the Board through an exercise for re-branding, the UP Inc team interviewed members and came up with image associations to ‘Riverside’ which conveyed the history but also the meaning of the area, as the area runs along the Don River as well as as a part of South Riverdale, a then already well-known area incorporating the historic Riverside and Leslieville communities. The word ‘District’ was adjoined to ‘Riverside’ as ‘District’ has a historic connotation and it also conveyed a destination (like the nearby popular Distillery District).

Early Riverside District BIA branding was born:

An early rendering of the area’s new name and brand to Riverside District Business Improvement Area in 2004

An early rendering of the area’s new name and brand to Riverside District Business Improvement Area in 2004

Since that time the Riverside BIA brand and look on the street and online has certainly evolved with the times (to become and award-winning!…but that’s another story 😉

The Riverside BIA brand today (since 2018) seen on the street with vibrant blues, purples and pinks on hydro pole wraps along Queen Street East, Toronto

The Riverside BIA brand today (since 2018) seen on the street with vibrant blues, purples and pinks on hydro pole wraps along Queen Street East, Toronto

40 years 40 stories graphic

The ‘Riverside BIA 40 Years, 40 Stories’ Series is part of how we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of this incredible neighbourhood of community-builders.



Riverside 40 Years, 40 Stories: Baird MacGregor Insurance Brokers LP

As part of the ‘Riverside BIA: 40 Years, 40 Stories’ series, we’re putting a spotlight on a long-time Riverside BIA member and community pillar Baird MacGregor Insurance Brokers LP. Behind their impressive facade there is a bustling team and lots of personality and community-oriented action taking place and we’re pleased to help share their story.

President and CEO of Baird MacGregor Philomena Comerford with her son Dylan Luft, a Baird MacGregor Broker and Senior Account Executive (photo credit- Fuze Reps, Arash Moellemi)

President and CEO of Baird MacGregor Philomena Comerford with her son Dylan Luft, a Baird MacGregor Broker and Senior Account Executive (photo credit- Fuze Reps, Arash Moellemi)

Originally formed in 1979, Baird MacGregor Insurance Brokers LP eventually relocated from downtown Toronto and purchased their Riverside building at 825 Queen Street East in 1988. The company has over 40 years of history supporting individuals and the community. At the helm of the company is President and CEO Philomena Comerford, a woman with an outstanding career and a proven leader who is equally compassionate about her employees as she is about her clients. 

Like the eclectic Riverside community itself, Baird MacGregor has grown to include some unique features. For example, the second floor of the firm’s office – the 100 year-old building at 825 Queen Street East – includes a 1950s-themed diner complete with leather booths, a jukebox and lunch counter. The diner serves as employee lunchroom and venue. Furthermore, the brokerage is 85 members strong, with many long-time employees who now have the opportunity to have their children work alongside them. In fact, an example of this familial workplace relationship is Philomena Comerford herself and her son Dylan Luft.

Philomena shared more about the firm’s long- time ties to Riverside and what the company stands for.

baird macgregor riverside

Baird MacGregor President & CEO Philomena Comerford (centre) with local Councillor Paula Fletcher and Riverside BIA Chair Mitch Korman at their facade improvement project ribbon-cutting on October 19, 2017

At the 2017 Ribbon-cutting for Baird MacGregor's new Facade unveiling, Riverside BIA, Toronto

The Baird MacGregor Team and guests at the 2017 Ribbon-cutting for Baird MacGregor’s new facade unveiling, Riverside BIA, Toronto

 (Q &A) with Riverside BIA and Philomena Comerford:

Tell us what you’d like the neighborhood to know about your company. 

Baird MacGregors Insurance Brokers LP are not the traditional insurance broker. The firm has a long track record of success through caring for its clients, strong family ties and taking the time to have fun. Employees at Baird MacGregor have to be people persons. This is furthermore exemplified in Baird MacGregor’s long tradition of giving, whether it is to clothing drives, Interval House or the Fred Victor Centre, or the Riverside BIA’s annual holiday cheer event Light Up Riverside. It’s all about giving back, a virtue that Baird MacGregor values very deeply. 


You’ve been in this neighborhood for nearly 30 years – what’s made your firm stay here in Riverside?

As an east-ender myself, much like many of the associates at the firm, Riverside has always felt like home and from the start it suited the firm’s ‘outside of the box’ character. Originally, Riverside was a rougher neighbourhood but we saw its potential as a place that was changing for the better and we were right. Today, Riverside is a vibrant, colorful and artistic neighborhood that has an eclectic feel to it. It’s a bit of an oasis outside of the city. The area is convenient considering its closeness to downtown and major  highways so it was not a difficult choice to settle here.  Finally, we have invested a lot in the neighbourhood, and in 2015 our building (825 Queen Street East) turned 100 years old –  it has become an important part of our identity. 

baird macgregor

Sketch of Baird MacGregor’s offices by CEO Philomena Comerford, who is also an artist, 1989.

What is a fun fact people may not know about Baird MacGregor Insurance LP?

One of the more unknown parts of our firm is the 1950s-themed diner as well as the gym on our second floor. Also, our building has a long history – it turned 100 years old in 2015. One neat addition is our Art Deco front door, designed and installed by my brothers (Comerford Architectural).

Sneak peak of the 1950s style diner in Baird Macgregor's building, Riverside, Toronto

Sneak peak of the 1950s style diner in Baird MacGregor’s building, Riverside, Toronto

Art Deco front door by Comerford Architectural

What is your favourite part about the work that you do?

The relationships we build with clients, that is: supporting people in times of need, being of value to them, and earning their trust. The feeling of helping others is unmatched, and being able to do that must be part of your DNA in order to work here.

40 years 40 stories graphic



Welcome Back to Riverside’s Fitness Studios!

As Riverside community members start to get their feet wet enjoying all the wonders that the phases of reopening have to offer, we are so excited to celebrate the return of fitness studios today, Friday July 16th, inline with the Ontario Step 3 guidelines.

Look, we know that everyone is probably feeling a little less than in a peak physical condition and that’s okay. We survived many days at home and enjoyed every slice of pizza! But now Riverside is thrilled to welcome back it’s fitness studios to help you start crushing your personal fitness goals or maybe to help you develop a routine that is perfect for you! Whatever motivates you, the health, fitness and wellness community in Riverside is back and we have summed up everything you need to know about them below!  

Yes, gyms and studios of all kinds ARE BACK, and we have all missed them so its’s time to show them some love! Here is our rundown of Riverside-based fitness spots reopening today!

Important note: Photos may not properly convey, but all businesses are strictly following Public Health protocols for Personal Care Services including capacity limits, sanitation, masking, etc to serve you safely! Please ensure you check with the business and confirm your appointment prior to visiting them in person.

Power10 Fitness

IG – @power10fitness · 635 Queen St E, Toronto, ON M4M 1G4 · https://power10fitness.com/

Power10 is an experiential, immersive fitness hub bringing state-of-the-art indoor rowing, running and weight training to your doorstep. Expect revolutionary lighting and sound, total immersion and an experience like no gym you’ve known. If you didn’t already know, rowing is the holy grail of fitness, and the anchor of this high-performance space. There’s no better, safer, full-body workout. The Skillrow machines allow you to feel the thrill of a real boat race during electrifying team workouts. You’ll row together, in synchronicity, in a motivated, supportive and tight-knit group. If rowing is not your bag, POWER10 offers indoor running clinics, top-grade personal training and a timetable of inspiring talks. Check them out on instagram to stay up to date and book a class!


Komplete Strength

IG – @kompletestrength · 740 Queen St E, Toronto, ON M4M 1H2 · https://www.kompletestrength.com/

Heard of cross training? What about functional fitness? Komplete Strength is the gym for combination workouts that touch on weight lifting, cardio and dynamic body weight exercises! Its the ultimate functional fitness gym to help you feel strong and ready to take on life! Plus your friends will be asking you to help them move when they see how great your form is picking up heavy objects! They offer online, small group and person training classes! Definably something for everything one here! Follow them on instagram to check out what classes they have coming up! 

Chi Junky

ChiJunky Yoga studio| Riverside

 IG – @chi_junky · 70 McGee St, Toronto, ON M4M 2K9 · https://www.chijunky.com/

Looking for that boutique yoga studio experience? Chi Junky is the perfect combination of refined and relaxing with full service with complimentary yoga mats, towels, alkaline water & organic tea. All you need to do is show up, relax, then let them take care of the rest. Head to their IG for updates and to take a class or become a member! 

Studio Lagree

IG – @studiolagree · 672 Queen St E 2ND FLOOR, Toronto, ON M4M 1G8 · https://studiolagree.com/

Looking for a full body grind? Studio Lagree is your spot! With the ultimate full-body workout created by Sebastien Lagree, the studios founder, the Lagree Method combines strength, core, cardio/circuit training and stretching into an intense exercise experience. A new and improved workout construct with appeal to men and women. The Lagree Fitness experience does delivers on its reputation. Plus they have amazing staff and customer service. Check them out to try a class today! Maybe this is exactly the group of people, gym environment and kickstart you need! 

Studio Spin

IG – @studiospincanada · 672 Queen St E, Toronto, ON M4M 1G8 · https://studiospin.ca/

Studio Spin offers technique-based indoor cycling designed to push you to your limits all while enhancing your form and technique. It’s the perfect way to take your rode bike skill and turn them into an exercise routine! Classes are programmed to help you build strength and endurance and get you the results you desire. With optimal speed and resistance combinations, the form-focused, streamlined workouts are more efficient therefore yielding stronger results. Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or a beginner taking your first class, you will be challenged and motivated! 

Riverside BIA 40 Years, 40 Stories: ‘A Time for Pollinators’ Mural

As part of the ‘Riverside BIA: 40 Years, 40 Stories’ series, we’re putting a spotlight on the serendipitous story of the Riverside Pollinator Mural by Nick Sweetman at 777 Queen Street East in the heart of Riverside.  

The Riverside Pollinator Mural called ‘A Time for Pollinators’ was created by artist Nick Sweetman. Completed in 2016, the mural’s references to clocks and time continues in the theme of the ‘Time: and a Clock’ series in Riverside by Toronto artist Eldon Garnet, while celebrating Albert Edelstein, a founding member of the BIA, who was a local jeweller and watchmaker. The pollinator mural also highlights the many natural, hidden places in Riverside and the importance of pollinators (e.g. bees, people) in the community and environment.

Fun Fact: The Pollinator Mural is one of the stops on our Riverside Public Art Self-Guided Walk, and check out our Virtual Public Art Tour to see amazing footage of the mural and an interview with Nick Sweetman (around 18:00 min)!

riverside pollinator mural

Photo from August 2016 taken during the mural production by artist Nick Sweetman adjacent to what was once an unassuming parking lot.

The west-facing wall of Elbers’ Antiques at 777 Queen Street East, owned by one of our most enduring local business owners, Ron Elbers, was a long a neglected spot targeted by graffiti. For years, Ron and the Riverside BIA had been in agreement that the wall would be the perfect spot for a mural.  In 2016, the time was right (no pun intended), and the old wall was revitalized thanks to a City of Toronto mural grant, the amazing work of local resident and mural artist Nick Sweetman, and project management by the Riverside BIA.

The mural was launched in late summer 2016 on a rainy day. You would never know it with the vibrant colours of the mural shining through, along with all the smiles of those in attendance in this incredibly proud moment for the BIA and community. BIA founding member and former long-time Chair Albert Edelstein was on hand with wife Ruth and many generations of family members, along with artist Nick Sweetman, local elected officials from all levels of government and current BIA members.

Caption: MP Julie Dabrusin, MPP Peter Tabuns and City Councillor Paula Fletcher stand with Riverside community members including Riverside BIA Board chair Mitch Korman and Executive Director Jennifer Lay.

MP Julie Dabrusin, MPP Peter Tabuns and City Councillor Paula Fletcher stand with artist Nick Sweetman (at back, right), Riverside community members including Riverside BIA Board chair Mitch Korman and staff Jennifer Lay and Anjuli Solanki, and former BIA Chair and founding member Albert Edelstein (middle), his wife Ruth and many other family members.

As the mural launched, almost simultaneously there was another plan in motion. The owners of the parking lot at 771 Queen E (adjacent to the mural) had received interest from a landscaping company Queen Landscapes to create a garden centre in the derelict lot. With their expertise and resources, the team created the Queen Garden Centre. In 2018, it was launched with a focus on native perennial plants and remains so today, which in turn supports pollinator populations all over Toronto…talk about serendipity!

riverside pollinator mural

2020 Photo of the Queen Garden Centre with the Pollinator Mural as the backdrop. (Photo credit: Lana Malykh

About the Mural

The mural’s ‘Bees and Urban Pollinators’ theme recognizes Riverside’s hidden green spaces that maintain wildflowers and local hives, as well as the area’s growing bee-keeping culture in the east-end. Pollinators are essential for food production and the health of a city’s ecosystem.

riverside pollinator mural

The Riverside colourscape is used artfully with time and clock themes

The pollinator mural’s time and clock theme is an homage to Albert Edelstein, a long-time clockmaker and jeweller in Riverside who was integral to founding the Riverside Business Improvement Area (BIA) in the 1980s. Edelstein is also a personification of ‘The Pollinator’:  someone working hard on tiny things with thousands of moving parts, but the whole of the fruits of their work has an enormous impact. In the same vein, the ‘Gears’ in the mural represent small things working together to make big things happen – like bees in a hive, or a community in a neighbourhood. Like clockmakers, pollinators are important members of society and their toils must be given proper respect, as they play an essential role in allowing people to thrive and exist.

The ‘Time’ theme also continues in line with Riverside’s architectural and artistic history, referencing Eldon Garnet’s ‘Time & A Clock’ public art series that has been iconic in Riverside since 1996. The ‘Clock’ in the mural also mirrors the Ralph Thornton Centre’s iconic clock tower just west across the street, designed by famed Toronto architect E.J. Lennox. Meanwhile, the pollinator mural’s colours and style portray Riverside’s ebbs and flows through time and its vibrancy today.

About the Mural Artist 

Nick Sweetman is an independent, multidisciplinary artist living in Riverside. He holds an MFA from OCAD University, and has led and contributed to numerous mural projects around the city, collaborating with many of Toronto’s best artists. His studio practice is based in painting, but over the years his work has explored photography, video, installation, and mixed media. He is interested in drawing attention to physical and conceptual sites of fracture and intersection between natural forces and human-designed objects and spaces. By this he hopes to encourage consideration of our relationship with the planet and its non-human inhabitants.

Thanks to Community Partners

A special thanks to property owner Ron Elbers, who provided the wall space, and Vivienne Grace Ziner from Urban Quest for access to her property to complete the mural. The Ralph Thornton Centre and the Toronto Public Library Queen/Saulter Branch were instrumental in engaging the community in the mural’s design. The STEPS Initiative and Wipeout Specialty Cleaning donated mural materials and time. Thank you to the City of Toronto for providing funding toward this project.

The ‘Riverside BIA 40 Years, 40 Stories’ Series is part of how we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of this incredible neighbourhood of community-builders.