Visiting Use-ta-ville

By Caitlin Kelly

Use-ta-ville…The place you go back to that’s now gone.

“It used to be…”

We’ve all got them, the places where we once lived or attended school or loved visiting or eating in or shopping at. As life changes, sometimes at a dizzying pace, it can be comforting to re-visit these spots. Many are filled with memories — great dates, a proposal, a graduation, a terrific meal — and the physical place becomes a touchstone.

One of the most-loved indie bookstores in Manhattan, Posman Books, is closing its Grand Central location on New Year’s Eve — to make room for (what else?) some costly new building. So annoying!

It’s been such a lovely respite, while awaiting a train or a friend, to browse its well-edited selection of books and cards. I’ve made some great discoveries on its front tables over the years, and was thrilled when my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” briefly ended up in their front windows.

I grew up in Toronto, a sprawling city of 3 million people, and moved to New York a long time ago, but I still go back once or twice a year to see old friends and to enjoy places I’ve been visiting for decades.

Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC
Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC

Like Courage My Love, one of the city’s best vintage clothing shops and The Papery, a great little stationery store I once sold my home-made envelopes to when I was in high school, and — for many years — a beloved cafe called The Coffee Mill, which served strudel and espresso and schnitzel on its lovely outdoor terrace and cosy interior.

It closed in September 2014, after 50 years in business, back in the day when those kinds of foods were exotic to white-bread WASPy Toronto.

We also lost a favorite restaurant on Queen Street, Prague Deli, who had renovated it into an even more welcoming spot, a perfect refuge on a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon. Gone.

Toronto also recently lost the 65-year nightclub, the El Mocambo, where the Rolling Stones once played.

I often go back to my high school, Leaside High School, to talk to the students about what it’s like to make a living as a writer. It’s very odd, but also oddly comforting, to walk those terrazo-ed hallways once more. It looks exactly the same!

Every city, especially when there are millions or billions to be made flipping and developing commercial real estate, loses bits of its past, and we stand by helplessly mourning all those lost memories.

One of my favorite Manhattan cafes, Cafe Angelique on Grove Street in the West Village, disappeared overnight in the fall of 2014 when the landlord demanded $45,000/month in rent — for 1,000 square feet. My lasting memory of it now was a lunch I had there with a fellow journalist I’d long admired and listened to on American Public Media’s business show, Marketplace.

Now its gutted space is one more about-to-be-gentrified spot filled with a mega-brand.

Soul?

Fuhgeddaboudit!

One of the most poignant of these moments happened for me early in my courtship by Jose, my husband, who grew up in Sante Fe, New Mexico. His father was the pastor of a small Baptist church and they lived in church housing — all of which was torn down and replaced by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.

So we stood admiring one of her legendary paintings as Jose said, wistfully, “This used to be my bedroom.”

All that’s left of his childhood home is a small courtyard with an apricot tree, whose fruit his mother used to make into jam.

Is there a place like this from your past you (still) miss?

Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona
Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

19 thoughts on “Visiting Use-ta-ville

  1. I come from Singapore. EVERYTHING is redeveloped. I’m the only one of my friends to have spent the first 5 years of my life in one of the last bonafide “kampungs” – villages – in the place. Attap and zinc roofs and outhouses; chickens, goats, the odd monkey, dirt roads etc. Very much, I am told by fellow Southeast Asians who have been, like a fair bit of Cuba.

    They moved us out and redeveloped it in 1985. It’s amazing how SIngapore was that less than 30 years ago, and it is now one of the shiniest, most urban cities/nations in the world now. I can’t say I miss it, because I was 5 when we moved out, but looking through old photos is disorienting – we lived in a world that first world dwellers (which is now very much us) go travelling to experience first hand.

    How’s that for time travel?

  2. When my husband and I married in 1984 we lived in married student housing At Iowa State in tin sided two bedroom little houses that were basically shacks. They’d been built in the late 1940s for returning GIs. When we lived there it was highly sought after by international student families and grad student families due to its extremely low rent. It was a wonderful international community of people with little money but very high hopes. We brought our first son home from the hospital to that shack and talk about co-sleeping, you had to. The wind blew in all the cracks and we kept the baby in our bed to stay warm. The university tore old Pammel Court down in the late 80s but I still wish I could wander those shady streets again.

  3. The Coffee Mill closed?!? I loved that place! I used to go there with my mother in the 1960s and 70s when it was in the Lothian Mews. There was a fountain. It was the “in” spot to be, buzzing with media types and fashionable people. Sad. Oh well, there’s one thing they can’t take away from us: our memories.

  4. It’s nice to go home again, but what do you do when “home” is no longer there?

    I found this blog with great nostalgic photos of Toronto. Remember The Arcadian Court on the top floor of the Simpsons Tower? My mother took me there in the 1960s as a treat for lunch. It was so stiff and WASPy!! Remember that restaurant on Queen Street West that everyone went to in the 1980s? Can’t remember it’s name. It had small bread baskets over each table that hung from the ceiling.

    https://chuckmantorontonostalgia.wordpress.com/

  5. I grew up in a town where there were a lot of locally owned “joints.” Dinner clubs, small restaurants and pubs–places my parents and I would go when my mother was too tired to have thought out dinner. Some remain but too many died along with their owners. I miss sitting with them at Pat Joyce’s or Bucci’s, talking about our days and relishing in their relaxed demeanor because there were no dishes to take care of, not counters to wipe. I get it.

    1. Love it…so true. They really become part of our lives and leave a big hole for some of us when they shut down. I still remember going out for Chinese in Toronto when I was six or seven, and the name of the place, Sai Woo…it closed in 1976 (after 22 years).

  6. I mourn the closing of a tiny (two-screen) cinema down the road from the house I grew up in in Dublin. “The Stella” was where I saw Titanic (I was ten, and delighted to get into a 12-rated movie) and the venue for my 13th birthday party, when I invited friends to see the first Harry Potter film. The building is now dilapidated and home to many pigeons which nest in its crevices. A happier end, though than the sorry alternative: yet another Starbucks on the street. Perhaps one day when the city has money again, it could be turned into a cultural venue. It would make a marvellous independent theatre.

    1. Oooooh. Hate that! So many of the glorious old movie houses (and they were huge!) in Toronto are gone now, and filled with memories.

      Our town has a fantastic theater from the 1880s that is now, finally undergoing some serious renovation. It’s amazing to drive 5 mins into town and sit in those seats and hear major artists play…the decor is still very 1920s.

  7. I felt like this when I went back to St Andrews this spring, for the first time since I graduated. It was quite an emotional visit, and wonderful to be back, but I have to admit to being a little bit disappointed that some smaller shops in the centre had been replaced by brand names.

    Also – I was walking through the West Village yesterday (getting lost!) and I came across Cafe Angelique. The name rang a bell, and then I remembered you had written about it closing! Such a shame…

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