Co-founders Amy Katz (middle left) and Kate Cassidy (middle right), with 52 inc. staffer/collaborators Elliot George and Wudasie Efrem on the bar’s final day. Photo courtesy of Kate Cassidy.
Article originally published January 4, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
In the latest instalment of her nightlife-history series, Denise Benson takes us back to College Street in the mid-90s, when a female-friendly hotbed for arts and culture opened up just as Little Italy was beginning to explode.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: 52 inc., 394 College Street
Years in operation: 1995 — 2000
History: On August 2nd 1995, two 23-year-old friends—Kate Cassidy and Amy Katz—opened a community-minded café, bar and boutique just one block away from their shared rental apartment at College and Borden. 52 inc., named as a nod to women forming fifty-two percent of the global population, was a complementary addition to a neighbourhood filled with diverse independent businesses.
By then, College Street west of Bathurst was beginning to explode with trendy lounges, restaurants and shops opened alongside Little Italy mainstays. But it was a different story for the strip of College that lies north of Kensington Market.
“It was a gritty stretch that was complete with small businesses: grocers, salsa clubs, a few clothing shops and some very busy diners, many of whom had been there a very long time,” recalls Cassidy. “There was nothing slick or ‘happening;’ it was just people going about their daily business. We wedged ourselves into that stretch and loved being a part of it.”
“We did all of our shopping for the bar on the block or in Kensington Market, and rarely needed to leave the neighbourhood for anything,” says Katz. “We were both working in restaurants, learned a lot from other spaces, had some serious mentors and opened with a lot of help. We wanted to create a place for the neighbourhood to come in and express itself.”
“We wanted a place where the coffee was always strong and good, a place where a woman would always feel comfortable sitting solo while having a drink at the bar, and a place where the music was never an afterthought,” Cassidy adds.
The storefront building with beautiful, high ceilings housed a unique social space as the women of 52 inc. made the most of their one-thousand-square-feet. Designer Carina Rose worked with Katz and Cassidy to create a warm wooded space accented by tiles, lighting fixtures and other materials, including the infamous mermaid glass shower doors that divided the venue, repurposed from a demolished 1950s North Toronto bungalow home.
“For the first couple of years, the front area was a bar while the back area was a small store,” explains Katz. “We sold clothes from local designers, comic books from local artists, music and more. When we had DJs in, people danced under the dresses. After awhile, we got rid of the store.”
For lots of us living in the area—I rented on Brunswick north of College for 15 years—52 inc. was a huge boon with its thoughtful menu, welcoming vibe and novel nightlife. Open six days a week, with events on most evenings, 52 inc. meant many things to many people.
Why it was important: Cassidy and Katz were actively committed to feminist ideals, the promotion of local artists, and the desire to bring communities together. As a result, 52 inc. featured everything from live jazz to debates, discussions and DJs.
“Our ‘business model’ was to see what happened, and this generated a spontaneity that allowed us to witness many moments of beauty,” shares Katz. “We benefited from the commitment, skills and imagination found in the neighbourhood and in the city. 52 inc. was a window into what was already going on. The people who worked, performed and displayed their work there shaped the place.”
Visual artists and graphic designers including Fiona Smyth, Cecilia Berkovic, Suritah Wignall and Noel Nanton created work for 52 inc. Smyth also participated in an afternoon discussion with artist Sook-Yin Lee and former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall. Local clothing designers like Sim & Jones—who had a shop of their own just doors down—helped organize ‘subversive’ fashion shows. Sundays boasted popular open mic night Mocha Lounge’n where DJs Blanco, Son of S.O.U.L., K.I., K.Rafike and others were joined by spoken word artists such as Dwayne Morgan, Jemeni, El Machetero, Clifton Joseph and Hajile Kalaike. Kalaike later went on to host Sundays and continue the spoken word tradition. There were also book launches, art openings and activist talks.
“The space was small and super dynamic,” says Cassidy. “There was a constant flow of ideas, people and movement. Most people came for a glass of wine, a cocktail and to consume, but 52 inc. often had a community centre vibe. It was thrilling to look around the room at times and see who had gathered—to watch connections be made between artists, hip-hop producers, clothing designers, filmmakers, neighbourhood moms, singers, writers, activists and others.”
52 inc. was also one of the first small bars in the area to feature DJs nightly. Paul E. Lopes was the first weekly resident, with other early musical contributors including Mike Tull, DJs Kola and Serious, Mike Klaps and John Kumahara.
“I really hit it off with Amy and Kate because we shared a similar outlook on music and culture,” says Lopes. “It felt like it was a new era, a new funky freedom community. It was a hangout spot for us. They brought artists, DJs and designers together in one small, low-rent space and it felt like home. Watching them serve their patrons equal parts brunch and attitude was fun too.”
“The door at 52 inc. was always open,” agrees Tull. “It was a place where many Toronto DJs honed their skills. I for one would go by every Thursday to test out the records I bought.”
Like Lopes, Tull played regularly both at the College Street location and many of the larger 52 inc. events held elsewhere.
“Kate and Amy were very down-to-earth in their approach to everything, something that is definitely lacking in the promotion game nowadays. The fact that they were women also gave their parties a different vibe.”
Who else played there: “We were a small bar and thought big,” says Cassidy. “It’s amazing to think of what we squeezed into that place over the five years.”
That’s no braggadocio. Bands including LAL performed. On the DJ front, dozens and dozens played for a 52 inc. gathering at some point: Nick Holder, deejay nav, Jason Palma, John Kong, Groove Institute, Malik X, Moonstarr, Moodswing, and Noel Nanton are but some of the names. 52 inc. had very close ties with DJs from Toronto’s three community radio stations, with myself and fellow CKLN hosts like Nik Red, Karen Augustine, DJ Zahra, Ray Prasad and Verlia Stephens also mixing it up.
“There was a lot of rare and beautiful music played,” summarizes Katz. “People spent a lot of time at the DJ booth, asking what was being played. There was a lot of experimenting going on.”
To that end, the women of 52 inc. expanded their reach by producing ambitious events at external venues, including warehouse spaces like The Mockingbird and Roxy Blu, where they were one of the first promoters to host regular events.
There, 52 inc. presented a sold-out show by Philly poet Ursula Rucker, spearheaded two massive grassroots fundraisers dubbed Shake:Body (both featured close to 30 DJs and performers), and hosted a series of epic DJ Battles complete with props, ropes and Paul E. Lopes as referee.
“Amy and Kate went all-out and rented movie props,” recalls Lopes. “They had a huge trophy, a giant banner, and hung a life-sized whole side of beef near the DJ booth, to look like Sly Stone training in Rocky. They handed out whistles and towels for the ‘big choons,’ and the crowds, who were like no other, went mad.”
“People always told us our parties were so different—friendly, inviting and fresh,” says Cassidy. “Everyone also knew that our parties reflected our name. More than half of the crowd on the dancefloor were women.”
What happened to it: With the summer of 2000 approaching, Cassidy says, “our five-year lease was coming up, the landlord was challenging to deal with, and we were exhausted. It felt okay to have 52 inc. come to an end on a high note. We threw a huge party in August, everyone came through to say goodbye, and it felt right somehow. I think we were both also ready to have our own quiet social lives by that point.”
The Cloak and Dagger Pub opened soon after.
Katz has since worked as a community organizer in a variety of capacities. She currently works for a health centre and is concerned with the creation and preservation of community centres and public spaces.
Cassidy, mother to a 20-month-old daughter, will contribute music-programming ideas to friends soon set to open the Midfield Wine Bar and Tavern at Dundas and Gladstone.
All comments in the string below have been republished from their original appearance on The Grid website. We’re including the readers’ comments as they add to these Then & Now stories. We look forward to reading new comments here as well.
52 inc made my favourite soup ever. Tomatoey-peanutty. I’ve been trying to recreate it ever since. I also bought my favourite dress there. 7:10 pm on January 10, 2012
The Mocha Lounge’n Sunday night Open Mic sessions were my intro to 52 Inc. The regular DJ line-up included DJ Blanco (John White) K.Rafike (Keith Clarke) Deejay K.I. (Davee Ki) DJ Son. Of. Soul. (Masimba). There were also guest DJs appearing at the Mocha Lounge’n sessions. Most of Toronto’s spoken word artists took to the stage delighting the standing room only (on most nights) crowd. Dwayne Morgan, J.D. Vicious, Gemini, Kalmplex, Stephan KIm, El Machetero, Hajile Kalaike, Clifton Joseph (Dub Poet at large) and Yvette Barnes were among a stellar cast of performers who showed regularly to ply their craft. Singers were also welcome. One Sunday night Amy Sky (who just happened to be passing by) dropped in and serenaded the crowd with an acapella version of one of her songs. The atmosphere in 52 Inc was electric on those nights. The air was thick with passion, pain, joy, love, angst, sex and revolution. One would hear an idea that had never crossed your mind and it would resonate in every fibre of your being. When Mocha Lounge’n moved on to other venues Hajile Kalaike took over the Sunday night spot and carried on the tradition of keeping a space for voices to be heard! Nuff said! 6:47 pm on January 5, 2012
I’m glad to say I caught a decent chunk of this era when I moved here in 98. Right away, 52 inc. became one of my regular spots, it was like Cheers and I was fortunate to make friends with a lot of amazingly talented people like Kate and Amy. Props! 1:30 pm on January 5, 2012
Thank you so much for this Denise!!! You captured the time so beautifully! It’s so amazing to read the comments too! I’d like to share few more details about Shake:Body and Ursula Rucker, which both involved other promoters. Shake:Body in particular was an amazing collective effort with other promoters, djs, activists, dj activists, musicians. More generally, we had an incredible amount of help from the people in our lives in those years. AK 3:36 pm on January 4, 2012
thank you denise for posting this important piece of Toronto arts and culture history. i had a regular night here and always felt it was a warm, supportive and empowering place to be as a woman in my 20s. as you know there were only a handful of female djs in the city at the time, 52inc was the perfect place to cut one’s teeth. 3:24 pm on January 4, 2012
Paul E. Lopes
Some more pics from The Battles at Roxy Blu https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150109491630721.387207.611575720&type=3 2:43 pm on January 4, 2012
We have s small collection of flyers from 52inc. http://beats.to/52inc 2:25 pm on January 4, 2012
the underground came above for a brief glimpse – still popping up now and then. thank you 52inc people 2:14 pm on January 4, 2012
I had the pleasure of playing one of my first ‘real’ DJ spots at this place back when I first moved to town in the late 90s. I remember feeling intimidated because I knew how many with-it and knowledgable people frequented that place. Im glad to have been able to participate in some small way. 12:26 pm on January 4, 2012
I moved to Toronto in 2000, so only got a taste of this place, but it was immediately one of my favourite spots. Daniel MacIvor once told me he used to love and frequent 52 inc. back in the day too. 10:40 am on January 4, 2012