Written by Deena Douara
Toronto’s West Queen West neighbourhood gets a lot of love. Lonely Planet has called it the city’s coolest neighbourhood, Huffington Post readers declared it the No. 1 ‘hood in the country, and Vogue even ranked the creative strip between Bathurst and Gladstone Avenue the second-coolest neighbourhood in the world.
And despite all that, Rob Sysak is seeking to raise WQW’s profile even further. Doting doesn’t always translate to dollars, he explains, and independent brick-and-mortar shops have a lot to contend with, including pricey leases and aggressive online competition.
Sysak, the WQW Business Improvement Area’s executive director, does what he can. That includes walking the streets, checking in on businesses and responding to passersby’s queries (“What is that huge mural?” “Who’s behind the laneway art?”). If he’s there, he’ll tell you where Muhammad Ali trained and where Martin Luther King Jr.’s killer hid, and he’ll point out the unique architecture that remains if you look up.
But despite his energy, he’s just one man with two quick legs.
To multiply the impact of having a neighbourhood champion like Sysak, the BIA partnered with the city’s Digital Main Street initiative, and has partnered with Hyllo on their MyStreet app, which Tom Hawkett, business development director, calls a “location-based Twitter.”
It’s more than that though, with benefits to users, local businesses and the community at large. “It’s about telling the WQW story. For brick and mortar to survive, it’s going to have to be about the experience,” says Sysak.
Small unobtrusive beacons are placed around the neighbourhood and in participating stores to “engage people with relevant content in the right place,” as Hyllo cofounder Anh Truong explains it. The technology allows businesses to alert the app’s nearby users of deals and allows users to learn more about the neighbourhood they’re in. The app also allows for geofencing: the ability to reach people within a set boundary (like a pet store offering discounts within a dog park). Through the beacons, businesses also get analytics that may challenge assumptions they base their business around.
The team is particularly proud of how MyStreet will engage users with public art during and after Nuit Blanche in October. “It’s gonna be fantastic,” begins Sysak, exuberantly.
WQW has installed 75 planters to attract pollinators – part of the city’s Bee City initiative. Fifty have been painted by artists, and visitors can use the app to find information about the 12 artists and their works.
There is much to see and experience in the neighbourhood beyond Nuit Blanche, of course, from the Drake and Gladstone hotels to Dufflet and Squirly’s eateries to Trinity Bellwoods Park and the public art in between.
“Whether it’s a cooking place, a furniture place, an architect — they’re all so creative and a little quirky. And they’re willing to do things,” says Sysak, explaining what makes this neighbourhood special.
“When you’re creative you’re not afraid to fail; you just wanna keep going and try different things. Our members are like that. I do a happy dance every morning because I get to work here.”
In accordance with its forward-thinking reputation, WQW helped launch the city’s Digital Main Street, which helps retailers better utilize technology and also acts as a vetted database for vendors and retailers. “Digital Main Street gives them the info they need — not in tech speak — so they can get comfortable adopting it,” explains Hawkett. The Hyllo team and Sysak credit the city for being so entrepreneurially minded and for supporting their beacon project.
WQW is also the first neighbourhood downtown to embrace MyStreet, but the company is in talks to expand into other BIAs. The app was first adopted in Oakville, where it’s primarily used to engage event attendees.
MyStreet is currently optimized for iOS but will soon have full capabilities on android as well.