Bloor West’s mysterious vacancies

Little is left now of what was once called “Schnitzel Row,” the Hungarian community that dominated the commercial life of Bloor West between Spadina and Bathurst in the 1960s and ’70s. Memorable schnitzel restaurants have been replaced by fusion and sushi while most of the 1956-era Hungarian immigrants who populated the area have moved on, leaving the street to the students and literati.

Some remnants of the neighbourhood that was remain: the Country Style restaurant at 450 Bloor W. and the Elizabeth Hungarian Delicatessen at 410. On the South side, just east of Brunswick, the building that once housed the Hungarian Castle restaurant, vacant now for 14 years, is a ghost of the old neighbourhood, a hulking dead zone that has aged, untouched, while the neighbourhood evolved.

Despite the bright colours and hyperactivity of the Annex, it’s a building that’s hard to miss. It occupies both 471 and 473 Bloor W. and wire mesh fencing bars intruders from the boarded-up main floor. Once-decorative shields and cast-iron bars on the second-floor windows give it the feel of an abandoned castle. What’s left of the sign still advertises dining and dancing, but a large panel that should bear the name of the restaurant is missing.

Once you’ve noticed it, it’s hard to keep from wondering why the building has been vacant since Michael Jackson was commercially viable. Seems like a simple question, but the story of this haunting building, like most ghost stories, turns up more speculation than fact and features a strangely elusive central character. After six weeks of chasing this story, I’m not certain I’m much wiser than when I started. And that’s as frustrating to some business owners and residents of the Annex as it is to my long-suffering editor.

Eric Domville, for example, a past chair of the Annex Residents’ Association (ARA), has been trying to do something about the vacant building for years. “It seems to me criminal that it has been allowed to fall into this kind of disrepair. It’s the one great eyesore in the district…. People find it a constant source of annoyance,” Domville says.

David Vallance, treasurer of the Bloor-Annex Business Improvement Area agrees that the building is sort of ugly and says having such a large , visible vacancy hurts businesses on the street. “Previously,” he says, “it was quite a showpiece.”

It seems the owner of the Hungarian Castle spent a good deal of money before opening the restaurant in 1974, renovating what had been a furniture shop and decorating it in the gothic style that hangs off it to this day. The second floor was home to a series of short-lived businesses, including Annie’s Place, an early discotheque where the Stones are rumoured to have partied. The Hungarian Castle remained open on the main floor until 1987. It reopened briefly as the Budapest Bakery, but when that closed in ’89, the building was shuttered for good.

Kami Kashani, owner of Rouge, a restaurant at 467 Bloor W., says his business suffers because the ghost building a few doors down keeps foot traffic on the other side of Brunswick. He can’t understand why such a desirable property should remain vacant so long.

Kashani himself was interested in it before he settled on his current location. He says he’s not the only one, “There are at least 10 or 15 people that I know who’ve tried to rent it,” he says. Vallance says he’s also heard from several people who’ve been close to renting it before their deals fell apart “for reasons no one can undertand.”

The asking rent, $20,000 a month, is close to the building’s market value and, I’m told, doesn’t bother prospective tenants. And though the building needs renovation — I heard estimates of up to $1 million — Vallance says economics are not the problem.

Kashani thinks the reason he couldn’t make a deal is that the building is the subject of some sort of family feud and couldn’t be rented.

Kashani’s family-feud story is just a rumour, but it illustrates one of the stranger elements of the story of 471 Bloor W. — the identity and motivations of its owner, Annie Racz. In addition to the former Hungarian Castle, she owns the buildings across the street at 400-408 Bloor W., and a nearly vacant residential apartment block at 310 Brunswick. She inherited the properties from her late husband, Leslie.

Racz is the subject of rampant rumours along the Bloor strip. Nearly everyone I spoke to had heard some story or another about the woman who owns so much of the central Annex. I heard from some that she lived on Brunswick, from others that she lived above the By the Way CafĂ©, from others still that she had moved to Pickering or Richmond Hill. Many said she had once been a prominent figure on the block, and was often seen dining along Bloor or sharing coffee with homeless people. Some told me she looked like a bag lady, others that her appearance was more average. One person told me she’d had her legs amputated. Most or all of this is probably untrue, but the truth is infuriatingly hard to pin down.

Racz did not return repeated phone messages from two eye reporters. A note I left for her at one of her buildings went unanswered. An address given to me by a real-estate-agent friend as that listed to L. Racz (Annie’s late husband, presumably), owner of 408 Bloor W., led me to a vacant lot near Dufferin and Dupont.

Her tenants proved unhelpful. Though the staff at Grassroots at 408 Bloor W. told me that Rob, the store-owner, would have plenty of “ghost stories,” Rob himself said he was unable to help. “She’s a very hands-off landlady. I just leave a rent cheque in the store every month and a friend of hers picks it up.”

Domville, as chair of the ARA, was similarly frustrated, and began to doubt her existence. “I’ve never met her. Does she exist or is she a committee? Or a figment of someone’s imagination?” Domville wonders. “Does she live in a cave, or in a secret hideaway like Lex Luthor?… This has all the makings of a film noir TV movie: who is this mystery woman?”

One person did, indirectly, confirm that she exists, or at least did four years ago. Lori Ander lived next to Racz on Brunswick in 1999, but after questioning my right to write this story, Ander told me she’d feel uncomfortable sharing their personal interactions with strangers.

The only piece of hard evidence I have of Racz’s existence is a hand-written letter she sent to the city in 1999 in support of a patio license. It’s neatly written in friendly looking script and from its tone and contents, Racz seems concerned about the neighbourhood.

“Although I have not supported the patio in the past, I now believe that the development of a restaurant — the Friendly Greek — will help uplift the corner,” she wrote of the now-defunct restaurant. “It really needs improvement. So I support the patio and urge the city to grant the license. I look forward to have [sic] a coffee on the patio when it opens…. Thank you, Anne Racz.”

If Racz is interested in improving the corner, as her letter suggests, there may be some hope for those who wish she’d find a tenant. Some think the city should do something to force Racz to pursue one of these options, but city staff say that as long as she pays her property taxes and secures the building against intruders, they can’t force her to rent it.

Which leaves the building’s future where it’s always been: in the hands of its owner. Annie Racz, are you listening? If so, give me a call, let’s talk.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on February 27, 2003.