Any conscientious tourist will tell you the only “real” way to experience a city is to stroll through it and absorb all the sensory experiences it has to provide.
I walk my own city with a dedication that borders on obsessive. In fact, when weather permits I walk barefoot, and cherish the subsequent blisters, scrapes and bruises like merit badges for the Toronto Urban Scouts. It’s not sadism, I’m some different breed of weirdo – one that likes the notion of my skin cells being scattered in the oddest corners of the city.
I like to make my mark on things and I’ll even admit to a few acts of vandalism involving my wiggly toes and the wet concrete foundations of new condo towers.
I’m a part of this city and it’s a part of me.
A couple days ago was the 26th anniversary of my hatching day and I woke up with the mother, father and Holy Ghost of a hangover after the mind-blowing Grendel concert the night prior. You know, that kind of full-bodied physical not toxic hangover from dancing until your toes go numb and cheering until you’re hoarse. Every inch of my body felt like it had been worked over with a meat tenderizer and the brain booted slower than yo momma’s XP machine (HA!)
With half a day to kill before the dinner party I figured I should work up an appetite, so I applied the regulatory dose of caffeine and started walking.
Toronto never fails to astound me with its sights and sounds, and its most beautiful stories reside in the minds of its denizens, they are scrawled in graffiti on the chipped brickwork of its oldest boroughs, or they play out in drunken, episodic washroom stall scriptures.
In the downtown core the transition between affluent neighborhoods and the shanties is almost imperceptible, marked only by arcane cues like the increased density of pawnshops. I left my partner’s house in the village and strolled south through narrow alleyways and meandering side streets south.
In Moss Park I stopped to lend a cigarette to my recent friend G a retired piano player turned permanent resident of the park. He’s come to know me as the weird little girl with hand-rolled menthols and calls out to me “Hey Dread-head” whenever he sees me power-walk by. G shares my affinity for people watching so we get along just swell. That Friday he started an anecdote about the butchers in Saint Lawrence Market and then his lines of thought got crossed and he regaled me with his first experience with fried squirrel meat; it was exactly as awful as you’d expect. I made the Market my next destination.
This city grows like a bacterial culture. It ebbs and flows, parts of it atrophy and collapse into disrepair while just blocks away glass and steel monoliths sprout almost overnight. Every summer that I take to the streets there are new patches of uncharted ground, new foundations rising from the literal ashes of their predecessors.
I walked from the village past St Lawrence Market, south on Jarvis to the lake. Of all the transitional patches of Toronto this is amongst my favourites. That strange juncture of the Gardiner Expressway is a remnant of the lakeshore’s industrial legacy. For a decade the plot east of Lower Jarvis was a pile of wind swept rubble. Today 12 foot graphic panels present a vision of a new neighborhood, condos and shopping at your doorstep next to the scenic lake.
I can’t resent the development of these new boroughs. In a city of 2.5 million people it’s the price we pay for the comforts of modernity. I could rant for days on the ugly condo business in Toronto or the desecration of remaining lakeshore wildlife sanctuaries; but I won’t. I’m in a good mood, so here’s the tinfoil lining – when I look at that lot I see purpose and vision. It takes a real dystopian nerd (like yours truly) to appreciate the heap of urban refuse that stood there prior. Instead I now see another tendril of the glittering city blossoming where chaos once reigned.
I can respect that.
My next stop was the Distillery District. I’m not quite sure why, perhaps because I was in tourist mode and it felt like I was seeing Toronto for the first time.
When the Distillery District stopped pumping out whiskey in the late 20th century, the historic grounds turned into a veritable shanty. Around the time it celebrated its 200th birthday, the healthy (and wealthy) Toronto tourism industry became interested in preserving the Victorian inspired architecture and converted the neighborhood into an amalgamation of overpriced coffee shops, shinny bauble booths and nouveau-riche-bait furniture stores. Oh yes, and IT startups. Trendy nerds love their old bricks.
I explored the area on foot in about ten minutes. While I hid in the shade of a giant metal spider with my back pressed against the cool red brick of the Mill Street Brewery a security man approached me. They were shooting a movie in that avenue and although the milling masses were welcomed as unwary extras, I stuck out like a sore thumb and was ruining their shot – or something like that. The exact phrasing was “We’re filming, can you be…elsewhere?”
Like the jerk I am, I got up very slowly, and then made a long show of packing up my half eaten bagel, while secretly counting chips in the brickwork and wondering what century old forces distressed their pattern. If these walls could tell their story, would anyone care enough to listen? Finally I schlepped off to the visible relief of the poor sweating camera man.
From the Distillery District I walked into the sun, due straight west by whatever small street came under my feet. I love that feeling I get when I spy the Babylonian spires of the downtown core from a couple kilometers away.
The city looks like a cavernous mouth filled with steel teeth jutting out over the horizon. A constant stream of cars pours into the maw and the beast belches smoke and refracted sunset light, and grows by another block.