44 Wards in 44 Hours – Eye Weekly (11.30.06)

Toronto in two days

Taking a cue from the mayor, our correspondent hits 44 neighbourhoods in 44 hours in search of the city’s identity

During the final weekend of the recent municipal election campaign, Mayor David Miller endured a marathon trek to every part of Toronto. He called it the “44 Wards in 44 Hours” tour. It was an admirable gesture for a mayor who would represent every corner of the city. On election night, he said that he wished “every Torontonian could do this -because then everyone would see just what a great city we have.” Interesting idea. I wanted to see what a great city we have, too. So I set out to do as Miller had done – though, as an experiment in one-upsmanship, I attempted to compress his three-day journey into 44 consecutive hours.

Staring at the ward map long enough to absorb Toronto’s geographic bulk, I determined a route that would get me to every corner of the city by public transit. For someone who lives downtown, any journey that deviates from the subway or the College streetcar causes a mild case of The Fear. But I choked back my apprehensions and prepared to brave the buses of Scarborough, the uncharted territories of north Etobicoke and the endless wait for a Lakeshore streetcar.

So, at 6am, in the strange pre-dawn time vacuum, alongside bleary-eyed Yonge and Eglinton commuters on their instinctual zombie walk, I descend into the subway. Armed with a freshly baked bagel, a cup of coffee and two day-passes, I set out into the great Toronto unknown.

After a good four hours, I had travelled through six north Toronto wards and was already starting to feel the burnout of information overload. Rapid travel may not provide the most thorough impression of a group of communities, but seeing parts of the city that most people don’t even know exist reflects a valuable cross-section of our supposed identity.

One of the themes to emerge early in my journey is the disproportionate mass of certain recent housing developments. Condo towers and office buildings dwarf the two-storey storefronts that once served as the commercial hub of Yonge and Sheppard, and shear off drastically into the surrounding neighbourhood. Similarly, construction on the back lot of Agincourt Mall (3580 Sheppard E.) exploits its geographic proximity to Tam Oshanter Golf Course (2481 Birchmount) the next ward over. In both cases, the massive condo towers seem ridiculously out of place.

Conversely, the desolate landscape at Sheppard and McCowan contains no more than a handful of stubby houses and a tiny strip mall. It’s a gigantic train yard away from the ward’s other major neighbourhood. Since post-war zoning restrictions favoured isolating commercial and residential developments from each other, the rapid development of much of the suburbs is patterned along these lines, scattering roughly 60 per cent of Toronto’s population among great territorial divides.

Despite the population gaps, Scarborough transit boasts an impressive frequency. Even at the city’s edge, where all development stops and the Rouge Valley begins, I don’t wait more than five minutes for a bus to speed me back to civilization.

But civilization is still a few hours away. Not until after visiting the under-construction and almost-deserted Morningside Mall (255 Morningside) and the industrial stretch of Birchmount south of Lawrence am I treated to the mix of elegantly restored and beautifully decaying houses along the Scarborough Bluffs. Standing amid the rubble of his $2-million waterfront investment at the southern tip of Birchmount, one of the most recent residents explains that the demolition will make way for a 15,000-square-foot house of glass. And I thought cliffside property was only for Los Angelenos.

A few hours later, in the heart of the Beaches, I finally acquire some company for the rest of the night. After a much-needed rest at Lion on the Beach (1958 Queen E.), we stroll through Little India, where the vibrant colours inspire a rehabilitated curiosity. Snooping into an open door at the Centre of Gravity (1300 Gerrard E.), we meet Gulnar, a contortionist from Eastern Turkey practicing her “spinning carpets” routine. She is completely at ease with our trespassing, which makes me wonder why I hadn’t attempted this kind of behaviour earlier in the day.

By 11:30pm, I am utterly exhausted, slumped against the wall at Davisville station, across the platform from three drunken girls screaming incoherent gibberish at me over the screech and roar of the approaching train. Despite the abuse, I’m relieved to be back in a neighbourhood where socializing and travel safely mix. But my pleasure is short-lived as my bus connection nearly decapitates a young woman puking out the open door of a cab. Still reeling from this vision, I get some sleep and dream of riding the TTC.

After a hearty breakfast on St. Clair and a tour through the simulated streetscapes of Yorkdale Mall (3401 Dufferin), I board the Dufferin North bus at Downsview station (not before contemplating a ride on York region’s Viva Transit in a fit of paralysis brought on by its hypnotic logo). I arrive at G. Ross Lord Reservoir in the eerie morning fog, where high-tension towers rising from the water’s surface resemble a Banksy-modified Monet. I encounter this same hydro corridor throughout the day, as it slices across the north end of the city like an ominous clothesline.

I brace for the worst as the Finch bus approaches Jane Street, but its violent reputation is not on display. Instead, I speak with Carlos Navia at the Driftwood Community Centre (4401 Jane), where he oversees an 81-team multicultural youth soccer league that his father started in 1979.

Later, riding through the outer edges of Etobicoke, I have a strange sense of déjà vu. Between the long stretches of parkland and the isolated apartment buildings, it bears a striking resemblance to Scarborough. Although both suburbs have distinctive qualities, the sprawling, disconnected pockets of communities fail to leave an impression on my imagination. Without a visible population on the main streets, whole sections appear deserted, and I simply tune out for the ride.

Hours later, the building-sized lifestyle ads across from the Drake (1150 Queen W.) welcome me back to Parkdale. Farther east, hipster Queen West has begun a rapid colonization of Ossington. Post-modern mixed media has already oversaturated this gallery district to the extent that long-standing appliance stores are easy to mistake for art installations. Will irony finally consume this neighbourhood? In an unrelated twist, I discover my new favourite bookstore is Babel (123 Ossington).

By sheer dumb luck, my final destination is Nathan Phillips Square (100 Queen W.) just as the Cavalcade of Lights show peaks. Delirium may have ultimately set in, because the walls of Old City Hall (60 Queen W.) looked like they were melting. However, I mixed in with the crowd like I meant to be there, not like someone who had just spent two whole days careening around the city on public transit. And just like the thousands of spectators, opera-goers and Leafs fans trying to enter Osgoode station at the same time through one lone ticket agent, I fell in line and behaved like a polite Torontonian.

Regardless of how exhaustion and disorientation may have skewed my perspective, seeing the entire city ward-by-ward did little to confirm any sense of a singular Toronto identity. But maybe a coherent culture is the wrong objective. After all, Toronto’s motto is “Diversity: Our Strength.” Downtown, where communities are close together and have no choice but to interact every day, the motto fits. But when eight-lane streets separate communities, and the only public space is found at Wal-Mart and Home Depot, where that diversity is pretty dispersed, the strength we speak of may be as simple as trying to feel like you belong to this city at all.

To read Chris Bilton’s hour-by-hour tour diary, click here

Originally published in Eye Weekly.

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