I am watching Toronto grow and change. It is happening under me, around me, even through me, and has been for twenty-five years. That’s how long I’ve lived in this city. It’s longer by far than I’ve lived anywhere else.
I’ve drifted a lot through my life. It began with following my parents, as we moved from Detroit to New York when I was five, then to Berlin when I was eight, and back again to New York before I turned eleven. Then, on my own, I moved to Exeter, New Hampshire for three years when I was fifteen, then to Cambridge Massachusetts for about eight years, broken up by short stays in Atlanta, San Francisco, Norfolk Virginia, and even my home town, Detroit. Then, it was Kansas City for a year, Seaside, Oregon for another, then to Seattle for a long, twelve year stay, much longer than I’d been anywhere else.
I came to Toronto when I was going on forty, not knowing that the show would stop here for so long. A quarter century!
I’ve always known that, while I was experiencing something wonderful that fed my spirit through my many moves, I was also missing something. I had friends who spoke about growing up in a hometown and going through all the stages of their growth with a single familiar and familial backdrop. I came to think of it as a layered experience: living in and moving through spaces serially, in childhood, then adolescence, through early adulthood and so on, forming different relationships, associations, going behind different doorways, and travelling the streets with entirely different aims and purposes.
I knew that it must be something very different than my experience. For me, the shifts in time have always paralleled shifts in space, and more importantly, shifts within me. Detroit shaped my first years in ways that life in Manhattan made mutant, and the world of Berlin broke dimensions of language, food, culture that I hadn’t known existed. I remember realizing, shortly after returning to New York – to within ten blocks, yet an entire neighborhood away – that I was changed in ways those third grade friends I’d left behind could never understand, which I could never fully communicate. And by the time I left there again, I knew that I’d never be able to return, because if and when I ever did, I wouldn’t be the same person who’d left.
I came to Toronto in my late thirties and marveled at how diverse it is. Yes, I know that New York is a melting pot, but the ingredients in the stew of Toronto are fresher than I ever experienced on the Upper West Side. In Manhattan, my schoolmates’ parents or grandparents were from Greece and Puerto Rico, Italy, England and the Dominican Republic. But in Toronto, I lived and worked with people almost newly arrived, relatively – from Ghana, Iran and Jamaica, from Poland, Palestine and Fiji. It possessed a different kind of layers, and also such a variety of dynamic and healthy neighborhoods that I knew I wouldn’t grow out of it. Yet, I didn’t imagine I’d live here so long.
And this city is growing so fast, building and shifting and evolving so quickly, that I’ve finally had a sense of a place growing new layers over old ones. This is most apparent for me in Regent Park, and surrounding Cabbagetown and Corktown, and the area below Queen St., west of the Don River. When I first came to the community, it was dominated by a sixty year-old public housing project, and by the row houses and the dilapidated industrial shops and storefronts. It’s all been torn down during the last decade and a half, and replaced by blocks of concrete, steel and glass, glass, glass. Stale poverty has given way to slickness and style. The old neighborhood feel has gone the way of brick stoops and dusty furniture stores, the old playgrounds, schools and community centres. But the new pool and park are sleek and neat, and the art splashed upon the walls and highway archways is dazzling and bright.
The entire city is bulging with construction, and the streets increasingly clogged with traffic. But while to my old eyes it’s invasive and shocking, newer eyes take it all as given and register no surprise. They comprise the new layer, but are not the last. Time stretches both forward and backward from here. I continue my beginning to know the place.