Toronto, as we know, is a city of neighbourhoods. We love the places and qualities of an area, which are known only to the people who live there. A few years ago, Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star wrote an article about how we define ourselves by our neighbourhoods. But he noted, “it is the city that gives them life, meaning and relevance, and that makes them places we choose (or not) to live. It is the city that makes them possible.”
According to the Star, there are more than 170 neighbourhoods in Toronto. Some are more familiar, and real, than others, and some are a result of efforts to name real estate locales.
We have found it interesting to examine our own neighbourhood and discover unexpected elements. Have a look around where you live and let us know what you find.
In 1959, my parents came to Toronto and joined thousands of other Italians in the St. Clair West neighbourhood. The area was affordable and they could share the trauma of immigration together. In 1966, my parents moved our large family into our first house – a tiny bungalow. Interest rates were high, but they could raise their kids, get around without a car, and be close to their friends.
Twenty-five years later I moved into a big solid 3-storey house. It too was affordable, even though interest rates had hit the roof a few years earlier at 21%. When we bought they were stuck at a brutal 13%. When I, a tiny-bungalow survivor, saw the sun room in my house – a room just for plants – I fell for it.
We should have moved many times since then. I’ve tried to imagine living somewhere else – in a different neighbourhood, in a condo, on the subway line. I can’t. When I walk around my neighbourhood I always run into someone I know. I like that. People tell me I will make new friends when I move. But I like my neighbourhood friends. I know them from my son’s grade school days and I know them from community projects and local activism. I know my neighbourhood and it knows me. And I like that.
I asked for suitcases for every birthday of my childhood, and I expected to be living out of one to this day. I was always ready to leave town for all the places I had read about and heard about but never been. Toronto was not one of those. Never heard of it, didn’t chose it, and didn’t expect to stay.
I left the US in the early 1970’s ashamed of being American, a job brought us to Canada, and gradually Toronto became home. Here in my neighbourhood, when I walk down the street chances are I will run into someone I know. And who I know around here is a larger and more diverse circle than simply friends. Parents of my kids’ school friends, local café owners, gardeners and community activists, we are all acquainted by locality. As I walk, ambient sounds include conversations in accents and languages I don’t speak. I am invited into cultures and traditions beyond my own; my next-door neighbour taught me to make and preserve Italian tomato sauce. And I am comfortable being so familiar because when I am in the mood to be anonymous, I can get on the streetcar and in minutes I am downtown in a big city center, surrounded by a vibrant urban culture.
I feel at home here where so many of us didn’t start out, but ended up. Living here has expanded my idea of me.
I don’t live in the neighbourhood anymore – haven’t for almost 14 years. But the reasons that made the place so appealing when we lived there remain. Mostly it’s the friends I never really lost touch with, even while living in the U.S. and only coming back to visit occasionally. But it’s also the place where our kids walked to school, played street hockey in front of the house and visited their friends down the street. It’s where a block away we could shop for groceries or go for dinner or grab the streetcar.
Especially appealing for me was being able to walk to our book club gatherings around the corner at neighbours’ homes. When I first moved away and to a suburb just outside a large U.S. city, having to drive everywhere was particularly disheartening. So much so that I started a book club in my new neighbourhood by promoting the group as “not having to drive to get there”.
After so many years away, I’m back in Toronto – at least part-time. I’ve reconnected with friends and former neighbours – many still live in the old neighbourhood and are very happy there. My new Toronto neighbourhood is in a high-rise but not too far from the old place. Here, it would be hard to re-create that same community and I’m not ready to try. For now, I’m content to stay connected to the old neighbourhood through friends, my awareness of local issues that affect the whole city, and the collective, perpetual yearning for a St. Clair West that matches the community’s needs and interests.
I came to Toronto via universities, projects, chasing dreams. I had lived in a bunch of places always for only a brief period of time. I had grown up though in a small town.
I loved the “citiness” of Toronto when I first arrived, the endless variety of streets and neighbourhoods and the uptowns and downtowns to explore but it was overwhelming; traffic, crowds of people on subway platforms, on city streets. My first teaching job was amongst a student population greater than the population of my childhood town. I would watch as classes changed and students poured down the stairways and hallways and I would imagine all the people I knew in my town young and old, shopkeepers and teachers and firefighters and clergy making their way through the school.
There was no place in Toronto that felt familiar, no routes or neighbourhoods. I only knew I felt comfortable in the west end, crossing the bridge to the Danforth felt daunting so I, and then we, moved from apartment to apartment in the most familiar west end. And then we moved to this neighbourhood and over the years through the relationships, the school and community events, the routes to shop, to visit, to share coffee and reflect on the week I began to feel familiar, feel roots growing into the earth grounding me like the wonderful trees I walk past everyday on my way to local destinations. I’ve walked with my children and later with my dog and sometimes just getting around the block is a spontaneous visit with a variety of people in a warm and familiar place.
When we decided to buy a house in 1983 we ”discovered” this neighborhood for what I thought was the first time. It was unknown, charming in its way and affordable. I happily strolled the streets with a new baby and an old dog and eventually began to feel part of the community.
One day, while walking past the local Kentucky Fried Chicken I suddenly realized that this was the same one my father periodically took us to in the mid 60’s to pick up Sunday night dinner. As a child, in the bubble of the family car, I had accompanied him there many times and yet had not recognized any of these same streets when we moved here many years later.
Different parts of the city take on new meanings at various stages of life. Over time they weave together to create a personalized topography of the city. This is what gives it meaning and makes it feel like home.
We had a great second floor apartment in a comfortable home in a perfect location. The rent was cheap and we were settled … until the owner gave us notice that he was selling the house. A real-estate friend mentioned an area he thought we should look at, a place where we might be able to afford to own something rather than rent. We had never heard of the area. Didn’t know a soul who lived there. But off we went.
And we found an affordable home on a lovely tree-lined street, one we introduced to family and friends. We met our neighbours, shopped on St. Clair, celebrated soccer wins and street festivals, and became involved in our school community.
We moved once more, a little further west, extending the boundaries of our neighbourhood a kilometer or so. The home inspector noted that we needed a new roof. The roofer asked, “25 or 20-year shingles?” The difference was price. Not a chance we would stay in one place 20 years. Well, here we are 22 years later living in a comfortable home in a perfect location, settled. So settled that we just called the roofer who is still in business and now preparing a quote for our new roof, one with 25-year shingles. Hey, we live in hope …