Alien landscape

December 8, 2020

A friend and I went for a walk the other night after dinner. He doesn’t have a dog; we took ours.

It was dark. It gets dark so early in December. Some houses in our neighbourhood, in Toronto’s Little Portugal, have Christmas lights, which twinkle and cheer up the urban gloom.

We walked south and crossed King Street into another part of town. When I moved to Toronto in the 1990s, this was a nameless redoubt of old factories. For one of my first stories at the Financial Post I wrote about the succession at Irwin Toy, a toy factory that had, for most of a century, filled a lumbering red-brick industrial building here. On that day in the late 1990s, I saw the machine that transformed coils of wire into Slinkies. (Irwin Toy also built table-hockey games in the building).

Later for another story I visited an old warehouse building converted into a set for a television show. At the time lots of designers and photographers populated the old factory buildings, moving with comfort among with the exposed wooden beams and brick walls, and sagging hardwood floors.

Much of this artsy cachet is now gone. What’s weird, and perhaps unique to Toronto, at least among cities in North America, is that I can leave my house, walk for half an hour, and come to a neighbourhood that I have literally never seen before.

The pace of construction in what’s now called Liberty Village is so breakneck that I’d almost call it a pathology. We walked east on East Liberty Street, a street that did not exist five years ago. Now 20-storey condo towers, made of glass and concrete and little else, line both sides of the street. They stand there together kind of like students on the first day of school; the buildings appear as though they don’t know one another. Some feature odd contemporary sculptures out front. Spindly trees offer a glimmer of hope.

Of course it’s even weirder during COVID. There was no one around, and the restaurants were shuttered; food delivery courriers whizzed past in the dark on bicycles, electric bicycles and scooters. The whole place felt extraterrestrial and deeply strange; almost as though I’d been dropped on a foreign planet where I did not know my way, knew nobody and could not speak the language. And yet a scant few years ago this was an industrial neighbourhood where I knew a lot of people.

I am not sure how much I actually want to get to know this neighbourhood. This being Toronto, my worry is that they’ll knock it all down in five years more, and build something else.

There is some good news: what with Covid, since we can’t sit down and drink beer or coffee, we go for walks instead, which is much healthier. Plus, our dogs loves the walks.