Crossing frontiers in Toronto is like crossing frontiers on a tiny continent, where vastly different cultures lie close to one another. In this town, we can cross two frontiers in an afternoon.
Jamaal and I turn our backs on the plaque to writer Morley Callaghan, who described his Rosedale neighbourhood as a “fine and private place.” We cross the footbridge over thick greenery below us, a true forest if not for the sound of cars below. On the south side of the bridge, Mr. Brown and his willfully anonymous friend sit at the tunnel entrance-way that will take us into St. Jamestown.
The pair has come here for years – Mr. Brown to smoke cigarettes in his wheelchair and his friend to sip beer on the steps. Former homeless, they are genial sentinels, pleased to talk to us and comfortable in the shade on a piercingly clear late summer’s day. But like all sentinels, they carry a warning – stay away from this place by night, when it belongs to the crack dealers.
The tunnel is an architectural time machine. It takes us under Bloor Street and beyond the shops into a neighbourhood that reminds me of nothing so much as a Warsaw high-rise suburb during the cold war. These apartment blocks are the remnants of a nineteen sixties dream of urban renewal, and Jamaal and I are stepping back into the future. The empty swimming pool and cracked surface of the tennis court betray unfulfilled aspirations of urban planning.
But St. Jamestown gives off none of the gritty gangsta vibe of The Wire. It is, if anything, arid and mysterious, with only the sound of children from a school playground to animate the otherwise empty soundscape.
Jamaal takes a photo of a basketball court upon which a pair of preschoolers scoot along, and three harridans in hijabs descend on us – who are we? What right do we have to take photos? What do we want? Jamaal is unfazed. He shows them the photo and offers to delete it. They take him up on his offer and this act pacifies the women. Mollified, they instruct us in politeness, to ask first before clicking the shutter.
School lets out for lunch and the sidewalks come alive. We see a stream of kids and adults going into a high-rise back door which has been propped open with a brick. Jamaal and I enter and take the elevator up three floors, and then we step out into a pristine corridor. I smell lunch behind the closed doors, mixed scents that remind me of a Chinese grocery.
We suddenly feel like interlopers again – two men in a corridor of lives behind closed doors. We scuttle down the stairs and out to the west side of the high rise complex where locals have set up a flea market. A few young toughs sit on a bench. It’s best not to try a photograph here.
St. Jamestown is a series of towers that don’t give up their secrets easily.
Patrick Lee is waiting for us at Wellesley, the next border, and we follow him into the the largest collection of Victorian housing in North America, a warren of cottages, small apartments and lanes worthy of a Harry Potter movie.
Patrick is knowledgeable, and invites us to compare what we see with Hugh Garner’s 1949 novel, Cabbagetown. The book depicted the rough and grimy depression era in this neighbourhood, when bottles could be bought in a back alley now called Prohibition Lane.
All traces of the past have been wiped away by successive waves of gentrification. The red brick has been scrubbed, the gardens managed to seem artlessly charming.
And the people are camera friendly and talkative. Judith Blackman in her top of many colours comes up an alley with the help of her cane, and praises the nearby restaurants, cafes, dance venue, and theatre.
David Reed is barefoot on his front porch, reading a novel and glad to share memories of his happy decades in this neighbourhood. Doug Game pauses from gardening, a bunch of freshly cut buds in his hand, and talks of the neighbourhood as a place of house-proud professionals who look out for each other.
Charm lies thick in Cabbagetown, with its bits of brick road. Not yellow brick, but still. It is the emerald city domesticated.
There are no cabbages in Cabbagetown, the moniker mostly an ironic nod to the past.
Jamaal and I go looking for them in Riverdale Farm. This was a zoo here once upon a time in my childhood, the only place a west ender like me ever visited east of Yonge. The zoo used to have a neurotic polar bear that stood under a running faucet for the coolness, and there were popcorn men and candy apples. But these are all gone now. Even the farm animals, the woman farmer milking the goats tells us, only rotate here, visitors from real farms outside the city.
Thomas Kinkade was an American painter beloved for his cosy paintings, and if life imitates art, Cabbagetown is Kinkade made real. It has none of the grandeur of Rosedale, nor the modernist austerity of St Jamestown. The place looks like a neighbourhood full of mythic grandmothers’ houses, but grandma doesn’t live here any more.
Jamaal and I stop for a burger and hot dog from a serving window built into a residential house. We survey the park, the neighbourhood, the farm, and the necropolis – even the dead lie in graceful surroundings here.
We do not live here. We are tourists, and I try to maintain an ironic attitude, but it is useless. Cabbagetown on a warm summer’s day is like Paris, almost too good to be true. And what kind of grouch could possible say the place isn’t lovely?