Loving the New (Old) Neighbourhood

A few years back, I took my first improv class. The first exercise we did was one that worked on both positivity, feeling comfortable in front of a group and to practice not self-censoring. The exercise was simple: Stand alone in front of the class and say “I love ____, and I love ____” and on and on, filling in the blanks with things.  Thanks to Negativity Bias when unchecked we do the opposite quite often. We talk about all the things we don’t like. That meal, the attitude of the server, the transit ride over, the weather and on and on. I liked that exercise because it turned that on its head. And I’d like to do the same here. To take a minute or two to say something I love.

In 2003 after a short search I was offered a job in Toronto. A week before Christmas I flew up to Toronto for a three day weekend. This would be my only chance to find an apartment.  I rented a car and saw a number of places from a highrise way out in the suburbs to small subdivided houses closer to the centre in parts of town that were not yet trendy but soon to become so. I went to one place in the heart of the city that had both a movie theatre and a sushi restaurant on the first floor. This one turned out to be a little sketchy and instead of the usual rental agent enthusiasm, the response I got was concern. “I’m not sure this  is really a good building for a family.”

I also headed to a huge building in the inner suburbs – Thorncliffe Park. The apartment was the biggest of all of the ones we’d seen and the highest up: on the 36th floor.  We moved in a few weeks later and lived there about five years after which I thought it would be better to live closer to the ground in a community with better cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

After that we lived in four other apartments over 8 years: a tiny coach house at the edge of a park with its very own postal code, an even smaller apartment on top of the subway, a larger apartment in a 100 year old house built for a conservative member of parliament and now divided in to 5 apartments, and finally a flashy 18 month old condo in a trendy part of the city.  The latter one was such a trendy area that the landlord decided they wanted to get much more money for it and made up the usual story about  a family member possibly moving in soon. We took the hint, and started looking. (When we left the unit, it was immediately listed at 20% more than we were paying – and because the rental market in that area is crazy it was snapped up almost immediately.

When we realized we would have to move again we talked about the places we’d lived and what we were looking for. It wasn’t long before we both realized what we were talking about was moving back to our first neighbourhood. After years of trying all sorts of different parts of the city we ended up back where we started back in a place a friend has dubbed the cloud palace.

The apartment is lovely but the neighbourhood is what really has captured our interest and is likely to keep us here for a long time. (We were so excited to come back we signed a two year lease – at 60% of the price our last landlord listed our apartment for twice the space)

In previous weekends I’ve taken my bike on long bike rides in the countryside outside of Toronto. One has no need to battle Toronto traffic to get to the great cycling north of the city. Just head down this path or a slightly busier driveway in to the park and turn north. You’ll be led up several paths and a couple of quiet roads, through parks, along the Don River until you eventually end up in Markham and once there the roads quickly go from suburban arterials into quiet roads and farmland.

As someone who likes to eat and cook, this is a perfect location. There are several kebab places in the area and one currently under construction. Indian / Pakistani food and Hakka Chinese food are available within a short walk. But most exciting for me is the variety of food available. Closest to us is a standard grocery store, but walk a little further in that direction and the region’s largest South Asian market is there. The size of a standard supermarket it has nearly every kind of bread, rice spice, dessert, snack, sweet, meat and produce known to man.  East African Carrot pickle is in the same cooler as pre-made dosa and idli batter and all of that is just down the aisle from the fresh banana blossoms and mangosteens.

But if you can’t find what you’re looking for there, go the same distance in the other direction. In a plaza with a Pakistani restaurant, Chinese restaurant, Caribbean place, an Eastern European deli and a Vietnamese restaurant you will find a store with a more Chinese / Southeast Asian focus. There I can get anything else I want to make from fish sauce to kimchi, to lemongrass and fresh lime leaves and Thai basil, to fresh live fish and shellfish to a hot table with dumplings and Chinese BBQ. But to ensure that everyone can find what they need you will also find a good selection of Indian and Pakistani groceries and a selection of staples you might find at a more mainstream Canadian supermarket.

The neighbourhood of Thorncliffe Park itself has a rather ingenious design. As many urbanists push for low rise high density development, this neighbourhood is reminiscent of some of Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” ideals – and they seem to work well. The neighbourhood, laid out along what was once a horse race track in the early part of the last century is, is almost entirely high rises. On the outer side of the highrises are park land. In the centre of the circle is a school, a few small buildings, East York Town Centre – a small shopping centre with grocery store, drug store, and a few other small shops, the library and community centre, and this place: R. V. Burgess Park.  When we moved here in 2004, it wasn’t used much. This has changed a lot in the intervening years. Much of the time it is filled with parents and kids playing. On Fridays there is a market with people selling clothes, vegetables, dried goods and snacks. North America’s only open air tandoor is also there.  This weekend was “Neighbour’s Night Out” where there was live music. There were also snacks!

And as about 1/4 of the people in this neighbourhood speak Urdu I was able to order without English. Mujhe chaat chahiye. Spicy banao.  “I’d like the snack, make it spicy”  It was delicious. Not only can I practice speaking there, I can at the food court in the mall and other stores in the area. The response ranges from surprise/amusement to maybe not even noticing I wasn’t speaking English and responding in English. Last night at the movie / paan store I had my favourite reaction: They were completely non-plussed. It was a little challenging, and one of the guys politely corrected my pronunciation but it was satisfying. The next thing I need to figure out is how to broaden my conversation. I’m getting pretty comfortable with shopping and food – but how to move on from there?

And then there are the small things about living here that make me happy. Gangs of 7-12 year old kids riding the elevators together and going out to the park with the trust of parents that I thought died in the days of Stranger Things but here kids are comfortably going out on their own all the time.

The town centre is something of a hub of activity and gathering in the way that public spaces should be. Groups of elders gather inside at the food court sharing stories and coffee.  Outside at the edge of the parking lot a group of middle aged men have put out a sheet of cardboard in the shade of a tree and are playing chess – not on the grass to keep their pieces from falling. And without exception, ever time I go past the more remote area at the edge of the parking lot where the flocks of pigeons gathering is a kid giggling wildly, running after pigeons while a parent looks on, smiling.  And just yesterday afternoon, just after my son left to catch the bus that takes him to the subway in about 10 minutes, the phone rang. “Look outside!” And I did. And there, in the sky were two kites – each being flown from one side of the street. Each of them was almost as high as our window hundreds of feet in the air.  They remained there for quite some time, floating and diving until there was only one. Having defeated the other one it continued higher, until it was even higher than the rooftop of our building – over 400 feet in the air.  A couple hours later, as I was walking in the same area, two police officers rode slowly by… on horses.

As much as I love the practical aspects of the choice of this move, the low rent, ability to walk everywhere, and excellent transit, the moments that surprise me, and my days here are often filled with them, are what will keep me here.

2 thoughts on “Loving the New (Old) Neighbourhood

  1. thanx Todd, interesting & rewarding food for thought as i’m going to sell my house & – until i decide where i want to buy again (ideally a tiny house or apartment) – am going to rent somewhere small in a vibrant mixed community; so making time to research is one of my projects!

  2. I love this! I love that you’re happy. I love that you all wanted to go back. I love the sound of the community. And I love that I got three sentences into writing this before I realized I sounded just like your improv exercise 🙂

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