Midtown: Northern District Branch Library

In 2004 I often take the subway past Eglinton station on my way home from a client in the far north of the city. Most stops don’t encourage me to even look up from my book, but a smell of sweets and cinnamon makes me get up one day to see what’s in the station.

What’s in the station is a Cinnabon, a chain bakery specializing in frosted cinnamon rolls. I buy and eat one. It’s delicious but the sugar rush gives me a headache for the rest of my trip home. But from this point on I am aware of a world above the tracks at this station.

A busker in Eglinton Station in the “before times”

Now, some mornings on the way to work I’ll pick up a bagel at the bagel shop. On the way home in the early spring I’ll pick up a maple latte at the coffee place. But it’s the pizza place that gets the most of my attention. The slices there are the closest to what I’ve found in New York City – an oasis in a city of terrible pizza and it’s the only pizza I buy in Toronto for years.

When I learn that there’s a bus that goes directly from this station to my neighbourhood, I realize I can venture a bit further from the station to the grocery store to pick up a few things on the way home.

Outside the station is a neighbourhood of highrises surrounded by single family homes, With a bus to take me directly there I visit the neighbourhood when I’m not commuting to visit the bookstore, or to check out the shops and restaurants on Yonge street. One day I notice a narrow storefront with room for only an espresso machine, a panini press, a small pastry case and a single table by the window. The floors are made of narrow unfinished wood slats that creak when you step on them. Here I have the best espresso I’ve ever had. After a few visits the owner asks me if I wanted to try something delicious. Of course I do. I sit down at the table and listen to the espresso machine hiss and silverware clink. Two minutes later the owner arrives not with a cup but a bowl. In the bowl is a scoop of vanilla gelato floating in a sea of strong, black espresso. The sweet gelato tastes amazing offset by the bitter coffee.

But years pass, we live in different neighbourhoods and I go a long time without visiting the area around Eglinton station. Soon after we move back to our first neighbourhood in 2017, a major light rail expansion project turns Eglinton Avenue into such a traffic jam that there is no longer a bus route going directly to Eglinton Station. But our new apartment looks out on that neighbourhood, now capped with cranes, building condos to house everyone who flocks there for the light rail access.

When we leave to visit today’s library, Sage doesn’t tell me where we are going. When we board the bus she turns to me and asks if I can guess where we’re going. Something tells me we’re going back to Yonge and Eglinton even though we’re literally heading in the opposite direction from it. I make this guess despite that because the most direct route will require braving the traffic on Eglinton, crossing some very busy suburban arterial streets and waiting next to a windy parking lot for as long as it takes a bus to slog through the morass of traffic to get to us. The route we’re taking requires only that we wait for one bus (3 minutes) and then take two subways the rest of the way. All waiting is done indoors with no racing traffic, no chilling winds.

When we get to Eglinton Station, the first thing that hits me is the smell of cinnamon and when I get upstairs, Cinnabon is still there. There is also still a bagel shop. But there is neither a coffee shop nor, sadly, a pizza place. These storefronts are boarded. other areas are also boarded up for construction. The tunnels that led north to the mall are closed.

There are also no buskers. While a few have been allowed to return to the subway, there aren’t as many. I suspect that many of us have shifted from carrying cash (with possible pathogens) to plastic and buskers don’t take Visa.

Outside the scene is similar, Much of Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue are blocked, some with deep holes visible behind the fences. On the plus side, traffic has been so thoroughly calmed here by the chaos that it feels extremely safe as a pedestrian.

In the end we’ll have a east/west light rail line going from one side of the city to the other. As about half of Torontonians use transit every day, this will be a game changer. Before, there was only bus service on this line which was subject to traffic. One fender bender in one busy intersection could affect service across the whole route. But the light rail line will travel separately from traffic. Needless to say we’re looking forward to it. Based on the original schedule we should have it already but in addition to the normal delays that seem built in to a Toronto transit project, we’ve had a pandemic throwing us a curve ball. It’s currently scheduled to open sometime in September.

The neighbourhood has changed significantly since we used to come here often. Many stores and restaurants have changed, others have closed permanently. New towers have gone in making the area feel significantly busier. But one block north of Eglinton, the Northern District Library looks much the same.

I’ve been here in the early 2000’s back in the days when this could be a stop on my way home from work. The library can be seen below, behind the parking sign. But what’s unique and, I must admit, extremely attractive about this branch is the fact that the tower above it is a housing cooperative. While primarily housing seniors, it provides affordable housing and, a huge bonus in my opinion, has a library beneath it. If you were to ask me to choose a great location for retirement it would be this: library underneath, grocery store across the street, subway a block away.

The library itself is one of the larger branches in the system, with it taking up most of the first floor. Sage and I split up inside, browsing on our own and grabbing a few extra books requested by Daegan.

Sage and I had both been here a few times though mostly in the times before its 2010 renovation. What we both noticed this time around is that it’s more open with more light than previously. On the other hand, Sage remarked that likely due to the pandemic, the mood was subdued and there were fewer people.

One subtle thing about Toronto’s library branches is the fact that each one can have a certain flavour. There are some obvious ways, for example, if a neighbourhood has a large number of Tamil speakers, there will be Tamil books and videos available. Other times libraries will have specialities. Lillian H. Smith Library has a great sci-fi and children’s book collection that includes some rare books. But there are some subtle ways as well. Our neighbourhood library is relatively small but has lots of new books. On the other hand what Sage noticed about this branch is that there are lots of older books from the 70s, 80s and earlier which, for her, is a plus point.

We packed both my and Sage’s backpacks full of books and headed out to do a little shopping. Wandering on the streets was not as comfortable as usual. All of Eglinton was hidden behind a fence with big pits visible in some places. Getting some places required going indoors and detouring through buildings to get past completely blocked construction areas. The weather, however, was lovely. The sun was out and it was warm enough that I was briefly able to go without a coat and many others were out taking advantage of that.

Possibly as a result of the construction, the neighbourhood itself feels like it lacks an identity or personality. Yes, there are chain stores, boutiques and restaurants around but nothing that makes me feel a sense of community or if there is one, who that community actually is. It feels as bland as many suburban neighbourhoods sitting near strip malls. It is worth noting that when I searched for the name of the most common ones here (Penguin Smartcentre) I came aross their website on which they say “From shopping centres to city centres, SmartCentres is uniquely positioned to reshape the Canadian urban and urban-suburban landscape.” and learned that they are, in fact, getting into residential real estate as well. I’m hoping that the future of our urban landscape does not look like Yonge and Eglinton is being transformed into. I think the next library visit will need to be in a more vibrant neighbourhood to cleanse my palate.

13 thoughts on “Midtown: Northern District Branch Library

  1. This is my subway station. I lived in the area for a few years and I have worked there for about 25.
    The construction has been a huge hassle, but the transformation has been ….overwhelming (in both good and bad ways).
    The library was newly renovated and that was definitely an improvement. The bar that used to be below the library was a hangout for some of my work colleagues and I (they always had Boddingtons on tap). Those co-workers no longer work with me, so we have to find other haunts.
    I have done tutoring in that library and I have read a ton of books from there.
    My favourite craft beer bar is about 4 blocks away on Mount Pleasant.
    I really like the used book store in the neighbourhood and appreciate that they have a large section of Canadian books–my sister is a big fan of Canadian fiction.

    1. I didn’t know you lived so close by, Anthony. You knew Scarborough so well I thought for sure you lived there.

      I forgot about the bar that was there. Back when the 100 bus used to go to Broadview by way of Thorncliffe Park I would sometimes take that way home from my client in Richmond Hill so stopping by there was easy. Now I work at Dufferin/Steeles area and my stop on the way home for books and groceries is North York Centre. Once weather improves a little bit, though, I’ll be doing more bike commuting. The route from here is surprisingly good. No easy library stops but a few grocery choices. There even used to be “curbside pickup” a few days a week on the Finch Hydro corridor near Finch Station.

      1. It’s funny that you think I know Scarborough so well. I am a west Toronto person and except for the Granite (and a few stops between) on Eglinton and Mount Pleasant rarely go east of Yonge street.
        Buskers are starting to make their comeback. The Chinese flute guy was back at Finch the other day. Probably the guy who plays the bass and guitar at the same time will return. I suspect the Bass Cello guy will also make a comeback.

  2. Aww shoot – my bad – I had confused you with a different cyclist.

    Yeah – I saw the guy with the flute as well at Finch and Don Mills also. There have been a few at Sheppard as well. I’m glad to see them coming back.

  3. I keep missing our get togethers but definitely hope to make the next one! Our libraries have just started a “Passport to Libraries” contest which gives you a stamp at each town’s library you visit and enters you for some prizes. Since I library hop as you do it seems a fun idea.

  4. I’m surprised to hear that there aren’t many place in Toronto to have a good Pizza! Which pizza variants are popular in Canada?

    1. Hey there – nice to see you, Arv! I’m probably too picky about pizza here. I find that the dough is not so good – thick and yeasty and a bit doughy, the sauce is acidic and cheese is often tasteless. I’m sure in some higher-end Italian restaurants, there’s good pizza to be had as they will get good ingredients and not get their sauce from a can. I’ve been spoiled by living near New York City for a while and that area has exceptional pizza. In New York itself there’s so much competition that prices are low and the quality is high as if you put out bad quality pizza you won’t last.

      I guess you’d probably find the same with a lot of mainstream Indian restaurants here. If you could find chana bhatura (I generally only see this in more traditional restaurants – less fancy places), you’d find it really disappointing – and you’d probably spend $10-12 (Rs.500-600) for it. (Luckily when it comes to Indian food, as long as you avoid the places downtown targeted more at the Canadian palate (read: no chillies, low spice) it’s actually pretty good. But you have to know where to go)

      1. Well, I can take you to some amazing places here in Jaipur for both pizza and Chana Bhatura. There are many places here who are doing authentic stuff and try to become better. Hope to see you soon in Jaipur, Todd

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