I’ve known you my entire life, so I’m just going to come out and say it. I’m sorry. I admit it; I took you for granted. As terrible as it sounds, I let your shine wear off for a hot second or two, losing a bit of patience with you in the process. Like an assh*le, instead of being grateful for all the things you were – sorry, you are – in your global city glory, I lamented on your faults. You know… the maddening traffic, perpetual construction, sky-high rents, constant TTC closures, overwhelmingly fast pace, and slow walkers.
I know I’ve been hard on you. No city is perfect, after all.
You’re obviously not yourself these days. Sidewalks that were filled with people just weeks ago are virtually empty, aside from the odd essential errand-runner, fresh air-seeker, or (sadly) COVIDiot. Your playgrounds, a handful of which – like the innovative structures in St. James Park and Grange Park – have been impressively revitalized in recent years, are now roped off like crime scenes. Your vibrant public spaces and parks – an appreciated escape for many from our tiny downtown living spaces – are now to be approached with caution, as to avoid bursting anyone else’s six-foot social distancing bubble (and a hefty fine).
Your lively restaurant scene that contributed to all those times you ended up on “best cities to live” lists has ground to a halt. Now, the bar stools and chairs remain stacked up, everywhere from the Saturday night staples on the Ossington strip to Leslieville’s beloved brunch spots. Our favourite servers and bartenders have been laid off for the foreseeable future. Box offices are eerily empty at the magnificent theatres and concert halls that are usually packed with world-class performers and an audience from across the globe. Scotiabank Arena, which was filled with joyously rowdy Toronto Raptors fans last month – still riding the high of the team’s 2019 championship win – sits cold and silent.
It’s not easy to see you like this.
Of course, these temporary changes are all for your own good – and for the good of everyone, frankly. If it’s any consolation, most of us have seen better days as well. I’ll tell you something though, Toronto; I’ve never loved you more or been prouder to call you my city. I guess you can say that I’ve found myself in that cliché place where it took losing something to truly appreciate it. Once solely a means to get from point A to point B, fresh air-filled walks have now become something to savour. A stroll through your streets has taken on a new meaning, as I see you from a whole different lens – like a wide-eyed newcomer or a camera-clutching tourist who stops to take in the beauty of your impressive views, architecture, green spaces, and outdoor art.
Now, instead of wishing the Gardiner Expressway didn’t so dauntingly divide your bustling core from the lake – wondering out loud for the thousandth time why we couldn’t have taken a page from Chicago’s book when it came to planning your waterfront – I find myself grateful to live in a city that sits on a body of water in the first place. The calm of Lake Ontario’s water counterbalances your colourful chaos. It always has.
Last week, I spent some time taking in the soothing lake from Sugar Beach, one of your many amazing urban public space projects. In recent years, you’ve really shone in the innovation department, by the way, surprising us with vibrant public spaces in unconventional places. We now have things like an ice skating trail underneath a major highway, and a diverse marketplace made of shipping containers that support small businesses.
Rather than restlessly gazing out my window, annoyed at the new condo that has obstructed my view of the lake, I recently admired your dramatic sun-soaked skyline from the Leslie Street Spit, where I hadn’t been in over a decade. I must say, you’ve never looked better. Throughout the years, many of us have been fortunate enough to take in your stunning skyline views everywhere from a boat on the water, or the charming Toronto Island, to one of your rooftop restaurants, Riverdale Park, or the top of the Ferris wheel at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE).
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But know that you’re so much more than your good looks. You’re an old, deep, and layered soul. Your streets and historic buildings tell stories of industrious early settlers, their dreams, and their economies. While shiny new buildings have shot up on your soil, we’ve managed to preserve the heart and soul of your history – from the iconic St. Lawrence Market (which National Geographic ranked the best food market in the world) and the breathtaking St. James Cathedral, to Massey Hall, and the thoughtfully restored Distillery District.
Speaking of restoration, Toronto, your construction workers – the sight of whom last month would’ve sent a tinge of annoyance through me when already late in an Uber – have now become local unsung heroes in my eyes. While many of us remain safe at home where we should be, they risk the health of themselves and their families to earn an honest living and keep you looking your finest. I’m grateful for them and everyone who is working to keep you functioning during these times, from the tireless grocery store employees, to the passionate healthcare professionals.
It’s not just me who’s caught the warm and fuzzy feelings during this time.
I can tell that this experience has softened your character too. Instead of avoiding eye contact and conversation with strangers, Torontonians are actually seeking it, in a newfound quest for in-person connections and interactions (from six-feet apart, of course). Witnessing this return to a community vibe has become a silver lining during these uncertain days. Rather than cold and rushed, we’re connected to one another and to the moment. I see it on my properly-distanced walks. It’s revealed in the smiles and nods from strangers, the unexpected conversations in lineups for the grocery store, and even in the people stopping to chat and check in with the homeless.
Some of your homegrown businesses have also boldly stepped up to the plate, doing everything from delivering meals to the most economically vulnerable and flowers to seniors, to pivoting business operations to produce masks and essential medical supplies required for frontline healthcare workers to battle COVID-19. Local distilleries have even switched up operations to produce much-needed hand sanitizer.
So, while you may not be in your finest form, your heart certainly beats stronger than ever.
Listen, I know I’m not the first to tell you that you leave quite an impact on people. We go way back, Toronto. Biking down to The Beaches as a kid, vintage shopping on Queen West as a teenager, and sticky summer concerts at Budweiser Stage (or, the Molson Amphitheatre, as I still know it) throughout my life are among my favourite memories of you.
The nostalgia is real. So is the current withdrawal.
Once you’re yourself again, Toronto, I will appreciate everything you have to offer – and I’m not just saying that. I can’t wait to stroll through an eclectic and open-for-business Kensington Market on a summer Sunday; to enjoy comforting pasta and red wine on a patio in Little Italy; to drink beer with friends at one of your world-class festivals; or to take my mom to the next Mirvish production.
In the meantime, please accept my apology. Though the lure of other cities and – at one point – even suburbia has tempted me over recent years, I want you to know that it’s you who’s had my heart.
It’s always been you.