Monday, April 11, 2022

A Certain Loss of Grace 

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Early spring in Toronto is a wretched sight. The snow has melted and muddied the soggy parks. The puddled pathways are dirty with mashed litter pressed into every crevice. The city's trees, still dormant, are barren, brown and lifeless. Any green on the grass is but a stain. The hems of buildings are splattered dark with damp and mildew. Every grey building is smudged into the grey sky. Toronto looks like a place that was once affluent, but is now down on its luck, exhaling "a certain loss of grace" as Italo Calvino* might say. It's as though the wet of the season has washed all the colours away. The wealthy have left behind their mansions, long since converted to boarding houses, so sub-divided and mean, that their inner smallness bursts down slanted stairs, past improvised doors and out cracked windows. The coldness of the air is the only thing suppressing the earthy rot from blooming. Gusts of wind whip around corners carrying a confetti of garbage and a skitter of empty plastic bottles.

Yet this is the city I've decided to live in and know. After years in my neighbourhood there's plenty of laneways and streets still to be discovered. It is often remarked that Toronto’s architecture is akin to a glitch in the Matrix. A mini-Brutalist civic office abuts a grand red brick manse now carved up and condo-ized. A 1940s addition to a 19th century school may have yet another addition slicing through blond brick as a surgically implanted frosted cube. An apartment block of suspended glass curtain may grow crystalline-like from a handsome stone house. What was once a carriage house is now the footstool for a concrete behemoth. The laneways are the mycelium connecting avenues, tiny parks and towers.

The narcissism of Toronto means it only admires its newness and only appreciates the economy of buildings that are more manufactured than constructed. It is a thoroughly modern city that only sees itself in reflections of its own glass facades. Where are the follies, the whimsies or beauties that give form to the soul of the place? In Toronto you have to look hard. You have to squint between the gaps to capture the moments of reflected light when someone said, “This will be beautiful, uncompromising and pure.” There is accidental beauty too and some breezeway or courtyard where trees cluster naively next to built boxes to create something so unique that its planning is unimaginable.

Only through walking or maybe riding a bicycle slowly can you appreciate the lovely seams of neighbourhoods that make even ugly beaten down places shine a bit brighter. If you can find those moments even at the most dire, inert season when every living thing remains retreated then you will have a chance to not just live in a city but to bath in it.

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