Corktown, Toronto. It was pitch dark at 5 pm, cold, with flurries slowly landing and melting onto the streetcar tracks. I was wearing my fancy pair of waterproof, burgundy boots as I sludged my way onto the north side of King Street East and Ontario towards my building. I was nervous about slipping; fresh flurries–like rain–take time to embed and create friction, so I needed to be careful despite the deep tread at the bottom of my boots.
It was November and I had just moved into my new apartment in Corktown, downtown Toronto. I’d lived in a few cities in my life and visited even more, but I’d never actually lived in downtown cores because they were too expensive. Besides, there is a certain sterility about Western downtown cities that repelled me; soulless structures in the financial districts; dingy, dirty streets where no one cared to take extra care because it wasn’t their community, and businesses that catered to office-worker traffic who could get products and services done during free nuggets of time, like a dental appointment or dropping off dry-cleaning. These businesses rarely stayed open past office hours; most shut down after 6pm.
I was hesitant to get an apartment in what I thought was a soulless part of the city, but it was close to work, and my brother– a stealthy real estate agent– explained that the location would allow my place to increase in value. In other words, it was a pragmatic as opposed to an emotional decision. There were also a few other theatres nearby, which tugged at my affinity for plays and musicals. Maybe there was an artistic part of Corktown that I overlooked.
I picked a building with a quasi-residential feel. There were two homely Italian restaurants and one unpretentious pub within 200 feet of my building’s entrance, and a locally-owned coffee shop a block away. To boot, a cheap supermarket chain was only a five-minute walk so I knew I wouldn’t be surrounded by pretentious people all the time. My neighbourhood has solid diversity, and people of all income levels shopped there. I fed the global citizen in me when I shopped the aisles: Filipino sweet bread, frozen Indian samosas not sold by a conglomerate, and guava juice. I love guava juice.
The pandemic shut everything down, and with the haunting silences save for the streetcars quietly roaring on my evening walks, I was treated to empty storefronts, ghosts of a community I was anticipating acquainting myself with, and feeling solitary loneliness I know I would only experience once in my lifetime (here’s hoping pandemic days are over for the foreseeable future).
Did I feel sad? Yes, but I knew I was being given an opportunity to get to know a neighbourhood on my own terms. I could walk in Leslieville (the next neighbourhood over), and create quiet memories that weren’t marred by the distraction of other people’s energy. I could look into a bakery and take my time deciding what I wanted because only two people were allowed at a time, instead of elbowing my way through a Saturday morning crowd to witness a couple bickering over what to buy for some horrendous dinner party that one was forcing the other to go to. I discovered Spaccio, the Italian food production facility that was part of one of the most popular restaurant groups in Toronto. They sold doughnuts filled with creamy Nutella–bombolinis.
On my two-hour walks, I paid attention to every store’s products or services offered. Most were closed but I preferred it that way. I got the chance to admire displays–especially clothing stores–whose visual work was an insight into the merchandiser’s mind. They are usually trying to tell a story through the products they sell, but as customers, we’re always in such a hurry that we only notice the bullet points, and don’t pick up the overall message.
On the coldest days, when I dared to go out because I was committed to getting my exercise quota, I noticed people like myself, who needed a reprieve from the tiny boxes of living spaces they were stuck in. Corktown had too many condo buildings and the mental stamina we needed from the never-ending hypervigilance of trying not to catch a virus was exhausting.
A particular population of the Corktown nightly walking ceremonies were the dog-walkers. I saw a woman in her twenties who used her pet as an excuse to go for a smoke, hiding her habit from her partner who was becoming increasingly difficult to live with. I surveyed a family of four where the parents used the large Saint Bernard to get their kids out and running, likely wanting the sugar high from the apple pie to wear off so they could go to bed at a reasonable hour. This would allow them to unwind in peace with a bottle of wine and watch flat, late-night jokes on TV before going to bed, waking up and doing it all over again.
Occasionally I would get a burger and fries at Riverside Burgers, where two young men would make casual conversation with me. With its’ clinical red and white exterior, the shoppe had a distinct 50s-style diner feel, barely having room for more than six customers. And talking to these men, who were from South America, was a strong contrast to the interior they worked in. After all, these diners usually represented small-town white America. I realized how varied Toronto was, not only in its’ diverse human population, but in its ability to collaborate its’ aesthetics with time and space.
Now that public health restrictions have been lifted, people are returning, and I am getting a stronger sense of who lives in my neighbourhood. There are definitely hipster cafes and expensive furniture stores that attract an affluent population. Think Italian interior design firms that create bespoke bathrooms and kitchens. There are pub chains that invite a casual after-work crowd who stay in the area to have drinks with co-workers. I also see many students who finish class at George Brown College, which has a massive presence in my neighbourhood; they frequent The Wine Rack, buying reds and whites to blow off steam after a long day of classes, or a jaunt to Chatime for a Bubble Tea treat, complementing it with the beautiful sunshine grazing the concrete sidewalks.
I collected pieces of Corktown while it was hibernating in silence, and then put it all together when the spring thawed the frozen pandemic hold, giving me a picture of how to integrate. Because I want to build my own impression of my neighbourhood’s identity through what I feed it with my own eyes and ears…and then hopefully, it can feel somewhat like home.