Toronto the Good

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Toronto Thunderstorm – by John R. Southern

I grew up in a Northern Ontario town that felt smaller than its population of 75,000 would have you believe. The fact that Toronto was a 7+ hours car ride in one direction and Thunder Bay 7+ hours in the other direction IN GOOD WEATHER made it feel more isolated than it was. When I got the opportunity to move to Toronto to attend university when I was 19, I jumped at it. In my naive thinking of the time I figured it was a great opportunity to experience life in the big city for 4 years while I got my degree before I moved home to start my life as an adult. (Okay you can stop laughing now, no seriously.)

Well probably after my first year of living in Canada’s biggest metropolis I realized that I had no intention of ever going ‘home’ again to live. I spent the next 19 years living in a variety of different neighbourhoods – a basement apartment in Etobicoke,  the student ghetto in the Annex, an apartment in Don Mills, a high-rise bachelor apartment at Yonge & Eglington, an apartment in the Annex (just outside the student ghetto this time), a basement apartment off of the Danforth, an apartment in North York, and finally in my last year and a half in the GTA to a townhouse in Mississauga. Toronto and its neighbourhoods slowly seeped into my DNA (figuratively, not literally although that would be a cool SF premise right there.) In short it became my adopted home town.

Oddly enough the way these things work, I didn’t really feel like I was “from” Toronto until I moved back to Northern Ontario for work in 2006 (albiet one town over from my birthplace). I guess there’s some truth in the old adage that you don’t know what you have until its gone.  Toronto had served as a backdrop in several of my short stories that I wrote while living there, but it never became a character in any of my stories until now.

In my current WIP (translation for non-writers: Work in Progress) I’m trying to distil my memories of Toronto into the story. Writing about a specific place has its unique challenges. On the one hand you’re describing a place that has to ring true to people that live there, but on the other hand you’re trying to describe a place in a way that people that have never been there (and may never experience the city first hand) can relate without sounding like a travelogue. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, my novel is about two characters travelling between alternate universes, so not only does my Toronto need be “real” it also has to be unreal in very unique and distinct ways.

Toronto’s history has been shaped by it’s weather, geography, politics, art, and above all else the people that have called the city home over the past 200+ years. In the late 1880s Mayor William Howland coined the term “Toronto the Good” in an effort to campaign to clean up the less savoury aspects of the city and paint the town with his own Victorian morality. While much of Howland’s reforms have been forgotten, the nickname stuck with Toronto for a long time in a derisive way, describing the city’s its uptight nature. My challenge now is trying to imagine the Toronto the good, the bad, and the ugly as it were and make them come alive on the page in a way that serves the story.