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.

 

X Marks the Spot

a-to-z-letters-x I’ve been a day behind almost the entire week, so I apologize in advance for the double post today, but I want to try to get caught up before calling it a night.

I can’t quite put my finger when I first fell in love with maps. It may have been an excessive amount of creating, colouring and labelling maps in elementary school as part of the core curriculum that warp me as a young kid. It may have been a family road trip to Florida when I was 8 that kick started it and grabbing one too many handfuls of maps and tourist brochures at roadside stops along the I-75. Regardless I have found maps fascinating for as long as I can remember. The details they reveal about the history of a place, the lay of the land, the map maker themselves, and just the artistic nature of some maps.

Geography was always one of my favourite subjects in school, but for some reason I didn’t stick with it when I went to University. Instead I enrolled in a Engineering program and went on to fail out in the first year. While the details of how I came to fail out are more complicated than I want to get into in this post, suffice it to say that in the end I wasn’t as well suited to Engineering as I had been lead to believe. Oddly enough I did enrol in the Geography Department the next semester eventually getting a degree in Environmental Management.

I think in another life I must have been a cartographer. I have an old 1899 map of the City of Toronto hanging above my desk and its beautiful to look as much as its interesting in all the detail that it holds. It shows creeks and waterways long since paved over and redirected through storm sewers. Shorelines and roadways that have warped and shifted as the city developed. In that way the cartographer is a bit of a historian, documenting places in time as much as space.

H is for History

H is for History I’ve already talked a bit about my love for the history of words in my post E is Etymology or Why Do We Say It?, but my love of history goes far beyond just words.

I’ve always been interested in local history, or history that is tied to a specific place and people. I am interested in how people shape their surroundings and vice versa. I’m a geographer at heart, so I can’t help be fascinated by the interaction of geography and people. So far I’ve had the pleasure to live in three different urban settings each with their own particular geography and history. I am always fascinated by the reasons these settlements grow into the cities they do and what attracts people to them. As the old real estate joke goes the three most important things about a city is “Location, Location, Location”.

My hometown and birthplace of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario was settled on a a portion of the St. Mary’s rapids that were significant fishing grounds for local aboriginal populations, but also provided access between what would eventually become Michigan on the south shore of the river and Ontario on the north shore. Sault Ste. Marie, or The Soo for short, was originally settled by Europeans since 1668 when French Jesuits established a mission there. I could go on at length about how the Soo’s geography has shaped its history over the years, but that’s a lecture for another time.

My second adopted hometown was the great metropolis of Toronto. Located on the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto was settled on aboriginal lands purchased from the Mississaugas of the New Credit in the late 1780s to provide a home for British Loyalists fleeing America after the revolutionary war. Prior to European settlement, the area was a well established portage route between Lake Huron and Lake Ontario. Toronto has a great history and some great local historians that have well documented the growth and stories of the city. One such historian whose books about Toronto and its people that I love reading is Mike Filey. His series of books called Toronto Sketches brings to life portions of Toronto’s history with pictures and stories that everyone can relate to.

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Miners posing in a ore car – Copper Cliff Express

My third and current hometown is Greater Sudbury, an amalgamation of a number of communities surrounding the City of Sudbury in Northern Ontario. Originally a logging town, the town became a hub for railways and a mining centre when copper and nickel were discovered in the late 1800s. More than 150 years later they are still taking ore out of the ground.

Everywhere I go there are stories to be uncovered about the changing face of the places I live in and the stories of the individuals who live there. Maybe its the writer in me, but I never grow tired of learning about local history.