Novelist, publisher of Brick, a Literary Journal and author of Consolation, a novel published in 2006, in which he intertwines the stories of two Torontonians, J.G. Hallam a photographer who took a famous, lost set of photographs of the burgeoning city in 1856, and David Hollis who a century later sets out to find them. As the photographs disappeared in a shipwreck on the lake, the search is archaeological. A dig occasioned by the excavation of a site for a new sports arena, on land that was once water.
Toronto in the 1850s occupied a small physical space, defined by its buildings and connecting through toll roads north of Bloor street to the country beyond. It was settled by people from England who knew what it was like to live in a city, few, I suspect, from rural Britain. Consider what it is to be isolated in a small place with few people, and what it is like to be isolated in a big place with lots of people. These are different types of loneliness. In the former you are struggling to make connections for your survival. In the latter you are surrounded by humanity but you are anonymous.
Here the outer savage, natural world was always at your doorstep. It was a strong feeling in Toronto at the time, and one of the reasons for building a city that resembled the London of the era was to recreate a sense of the familiar. Outside London did not look like what you saw outside Toronto. What you saw was the Humber River, for example, which was wilderness incarnate. Toronto was surrounded by trees, Natives, bears and bobcats. And what walked the streets of Toronto wasn’t always human.
David Hollis says at one point in Consolation, “Neglect of the past is a form of despair.” It’s a key line for me. I think the belief in the eternal present in a Toronto is really limiting in terms of the potential for citizenship. Not to mention our capacity to shepherd the city through its various crises. To me honouring what’s gone before is a way of becoming less lonesome as a Torontonian. The positive possibilities have to do with feeling a part of a chain of social and cultural events that have happened here, that you belong to. But we don’t think that way. And we don’t because we’re still a very transient city, at least mentally. I think that’s what contributes to some people’s sense of not really belonging to a place when they live here.
The mindset from the moment of arrival was “this could be a little like Britain.” So it’s always been a question of “are we there yet?” Toronto has never been Toronto because it’s always been trying to be the thing someone at some point thought it should be. It’s not just the colonial mentality. It has to do with never arriving, and always waiting to be told what it is. This whole notion of world class has poisoned the city forever, and the ideas is still operational. It would never have happened if the people who first came here had decided to find out what the place was, the spirit of the place. If they had built on that…
I don’t think the people who settled the city came here thinking something will happen to us here, and we’ll become a new kind of person and build a new kind of city. We’ll respond to what’s here. No, they came here, put down grid-like streets and turned it into a garrison town. I’m not even sure they thought they’d stay.
Forever after it’s been a city waiting for somebody to give it a seal of approval.
When I was growing up in a part of the city called Willowdale, downtown was another country. When the King Tut exhibition first came in 1980 I was 14 and this was the first time my parents allowed me to go anywhere south of York Mills by myself. I took the Queen car way east, almost to the Beach to a grotesque, scary part of town, right where Licks is now. Everything was old and rotten; a used bookstore and shop windows full of stuff. But I had a collectors mentality from an early age so it fascinated me.
I didn’t go through a period of rejection. I always loved the city. I remember in my late teens and early twenties it entering my consciousness that people didn’t see what I saw in the city. People were ashamed of Toronto, and I was surprised by that. It felt like a really big place to me with lots of stuff, and depth. The more so back then. It was a city where the old and neglected lives cheek-to-cheek with new buildings. You could still see Lake Ontario, and the notion of the city being married to the lake was still there. A backward place with a certain amount of charm.
I was quite young when I became aware of what happened to all the rivers in the city. The Don river is laid out like a body that’s never been buried. All these creeks gone. Taddle, Garrison. It gives you the sense of how the landscape has been changed by eradicating the waterways. That’s always struck me as a fascinating phenomenon. I know every city does it, but because I live here I find it interesting to be aware of landforms. Like the curve of Niagara Street. People rarely wonder why it does that. And it’s because the people on the west side used to live on an escarpment looking over water.
We use our water in a shameful way. Aside from certain aspects of Toronto Island life, it’s not a vibrant body of water here. We put up a curtain of concrete between ourselves and the water. We can forgive some Torontonians for feeling land-locked.
My one word for Toronto would be tentative. It has to do with that waiting for direction. So there’s a kind stasis in the city which is masked by frenetic activity of the sort that is totally transient. I’m talking here about the city’s built heritage, the external expression of its heart and soul. What we want to look like speaks volumes about what we think we are. To me the city is an extraordinarily tentative place. It’s a state of mind that comes out of fear, to some degree. At some deep level the fear that if you participate in a really active way you’ll miss the thing’ that’s supposed to be arriving. I think the average Torontonian is the person who says they live here but are not sure what here is.
When I went to the South of France I missed the variegated city. In Europe you find a monolith, and some of the most deliciously beautiful monolithic things you’ll ever see; but no variety, no sense of the Other and things coming from an unexpected direction to change the way you think. Or to affect your desires. Though I’m very critical of this tentative quality Toronto has, I also find it very tender. There is something hurt and bruised about Toronto that I always want to be near because I think it represents a kind of openness. It could be harnessed. At the time of David Miller’s election you felt that. Is this gonna be for us? Really for us? A swelling of a very local feeling about Toronto. “Plug me in! If I can be useful for this, I’ll do it.” I like that. It still exists here though it goes to ground very quickly at the first sign of opposition. We give up quickly.
I have this belief that if someone waved a magic wand and turned this city into a place specifically for the people who live here (rather than the tourists), you’d see this groundswell of pride and joy because people hunger for it. We just don’t ask for it any more. It’s possible that the desire still exists. But I think there’s a secret agreement that it can’t happen. I feel really tenderly for this city, and the quality of submerged hope that a lot of our fellow citizens have.
Toronto in the 1850s was a dangerous place. In many ways. Personally, financially and psychologically. It took an immense amount of courage and perseverance to make it here. These were strong people. It didn’t take much, the first sign of badness — a cough or no customers — could signal the beginning of the end. It was very rare anyone bounced back. This wasn’t a place that allowed second chances. The threats to peoples’ well being today are very different, and I think you do get second chances in Toronto — so long as you can pay the rent.
I did a walk this year for Heritage Toronto and took people to the corner of Wellington and Front Streets, and talked about how it would have sounded 150 years ago. The calls of stevedores at the docks, horns and whistles, the clip-clop of horses and gabble of animals arriving at the market, people walking, a hive of activity all drawing you attention southward. To the harbour and the Lake.
Michael Redhill in conversation at One Café March 8th, 2010