Blessed Toronto is probably one of the best cities in the world for city running–the streets follow a flat and mostly predictable grid, and there are just enough people on the street to maintain a sembalance of visual interest and security. I’ve tried to run in places like Shanghai (way too many people) and London (frustrating street pattern). Sudbury, with its non-sensical streets and ghost-town desolation, should only be attempted by those with a taste in macabre.
What these cities also don’t have are Dupont and Harbord , two westside streets that run parallel to Toronto’s main east-west thoroughfare, Bloor St. Lovingly referred to as expressways by those in the know, these two streets share the unfortunate characteristic of being bypasses for busy Bloor Street. Here, cars seem to drive faster and the pedestrians look more hurried.
What best desribes these two streets is “smalltown main drag”, with all its connotation of earthiness and hominess–but with a smattering of hints here and there that you are in fact in the middle of a big city. To be fair, Dupont and Harbord had vastly different beginnings. Dupont, north of Bloor and running parallel to the CPR tracks, cuts through a curious mix of late 19th century Toronto Bay ‘n Gable and industrial buildings; on the other hand, literary Harbord lies in the heart of south Annex and contains a wealth of bookstores and bookstore patrons. But both streets look and feel as if they were an afterthought: brick row houses with paint chipping off, blank walls facing the street, and a liberal number of 50s gas stations whose ugliness no adjectives like “charming” or “quaint” can help to conceal.
What these two streets lack in grandeur they make up in intimacy. Here businesses that would have otherwise been obliterated by high rent survive if not prosper. Vintage diners and quirky bars exist in good numbers and never seem to be filled with anyone. The occasonal turn-of-the-century apartment buildings never exceed three storeys and often exude an air of lived-in shabbiness. On Dupont, a few warehouses have been converted to less marginal uses, but many more stand as empty shells.
I could never really put my finger on what it was that endeared me so much to these two streets; nor indeed could anyone I’ve talked to that had an intimate knowledge of the westend. But as I run on these two streets, the night falling, buildings whizzing by, my perception of the surroundings becoming fleeting and highly impressionistic, I get a glimpse why: here as I run past a deserted machine yard jealously guarded by a hounddog, the burst of light from the little diner next door offers respite. Then it’s a laudromat, then a variety store. Then the storefronts recede altogether and someone’s living room beams soft light onto the pavement. The surprise is as endless as the street itself.
One night as I ran by a warehouse on Dupont I noticed a giant, flood-lit radio station logo on top of it next to an American flag. As I rounded the corner I came upon barricades, trucks, people eating, yelling, and standing around a vintage car–a film crew was working their late shift.
On another night as I stopped for traffic at Dufferin and Dupont, I noticed for the first time the giant glass factory building on the opposite corner. Twilight filtered through the glass and sketched out the outline of the vague masses inside the factory–menacing, mysterious, beautiful.
The best experience was on a recent evening, when I was running on a very dimly-lit residential side-street, south towards Harbord. It was a strange neighbourhood entirely devoid of legible street signs. Suddenly, I emerged onto a brilliant main street with human noise and pulsating music coming out of every apartment and restaurant window; quite unexpectedly I saw a streetcar. “Where is little Harbord?” For 30 seconds I felt like a baby riding a subway car that has just pulled out of the tunnel into the blinding brightness of the station, dazed, but happily so. I had apparently overshot Harbord onto College St. much farther south. But what did I feel in those 30 seconds? Sense of possibility, wonder, freedom–these are indeed big words, but that was exactly how I felt.
Excerpt from personal blog
Tags: Exploring the City, Toronto