Adventures in North York

Living downtown, it's easy to forget just how suburban much of Toronto is. We may not like suburbia, but it's probably the most common Canadian landscape, and one that sort of makes sense to me, because I grew up in it, and I feel like I know the signs and codes of the place. The TTC makes our suburbs strangely accessible, and Yorkdale Mall is as good as an ambulatory launch pad gets out here.

As malls go, it's probably one of the nicest — and it's also Canada's oldest, built in 1964. Patrons are the usual suburban mall rats mixed with middle class people who can afford to shop at Holt Renfrew but are probably too scared to go to the one downtown. At the mall, the power of shopping causes class barriers to fall.

I stopped by the Rainforest Café. I figured it might be a long time before I could get a gin and tonic, so I consulted the maitre d' sitting in the elephant head, and then I sat on a frog barstool (next to duck, parrot, and zebra stools). The bar is made of glass and has bubbling water, and at times the whole restaurant becomes a rainforest, complete with falling rain and flapping robotic butterflies. It's Disney World without having to visit the horror of Florida. I was there the night Flight 292 had to land at LAX with a twisted front wheel. It had been circling over the Pacific for hours, but I caught the last dramatic minutes live. The guy next to me had his fingers crossed as we watched the plane make a safe but dramatic landing. We clapped and chatted about the goodness of pilots. I paid ten dollars for two G&Ts and left.

Outside the west door, facing Dufferin, there's a huge 21-foot high bronze sculpture by Gerald Gladstone called Universal Man, created "to symbolize the earthbound human energies reaching towards higher universal knowledge." It used to be next to the CN Tower, though; it was installed in 1976 by the Canadian National Railway to "give balance of human scale" to the tower. Now it gives balance to the North York SUV and minivan Panzer Division parked in the vast lot.

If you don't leave Yorkdale by subway, it's scary and difficult to leave on foot. After a period of anxiety I found a passageway underneath Allen Road that connects with a big, treeless park that hugs the south bank of the 401. At one end there is an arena where groups of guys were sitting around the parking lot having small tailgate parties next to their oversized hockey equipment bags. As I walked through I could hear conversations about jobs and girls and could smell that musty unwashed hockey equipment smell.

Neptune Drive leads through a treeless 1960s apartment development, all in the shadow of the Baycrest Jewish Retirement/Chronic Care development, which has a very nice museum of Jewish life in Toronto, complete with pictures of a young and fashionable Jeanne Beker. Scattered around the area I found old bus shelters that said "North York Transportation Department." I guess Viacom doesn't see enough revenue potential to makeover these relics from a city that technically no longer exists.

From here I went north up Bathurst and walked north under the 16 lanes of the 401. It's a tight squeeze — the sidewalk is wedged between the wall and a little steel fence. You almost have to rub up against people coming the other way. The underbelly of the 401 is like a cut tree with its growth-rings visible, from the original overpass when the 401 was the King's Highway that carried my mother and countless other Maritimers to Windsor during the 1960s, to the lanes that were added later, turning it into the bloated express-and-collector-lane beast it is today.

I continued up Bathurst, past mini-malls and more 1960s apartment buildings. This street would have done well with a subway, but instead the subway is a few kilometres west in the middle of low-density freeway. At Sheppard I turned right and crossed the huge but unremarkable bridge over the West Don River. I wonder if the Don here is as much of a psychological barrier as it is south of the Danforth. Along Sheppard are single-family homes with crummy lawns, many of which have been turned into sketchy-looking fly-by-night businesses — lots of debt counseling and immigration "helpers" and lonely convenience stores waiting to be robbed.

Abruptly these houses give way to the highrises of "downtown" North York, which, at first glance, looks like a big outdoor mall. But a closer inspection reveals it's really a quintessential small Canadian town that has been enveloped by a mega-city. Much of the Yonge strip is fronted by two-story retail, with parking lots behind. There are legion halls, parking lots, little 1950s plazas, churches with lawns and parking lots