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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Willowdale’s secret socialbility

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Second only to Scarberia in Toronto's pantheon of suburban derision, North York is synonymous with goofball boosterism (North York City!), just-add-water-and-stir instant condo buildings, stubby office towers, and 401-fuelled car culture.

Walk one block east of Mel Lastman Square and you stumble on a very different image. The towers lining Yonge Street give way to a regular street grid of one- and two-storey houses. Willowdale projects an image of exclusivity — there are no through-streets from Yonge and residents refused a Sheppard subway line station at Willowdale Avenue.

Walk a half-block further, and you will find a narrow, landscaped walkway that cuts mid-block between houses. Running above a channelized creek, the pathway begins at the intersection of Doris and Empress, eight blocks north of Sheppard. For the first four blocks it runs almost due south, tightly contained by trees, shrubs, and the sides of houses.

Cutting through the regular grid of streets, houses, and yards, public and private space become mixed up. The result is almost subversive — through the trees and fences we glimpse peoples' closely-guarded lives.

Suddenly, the view opens up into the tennis courts of Hollywood Park. Across the street to the east, the trail picks up again, cutting southward to Sheppard between houses, apartment blocks, and office buildings.

Past multi-lane Sheppard Avenue, the trail's character changes dramatically. Less a walkway than a system of linear parks, it takes you south to the noise barriers of the 401 and then back up again to Sheppard, next to the low-rise apartment neighbourhood to the east.

The change in the sense of enclosure from block to block makes for an interesting walk. The glass towers of Sheppard and Yonge float above the trees and houses, appearing closer than they really are. The trees, flowers, and other plants both along the trail and in peoples' front and back yards change from block to block.

This isn't a canned experience. Although the trail doesn't really go from anywhere to anywhere in particular, it is heavily used. In both winter and summer there is an endless parade of dog-walkers, joggers, old people, young people, singles, families, and slouching teenagers. Even more shocking to a downtowner's constitution is their sociability — when was the last time anyone said hello to you on Queen Street West?