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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Ghosts on the wall

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All buildings are haunted. Toronto has some pretty stubborn ghosts living in its warehouses and refurbished lofts and empty brick monoliths — their earliest tenants seem slow to let go. You can see their spectral faces on the buildings' bricks: old ads in old fonts still cling for dear life in spite of time and weather.

Liberty Village and the Distillery District have lots of these ghost signs, which is unsurprising, because they're historic places where you'd expect ghosts to live. But there are dozens more, lurking where you live and work and think you're safe. They skulk in the shadows along Sorauren and in Riverdale, and some have the gall to haunt Richmond.

Look close and you'll see the faint, white paint floating like an apparition: Hinde and Dauch's Shipping Cases and Paperboards! Brunswick Bowling Supplies! Remember us! We shall remain! We will see you to your grave!

Toronto's ghost signs have survived long after the businesses they represented went under, proving something heartening about the precariousness of capitalism. These old signs — for liquorice candy and linseed lozenges, for woolens and fibres and fruit salt and feed — stand in as the documents of the commercial past. They seem innocent, these clothiers and stationers and milliners and pickle-makers. They've been made cute by their anachronism and by the fact that their billboards don't move and don't light up.

These billboards are tattoos. The buildings they occupied have been scarred by that occupation: no new business or condo corporation will ever live it down, none would dare sandblast what decades of lake-effect weather couldn't efface, and none would doubt the weird will to live of the storied, phantom past.