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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Carlton and Parliament

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I went shopping for Halloween candy at the drug store on Parliament when I lived in Cabbagetown. The guy in line in front of me, I noticed, had a shopping cart completely filled with candy. This is only half of it, he told me. “I’m coming back for the rest later.” I raised an eyebrow. Isn’t Cabbagetown a relatively childless zone? Don’t the people here have dogs instead of children? Why was this guy spending $500 on little chocolate bars? Because the kids come from all around, he said, in vast pillaging hordes. This candy will be gone in under an hour.

Of course! Cabbagetown, a pocket of affluence, is right above Regent Park and right below St. Jamestown. Both are densely populated neighbourhoods (St. Jamestown is said to boast the highest density in Canada), both are low-income areas, and both are teeming with kids. And kids are smart: they know the people in the fancy houses will be the ones with the good candy.

If the neighbourhood itself is juxtaposed with its complimentary demographics, then Cabbagetown’s major corner, Carlton and Parliament, might be the spot on the map where these worlds intersect. Standing there feels funny — maybe like how it would feel to stand at the North Pole, where all coordinates originate and radiate below you. Carlton and Parliament has the same eerie omniscience, but it’s social instead of magnetic. Totally diverse and discrete worlds exist to the north versus the south of you, and to the east versus the west. Your horizon is a nonsense picture of rich and poor, of high-end and down-and-out. You’re in a demographic nexus, and you can see wealth and poverty at once without even turning your head.

I used to go to the Javaville on the northeast corner almost every day before it went out of business. It had free wifi and good sandwiches, and was a reliable microcosm of the intersection itself. Pairs of yuppie joggers would come in, egging each other on to new realms of fitness, buying bottled water and ogling but not ordering the muffins. Right after them a neighbourhood psychotic would enter, counting his accumulated change and muttering theories and associations so everyone could almost hear. Bustling men with earpieces and winning handshakes would compete for a place in line to buy their lattés, then radical-knitting hipster girls would come in and sit down for hours. New Canadians, CEOs, lawn-obsessed retirees and the sweaty guys who cut those lawns; there was no way to pin down the demographic profile of the customers here except to say that they were everybody.

On the southeast corner there’s a variety store where I once heard two drunks on the payphone trying desperately to sell a car battery they’d found; beside that there’s a health food store where you can buy high-end acidophilus. The southwest corner has a bank machine, where well-heeled homeowners give their tithes to the legless panhandler who’s claimed the spot. Down the street there’s a claustrophobic dollar store where everything is covered in dust and dead bugs, and just up from that there’s a gourmet deli with $30 jams. Nearby there’s the lovely and enduring Ben Wicks pub, where a mural of Pierre Trudeau asks “So wot?” and the waiters are better educated than you are. Right outside, resident drunks stage turf wars and sometimes spit on the leisured classes who sit on the patio below.

I don’t know what’s going to happen on the northwest corner. There used to be a donut store there that was so exquisitely scuzzy they didn’t even bother to have donuts, since nobody went in except to chain smoke or be scagged out. It closed in the summer, and now there’s a midscale noodle restaurant in its place. It has clean floors and washrooms you’re allowed to go into. The fact that Carlton and Parliament is an appropriate location for both of these businesses attests to its demographic flexibility.

I lived in Cabbagetown, in a lopsided little apartment building just one block north of Regent Park, and except for the crazy commingling of children on Halloween night, the only people I ever saw in Cabbagetown were the people who lived in Cabbagetown. Everyone else circumnavigated it, skirting its edges like there was a fence up. But Parliament Street, which describes the westernmost boundary of Cabbagetown proper, is like a permeable membrane where classes can mingle and collude. Carlton and Parliament marks a no man’s land, where the guy with the interlocking bricks brushes up against the teenager with two sets of twins, where the white professor of Colonial Lit stands in line behind the family of Trinidadian immigrants. It’s a rare place of social osmosis, a non-neighbourhood where opposites interact.