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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Four-wheel drifting

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I went for a drive two Sundays ago. My intention was to go for a walk, but it was pouring, and though I often like to walk in the rain, I was cold and I wanted to be sheltered and comfortable, but the urge to wander was strong. I have access to a car so in honour of Passover I drove up Bathurst, following the path the GTA Jewish population took as they migrated from Kensington up to North York and later toThornhill. I admit I like going for drives from time to time. It reminds me of how I used to live and why I left it behind, and why, even after 5 years of downtown living, drifting on foot through the city is still the best show in Toronto. I also think it's important to know the hinterland. It's out here that the Mongol hordes will camp before they mount an attack on Toronto.

Bathurst goes up for a long, long time. What's most interesting about the drive is how slow it is. I was doing the speed limit, the traffic was reasonable, but I hit nearly every light and the intersections are so big and complex that the light cycles are extraordinarily long and tedious. It took forever to get through Vaughan. I don't understand how people deal with this every day — maybe it's meditative or people find some kind of Toyota-Zen while crawling along these arterial roads. I think it's like Catholic penance; this is their punishment for sprawling up the land.

Vaughan is "The City Above Toronto." That's what it says on the sign when you cross Steeles. Somebody should spray-paint "But Underneath Barrie" on the sign, to point out how weird that tagline sounds. It's out here where I found the GTA's frontier — this is the future, the edge of "us" that pushes north like The Blob. Vaughan is an amalgamation of a number of little towns like Maple. It makes for a strange city — intersection after intersection of generic suburban nowhere, then a pocket of small-town quaint. I think these bits of human scale development must be their Valium — they pass through it and it provides enough comfort to get them through the day. Since nobody walks up there, these little town centres are absorbed through the frame of car windows, much like watching it on TV. I certainly didn't get out of the car. It just didn't seem the right thing to do.

I lived in this kind of landscape for 25 years. I grew up in Tecumseh, a suburb of Windsor, so I feel like I know this kind of place intimately, as suburbs like this are fungible: one could stand in for another. The difference between my suburb and Vaughan is the velocity at which these new suburbs are growing. I was 20 years old before the soybean field behind my house was turned into a three-car-garage Croatian ghetto, full of houses cramed with as many ornamental pillars as the builder could fit onto their facades. The vast scale of development in the GTA is also shocking. When the suburbs were invented, they were a clean and modern future, a metropolitan manifest destiny. From the first streetcar suburbs to even the first wave of auto-centric suburbia in the 1950s, the idea was to give us space to spread out a bit, sort of a pressure release valve on the urban pressure cooker. In small doses it wasn't so bad. Yet, that valve is wide open now and that steam seems to spray out with great force and in every direction. I try to get lost out on foot downtown, but I know eventually I'll hit a street I know — but out here I really feel like I could get sucked in and disappear.

At Major Mackenzie, I turned left and headed west. Up here I discovered all the streets that are mentioned on those afternoon radio traffic reports that I don't pay attention to. There are never any backups on the Spadina sidewalks. Up north, there are these fantastically lit "Presentation Centres" where people can look at the model homes and imagine their new future. These structures are designed like movie sets with dummy architectural features referencing some quasi-rural colonial ideal. Think Gone With the Wind. The marketers would have us believe they're building mini Tara's up there. The most ridiculous names are used for the developments. One was called "The Eagle's Nest" and a huge sign by the road had a huge picture of an American bald eagle. Not only are these places generic but there is a rejection of anything local. Why not "The Loon's Hideaway" or "The Sparrow's Corner"? It's stuff like this that has me questioning what's going on in those buyers' heads. What part or parts of their good taste sensibility do they turn off or keep in the closet? What lets anybody think The Eagle's Nest is a good idea, and that they could find a sense of "home" there? I think it's a bit like Dundas Square — without any local references around, people have not adopted the place as a comfortable part of Toronto.

As I continued west on "Major Mac," as they call it on those radio reports, it got more rural as the suburbs tapered out. It was still raining but the glow from the city lit up the southern sky above the dark tree line. At one point the horizon grew really huge. It was dark and I couldn't tell why until I saw the silhouette of four or five bulldozers on the crest of a hill, looming in the rain. They had cleared the forest for another development of tract housing, creating the "big sky." It was like those scare-tactic environmental ads that show huge bulldozers sitting in the Brazilian rainforest. It's the creation of somebody's future. Not mine though; I'd seen enough so I wandered south, and the dense city slowly crowded around the road like a long hug from a familiar friend.