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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Underneath the layers

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Bloor and Bathurst might be our greatest big city corner — not because of skyscrapers or starchitecture but because of Honest Ed's turning it into such an electric place. It's a do-it-yourself K-Mart wrapped in a Las Vegas coat, an odd and striking sight in this city, and old-fashioned precursor to Yonge-Dundas Square. I've always wondered what those infamous and perhaps largely mythological dour Toronto the Good citizens thought of this place when Ed started up his incandescent machine for the first time. More importantly, what would Timothy Eaton have thought?

Cities are all about motion, and when the Honest Ed's lights are in full effect, the entire building moves quicker than the traffic on Bloor. It's the fastest building in the city, and the funniest, if you're into the Borscht Belt humour written all over it.

My first week in Toronto included being trapped inside — at one time escape was through commerce and commerce only. The exits were the extremely narrow cashier aisles. I didn't know the rules, and didn't want to create a scene, so I bought some kind of bathroom product that gave me permission to leave. They've since installed an escape route, as there is now a separate cashier in the electronics section. Despite Ed's masterful grasp of capitalism we can't be expected to pay for things twice just to leave, so a visit to Ed's just to browse or look at the weird theatre artifacts in the basement is less fraught now.

Honest Ed's is a timewarp back to an ungrentrified and working-class Toronto, where Eastern European grannies dressed in those perpetual-mourning black outfits shop for products that look like major brands but are slightly different. These are the same down-market but exotic items my Maltese Nana would give us as treats back in the '70s and '80s in Windsor, brands I still associate with the "ethnic" side of the family (the WASPy side stuck to KitKats and Rosebuds). That Honest Ed's still exists is an interesting gauge of the surrounding neighbourhood. Despite the skyrocketing property values there is always an army of these granny-types and other New Canadians shopping inside who haven't yet given up on this place for the Wal-Marts and big box stores just a little farther out.

Ed's fortress-like building has been softened over the last few years by the addition of some smaller retail shops along the sidewalk, including the Lettieri on the corner where you can sit and look at the world through green-tinted glass. It's a Kermit the Frog view of the world, and a good way to watch the Toronto parade that passes by. Just outside the cafe are two of the last remaining lighted Toronto street signs (here, a double sign, one for "Bathurst," the other for "Mirvish Village"), a disappearing centennial project from 1967.

Pedestrians moving East to West are crossing the invisible border between the Annex and Seaton Village, or as the real estate industry will tell you, the West Annex (sometimes stretching all the way to Dufferin for some agents). It's also the official beginning of Little Korea (or "Koreatown" or the "Korean Business Area," depending on what you heard first).

It's not as pretty as the Annex, but it's more interesting. I lived in this neighbourhood during the 2002 World Cup, and we watched a quiet community suddenly declare "we're here" to the rest of the city. This year, there was less joy in this Soeulful Mudville as Korea didn't place as high as last time, so girls with flags dragging behind them cried on at Palmerston, Euclid and Manning while boys shuffled around with hands in pockets.

Though the Korean section of Bloor suffers from buildings that are too short — they should all be four, five or six stories high — there are still layers, depth and mystery here. There is a passage in Alistair Macleod's No Great Mischief where a man ascends an old wooden staircase on Spadina to see his brother, lost to alcohol and memories of Cape Breton. Much of the story has little to do with Toronto, but the idea that behind all these doors and staircases exist whole worlds connected to other places and times makes these sidewalks seem magical.

Along Bloor, this Jane Jacobs urban fairytale feeling is everywhere. Here, staircases lead to a Korean discothçque, or a vinyl sign shop, or a hairdresser, or a travel agency specializing in flying people to places where tourists don't go. There were times I'd be walking home at 2 or 3am thinking the neighbourhood was deserted when I'd see 20 or more kids playing online games in one of the internet cafés along this strip. There's even one buried in the basement of Clinton's Tavern, underneath the bar, itself underneath private karaoke rooms that somebody you know will eventually rent for their birthday party. In Little Korea it feels like there are people above and below all the time.

This strip has a healthy mix too. The Swiss Chalet's still going strong, urban quarter chicken dinners served on the same block as Hot Pots and Wanut Cakes. The Coffee Time doubles as an internet café too. Just west of Bathurst is the Skylark fashion outlet. Usually you can't read the name as it's obscured by a few dozen mannequin torsos tacked onto the building wearing dresses and bikini's. On the Markham corner is one of the only McDonald's franchises ever to close, the ugly orange and brown McTiles still visible through the empty playland windows. Though it's fun to think it closed because the street is too interesting to support something as boring as McDonalds, the Taco Bell/KFC hybrid down the street is doing fine. Like Kensington Market, this bit of Toronto seems to change by the week, so every walk discovers some new bit of city.