Sunday, September 15, 2013

The top of the hill

Yesterday was my twelfth wedding anniversary. Unlike the first through fifth, and the big boozy party for the tenth, this anniversary was celebrated quietly with the kids. My daughters have reached an age for which diaper bags, strollers, high chairs, and dare I say, even children's menus in restaurants are becoming obsolete. We don't have to worry about scheduling our travels around naps anymore. Recently seeing friends who are still in the baby stages, I was reminded that our older children provide an ease of movement that is ideal for grownups who have itchy feet (like us). 

There was a nice synchronicity to the weather.  It was the same kind of cool, cloudless day with fresh blue skies that we had enjoyed on our wedding day all those years ago. We celebrated at a local Japanese restaurant and it was not without a little pride that I watched my seven year old daughter happily (albeit clumsily) work her way through a pile of raw salmon with her elastic-band rigged chop sticks. I honestly don't think I had my first taste of sushi until at least the age of 28. It's a different world for kids these days.

After dinner, we took an evening stroll down to the boardwalk. I snapped the picture at the top of this blog post whilst sitting on a park bench and enjoying the first whiff of smokey and tannin-rich autumnal air. As is fairly obvious, the image captures that sort-of famous lifeguard station of the Toronto Beach(es). Likely photographed a million times from every conceivable angle, this small and squat structure has become the official logo of the 'hood' and appears on endless postcards and t-shirts. Many years ago, on a freezing New Year's eve, I got drunk on cheap plonk leaning against the wooden foundation of that very same lifeguard station and spent the remainder of the night vomiting in the toilet at Scratch Daniels, a long ago closed-down bar on Queen street (I think it's a frozen yogurt joint now) - but that's a story for another day. 

This small but well-documented beach house is a brisk sixteen minute walk from my front door - a fact that makes my heart skip with joy. For I am one of those lucky sods that can proudly proclaim that they love their neighborhood. The funny thing about this neighborhood is that I can actually pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with it.  

I grew up in the hydro-field dotted northern wastes of 1980's Scarborough. It is also where I went to school. When I was eighteen years old, I dated a girl from my school who at the time, happened to live on Blantyre avenue, a stone's throw from my current home in the Beaches. I'm not clear on why she commuted so deep into North-East Scarborough to go to a school in my neighborhood - perhaps a point lost to history, but really irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Anyway, her telephone exchange contained that now familiar six and nine of the Beaches, but back then, being a North Scarborough boy, I had only ever known exchanges that began with fours and twos. I suppose a discussion of telephone exchange numbers rather adequately dates me; I'm certain that anyone under 30 would have no clue what I'm talking about. Nevertheless, this strange, high-numbered telephone exchange seemed like it must come from downtown. I learned soon enough, that she did not live downtown but ironically was just this side of Scarborough, but at the extreme south and west. I had never visited the Beaches before, so this neighborhood was new to me. It started with a walk down the relatively steep grade of Blantyre avenue towards the lake. For decades, bulldozers had cleared the way for north east Scarborough's familiar tract housing and subdivisions, this blunted out most of the geography, so even this steep hill was alien to me. The trees lining the street, massive by suburban standards, reached across the expanse, their boughs mingling high above the centre line; like a vaulted ceiling in a Gothic cathedral. At the foot of the hill I could see the Harris Filtration Plant, otherwise known as the waterworks to locals: a mammoth art-deco masterpiece of depression-era ingenuity perched on a grassy plain, silently keeping sentinel over the population's water supply. I had recently finished reading Michael Ondaatje's "In the Skin of a Lion" which beautifully narrates the history of this structure. Overseen by the Commissioner of Public Works, R.C. Harris, the waterworks was constructed by desperate workers under horrific conditions. A mile long tunnel was bored from the land out under the cold dark depths of the lake. Here he describes a city photographer documenting these workers in their unpleasant working conditions:

"In the tunnel under Lake Ontario two men shake hands on an incline of mud. Beside them a pickaxe and a lamp, their dirt-streaked faces pivoting to look towards the camera. For a moment, while the film receives the image, everything is still, the other tunnel workers silent. Then Arthur Goss, the city photographer, packs up his tripod and glass plates, unhooks the cord of lights that creates a vista of open tunnel behind the two men, walks with his equipment the fifty yards to the ladder, and climbs out into sunlight.  
                                 - Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion
A literary landmark, just sitting there, unassuming at the foot of someone's street? I had stepped from the land of Wonderbread, chain restaurants and mini-malls into a place that was older, a place that seemed to have an ancient spirit lurking somewhere between its wonky cement staircases and the 100 year old cobblestone sewers below my feet. 

With all this to absorb, strangely, the thing that really piqued my interest was the recycling bins. The 'blue box' program had been recently introduced to Toronto in the early 1990's. At the end of each narrow drive way was a small plastic 'blue box'. Unlike the two-litre coke bottles, Campbell soup cans and empty laundry detergent containers I was used to in my neck of the woods, these blue boxes were filled with empty wine bottles. Wine with dinner? I thought that was something one only saw in France. This is not to somehow pass a snobby judgement on the lifestyle (and lower wine consumption) of my suburban childhood neighborhood, but simply to say it opened my horizons to other parts of the city. 

This neighborhood had sleepily existed my whole life a scant ten kilometers from my suburban childhood home and I had never known. In the end, it didn't work out with the girl, but at that particular moment I decided I would live and grow old in the Beaches. 

Fast forward two decades into the future and it's now been seven or so years in my shoebox of a house in the Beaches with our family, happily crammed in like so many sardines. Well, sort of. I actually live at the top of the hill near Kingston Road, the second tier to the first tier that is Queen street. I can't quite see the lake from where I am, and I suppose by cold and scientific political boundaries, I do not really live in the Beaches proper, but live in what many call the 'Upper Beaches' and more recently, re-named as Kingston Road Village. After many years here, I have to say I actually prefer this part of the Beaches: it is not flooded with tourists like our friends at the bottom of the hill, it's a little easier to park on the street and it is certainly more quiet.  Us folks at the 'top of the hill' enjoy a community that is tight, friendly and has everything anyone could want within walking distance. The businesses here do not enjoy the free ride from masses of summer tourists from Woodbridge, Pickering and Markham infiltrating the neighborhood with their easy spending and short memories.  As a soon-to-be-opened business owner up here at the top of the hill, we have to stay on our toes because the locals represent our customers. They have good memories and as much as they may like the convenience of being fifty paces to our business door, they also are discerning enough to know that a quick jaunt in their car can bring them to any other neighborhood in the city. I will take this to heart when I have my grand opening. 

So our twelfth wedding anniversary came to a close with our long trudge up the hill from the boardwalk. Passing under the cavernous reach of those grand old elms and oaks, I was reminded of the day when I first discovered this magical neighborhood. My daughters will likely take this all for granted, so I have to regularly remind them how good they have it. The grass is always greener they say, because the kids regularly ask if we can buy a house closer to Queen street so they don't have to climb that steep hill on the way home from the beach. Yes, perhaps one day we may outgrow our little house, but I don't think we'll ever outgrow our neighborhood. We're happy perched at the top of the hill, smug in our self-satisfaction...and enjoying plenty of street parking.


  1. I know many people who have moved closer to Queen st and then, realising it's not quite as desirable as they imagined, quickly moved back up here!

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