Sunday, April 18, 2010

Crumbling Bricks, Crumbling History

Time has its own agenda. No matter what our own hopes and dreams may be, in the end it's the grinding pressure of second stacked upon second that has the final say. I saw that for my own in downtown Toronto yesterday while I watched the careful, piece-by-piece demolition of 335 Yonge Street - a building that's stood at the corner of Yonge and Gould for more than sixty years, one of the last reminders that that stretch of Yonge was not always lined with shining glass and polished steel, a note that the city of today is built on the foundations of the past. I couldn't help but wonder about the people who had built it, if they had imagined it would stand for generations, and what they might have thought to see it come down in such a way.

In the end, everything comes down. It's just our responsibility to ensure that the end is as far removed from the now as we can make it.

Toronto is a city that lacks much of a visible past. Aside from a sprinkled handful of buildings downtown like Old City Hall and Commerce Court North, much of it seems like it might have just arrived out of nowhere - and the further you go from the downtown core, the stronger this feeling becomes. It's partially because it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that Toronto ceased being a middling provincial backwater-of-Empire and capitalized on Montreal's discontent to achieve ascendancy in Canada. Beyond that, it's only fairly recently that people have come to realize the value of historic preservation. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was little thought spared in Toronto for sparing its past. The ideal of progress dominated above all, and edifices like Old City Hall had outlived their time and needed to be pulled down and be replaced by something newer, grander, modern.

Because of that attitude, in part, the streetcar system has been left as one of the more obvious examples of preserved historic infrastructure - even though they're not the same rails anymore. There have been tracks in King Street for more than a hundred and thirty years. As a result, today we're left with what can, from time to time, seem like a city without a past. If we're not aware of that past, how well does that bode for us being able to build a better future? Will present-day hopes of expanded transit along Eglinton, along Finch, and deeper into Scarborough end up being forgotten - or, worse, being wistfully remembered as yet more "might-have-beens" in our urban fabric?

People talk a great deal about what they're going to build, what they're going to create. What's just as important, and what I think has been missed, is talk about what they're going to preserve, protect, and defend. It's too late for 335 Yonge Street - but on the other side of the equations, there are places like the Tollkeeper's Cottage at Bathurst and Davenport, perhaps the city's smallest museum, excellently restored, preserved and maintained.

It's our responsibility to do what we can to ensure that our past endures, to grant a greater context to us and our future.

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