When did Toronto become “the six”? And how can a number take away from me the city I have loved since the age of nine when I came to Canada from the Azores. Toronto is a city I got to know intimately-well in my soul, where I felt comfort walking in its old alleyways and excitement in the bustling aliveness of its busy streets. “The six” has taken away my Toronto and replaced it with something unfamiliar. Just like the Sony Centre erased the Hummingbird Centre, while the Hummingbird Centre erased the original O’Keefe Centre; and the Rogers Centre erased the SkyDome. “The six” is as alien to me as the awkwardly changing Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).
The TTC, with its streetcars, buses, and subway trains, has allowed me to explore the city from west to east and north to south like an artery pumping life throughout the urban landscape. This is how I started to imprint on Toronto. I learned how to navigate the city and then walk to destinations like High Park, The Beaches, Harbourfront, Allen Gardens, Little Italy, Little India, and Little Portugal – where I used to live – all for the price of a token!
In the 1970s, I used to love getting on a streetcar, the 1940s version, known as the Red Rocket! These gorgeous old streetcars would clack heavily as they moved along College Street all the way from High Park in the west to Main Station in the east. On Sunday mornings, I’d pretend to go to church but instead I’d stand at the corner of Brock and College, eagerly waiting for the streetcar that would take me on the long ride back and forth. The streetcar would show me various neighbourhoods and I would anticipate how the city changed after Yonge Street continuing east, down to Gerrard and then up again – the houses and people looked so different! It was fascinating to think that all this difference was still my city.
On these Sunday mornings in summer, the windows would all be opened, and when the streetcar moved, a cool breeze would caress my face, my arm dangling out to feel the wind against my skin. I could hear the constant clanging of the warning bell at each stop; I’d watch the driver sell tickets and provide change from long silver tubes. He would give directions to people, smile, and offer transfers, like the one I kept safely in my hand.
Over the years the old streetcars were replaced by newer shiny models and we all thought how cool Toronto was getting – so world class! But now even these newer streetcars have been replaced with overly-long, fortress-like” Low Floor Light Rail” Bombardier-built cars, that are overtaking the streets with their bulk, their sealed windows and intimidating look. The first time I hopped on one, ready to deposit my token in the ticket box, there wasn’t one to be seen anywhere. I stood there, surprised, as if I had just been transported to a city I had never visited. I couldn’t even see the driver. Was the streetcar driving itself? For the first time, I felt like a stranger in my own city.
I avoided the Spadina streetcar line after that, preferring to walk up to the subway station from Queen Street rather than face the embarrassment of not knowing how to use the new Presto system with its bright green card and beeping machines. Soon, I had to bypass subway entrances where the familiar collector was no longer present in now abandoned collector’s booths. I now have to walk around to entrances where there is still a collector, a TTC concession catering to the stubborn Torontonian who refuses, like me, to move on to the new system. Subway turnstiles have been removed one station at a time and I am now forced to exit by the replacement version, pushing my way through plastic paddles that beep aggressively and slap your body on the way out.
The Presto Card sometimes doesn’t work, either because the little green box is down or because someone doesn’t have enough money left on the card to get the okay beep after tapping on the tap screen. I once watched a man on the bus who got a honk when he tapped his card because it had no money left on it and he sat all the way into the station terminal trying to transfer money from his iPhone, without success. I like to see people who still drop a token, a ticket, or cash in the remaining drop boxes. But I know it’s only a matter of time before the TTC will ban my way of paying to get around the city, my city, and only allow me on if I pay the new way, but is it “The Better Way”?
Toronto, the six, has become a chaotic mess where almost every neighbourhood has become a construction site with the building of new condos and impossibly tall high rises in the downtown core. Fortunately, when I need to get away from all this change and noise, there are still places in the city to go for peace and quiet and a sense of the familiar. Toronto is known as “A City Within a Park,” and I love to walk the maze of parklands and gardens that like a system of veins and blood vessels pump life into Toronto.
For now, my token can still take me everywhere in this vast land that I will always call Toronto. I will continue to cherish the clanging of the old streetcar rides of my youth, and I’ll keep my Toronto preserved in memory, like an old friend who moved away but is still a part of me.