& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Rivers run through it - I

Toronto skyline as seen from CN Tower

Cities are alive. They constantly change, evolve, grow. Growth transforms them. Growth is economic, but not always organic. Economic growth lends vibrancy and brings culture. Growth metamorphoses their geographies. As a city’s horizontal expanse turns rural hinterland into urban space, the city also expands vertically. In this process, old landmarks and boundaries vanish, making way for the new.

Waterways, hills, forests fade physically and are replaced by houses and factories and highways, but they often stay vivid in memories of a generation that witnessed the transformation. Then, it is all confined to maps that are preserved in archives, accessed by the archivists, heritage enthusiasts, and those who occasionally dabble in urban history.

Institutions that study this transformation attract a particular kind of people – urban activists, journalists, architects, city planners. They meet and talk about the transformation, publish monographs and papers, and despair over lost legacies.

The Heras Institute studies Bombay’s past with an avuncular and indulgent dedication. I discovered the institute at Bombay’s St. Xavier College many decades ago when I began to get interested in my hometown's history.  

I still have a bunch of papers published by this institute somewhere in my home in Bombay. One of the papers is by journalist and urban historian Olga Valladares, with whom I worked briefly.

I’m sure there must be many institutions that look at Toronto’s past with similar affection. I have found an uncanny similarity between some sections of Toronto such the Queen Street and Bombay’s Fort area. Colonialism links Bombay and Toronto architecturally. (Read related post here).

When we came to Toronto five years ago, we did what most newcomers do – took a sightseeing tour in an open-top bus. It was interesting but we didn’t make any real connection with any of the landmarks that we were shown. In the last five years, I have created opportunities to explore the city and even if I haven’t quite succeeded in discovering it to the extent that I would like to, I have done a bit of wandering on my own.

Then, a few weeks ago, I had another opportunity to take another sightseeing tour. And this time around it was a fascinating experience.

The Distillery District is not just an abandoned space that has been turned into yet another shopping trap. Last year I had been to its Christmas market and saw a performance at the district’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts (Read related post here).

Now, the district had a different, more personal connection. Both the ROM and AGO are not just imposing and daunting architectural excesses, they also have little nooks that allow, encourage personal interpretations of art. Bata Shoe Museum isn’t just about shoes. Many of my friends have participated in a poignant exhibition conceived by Katherine Govier that shared their struggle to make Canada home.  And I could identify skyscrapers from the CN Tower by professional acquaintances who work in them.

Continued in the post below

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