Friday, May 14

FUREY: Bidding farewell to downtown living

The low point of living with kids in downtown Toronto came for me just the other month.

My son and I had left our unit to take a bag of trash to the garbage chute. Then we headed to take the stairs down to play outside. I opened the stairwell door and my young son did as he always does and charged ahead. But this time he suddenly came to a stop.

“Oh,” he said, confused. I followed behind and bumped into him. He’d stopped dead in his tracks. There on the floor right in front of us was a woman with a needle hanging from her shin. We’d interrupted her injection.

“Oh,” she said in response. My son looked up at me. I looked down at her. She looked up at me.

“Are … are you OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she stammered in a sad, apologetic voice. “I’m just leaving.”

Her arms were a mess. Her ankles were a mess. She was hanging by a thread. Her bony calf was the only clean place left to inject.

And there she was, in our building’s staircase, just a few feet away from my condo door.

The stairwell where Toronto Sun columnist Anthony Furey and his son encountered a woman injecting drugs. Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun

I went down to tell the security guard and he sighed, saying something about how they’re always doing drugs or urinating in the underground parking garage.

No, I explained to him, she wasn’t in the underground. She was in the building proper. A new barrier had been crossed.

That said, the barrier for us had always been pretty precarious. I’m used to checking playground equipment for needles before letting the kids go on it.

I’m always prepped to divert the stroller in a different direction to avoid what looks like a dangerous situation on the horizon.

And those are just the challenges unique to living as close as we do to the curious ecosystem that is the Moss Park neighbourhood. Families throughout the core grapple with a whole range of more mundane issues like tiny living spaces and avoiding showdowns with motorists, dog walkers and – as Mike Strobel called them – “bicycultists.”

We’ll be saying goodbye to all that when we move out of the core next month and into slightly more spacious and slightly less edgy digs.

And I’ve got to say, I have mixed feelings about it.

Downtown living’s been good to me over the years. Will I still be able to browse through music stores in the evenings? Go to midnight movie showings? Raid through the recycling bins of the likes of author Jane Jacobs whenever I passed by her house, because she subscribed to all the best magazines and there was always something great to read?

No, I won’t. But these questions are moot anyway. It’s pure nostalgia talking.

Like almost everyone else, I don’t really buy music anymore. I haven’t been inside a record store in ages. All I do now is get misty eyed whenever I hear Steven Page come on the radio singing “drove downtown in the rain…” It’s been over a decade since I’ve been to a midnight screening of Rocky Horror or The Dark Knight. And it’s been even longer since the famous Jacobs passed away and I stopped going to the theatre that had me regularly pass by her old house.

These urban experiences just don’t exist anymore. At least not for me they don’t. I’m too old. I’m a dad. I go to bed early.

No, when you grow up and have kids your urban perspective suddenly shifts from a care-free one that’s almost blind to the grit of the city to one focused on protecting your offspring from what you suddenly realize is ever-present decay.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a city with grit. But for every person in Manhattan who laments how their home has become so sanitized and corporate, another one will tell you how glad they are to be free of the dirty lawlessness that prevailed in the pre-Guiliani years.

A used needle drop box in Toronto’s Moss Park. (Jack Boland/Toronto Sun)

I’ll never forget a story the late, great Ottawa columnist Earl McRae told me about how he was walking the streets of NYC in the 1980s, not realizing he was in the wrong part of town and having strangers drag him into a restaurant as if he was their dining companion to help avoid the trouble closing in on his heels.

Toronto is heading both forwards and backwards in this regard — while Google is building a “smart city” on the waterfront, just a few minutes away the Moss Park safe injection site has attracted all sorts of new characters causing havoc in the area.

We may soon be like those science fiction movie cities where a polished elite class in white robes live in pristine towers above while the great unwashed stumble about below, fighting over the scraps.

It could be a surprise just who gets sent up top and who is forced to live below. While I’m making my exit, it’s a privilege not everyone has (or wants). The truth is, if we could afford a mythical 4-bedroom condo with family amenities, we’d stay downtown in a heartbeat. But houses are cheaper than these sorts of condos. Go figure.

These days more and more families just can’t afford to live in anything other than their cramped condos. They’re stuck in the middle – not middle-class elites, but not part of the under-class. Are we gearing up for a series of showdowns? The druggies and their high-brow enablers versus the supporters of the broken windows theory?

The lines aren’t that clearly drawn, of course. And the down-and-out get a bad rap. Most of the people I pass on my daily walk up and down Sherbourne are harmless — the guys bumming around on the corners and in the parks are mostly drunks or mentally ill people who mumble to themselves. It’s the hard drug users that are quite literally itching for their next fix who cause all the trouble, for everyone. Them and their dealers.

Some of the kindest everyday gestures I’ve experienced come from the Sherbourne guys and gals — like how they go out of their way to waft away their cigarette smoke when they see your kids coming.

Some of the denizens and elements in Moss Park. (Jack Boland/Toronto Sun)

Or — here’s the heartbreaker — when they start to tell you about their own kids but slowly trail off because they know and you know that they don’t see their kids anymore. It’s like that Leonard Cohen line about how there are heroes in the seaweed.

So it’s with conflicting emotions that I say goodbye to all this downtown decay. I’ve read reflections on Toronto living from people 20 years older than me, and it’s both very similar and very different from my experiences.

What, I wonder, will it be like when my kids make the inevitable trek downtown?

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