I’m sitting on my balcony, watching cars and people cross the intersection below. The sun is setting, but its one of the first warm evenings of the season and I am not yet ready to move indoors. The rain stopped a few minutes ago, and the saturated colours and sounds of the city surround me: the familiar trundle of the streetcar as it crosses the perpendicular tracks, the splash of traffic over puddles, laughter and conversation wafting upwards; the dark red brick that defines Toronto architecture, asphalt, concrete, glass towers and glassy blue water in the distance. This is my Toronto.
I look down at the Wheat Sheaf pub, a three-storey corner building of red brick with green gabled windows, that has stood at the corner of King and Bathurst streets for over 200 years. I see the neon OPEN sign in the window, the raindrops on the plastic tables and chairs that line the patio, and I imagine it’s first patrons – British soldiers – walking up from the garrison for an evening pint. The cars and crowds have not appeared yet, nor have the two-storey buildings that line the route now. The soldiers are walking up a wide dirt road, sparse cottages lining their way. They arrive at the entrance and the leader of the pack holds the door open for his friends to pass.
Some years later, after the garrison was shuttered and the Fort York cemetery became a resting place for civilians too, after the railroad was laid and the Wheat Sheaf was swallowed by the expanding City of Toronto, a factory was built across the street. Four storeys, same red brick, same green shutters. I look through the fourth-floor window, and instead of a co-working space, I imagine garment workers in neat rows, their sewing machines anchored to the same hardwood floors workers walk on today. The streetcar passes and snaps me back to present day. The familiar bell dings, the wheels trundle over the opposing tracks. I imagine the garment workers hearing the same familiar sounds, but they don’t look up. They are paid by the piece, and they are efficient. The foreman enters, counts their pieces and hands over their pay. Another workday complete, I imagine them walking down the creaky wooden stairs, chatting with friends. As they exit the building on Bathurst Street, some walk to the streetcar stop eager to get home, some cross King Street and enter the bank to deposit their earnings, and a few of the younger workers decide to cross the street and step into the Wheat Sheaf for a quick pint before heading home to their lodgings. They are laughing, cajoling, patting each other on the back. First they are English, then Irish, then Italian, Portuguese, Greek. Time moves forward, more factories sprout along King and Bathurst streets, always in that same red brick. The years continue to pass, there are more cars, more people, the red brick is painted over, hidden behind siding and neon signs. The factory is converted into lofts, the bank becomes a restaurant, and the Wheat Sheaf remains. Many of the factories are demolished to make way for parking lots, and those parking lots make way for glass condo towers with concrete balconies like the one I am sitting on today.
Once upon a time, this little corner of the world was born as a small hamlet to serve the Garrison down the way. It grew with the population, and it evolved with our needs. This corner has seen cycles of wealth and poverty, and wealth again, yet beneath the glass towers, behind the neon signs and layers of paint, on the hardwood floors of independent coffee shops and the exposed bricks and beams of modern offices lies the heart of Toronto. The factories are gone. Fort York cemetery is now the neatly manicured Victoria Square, but the buried soldiers and civilians remain, resting beneath dogs playing fetch and lovers embracing on a park bench. The Toronto Bank is now a high-end restaurant, with a vault full of wine.
As I look across from my balcony in the fading light I see condos and commerce and modern life, but I also see Toronto’s history. We are not a city famous for any battles, or treaties, or even famous citizens. We have something better: a history weaved by a million stories, built by immigration and stitched together with camaraderie. Co-working spaces have replaced the garment factories, restaurants and coffee shops have replaced the abattoir and markets, our credit cards have replaced the bank, yet the Wheat Sheaf remains. As I pack up my notebook in the last minutes of twilight, I see a group of friends exit the pub, laughing, joking, living.