CANADA: I lived on the right side of the street, 1988 – 1990

What a difference a street makes to your social standing!  If you live on one side of the street, you are in.  But on the other side, out.

I lived on Gifford Street three doors north of Gerard in Toronto.  When asked where I lived, I always said, “Cabbage Town.” It was a good name; where many CBC types lived, including the former Governor General before she was appointed to that position.  It was not a lie but the one hundred year old former nurses’ residence was not yet gentrified and looked a bit dilapidated to be called “Cabbage Town.”

When I first came to Toronto in 1968, I did a study of life in Cabbage Town in a program known as the Canadian Urban Training for downtown church workers.  At the time, it was known for decaying old brick houses where people who could not afford to move to the suburbs remained. They lived in horrible conditions.  There was a new housing development on the South of Gerard Street, which became known as Regent Park, Toronto’s oldest public housing development.  When I came back in 1987 from overseas and looked for a place to live, I was surprised to find the old Cabbage Town had become mostly gentrified with sand blasted beautifully restored Victorian houses.  It was now known as the place where up and coming people lived.  Luck had it that I found an apartment in a still not yet renovated brick building, which was built as the nurses’ residence for the first Toronto General Hospital.   So we lived in Cabbage Town, not quite but sort of.   But we didn’t take a short cut through Regent Park.

I cycled to work to St. Clair Avenue East at Yonge Street.  The best way to avoid climbing the steep hill between Bloor and St. Clair was going through Rosedale where Toronto’s old monies lived.  Commuting between a hip Cabbage Town through palatial houses in Rosedale to Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue, where Prof. Northrop Fry used to live, on a bicycle was a source of my great satisfaction.  Hip and politically correct.  Vanity of vanities!

I loved it.  There were many good eateries, fashionable shops, organic groceries, stores for ethnic foods and goods too.  They served people on both sides of the street.  Depending on how you dress or look, you get treatments accordingly.   One time in early summer we had a brisk walk in the neighbourhood and stopped for a drink at a Bistro with a French name.  We were thirsty.  It was a mid-afternoon, and there was nobody in the establishment.  We were told that all seats were reserved.  At 3:30 p.m?  In 1989!  In Toronto!  We should have gone home to change.  Maybe my partner should have gone in alone first.  She is white.  

In winter, it was too cold to cycle.  So I took the famous red rocket, the street car, to work.  When I was on time for work, just before 9 in the morning, my fellow passengers were mostly Cabbage Town types with a sprinkle of those on the way to Bay Street.  Well dressed or expensively casual hip.  Most of them were reading the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star, or even the New York Times, sipping Second Cup coffee.  On occasion, I had to go to the office early like before 7 a.m.  Interestingly, there weren’t many white faces in the street car.  They wore boots and sneakers, some of them wearing clothes with yesterday’s white-wash dust on the back.  If they read newspapers, they read the Toronto Sun.

One hot steamy summer evening, the police were knocking every door asking questions in our neighbourhood.  They asked us if we heard or saw anything unusual in the night before.  They didn’t tell us why they were doing this.  We found next morning that there was a murder in a house on the corner of Gerard and Gifford,  on the North side of Gerard – the Cabbage Town side.  The headline was “A Murder in Regent Park.”  But it was not strictly correct.  The house where it happened was technically on the South end of Cabbage Town.

Interestingly, on the next day it became “A Murder in Cabbage Town”.  It so turned out that the victim was a black man, therefore initially he had lived in Regent Park, of course.  What was discovered as the police investigation progressed, it was that he was a high-class hair-dresser working in a fashionable beauty salon in downtown.  Furthermore he had many rich gay lovers.  It was a case of the lovers’ quarrel gone wrong.  So he had to live in Cabbage Town.  He did not move from Regent Park to Cabbage Town after he died.  Though he did not move geographically, his status moved from one side of the street to another.

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