Walking in the Burbs

Steeles West looking back east towards Weston Road

I’ve been working recently in the north of the city, in fact strictly speaking just north out of the city – Steeles Avenue is the city limit so where I work on the the north side of the street, I’m technically outside of Toronto in the City of Vaughan (the City on Top of Toronto, as a cheeky radio advert had it).

It’s not what I would consider to be a great walking neighbourhood such as you’d find in the inner parts of the city – there are no tree-lined streets, parks, light traffic, houses, schools, or gardens. It’s just multilane wide streets full of heavy trucks and buses and cars, laid out in a grid of light industry, office parks, strip malls, gas stations, fast food, and a strangely dense selection of Italian restaurants.

Nevertheless, it’s also quietly interesting in its own way. There’s lots of little things you notice as you walk around. One is the enticing aroma of fresh baked bread, cinnamon, apples, and spices coming from the Ozery Bakery across from the office. They are often baking in the afternoons as I’m leaving and the scent is maddening when you’re hungry.

Another is the odd numbering on the buildings. On the north (Vaughan) side of Steeles, the office address is 3700 Steeles West. On the south (Toronto) side just opposite, the address is something like 4955 Steeles West. Apparently the City of Toronto starts numbering Steeles from Yonge Street, whereas the City of Vaughan starts further west, probably around Keele, so even though you’ve travelled the same distance from Yonge the building numbers are more than a 1000 apart. Who knew.

Who also knew that the City of Vaughan is twinned with the city of Lanciano Italy? I’d often heard that Vaughan and the community of Woodbridge specifically had one of the largest Italian-born populations in Canada, so I guess that explains it.

And that probably also explains the many little Italian restaurants scattered around the neighbourhood, tucked into office towers and strip malls, and down side streets beside auto repair shops. One of them, the Volce Lounge, features homemade pizza and dancing Wed-Sun evenings – again, who knew?

Another feature of the neighbourhood are the geese. The local population of Canada Geese are numerous, voracious in their appetite for grass, and voluminous in their production of goose poo. It’s everywhere, covering the sidewalks in mini green landmines. Geese are pretty territorial, and there’s one pair that nest near the parking lot of my building – several times one or the other has been sat square in the middle of the carpark entrance, refusing to move and hissing at cars that try to squeeze by. I also saw one perched triumphantly on the roof of a car, which positively glared at the owner when he came out to shoo the goose away.

Because it’s so open and treeless, and because Steeles runs broad and open east-west with the prevailing wind from the west, it’s always breezy and it can be chilly going for a walk. When the wind swings to the north in winter, it slices icily through your warmest coat. In summer the sun blazes on all that concrete and asphalt which soak up the heat and radiate it back at you. Parking lots and road surfaces get treated with salt by the ton in winter, and rain sheets everywhere. There’s a constant roar of traffic, planes overhead, and trains in the distance, and often the bakery smells are drowned by diesel fumes and dust. It’s no one’s definition of a cozy neighbourhood.

And yet, out for a walk this week, with a little sun trying to poke through and the smell of fresh bread in the air, it was pleasantly surprising. You could hear the birds in the bushes, at least on the side streets away from the traffic on Steeles. There were a few people out walking and more sitting at picnic tables outside office buildings gathering in the sun.

Life is interesting, anywhere, and walking around I kept reminding myself that the chief joy of walking is in the pace. That provides the opportunity to notice the little things if you just let your senses (and nose) guide you.