Neighbourhood History

You are probably getting bored with me starting off a post by saying, “I was out for a walk in my neighbourhood” and I am getting tired of going out for a walk in my neighbourhood, but given COVID-19 is still hanging about I’m trying to do my part by sticking close to home.

At any rate, a recent walk took me I past an older home that I’ve always assumed had a story behind it, but I didn’t know what it was. Right now, there’s this sign out front, as they do work on the house.

As I learned, it’s known as the Snider House after the original owners, and it dates back to 1820, one of the oldest houses in Toronto.

this is it in 1923 – Toronto Public Library archives photo

I had seen that it had sold a year or 2 ago, and then in the past few weeks the dreaded construction hoarding went up. Too many times, this is a cue for imminent destruction. Fortunately, it’s a designated Heritage property which avoids:

I see these signs all over our neighbourhood. On one street nearby, in a 100m stretch there were 3 houses that have been demolished with new infill underway.

I’m happy that Snider House is being restored. It’s beautiful example of Victorian architecture and it’s a reminder that Toronto actually has a history, something we keep trying to erase every time we tear down a perfectly good though older home to replace it with something new.

I get it, on one level. In our case, we spent several years and hundreds of thousands renovating our last house, a 1920’s detached 3-bedroom in mid-Toronto, and in the end we still had a detached 3-bedroom home. Had we knocked it down, for not much more than we ending up spending on renovations, we could have had a larger 4-bedroom that would have been worth at least 25% more than what we eventually sold at. If you want all the latest modern wiring, heating, plumbing, bathrooms, kitchens, energy efficiency, and comforts it’s often cheaper to start with a blank slate.

And yet, when that happens up and down a street the character starts to change. Many mid-town Toronto neighbourhoods date from the 1920-1940 period, and were originally quite uniform with a mix of detached and semi-detached 3-bedroom 2-story homes along with some 2-bedroom bungalows. That characteristic look lasted for the 1st and 2nd generations of owners, into the 1970’s and 1980’s, but by the time the 3rd and 4th generation came along, the urge to modernize and extend became too strong to resist.

And so we have today’s streets, where many of the original homes, to my eye charming red-brick well-proportioned places, have been replaced by larger boxy stucco-sided 4-bedroom houses that loom over their neighbours. There are now so many that that they’ve started to blend together, but even so, to me the proportions of the homes have lost something. They are more spacious, more open, more energy-efficient, and just more. But do we need more? Can’t we renovate and improve without replacing?

Near the street with the 3 new houses, there’s another home that’s undergone extensive reno’s and is now just about finished. I’m sure it was pricy to renovate instead of tearing down, but I’m glad that they resisted the temptation to tear down a perfectly charming, functional place that just needed to evolve into the 21st century.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle are supposed to be our environmentalist mantra. Use less, use it longer, and then hand it on for other uses. On my way home from my walk, I passed a toddler toilet seat that had been outgrown (proudly I bet) and left out for someone to claim and use for a new toddler. It seemed an apt metaphor – poop happens. Learn from it.

A Walk to a Beginning

On Thursday this past week, our son turned 18, and on Friday he graduated from high school. It prompted a different kind of walk, memories instead of miles.

My wife was pregnant and fighting bouts of nausea that we thought were food poisoning before we learned it was morning sickness, on the morning of September 11, 2001. And now, at the other bookend of his 18 years, our son is graduating into COVID-19.

Both events have changed the world, and it only begs the question about what the next 18 years of his life will bring. We had been planning to head to Halifax in the autumn to deliver him into the arms of university life at Dalhousie University. Now, that’s on hold – he will still start classes in the fall, but online, with dorm life at the residence of Mom and Dad. Not what he or we had expected, but the new normal for his fellow graduates.

So what do you do with these kinds of situations? You learn from them, I think. In many ways, his journey through life till now has had more emotive and socially-changing events in it than I remember experiencing at his age, and I can only see more on the horizon.

It also means that the plans my wife and I had are changing too. We won’t get to walk the Gaff Point Trail this autumn, as we had planned, but we’re hoping we can do it next year. Maybe he can start in residence in Halifax in January. Maybe it will be September 2021. But in the meantime, we learn and we grow and we move on. All roads come to a fork sooner or later.

Happy Birthday Rowan. And congratulations. Now comes the fun part.

Walkers vs Dog-Walkers

Walkers walk. Walkers of dogs let pets take them for walks, a significant difference.

My preferred routes often take me through the local streets, parks, and ravines of Toronto. While many of these parks have off-leash dog run areas, I grew up in a small town in rural Southern Ontario so when I was young everywhere was an off-leash dog run area. Today we fence in our pets, and designate park plots for pooches to poop.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like dogs. It’s just that I cannot always say the same for walkers of dogs, aka dog owners. I do make an exception for dog-walkers, aka the pro’s. In my neighbourhood there are lots of families that own dogs and who employ professional dog-walkers to exercise Fido during the day. Generally speaking, these folks are just that, professionals, and keep their charges under control. Sharing the path with them and 4-5 bounding terriers is tolerable.

Walkers of dogs, however, are like amateurs in many things – long on enthusiasm and short on technique. In normal times, on weekends there would be the unleashing of the hounds as the walkers of dogs came out, families with their pets. In today’s COVID times, this is a daily occurrence. In many cases, these non-professional dog walkers fall short of the standards set by their workaday employees. Let me count the ways

  • Poochie is precious; all my attention must be on him
  • Poochie is rambunctious; isn’t he cute!
  • Poochie is curious; ooh, what have you found in that man’s shoe?
  • Poochie is poopie; over there Poochie, poop over there!
  • Poochie is ignored; can’t you see I’m on my phone!
  • Poochie is in my way

Come on folks – share the space and smile at your neighbour. Poochie and just want to walk.

Little Scenes: Life Observed While Walking

One of the great things about walking, whether it’s in my neighbourhood (maybe especially in my neighbourhood), elsewhere in the city, or just out in the country on a trail, is that you continually see little scenes that register mentally but somewhat unconsciously as I wander along.

You can be in a kind of tuned out zone, just walking and not really aware of what’s happening around you, and then some little detail will catch your eye or your ear. These little scenes fascinate me. Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage, so I think of these as life’s little paragraph plays upon that stage, unconnected on one level and yet part of the world-weave that includes each of us.

I keep meaning to write down these scenes as the impressions register, but it’s a pain to type them into my phone as I walk and when I get home I’ve often forgotten them. Occasionally, something will jog that hidden memory, and over the past few months I’ve been collecting these little postcards until I had enough for a post. Et voila.


I overhear a woman as she gets out of her car and goes into her house, keys jangling as she gestures with one hand while talking into a phone held with the other: “I told you, that’s too much”. And I wonder, what is too much?

A squirrel runs down a tree to the edge of the road, and hesitates, hesitates, hesitates, and then dashes part-way across, sees me coming, stops, turns, turns about again, hesitates, and then sprints the rest of the way to climb a tree, spiralling so that it says hidden from me as I pass. Do bold squirrels live longer, or is it the cautious ones?

I’m walking by the lake, in winter, and there is a thin skim of ice just formed along the shore. As a light breeze disturbs it there is a faint crunch as the ice breaks up, and an almost imperceptible squeak.

I walk past a magnificent magnolia in bloom, just as a gust of wind cascades pink flowers across the sidewalk. Spring snow.

A woman pushing a stroller walks past, oblivious to me and to the child as she talks into her phone, and the child looks over at me and smiles, unnoticed by its mother.

A little guy riding his bike with his mom says “I’m sooooo tired” as he passes me, in just the tone that brings the image of our 3 year old instantly to mind.

On a little side street, 3 gardeners in a row are lined up like life-size gnomes with their colourful gloves and hats, each kneeling and digging amidst their early spring flowers and each oblivious of one another, and of me as I pass.

On side streets all round my neighbourhood there are little monuments, signs, and tokens. COVID-19 has people hunkering down, and at the same time looking up for once, to see the many people who work day in and day out to do the little things – stock grocery store shelves, clean hospitals, prepare and deliver food. I think, when this is over, will new-normal mean old-normal for the cleaners and the shelf-stockers – out of sight and out of mind?

I’m walking on one of the first nearly hot days of late spring and a young woman jogs past – early 20’s perhaps. I see the literal bloom of youth on her cheeks, long legs and easy grace, and think to myself, youth is beautiful. Can I appreciate that she’s gorgeous, purely on an aesthetic basis, now that I’m old enough to be more than her father? (Don’t say grandfather!) Like the girl from Ipanema, she doesn’t see me. And then the moment passes – steady on Nabokov, I think. Don’t get purvy.

Walking in Glendon Woods, my mind goes back to when I attended the school and walked these same paths. There are new leaves and shoots all around me, and the only sound is the West Don River mingling with the birds. It’s warm but not hot, earth-rich scented. There’s no one around. I could be alone in a forest 1000 km from here. Where did 40 years go?

When Will I Stop Walking in a Pandemic?

I guess the title of this post has two meanings. When will I stop walking? Will it be because I get sick? Will it be because my wife or son or someone I’ve been in contact with gets sick, so that I have to go into self-isolation? Will it be because the province or city completely locks everything down?

And then the other meaning is broader – when will this epidemic end? When will restrictions lift, and some normalcy return? When do I have to stop criss-crossing the street, doing the the covid dance to keep my 2m separation from anyone else?

So which comes first – me being shut down or the epidemic ending? It’s what everyone is thinking. It looks like we’re talking months for all restrictions to be lifted, and probably at least a few more weeks here in Toronto before even a slight loosening. Recent briefings from the Ontario government talked about being prepared for 2nd and 3rd waves that stretch out 18 or even 24 months from the start this past March, and for a gradual, step-by-cautious-step return to what we hope is the old normal over that time. We’re in this for a longish haul it seems.

So when you look at it like that, a certain fatalistic, carpe diem attitude is likely. Remember that Bobby McFerrin song? – Don’t Worry, Be Happy

And can I just take a moment to remind you about some dos and don’ts about walking while we’re in the middle of this:

  • Do – keep 2m apart while making space for others by stepping into a driveway or off the curb onto the roadway if you need to
  • Do – try to walk on the left side of the street so that if you have to step into the road you can see the traffic coming towards you
  • Do – give extra space for someone who might be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19
  • Do – smile at your neighbours and fellow walkers 😉 – we’re all in this together

  • Don’t – walk about in 2s, 3s, and 4s crowding others off the street
  • Don’t – forget to look up from your smart phone
  • Don’t – ignore the birds, flowers, sunshine, and SPRING! now that you can actually hear, smell, and appreciate them
  • Don’t – be that person who’s so self-absorbed that they actually think this epidemic is all about them and how they’re the only ones inconvenienced by it all

Just Keep Calm and Carry On

And oh by the way, let’s hope we keep that idea once this finally settles, because waiting in the wings there’s climate change to be tackled, not to mention paying back the $billions borrowed to fight COVID-19. We’ve got a challenging decade in front of us. If the 1920’s were known as the Roaring ’20’s, then this coming decade may come to be known as the Pooring 20’s, or better yet the Soaring 20’s as we not only get back on our feet, we use our new-found resolve to face even bigger challenges. Humans are smart, resilient, toolmakers – 5 million years of evolution have seen to that.

In the meantime, embrace the little things – like a box of Rice Krispies when that’s what you crave.

Happy thoughts: How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the times we live in

Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been walking in our neighbourhood, I’ve been taking pictures of the many signs and sidewalk chalk art that I’ve come across.

They’re a mixture of happy thoughts and admonitions. There have been some that are too big to capture – I saw a chalk art design today that took the whole width of the roadway on Manor Road just west of Mount Pleasant.

Humans are nothing if not adaptable, and one of the ways we’re adapting to COVID-19 is to create art. It’s a reminder that we’ll get through this.

In the words of her Majesty the Queen – “We’ll meet again“.

A Week without a Walk

Sometimes you just feel blah. Call it February blues – I read an article in the Economist, that analysis of song downloads on Spotify showed that month to have the most downbeat tunes. Some call it Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I call it the blahs.

And maybe I should also call it a hangover from walking TO Streets over the past few weeks. My sinuses have been clogged and I’ve had a mild headache for days, since I finished walking Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue. I don’t know if it’s the weather or just the pollution and gunge in the air. It does seem worse in winter, when damp heavy air seems to hold the dust and traffic exhaust and create a grimy blanket that you have to breath as you walk along these streets.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I’ve just needed a break from walking. I know I should be out and getting exercise, but it’s been hard to get motivated. It’s been a long time since I went a full week without at least one proper 90+ minute walk. Resting my knees, feet, and ankles, which all hurt more this time of year, is probably a good thing once in a while. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself.

I comfort myself with the thought that baseball spring training starts soon, followed by my fantasy baseball league’s annual draft, followed by Easter, followed by, I hope, some warmer, drier weather. To be able to walk without having to pull on 4 layers of clothing, trudge through slush, and dodge sprays of melt; to feel a warm breeze and hear a robin – in February these seem a million days a way. In reality it’s just 6 or 7 weeks, so I just need to be patient and get out anyway.

Give me 3 months and I’ll be cursing the heat.

A fork in the road

Roughly 40 years ago, I thought I knew where I was going in life. I had my path figured out. I was in high school, and I was going to be an aeronautical engineer, so I was taking math, physics, chemistry, and the other subjects I’d need to get into an engineering program.

And then during my final year, my path came to an unexpected fork – I failed a key math course (advanced geometry if you must know). Despite having done well in math all the way to this point, I had hit a level of math that I just could not figure out. Without high marks in all of the math disciplines, I had no hope of getting into an engineering program, so I had to take a decision about where to go. I chose a sharp turn and switched my goal to a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature.

As I progressed through university, I didn’t know where that BA would take me. What do you do with an English Lit degree? Teach? While I didn’t really want to do that, I also didn’t know what else I could do when I graduated. Then out of the blue, a friend at school told me about a great part time job, answering customer calls in a help centre for a bank. I didn’t realize it but applying for that job turned into a major fork-in-the-road life choice, partly because that part-time help desk job eventually led me into a career in software development, and more importantly because the person who hired me eventually became my friend and then my wife.

Looking back now, as I watch my son finish high school and prepare for university, I can see that I eventually did end up more or less in an engineering role, it was just in software rather than aerospace. A call centre help desk led to managing an ATM network, which led to managing problems and changes in a large data centre, which led to developing software and process solutions to handle problems and changes, which led to requirements gathering and project management, which led into general software development, and eventually to consulting in the field of program and problem management.

That’s the thing about choices and life paths. You make plans and choose paths, and sometimes those paths go where you want them to go, but other times they take you in unexpected directions.

When I walk, I will often set off along a particular route or to a specific destination – Sunnybrook Park, or the Lower Don Trail, or whatever. And while most of the time I’ll follow the path I had intended, there will be those odd occasions when life will put a fork in the road. The City is reconstructing a trail, so there’s a detour. I’m getting a blister. A thunderstorm is brewing. What do I do? Going off the trail has taken me into some interesting neighbourhoods I otherwise might have missed.

If every walk was predictable, every path foreseen, would it be fun? Probably not. Deep down, we want our paths to fork unexpectedly every once in a while, as long as it’s not too drastic a fork. Who hasn’t accidentally missed a turn and stumbled across a great little coffee shop, a beautiful garden, or a cool shady park? Those serendipitous finds are part of the charm of a good walk.

And once in a while, as well, the fork will be a big one. A career-changing opportunity to move to a new city? That chance meeting that leads to a new friendship (or marriage)? And then there are the sudden reversals – sometimes the opportunities we lose are the ones that change us the most, rather than the ones we get. And sometimes the paths we don’t chose affect us more than the ones we do. I can never know where we’d be if my wife and I had not chosen to move back to Toronto from London?

What I do know is that when a fork arrives, you have to choose and keep going, wherever that takes you. Pausing and thinking and analyzing and deciding is all well and good, but life doesn’t wait – so pick your path, and go for it. If I’m turned about (never lost, of course!) on a walk and unsure where to go, I’ll pick a direction and just start walking – eventually I’ll come to something and figure it out from there, and like as not, I’ll eventually end up where I wanted to be, at the cost perhaps of a bit of time but with the benefit of learning something new and seeing something interesting along the way. Just as my English Lit degree led to software development, often forks are simply unexpected turns in the path that get you were you want to go by more interesting routes.

So for me, 40 years gone from failing a math course, I could never have foreseen that the fork I chose then would take me to Toronto, point me at software development, lead me to work in London, San Francisco, Sydney, Amsterdam, and Montreal, introduce me to my wife, and wind and meander to the place where I am today. It seemed like a road block then. Looking back, it was more of a lesson – if you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Navigation: The subtle art of not getting lost on your walk

I was walking along a small street near our home the other day, and I noticed that the sidewalks on one side of the street had more ice and snow than on the other. My brain slowly noodled on that and it dawned on me that it was because the south side of an east-west street often gets more shade than the north side. Turning a corner, I realized the same is generally true of the west side of north-south streets.

So putting that together with the knowledge that Toronto generally follows a grid-based street pattern, it occurred to me that little clues like this help me navigate even in unfamiliar places. If I plunk myself down in a random Toronto neighbourhood in January, I can figure out which way is roughly north/south or east/west just by looking at the patterns of snow and ice.

That got me thinking about other clues that help me navigate. For example, in Toronto the general practice is that addresses on the north side of east/west streets and on the west side of north/south streets will be evenly numbered, and the other side oddly numbered. Just walking down a street and looking at the house numbers tells me that if the odd numbers are on my right, I must be going either east or south.

As well, Toronto uses Yonge Street as the major east/west dividing line for many streets, so for example you have Eglinton Avenue West and Eglinton Avenue East. The street numbers reset at Yonge as well, so you can have 100 Eglinton East and 100 Eglinton West. That means that the bigger the number, the farther east or west of Yonge I must be. Similarly, Toronto street numbers often start at the south end of a north/south street, so if they are getting bigger I must be walking north.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are many other navigational clues I use in wandering around Toronto. For example, Lake Ontario forms the southern boundary of the city and is the lowest point in the city relative to mean sea level. So, if I am climbing as I go along a street, I am probably going roughly north. This also means that the many creeks and streams in the city, and their ravines, generally run mostly north/south, so if I just follow the water downstream, I am likely to be partially or mostly going south, and eventually I will come to the lake.

Of course, knowing which way is north or south or east or west means having an internal compass in my head, and not everyone does. So what other clues are there? There are landmarks, of course – in Toronto, the most obvious one is the CN Tower. If I can see it, I know that the downtown core is in that direction. The same is true of the headquarters of the major banks – these skyscrapers are all clustered in the downtown core and I can often make out the skyline from many streets.

Then there are landmarks like the subway and the street car lines – these often indicate which street I’m on. And there are other transit clues, like the buses which display route names that often contain the street they follow (like the good old #6 Bay or the #7 Bathurst buses). The city has also spent the past couple of decades putting up neighbourhood street signs, so just looking at those often tells me roughly where I am.

Beyond landmarks, there are other physical clues. For instance, since I know that the prevailing wind direction in Toronto is from the west, the direction of smoke and steam from chimneys can help me figure out east and west. On sunny days, of course, I can also check the direction of my shadow based on the time of day – if it’s more or less in front of me and it’s early morning, then I must be going west. And if I don’t know the time of day, the length of my shadow is a clue too – the shorter the shadow, the closer to noon it must be since that’s when the sun is closest to directly over head.

The more I thought about it as I walked, the more I realized that living here and walking around, I’ve built up a complex navigational rule book in my head. I don’t need a compass, or a map, or a GPS phone app. I’m comfortable wandering and using that mental rulebook to figure out where I am.

All of that also explains why, in wandering around a new city, I’m usually at least a bit disoriented at first. Because I don’t yet have that mental rule book, I have to fumble and feel my way around. I think it’s that sense of not knowing where you are that at partially explains why you are nervous when you visit a new place.

I’ve found that trying to apply my internal Toronto rule book to a new place can also lead to mistakes. For example, early on after we moved to London I would often get lost, in part because the street pattern doesn’t follow a nice neat cardinal grid like most North American cities, so I’d get myself oriented, for example heading east, only to realize that the street curved and before I knew it I’d be heading north or south, and along the way the street name would change.

On the other hand, getting myself lost is part of the fun of exploring a new city, along with slowly building that mental navigational map as I figure out the clues. It’s like solving a puzzle, and that brings a sense of accomplishment.

All of this realization came, as I say, from noticing that there was less snow and ice on one side of a street than the other. I like that, about life in general. By paying attention to the little details, you can both learn new things and you can come to appreciate that you actually know a lot about something that perhaps you had realized. It’s why I like to go for walks.

What else have I been missing by ignoring the details? I think I need a walk to think about it.

A Year of Walkablog

It’s hard to believe that a year has gone by and I’m at my first anniversary of blogging. Looking back, I’m proud of myself for accomplishing some bucket list goals, like the TONotL walk and the Crossing Toronto walk. I’ve also been able to complete some great walks around Toronto that I’d been wanting to do for quite awhile, like the Humber River walk, and that’s been fun too. And then there have been some especially memorable walks, for different reasons – my change of plans or our wandering around in Bermuda.

It’s also been a period of transition. I’ve been slowing down at work over the past couple of years, gradually reducing my consulting work, and now with the turn of the decade I’m going to take a long pause, possibly a permanent working pause, and try turning my semi-retirement into something closer to full retirement. I’m ready for long walks, multi-day or multi-week, or even multi-month, travels and treks. My bucket list isn’t getting shorter, because I keep reading about this or that trail that I’d like to try, so I want to hit the road and see what I can do.

So the plan for the coming year is more of the same, and then some. Walks around Toronto for sure, and hopefully chunks of the Great Trail, the Waterfront Trail, the Bruce Trail, and maybe others. Long walks, short walks, journeys, treks, and trails. New boots and new gear, and proper hikes with tents and sleeping bags. New posts with new stories. New memories, for sure.

Happy holidays, and may the road rise to meet you.