On July 24, I was on my way to a lunch meeting on the Danforth, when I was stopped short beside a little patio on the sidewalk outside a coffee shop. In the glass of the cafe’s front window was a gap in the shape of two overlapping circles a little smaller than a fist, surrounded by a spiderweb of cracks.
On the inside of the glass, at a table right near the window, a couple of people were sitting and drinking coffee, business as usual. On the outside of the window, two men were preparing to use suction-cup handles to remove the window pane and replace it.
That little tableau sticks in my memory as summing up something about this city in this year.
Elsewhere along the street there were piles of flowers and boarded-up storefronts on which people had written messages of strength and hope in chalk, and painted heart shapes, and laid wreaths on the sidewalk.
The shock of the murderous rampage still seemed fresh, the grief at the loss of two young girls still setting in, the emotions were still pouring out of us in memorials and tributes and statements of sorrow and resolve. Yet businesses reopened, people were out working and shopping and eating and drinking coffee. Life went on. Repairs were underway. There was work to do. But the scars were still fresh and visible.
Toronto felt like that too often in 2018.
This was a year when the term “Toronto Strong” was coined, and a year when it was tested. A year defined at many stops along the way by violence and sadness.
In April, there’d been an earlier murderous attack on Yonge Street, this one by the driver of a van who killed 10 and injured 16. The unprecedented mass attacks on strangers contributed to a record-high number of homicides in Toronto. It was a year when, early on, news was dominated by the arrest and investigation into alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur. It was a year in which two schoolgirls were shot in a playground.
Glimmers of light pierced the darkness along the way, often seen in how Torontonians reacted to the horror. During the Yonge St. van attack, strangers rushed out into the street to help the victims, and Constable Ken Lam calmly took the attacker alive, refusing to be goaded into co-operating in a suicide-by-cop. The city rallied together more than once to show its love, its courage, its heart. But the occasions for these displays were overwhelmingly sad.
It can be difficult to keep in mind that this remains a city blessed by prosperity and opportunity and — yes, even still — relative peace and safety compared to much of the rest of the world and even the rest of Canada. And even if they seemed trivial compared to the toll of the violence, there were occasions to smile. The King Street Pilot project attracted masses of new riders. Our Leafs and Raptors are actually good. Wonderful new skating trails opened downtown under the Gardiner and in Scarborough on McCowan Rd. Work finally began on the Don River flood protection that could open up the Port Lands to long-planned development. York University students and Vaughan residents got a full year to ride the first subway extension opened in over a decade. They turned the lights back on in front of the El Mocambo.
Those are good things, for many of us. Nice things.
And yet, they feel like small things next to the relentlessly growing pile of challenges and defeats.
Even away from the crime beat, things were more often grim or enraging. The year began with a cold-weather crisis in the homeless shelter system — one advocates say has not gone away even as the year ends. The city appears to have seen more pedestrian and cyclist deaths this year than ever before. Both the provincial and municipal elections saw last-minute disruptions that turned the expected matchups on their heads — both came, in different ways, to be dominated by Doug Ford’s populist wrecking ball. And since then, we’ve had controversy at the OPP and Hydro One and Waterfront Toronto, the slashing of after-school and at-risk youth programs, cuts to arts and Indigenous program funding and the cancellation of the basic income pilot. There’s a $100 million shortfall in land transfer tax receipts at the city. And so on.
Among the best things you can say about 2018 is that it is just about over. A fresh new year is almost here, and with it the hope — if not necessarily the expectation — for better news in the future.
And we’re still here, Toronto. Strong, still. Sitting behind our fractured front window, drinking coffee and figuring out what 2019 might bring. Life goes on. Repairs need to be made. We have work to do.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire