In front of Mel Lastman Square, there are dancers in the middle of Yonge St. Cut out of steel by artist Robert Sprachman in 1998, 14 figures on the median depict the movements of an interaction between two dancers. From the north one leaps into the air. From the south, another reaches up and catches her in his arms, holding her up. They are surrounded on both sides by 124 more figures along the sides of planter boxes, standing and stretching and balancing and bending.
Sprachman says this sculpture, “The Dance,” is meant to represent the social hubbub of its location. “Surrounded by a busy street, this work explores the way in which we move through our world and interact with each other,” he is quoted as saying in the book Creating Memory: A Guide to Outdoor Sculpture in Toronto.
For some, standing in this place, it might offer a nod to the performing arts centre on one side of the street, the high school of the arts a block away, or the school of dance on the other side of the street. For others, here at the centre of a one-time suburb that has become a hustling, towering downtown north over the past few decades, it might evoke the “sidewalk ballet” Jane Jacobs talked about in her definitive book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which the “seeming disorder” of the city’s life, when examined closely, reveals “a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. … This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance …”
Or, one year after a van attack took the lives of 10 Torontonians and injured 16 others right there on the sidewalks of Yonge St. and Mel Lastman Square, it might seem a kind of unintended tribute. A monument to the fragility and precision involved in all of our human urban activity amid the high-speed traffic; a reminder of just how much trust we place in each other to make it all work and grow and thrive; a tribute to how beautiful it is when, as on most days, it all works. This is how we build our city. This is how we live in it. Deliberately, carefully, elegantly, amid the disorder and rush. Together.
For seven terrifying minutes one year ago, it broke down. One man shattered that fragile trust to sow death and disorder. Students on their way to the library were slaughtered, seniors out for a walk were struck down, strollers were toppled on the sidewalk. Toronto was united in grief and horror.
Ten lives lost. Sixteen others scarred by injury. Hundreds more directly terrified by an encounter on the sidewalk in the middle of their daily lives. An entire city of millions left tearfully shaking their heads at what can happen in an instant. It came in the middle of what would be a year of homicidal tragedy in Toronto — soon after the revelation of the serial killer who had been preying on our gay community, soon before another killer went on a rampage on the Danforth, in the middle of a year featuring record levels of gun violence. People are bound, in the wake of mass killings and attacks, to ask about lost innocence or permanent changes to a city’s psyche. The questions are almost always misplaced (we were never innocent, our history of violence and tragedy is long, our society is generally strong). Still, a wave of events like that will test anyone’s strength. How much grief can we bear before that trust we rely on breaks down entirely? How many lives lost before we can no longer perform the dance like we used to?
Except even in our hardest moments, some of us were still there, ready to catch each other in mid-air, demonstrating that trust and support that has built up our society. The cop who kept his head and took the suspect alive. The civilians who rushed to provide first aid and shelter and comfort to the injured and the terrorized. The thousands who rallied in tribute and solidarity in the days that followed. If there was a ritual element learned from other cities to the “Toronto Strong” sentiments that followed the attack — the monuments of flowers and homemade signs that grew up, the vigils and rallies under the banner of “Love” — there was also sincerity beneath it. We may not be able to defend ourselves in every moment when someone decides to strike out in order to hurt us, and to terrorize us. But we can refuse to be terrorized by it. We can refuse to let their violation of our trust erode our trust in each other. We can refuse to let anyone’s actions fundamentally change who we are, and how we treat each other.
At Yonge north of Sheppard one year later, there are few reminders of what happened here. There’s a “LOVE” mural painted on the square in front of the civic centre, there’s a sign that says “Love Square” at Olive Square near Finch where the flowers once piled high. But for the most part, there’s no reminder of the chaos that momentarily took hold. People smoke outside the library. They dart across the street between the ebb and flow of traffic. They line up at the coffee counter, sit out on park benches, say “Hi” and nod to strangers as they pass.
The dance goes on. Still appearing a mess but revealing a marvellous order of safety and freedom. As fragile and precise as ever. And just as beautiful.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire