A healing Danforth looks back, one year after the unimaginable

A healing Danforth looks back, one year after the unimaginable

But scratch the surface ever so slightly and the wounds remain painfully raw. The collective shock of a random, senseless shooting spree that knocked this most welcoming of Toronto neighbourhoods off its axis a year ago echoes loudly.

And it will echo even louder this weekend in what is shaping up to be a delicate balancing act of commemorations, one intended as a solemn candlelit vigil of remembrance, the other a nearly-as-solemn celebration of #DanforthStrong, paying tribute to the city’s first responders and this caring community’s resilience.

The tension between those impulses — wanting never to forget the victims, yet wanting this anniversary to be the turning point that puts a lid on the lingering trauma — is evident throughout the village, even in the second-floor office of Philip Kocev, the designated spokesperson for the Danforth Business Improvement Association.

Kocev, who runs a real estate brokerage, knows there is no going forward without looking back. His role with the BIA requires him to emphasize the Danforth’s “vibrant recovery” because everyone’s livelihood depends on it. But all he need do is glance out his window and “the hairs on my neck stand up” — there, right across the street, is the very spot where the shooter fell and died a year ago, taking his own life after taking two others and leaving behind a meandering trail of 13 others wounded.

“The short answer is yes, of course, the Danforth is back,” Kocev told the Star. “In some ways, the community is even stronger. The way everyone came out, almost from the moment this tragedy happened, to support each other. The way everyone came out in the days that followed, just to reclaim the street and support each other. The way the people have raised funds and risen and demonstrated a sense of unity. It’s the one positive outcome from an otherwise incredibly tragic event. It brought us even closer together.

“Yet this kind of anniversary is a difficult thing to navigate. You can replace broken glass and you can patch the bullet holes, but some of the other scars run deeper. Just the fact of remembrance is bringing back things that some of us hadn’t expected to feel. It shows we are still carrying forward some wounds and we will see that Sunday and Monday when we gather to mark this moment.”

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The first of the two ceremonies will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday at the northeast corner of Withrow Park, where a 30-minute “solemn commemoration” will include a choral presentation by an interfaith choir, a moment of silence, the reading of the names of the victims and — in a measured gesture of healing, the reading of a piece crafted for this moment by City of Toronto poet laureate Al Moritz.

Moritz, in an interview with the Star, explained he has felt the pull of the Danforth since the mid-1970s, where the neighbourhood was a regular destination “for many of us in the early days of CanLit to gather together.”

The neighbourhood’s Greek identity was by then well established, spurred by a surge of new arrivals to Toronto fleeing the aftermath of the 1967 coup that brought military rule to Greece. By the mid-1970s, the Star was hailing the vibrancy of “Little Athens” on the Danforth and its restaurant and nightclub scene. Though subsequent decades of yuppification and gentrification left their marks, adding cultural depth and variety to the village, the flavours of Greece still dominate the 21st-century Danforth.

Moritz has titled the new poem “Days of July: The Danforth” and said it is intended as a celebration of the unpretentious openness, strength and warmth that makes the neighbourhood “every bit as enchanting” today as it was when he first encountered it 45 years ago.

“Certain neighbourhoods are spectacularly welcoming places and the Danforth is perhaps the strongest in this way. Anybody can come from any other part of the city and just by walking down the street you start to feel you are a part of it,” said Moritz.

“For me, the Danforth is a place where commerce and life itself come together in the best possible way. Sometimes I feel we are so used to being mad at capitalism that we forget, making and buying and selling are basic human activities that are always going to be 80 per cent of our life.

“This comes together on the Danforth in the most wonderful way: The shopkeeper loving to open his shop and spray his sidewalk in the morning, to talk to the neighbouring shop owners and to bring out the beautiful vegetables. All those interactions as the customers come through. This is life — and the Danforth presents it all in the most vivid way and shares it with everyone. That’s one of the things the poem for Sunday is about, trying to celebrate that.”

On Monday — the actual anniversary of the mass shooting — a candlelit vigil begins at sunset (8:51 p.m.) at Alexander the Great Parkette at the intersection of Danforth and Logan Aves. This more intimate community vigil will again involve a reading of the names of the dead and injured, the ringing of the bells of nearby St. Barnabas church, a moment of silence and a choral presentation.

In announcing the commemorations, the area’s churches, mosques and synagogues this week offered a statement of interfaith unity, saying, “Within our diverse community, we gather around our shared values of peace, justice and hope. We come with broken hearts, offering our support to those who are grieving and all those affected by the tragedy one year ago.

“As people of hope, we come together to affirm that love is stronger than hate. On July 22, 2018, our community was shaken by unthinkable violence. Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and all whose lives were changed that day … in our pain and in our hope let us hold space for one another as we mend the world with love.”

Handwritten notes of remembrance were beginning to accumulate around Alexander The Great Parkette when a Toronto Star team visited Wednesday night. There, sitting at the fountain as children splashed in the water behind them, sat retiree Helen Tsionas, together with her son Jim, 50, resting after an evening stroll.

Tsionas has called the Danforth home since 1951, when she arrived from her native Greece. She spent 38 working years in the hospitality industry — the Westin, the Royal York and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where she ran the coat check for 11 years. The wide-open smile on her face said it all.

“We are happy because the Danforth is quiet again. We have nothing to fear,” she said.

Her son Jim added some nuance. “Nothing like this happened in my 50 years. It affected a lot of people. For a long time I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder as I walked along the street. But eventually we started feeling safe again, even if it is still there in the back of your mind.

“You realize it all came from just one crazy guy, who ended it by killing himself. That’s all it was.”

Further west, outside Carrot Common, Patricia Gray-Thorpe sat on a bench alongside her dog Archer, telling The Star her empathy extends to all the victims, including the family of the deceased shooter.

“I look back on this tragedy as a reflection of the times, maybe a symptom of a larger issue, including the availability of guns. I don’t understand what was happening in his mind — but I do know it brought people together. It was a call to take action and have a voice and to assert the sense of community.

“It demonstrates people are resilient. But as much as we need to move on, we need also to honour the lives of the victims and honour the lives of those who live with this pain.”

Though the general public is invited to attend both commemorations, the city is asking attendees to “respect the privacy of those impacted by the shooting.” City officials will have a range of services available on site, including staff from the Community Safety and Well-Being Unit and therapy dogs from St. John’s Ambulance.

Fundraising efforts continue in memory of the victims of the rampage — including the two who were killed, Julianna Kozis, 10, and Reese Fallon, 18. Among them is the JDK Foundation, which conveys both Julianna’s initials and the encouragement to Just Do Kindness. To mark this first anniversary the group now is more than halfway towards a goal of raising $25,000 to support the Dr. Jay Children’s Grief Centre.

Passersby The Star spoke to on the Danforth this week appear to have little expectation and scant little interest in learning more about the perpetrator. A flurry of immediate speculation alleging terrorist ties has since given way to broad acceptance that a singularly troubled man with a history of mental-health issues did what he did alone, without any known motive, political or otherwise.

The why of it all went with him to the grave, forever unanswerable.

Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

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