I was riding the Queen streetcar this week when I overheard a wonderful thing. A mother was telling her daughter a story about one of this city's old buildings. "This used to be a department store called Simpson's," the mother said. She pointed to the flagship store for The Hudson's Bay at the corner of Queen and Yonge. Her daughter nestled in closer. "I like the moldings," the daughter said. "Me too," said the mother. "I can remember going here when I was a kid."
This is something I don't hear too often in Toronto. People talking about this city's buildings and what they mean to us. In a city where the landscape is constantly changing, there just aren't too many of these stories around. There are bright lights and tall buildings -- all the stuff big cities are made of -- but stories that shed light on our city's past and provide us with some common narrative seem pretty hard to come by. Even harder to keep around.
Last month, after eight months of lobbying, gathering signatures and writing angry letters to Ottawa, Postal Station K -- the Depression-era North Toronto post office that bears a unique insignia from King Edward VIII (the only of its kind in Canada) -- was sold to a condo developer, with no clear provisions to preserve the site.
The building, which is 75 years old, sits on the former site of Montgomery's Tavern -- the roadhouse where William Lyon Mackenzie and his rebels launched the Upper Canada Rebellion and eventually brought responsible government to Canada.
It is, as MP Mike Colle and the 10,000 passionate Torontonians that signed his petition would agree, an extremely important piece of this city's history.
Soon, it'll be just another tall building.
Anyone who has lived in Toronto or taken a peek inside of our publications knows that Toronto suffers from a great deal of confusion about its identity. The magazine Toronto Life mocks this insecurity in a monthly feature called "The Ego Meter" where Toronto's ego is measured based on various city issues and events. "Rob Ford gets elected," minus 10 points, they'll write, or " Lost puppy saved," plus five. (You get the idea.)
You can hear it in just about any public place too. People are constantly talking about what it means to live in this city and just what it is that makes us distinct. "Is Toronto a world class city?" they'll ask. "Are we more like L.A. or New York?" And if there is one thing that emerges from all of these conversations it's that this isn't something we've quite figured out.
Yet how can we be surprised?
Shared stories in this city are like great sushi in the prairies: a huge effort and a rarity to find. With so many different cultures adding to our city's narrative and so few years behind us, the effort can often seem pointless. Even more so when our city and its developers are constantly shutting these efforts down.
In the past few years, countless of Toronto's historical buildings -- landmarks with shared narratives embedded in their walls -- have either been sold to developers or collapsed from neglect. Two of the Downsview's hangar buildings that once produced planes for the Second World War were demolished in 2010 after been declared too expensive to repair -- while just last year one more (the former home to the Canadian Air and Space Museum) was sold to become a hockey rink.
Walnut Hall, a row of Georgian-style terraced homes on Shuter St were demolished in 2007 again because of the city's neglect. And many of us can remember last year when councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam woke to the surprising news that a 19th-century building in her district was being demolished by its developer just before it was to be declared a historical site.
Add this to the fact that Toronto has more high-rise buildings under construction than any other North American city and it's no wonder we've got identity vertigo!
Cities need narratives! They need a past to shape them and make sense of their sprawling present. They need shared stories to tell!
Postal Station K is a rare gem in this sense, providing us with the kind of story that has the potential to link us all. It's about where this country's government comes from. How some of this city's radicals got critical of the power hungry and forced a fairer system into place. That's the kind of spirit that great cities are made of. That's the kind of reminder of where we come from that's worth keeping around.
For more information on how you can help Postal Station K, check out these handy guidelines on MP Mike Colle's website.