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I Used To Live In A Parkdale Rooming House

06/01/2017 04:51 EDT | Updated 06/02/2017 12:25 EDT
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BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 25: A well-used doorknob on the steel door of an old safe at the Custom House Block on the Boston Waterfront is pictured on Jan. 25, 2017. The building is being renovated into offices. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

I lived in a rooming house in Parkdale when I was 15 years old.

I hadn't thought about it in years, but then Twitter went crazy on Tuesday, responding to a story in Toronto Life, a first-person account called "We Bought a Crackhouse."

As I laughed along at the responses to this tone-deaf and callous couple (including a tongue-in-cheek GoFundMe campaign), it dawned on me that I'd once been the kind of tenant the writer joked about demolishing a house around.

At the end of 1993, my parents sprang it on me that we were all moving to San Francisco. I fought this bitterly, mainly because I was crazy about a boy at my school, but I didn't tell them that. I argued I should finish up the school year, for the sake of my grades and graduation date.

My mom knew Lillian Demko through friends. She and her husband owned one of those sprawling grand old houses on a side street in the triangle between King, Queen and Jameson streets, and they rented rooms on the third floor. She'd been a professional figure skater. That's all I really knew about her.

The house was not renovated. The floors creaked and the windows stuck. My room faced the street. It was furnished with Canadiana antiques I didn't appreciate at the time, and the requisite number of doilies. It was like living inside one of the Frances Hodgson Burnett books I'd loved as a kid. The rules were clear and strict. No coming in after curfew, wipe the sink and toilet seat after using, no drugs or alcohol.

I wish now that I'd been braver, lifted my head, opened my eyes and looked around me.

Most people seemed to stay a few months, and for part of the time I lived there, the room across the hall was empty. Later an older man moved in. How old? In my teenaged mind he seemed ancient, but was probably closer to 35. I'm sure -- well, I hope -- I asked his name, but it's long forgotten. We didn't interact much.

What I remember most about the other tenant is that he seemed sad. He didn't have visitors, no friends or family stopping by to see him or take him out. A rooming house is not an ideal place to entertain, but I had friends over sometimes, so I know it was allowed. I have a vague memory of him dressed in an ill-fitting suit, heading out for job interviews, but it's possible I'm pasting a scene from Dickens onto my own recollections.

I'm sure I seemed sad to him, too. I survived on Kraft Dinner, slept through my alarm and missed an exam at school, and listened to Jane Says on repeat for hours.

I missed curfew a few times and felt real fear. Standing on the sidewalk late at night in 1990s Parkdale, alone and female, was no joke. In the end, I chose to face the reprimands of my land-lady, which were fairly mild, over walking the streets to find a payphone to call a friend.

I felt scared a lot of the time, walking up to Queen Street to buy food, or to the streetcar stop on King. But nothing bad ever happened. Sometimes people talked to me on the street, yelled things at me. Some of them were probably mentally ill, but others were just generic assholes, the kind you can find in any neighbourhood. I wish now that I'd been braver, lifted my head, opened my eyes and looked around me.

When rooming houses disappear from the housing mix, we lose these kinds of landing places.

In remembering all this, I realize I was one of those "vulnerable people" we see cited in discussions about housing and the effects of gentrification. I don't know what particular struggles the other tenant was facing, because I was too caught up in my own teenage angst and awkwardness to ask, but what we had in common was that we were alone.

I'm not suggesting the house the Toronto Life couple bought had been some idyllic commune, but there is the feel of a slur about the way the author used the phrase "rooming house," as if that in itself was enough to get the reader on board with their eviction of both the tenants and the squatters that followed. But technically, a rooming house is any private house in which rooms are rented for living or staying temporarily.

(I guess what I'm trying to say is: #notallroominghouses)

When rooming houses disappear from the housing mix, we lose these kinds of landing places. Places where newcomers to the city can live while they search for work, where people without family can live in a household, and where a mixed-up teenager can finish a school year.

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