Next Exit for Cabbagetown

You are sitting in a secluded nook, isolated from the tumultuous cacophony of the city by a dense, bushy, hedge. The sun pours down, coating your body in its thick summer warmth, and you recline luxuriously in your lawn chair. Suddenly, a slow meandering wisp of a cloud, which has been drifting lazily across the azure sky, catches your attention. You briefly consider its resemblance to your brother… or perhaps a turtle… before taking another sip of Pimm’s and closing your eyes as you bask in the glorious heat.

Cabbagetown has the largest continuous area of preserved Victorian housing in North America. The neighbourhood gained its name c. the 1840s from an epithet, used by Toronto’s prosperous British residents, disparaging the Irish immigrant’s practice of converting their front lawns into cabbage patches. The area reached its peak of prosperity just before WWI but the war and its aftermath had a devastating effect, throwing the neighbourhood into rapid decline. Long before the great depression, it had already devolved into slums. In the late 1940s, a large swath of the neighbourhood was razed to make way for the Regent Park development (A social housing initiative).

Cabbagetown, before 1940, was the home of the social majority, white Protestant English and Scots. It was a sociological phenomenon, the largest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America.1

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when Victorian architecture was coming back into vogue, that the neighbourhood was revitalized. The current Cabbagetown is actually the neighbourhood immediately to its north, named Don Vale, which was renamed during the revitalization. Cabbagetown is now among the most gentrified neighbourhoods in Toronto and has been the home of celebrities such as Avril Lavigne.2

I live on the edge of Cabbagetown, the west side of Parliament. The place seems to have been frozen in time, feeling somehow separate from the rest of Toronto. This timeless nature makes many things, that would otherwise leave me in a stunned state of disbelief, appear normal, invoking only the slightest twinge of oddity. The day I moved in, while on my way to get some groceries, I encountered two men yelling at each other across the street. One had both hands full with loaded shopping bags, the other a trolley full of recycling. Their incoherencies growing ever more vehement, neither quite managing to step off the curb, as if held back by an invisible force field, the event reached its climax when the man with the bags gently set them down and started  angrily across the street. The other man promptly pulled a bottle from his trolley. Sending the first man scurrying back to pick up his bags and head on his way.  Later that same day, I had another encounter. This time a solo act:

The man is muttering to himself as he walks down the sidewalk. Emitting a loud bark, he begins loudly, if nonsensically, ranting and gesticulating as he walks calmly out into the middle of traffic. He continues to wander down the road, traffic impatiently weaselling its way past him. He stops. He raises his hands above his head. He turns around, fills his lungs with air, and foghorns his distaste for the world. Kicking off his shoes, he finishes crossing the road and disappears. Leaving only a tattered pair of Nike’s to mark his passing.

The compression of culture that happens in Cabbagetown leads to a very tight knit community.  It takes care of its own. The dichotomy of “insider” vs. “outsider” can be seen clearly in the store with its goods on display outside and unwatched, across the street from the Beer Store with the steel shutters, the cop on duty, and the beer locked away in the back room. I have only just started living here and already I have been enveloped.  It also breeds art. This is exemplified by the annual Cabbagetown  Street Festival and its accompanying short film festival.

My experience; however, has been tinged blue  by my dungeon-like home. Living in a basement apartment is not inherently terrible. In fact, it can be quite pleasant. My apartment, which I share with two other people, is small. But it has been exempted many of the flaws of its kind: It is dry, bug-free, bright, and has high ceilings.  Nevertheless: I live where  the sun don’t shine.

This seeming inconvenience led me to discover two wonders of the neighbourhood. The first being Allan Gardens, a botanical wonderland in which I spent many an afternoon completing schoolwork. The conservatory, open 10-5/7, is the perfect escape from the dreary Toronto winter and without it I would surely have gone insane. The second place to spring me from residential captivity was Cafe 650. A delightful little bistro with glorious bay windows surrounding a table I have claimed for many an hour. I became fast friends with the owner and spend almost as much time there as I do at home.

“Allan Gardens used to have a problem with drug dealers who would loiter around outside the greenhouse waiting for clients. That stopped when the city passed a bylaw allowing dogs to be off-leash in the park; the dogs would sniff out the drug dealers.” – Sam, a man I met in the greenhouse.

Now at last summer seems to be arriving and I will no longer be reliant on these little refuges. I will be able to luxuriate on the sun filled deck outside my home, watch the clouds go by, and drink my Pimm’s.

1. Garner, Hugh. Cabbagetown; a Novel. Toronto: Ryerson, 1968. Print.


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