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Canada ‘This is what large cities do with tragedy’: Walking the route of the attack to understand Toronto’s pain and healing

A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Toronto van attack is seen on April 26, 2017.

CARLO ALLEGRI/Reuters

A big city’s wounds skin over quickly. The wounds are still there, but you have to get close to see how deep they have gone.

By Friday, for instance, the blood stains on the sidewalk in front of the Bank of Montreal on Yonge Street just south of Finch Avenue had long been scrubbed away; all that remains are 37 bleached patches, a random path down the middle of the sidewalk.

“They cleaned it so good, it’s almost like it never happened,” Howard Clarke, the assistant super in the Royal York building, a condo down the street, said as he swept the steps. “Even the fire hydrant, you can’t tell.” The only clue that the city has replaced the hydrant Alek Minassian is alleged to have clipped as a Ryder rental van barrelled down the sidewalk last Monday, killing 10 and injuring 16, are the shiny new bolts at its base.

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Yonge Street is as wide as worry up here, three and four lanes in either direction, in a part of the city built for cars. The red lights last an eon to give pedestrians time to cross. The sidewalks, as everyone now knows, are themselves a lane and a half wide.

You think a lot about time if you walk the route of the van rampage. Seven minutes elapsed between its start at Finch and Yonge, and the moment Mr. Minassian was famously handcuffed, alive, 2.2 kilometres south, on Poyntz Avenue, two blocks south of Sheppard. You can walk it easily in under an hour, longer if you stop to look around. You can see the city absorbing what happened, making room for the memory of a tragedy and for new fear, but also swallowing both and making them disappear. This is what large cities do with tragedy, and what they have to do.

Small, private shrines

The first victim was killed high on the first block below Finch. There are small piles of wrapped flowers at the site of what locals believe was every fatality along the route, but the piles are dwindling and getting harder to spot: single roses and pink carnations and white alstroemeria and yellow tulips, mostly still in their cellophane wrappers, many still with the price on, piled discreetly in tree-planter boxes and at the base of streetlamps.

There are thousands more at two formal memorial sites. A “Walk of Healing and Solidarity” from one to the other is planned for Sunday. The small shrines are more private. You wish they were larger.

A makeshift memorial is pictured on Yonge Street in Toronto on April 26, 2018.

CARLO ALLEGRI/Reuters

White people and the English language are not overrepresented in this part of the city. Instead, the neighbourhood teems with Koreans and Iranians and retirees and office workers and Asian barbecue restaurants and nail salons and bubble-tea joints. The stores on the upper blocks of the van’s trail crowd in amongst their jumbled red-and-yellow and blue-and-white signs hawking wares in English and Korean: Soban Café and Trianto Travel and Kim’s Hair Studio and the Nakwon Table BBQ and the computer repair shop and Café Princess and an insurance office and a real estate broker and Holiday Holidays and two Korean karaoke joints and an izakaya restaurant and a cosmetic surgery clinic and then a Shoppers Drug Mart. That’s one side of one block.

You can walk down the sidewalk searching for evidence of where the van hit victims and where people actually died, following maps that have been posted online or asking locals – everyone is still keen to talk today, the Friday after the accident – but then you lose track and can’t tell and suddenly find yourself standing in front of a small pile of flowers, whereupon you feel chastened. It feels wrong to miss one.

Related: Thousands take back Yonge Street in vigil honouring lives lost in Toronto van attack

Read more: Tales from the Toronto van attack: The minutes that forever link the victims and bystanders

Toronto van attack: How you can help and what we know so far

It’s a beautiful day, much like the day of the attack. The only difference is that the crocuses have come out since, and the daffodils are showing a glimpse of yellow.

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At the Bank of Montreal just below Tolman Street, if you go in before the manager arrives, tellers will still tell you what they saw, what it was like, questions that still haven’t worn out their welcome. “Only two died here,” one teller says. “One in front of Shoppers, and one in front of our office.” When it happened, they locked the door, and only let in customers they recognized. She’s still slightly afraid to come to work. “As soon as I get to the area, I feel the fear.” She waves her hands, to convey what this feels like: wobbly. Her home’s in Richmond Hill. “Do you live in a safe area?” someone asks. “I think so,” she replies. But now she knows randomness is amoral. It doesn’t care about neighbourhoods.

Meanwhile, on the large monitor behind her, the bank’s customer messages scroll by, notably its support for the Humboldt Broncos, the tragedy everyone was obsessed with before this one happened.

Walk south. At Kempford Road, beyond the big condo and apartment buildings with the grand names (the Dynasty, the Skyview, the Royal York), another small pile of flowers marks another strike. An efficient note is weighted down under a rock: “Rest in Peace and thank you for your contribution to life.”

There’s the bus shelter the van smashed into, shattering the glass and pinning a woman, though the glass has been replaced and all evidence of the crime removed. The flowers for individual victims are harder to spot as Yonge Street gets busier toward Mel Lastman Square, but you can still tell roughly where people were injured and died because of the yellow police barriers stacked on the corners. Failing them, Kenny Kee, a butcher in the Owl’s Meat Shop across Churchill Road, will show you the four-foot-high handmade wooden cross someone has used to mark the spot where a victim died outside the Church of St. George on Yonge. The Anglicans rent the church out to the Korean Methodists when they aren’t using it, and have done so for years.

At Gibson Square, a crisply designed parkette at the corner of Park Home Avenue, Boston Pizza employees are installing the guardrails of its outdoor patio. They want to make the lunch rush. The tree in the centre of the parkette seems to be one of the original apple trees from the orchard of George Gibson, who in the 1860s owned the farm that stretched from Bathurst to Yonge Street that eventually became the city centre of North York that came under attack a week ago. The van hit two more victims just south of the parkette, but it’s now lunchtime and already people are passing the small altars of flowers unnoticed.

Many are talking and gesturing, clearly recreating what happened four days ago, still processing the details. “I was working from home that day,” one man told me. “But the girl who sat beside me at the office died.” Then, suddenly, he didn’t want to talk about it any more.

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It’s only at Mel Lastman Square, the centre of the city of North York, the plexus of the uptown downtown that the former mayor of Toronto was so keen to create, that things get more complicated. This is where the van pulled up onto the square and struck many people, so this is the hub of the public memorial, where a vigil will be held Sunday night.

A person reaches for a marker to sign a memorial card for victims of Monday's deadly van attack, at a memorial set up in Mel Lastman Square in Toronto on April 26, 2018.

COLE BURSTON/The Canadian Press

There are a hundred people here at 11 in the morning. The space is brimming with flowers and the scent of decomposing cellulose and bristol boards on which thousands of well-wishers have left countless messages. Anyone who wants to can record a sentiment. Sincerity and mawkishness and presumption and principle mix together indiscriminately. “Ten New Angels,” says one, over the letters “TO” wearing wings, “RIP.” “I’m sorry,” reads another, “To Everyone that is affected by this incident. But don’t let death take over your life,” which it then follows with a contradiction: “Toronto will never be the same.”

The sameness of the sentiments and the repetitiveness of the language don’t undermine the sincerity of the well-wishers, but they definitely underline how clichéd public grief can be. The writer C.S. Lewis was surprised to find mourning solitary: Grief, it turned out, was lonely. The shrine at Lastman Square is trying to turn a city’s grief inside out, to make its fear and its solitude collective, and public, and thus less painful and daunting. Will that work? It’s unintentional overkill, but what will the lasting memorial to the victims look like? How public will it be? The vast memorial to the 168 people killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing turned the city’s downtown into a graveyard.

Meanwhile, there are 30 therapy dogs in the square, all wearing St. John Ambulance scarves: Their owners have brought them to provide solace to the grieving. The dogs have business cards, which the owners hand out: here is Ryder, a merle Australian shepherd owned by Jacqueline Kennedy. Touching the dogs seems to draw off peoples’ sadness.

A woman pets a therapy dog therapy dog from St. John's Ambulance at Mel Lastman Square in Toronto on April 26, 2018 as therapy dogs offer comfort for people mourning at the memorial for victims of Monday's van attack.

COLE BURSTON/The Canadian Press

Cara McCulloch was dreading coming back to the square, which police reopened on Wednesday. “This is where I saw stuff.” She’s an analyst for Green Shield Canada, an insurance company that has an office nearby. She was on her way back from a late lunch Monday when “I saw some groups of people standing around.” Then she saw bodies on the sidewalks. This was during the peak of the chaos, before the paramedics arrived. Then she saw a third body, a fourth, a fifth. “I’m still dealing with the images. I am finally able to sleep through the night. It was very graphic. I watch crap on TV, gore and horror, but that does not prepare you for this. There was blood on the sidewalk. It was this colour.” She touches her top, a bright red Canada Olympic team jersey she won as a prize at work. When she finally got back to the office, her workmates were calling her to see if she was okay.

She’s 45. Is she more afraid now? “It did scare me at first, but because it was an isolated event and not a terrorist event, I’m not afraid.”

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‘We all live and breathe on this street’

After crashing Lastman Square, the van turned west down an alley beside the GoodLife Fitness building and drove over to Beecroft Road, the first street west of Yonge, and continued south. No one seems to know why. Arguments have sprung up about Mr. Minassian’s motives: about the early erroneous claim that he was a “Middle Eastern” terrorist, the more recent speculation that he is a member of an organized cell of bitter misogynists and the known fact that he was so plagued by intellectual and emotional disabilities that a former acquaintance was surprised he could rent a truck, much less drive one. But this is what we do these days: We politicize tragedy before anyone can say with certainty what the full nature of the tragedy is.

In any event, I was trying to figure out how the van got to Beecroft when a 70ish woman named Gail asked if I needed help. The rampage shocked her. “I really don’t want to walk through this,” she said, looking up Yonge to the swelling crowd at the square. “But we all live and breathe on this street. The pool, the park, the library, the farmer’s market, skating, the bank, the grocery store” – they’re all a few blocks north from so much havoc and heartbreak. Gail moved to Toronto from Detroit in 1970. “I came to Toronto because it was clean and safe,” she said, and the van killings hadn’t changed her mind. “No,” she said, “this is just someone with mental problems who acted out.’” Then Linda, her walking pal, showed up, and they headed straight into the melee, undaunted.

I went the other way, where the van turned back south onto Yonge before limping sharply right again a block later, onto Poyntz Avenue, where Mr. Minassian was bloodlessly apprehended. He didn’t seem to have much of a plan. The architecture gets more grandiose and inflated here – it’s weirdly reminiscent of Nuremburg – but the street life picks up again.

I walked the path the van drove: past the Zip Car lot and the LCBO, below the silver-skinned building that looks like an old flash cube, past the Tim Hortons and the busy Presotea bubble tea shop and then around the twin emerald-glassed skyscrapers, in front of which the murderous melee finally came to rest. On the other side of the now-famous glass wall he stopped in front of is an astonishing indoor Asian mall and food court, a warren of corridors and dry cleaners and facial spas and noodle shops and bean houses, plus Essential Toronto, a gear shop for hip young Asian guys that sells $4,000 limited-edition sneakers and $12,000 Supreme duffel bags. They’re sold two of those in six months. You should drop by some time: It’s a great mall, probably one you don’t know, a place a community of people have made their own, the way they and others have made Yonge Street between Finch and Sheppard their own. The attack tried to take that community away from the people who live there, but based on the evidence of what you see and hear on a walk through it, it failed. It’s too bad Mr. Minassian didn’t have a more supportive community of his own, beyond the timid and terrifying link he seems to have dallied with on his computer.

Meanwhile, the twin emerald glass towers at Sheppard and Yonge where the van ended its awful drive sit on their hill and look like nothing so much as two giant green Gumbys, waving their arms at the city below, imploring the rest of us to come and visit. They are still waving.

Police have updated the route taken by the white van which struck and killed ten people on Monday in Toronto. Police now say the van drove a stretch of road one block west of Yonge St. before driving back onto the main thoroughfare.
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