Your heart skips a beat, when you hear word of the rampage, in a place where you could easily have been caught in the middle of it.
It skips another one, the next day, as you arrive at an intersection usually so familiar it sets you at ease. It’s closed now, the normally bustling throughway eerily empty save for police, cameras pointing from behind yellow tape marking the crime scene.
Then you come back a few hours later, as the summer sky fades into night, and your heart swells instead. The tape is down and there are children writing hopeful messages with chalk on the sidewalk, locals out for reclaim-the-street strolls, the mayor giving anyone who wants to bend his ear all the time they want. Some restaurants and bars have reopened and inside, customers are hugging and clinking glasses, daring to smile and talk about something else.
And you can’t help but think: If only everyone else in the city, the province, the country could be there, too, tonight, what comes next would be less dangerous.
There is no glossing over the horror of what happened on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue on Sunday night. A 10-year-old and 18-year-old are dead, others are still in hospital, untold more traumatized, because a man walked around indiscriminately firing a gun at pedestrians and into restaurants. It’s right to be sickened. We shouldn’t just accept this kind of thing as part of the big-city experience, even if, for some reason, it seems to be.
But in a weird way, it can be easier to have perspective about this sort of violence – to not allow it to darken your view of the world we live in – if it happens in your own community and you’re able to see what follows right after.
Greektown is where I grew up, from my early teens. It’s where my father lived until the day he died. It’s walking distance from where I live now. It’s where we take our two-year-old to visit our doctor, use the wading pool in Withrow Park, pick up spanakopita for the otherwise picky little eater to wolf down, indulge my nostalgia for Greek diners and grills, check out new places that have replaced old haunts.
That made it all the more unsettling to witness the normally bustling strip shut down, the day after it was attacked. From behind the tape, I could catch glimpses of favourite spots – the neighbourhood square at Danforth and Logan where a lot of teenage nights ended, the dessert place I’d go on dates before I was old enough to get into bars, the little Italian restaurant my wife and I occasionally sneak to – that had been shot into. It didn’t feel like they would, or should, ever be the same. Something sinister had infected them.
Then the Danforth reopened and you could feel the darkness being forcibly lifted by locals determined to show that tragedy would only strengthen their community’s fabric, not rend it.
In some places, it was sombre: Flowers laid at a vigil in the square, as members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect stood holding “Love for All, Hatred for None” signs. In others, it was casual: Families out for ice cream.
There was such an inviting buzz coming out of The Auld Spot, a cozy pub steps from where shots were fired, that I couldn’t resist popping in for a beer. The owner hadn’t planned to open, then he let a few regulars in and soon, the place was packed. Staff hadn’t been called in, so volunteers helped serve and boxes of pizza turned up. It was everything you’d want a neighbourhood pub to be, under the circumstances.
You could see all this and still be heartbroken. But you couldn’t see senseless murder as emblematic of what we are becoming, the way you might from afar.
It’s nothing new for people outside urban cores to take an unduly dystopian view of them. Scary headlines about shocking interruptions to daily life, absent context about what that life normally looks like, can have that effect.
Once, fear of what festered in cities – what was cause to stay away, or worry about family there – was mostly about muggings, individual assaults, outbreaks of gang violence that might catch bystanders. Now on top of that, there are mass shootings and cars being driven into crowds of pedestrians.
The further you get from where the crimes are committed, the more intense the calls for solutions – tougher laws, more power for police, crackdowns on immigrants or refugees – that would fundamentally change who we are. A quick crawl through social media is as far as you have to look to see it; a cursory knowledge of global political trends is all that’s needed to understand its potential impact.
I’ve worried myself lately, amid shocking tales of violence and the divisive ways they can be exploited, about the world my son will grow up in. But the next time he and I are walking the Danforth, I’ll feel better about our ability not to be defined by the worst among us. Just so long as everyone else knows not to define us that way, too.