“The Danforth,” as everyone calls it, is a very Toronto street. Broad and open, Danforth Avenue stretches from the majestic Don Valley in the west into the reaches of the city’s old east end.
The construction of the Bloor Viaduct, a massive bridge over the valley completed in 1919, linked the Danforth to the rest of Toronto. Immigrants from the British Isles were the first European residents, followed by a wave of Italians, then Greeks, then people from all over who came to buy and renovate houses on the leafy residential neighbourhoods to the north and south. Today, it is one of the city’s liveliest streets. Taste of the Danforth, a big annual festival, happens there. Most evenings it teems with life as people visit its many bars and restaurants.
It was here, on a warm summer Sunday, that the gunman struck. Just three months after the van attack on Yonge Street that killed 10 people, Toronto has been hit again – a blow straight to the heart. Again, a reeling city is wondering why.
Three people, including the gunman, are dead. One of the dead is a 10-year-old girl, another a promising 18-year-old woman just out of high school. The images streaming from the Danforth showed ambulance stretchers, police tape, the overturned tables and chairs of a restaurant. Groups of people stood stunned on the sidewalk, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
That horrifying video that was appearing on everyone’s screens shows a man marching down the street, turning sharply, then raising a handgun to fire. All over town, people are wondering how such a thing could happen, what they should tell their children and whether life in this fortunate city will ever be the same again. “It was a terrifying, terrifying night on the Danforth,” local City Councillor Paula Fletcher told a hushed council chamber Monday morning. No city and no neighbourhood, she said, should ever have to go through such a thing, but the Danforth will remain strong.
That was important to say. Toronto is a safe city. It may seem hollow to assert that now, but it’s true and it’s vital to remember. As frightening and traumatizing as these attacks are, the risk of being caught up in gunfire on the streets is minuscule. The best way to respond is to go about our business just as before. The stretch of Yonge that saw the van attack in April throbs with street life again. After that tragedy, Toronto kept calm and carried on. It should show the same resolve now.
And it is. People were already returning to the Danforth Monday to shop and eat, determined not to let this act define the city.
With their crowded streets and many “soft” targets, cities are vulnerable to those who want to inflict mass violence. They are also remarkably robust and resilient. First responders of all kinds rushed to the scene Sunday night. They have trained for this sort of thing and, by all accounts, acted with the professionalism and bravery that we expect from them.
Police exchanged gunfire with the shooter. Paramedics tended to the victims. Ordinary people pitched in, too, giving first aid and succour to the victims.
As Mayor John Tory said in the hours after the attack, none of this made such an event any less painful – “this is an attack against innocent families and our entire city.” It comes in the wake, not just of the Yonge Street killings, but of a spate of gun violence that has left the whole city shaken. A couple of girls, aged 5 and 9, were struck by gunfire in a playground. Two men were gunned down in a brazen daylight shooting in the centre of the entertainment district with crowds of people all around. This is truly Toronto’s annus horribilis.
These events raise urgent questions. How is it, in a country with tough gun laws, that guns seem to find their way into dangerous hands so easily? Are authorities doing enough to quell gang warfare and the social conditions that can lead youth into crime? Is our health system doing enough for those with mental problems that might erupt into violence? Could something more have been done for the 29-year-old man identified as the shooter? A heartbreaking statement from his family said he had struggled with mental health challenges his whole life. Did no one notice he was going down a dark path? How on earth did he obtain a firearm, given all the checks gun owners are supposed to undergo?
If we find new ways to grapple with these problems, then something good just might come from all this pain. In the meantime, life goes on. Once the police tape comes down, the Danforth will thrive again. The shops of the Carrot Common will offer books, coffee, jewelry and baby clothes. The Egyptian Dance Academy will teach belly dancing and “Cairo cardio." The Clay Room will give pottery classes. The Pantheon will serve up moussaka and calamari. The Taste of the Danforth will bring thousands of people into the street to eat till they can eat no more.
The Danforth will endure.