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first person

Illustration by Wenting Li

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There’s always a hole in my city. I don’t know about you, but every time I pass a building development in its embryonic stage, I have to stop. The sidewalk hoardings are already up, complete with temporary roof to protect pedestrians from any runaway debris from above. Deep-throated machines are rumbling to life from within. And the familiar, gangly cranes are hovering overhead, hungry to begin.

The developers, perhaps understanding the public’s interest, have been kind enough to cut into their hoardings and provide us with a rough mesh wire window, so that people like me can jump off our bikes for a moment, and take a look inside.

Down, down, down I go.

The sites that interest me are not the projects that take so long that they become part of the landscape. In Toronto, that would be the massive tunnel snaking underneath Eglinton Avenue in the name of rapid transit, or what’s transpired around Union Station the past decade. I’ve come to suspect they may never finish. So we blithely cross the street at Yonge and Eglinton, for example, or drive past the massive circus-like tents covering the tunnel’s mouth at Jane Street, looking straight ahead, having learned to ignore what’s happening beneath our feet.

But the digs that are appearing right on our sidewalks? Those are different.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a 50-storey-to-come, city-block-wide hole, like the one transforming Bathurst and Bloor. Or the more modest efforts emerging along pretty much every other major street you can name. I can’t resist looking in. And down. The trucks at the bottom of the site play like Tonkas. It’s our city inverted. An anthill with the top shorn off so we can all take a peek at what looks to be the set of the next epic film from James Cameron.

A young child is hoisted atop his parent’s shoulders to take a better look. Wonder and delight issue from his tiny crinkled face. The yellow trucks and bulldozers below are just like the toy ones in his backyard sandbox, but these are moving on their own! It’s difficult to say who is more fascinated: the child or the parent.

The businessperson perpetually in a hurry actually stops, for perhaps the first time in their day, to consider a world outside their own, humbled by the physical powers on display at their feet.

The teen glued to their cellphone puts the screen down, for a moment, but then shuffles along, embarrassed to have been caught considering something outside their own adolescent sphere.

And of course, the older Portuguese gentleman standing beside you, shyly peering in from one side, with a half-empty Tim Hortons cup in one hand, and a glowing, glowering cigarette in the other, will likely stay there long after you cycle away.

Looking down.

The earth has been scraped clean. I see layer upon layer of earth and clay and rubble and boulder. On a hot day, the clay oozes, like the icing from a gargantuan layer cake that’s been sitting in the sun. On a cold day, one wonders what the temperature down below might be like, and if it’s true that it is always warmer deep below the earth.

Why is it that this phase of development is actually the most seductive? Perhaps it’s because I know that the final product to come is yet one more mixed-use abomination of residential/commercial living that our city planners are so in love with, and it’s destined to disappoint.

Forget the marketing brochures and artist renderings that promise cafés and art galleries and trees and blissed-out pedestrians and cyclists all co-mingling in some urban paradise, with nary a car to be seen. Most city folk understand by now that this scenario isn’t likely to unfold, even those among us who are serious about putting down a deposit before the condo tower is built.

We know there will be million-dollar condos on the top floors, with stunning views of a city laying supine and subservient at our feet. And on street level, where the shops and street life are supposed to be bursting forth, enriching our lives, there will invariably sit empty storefronts. Even months, or years later. Until, finally, the developers, desperate, will give in and lease the space out to a dentist. A bright orange A&W fast-food joint. Or yet one more low-end furniture shop that nobody needs, so nobody will frequent. By then, we will have forgotten that the trees bursting forth on the marketing materials have never been planted, either.

But the holes? They are an invitation to wonder. To step outside of the city as we know it. That four-year old hoisted on his dad’s shoulder? He might be looking down at the oozing clay and wondering about prehistoric monsters or pirate treasure that might be locked deep within. The senior with his still-lit cigarette turning to ash? He might be remembering the city of his youth, when there were boroughs, not a golden horseshoe; when the subway stopped at Eglinton; and you could park on any main street you wanted, right in front of the shop you were about to visit.

And the rest of us? The hole is all promise and potential. A chance to look down and, against all odds, imagine a city that might work a little better than the one we call home.

Brian Howlett lives in Toronto.