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Julie Tews places flowers and lights a candle at a makeshift memorial for Rob Ford at the Douglas B. Ford Park on March 22, 2016. After battling cancer, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford passed away on Tuesday.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Within an hour of his death, tributes to Rob Ford were scrawled in chalk outside City Hall, where he so often faced off against angry critics.

Not so in the heart of what was once called Ford Nation, the north Etobicoke streets and strip malls near where Mr. Ford grew up.

People shopping and working on Dixon and Royal York roads spoke quietly on Tuesday about his death from cancer at 46. A smattering of flowers and a single hand-drawn sign appeared at a park, named after his father, near his home. But most people said they didn't expect a public vigil.

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The muted reaction wasn't a sign that Mr. Ford won't be remembered, they said – it's just that so many of his thousands of local supporters considered him a personal friend and want to grieve for him privately. He was a politician famous for always picking up his cellphone, and locals who took advantage of that say they'll mourn the "real Rob" that the rest of Toronto never knew.

"He was a decent guy … genuine. And that's all I'll remember," said Eric Desousa, who manages a bakery in a Royal York Road plaza at the end of the cul-de-sac where Mr. Ford grew up.

Several years ago, Mr. Desousa's father called the politician about a lane on Kipling Road that he thought was dangerous, he said.

"Within a month, he was there, meeting with him, saying 'Come show me that,'" Mr. Desousa recalled. City planners quickly agreed the lane was treacherous and altered it.

That was before Mr. Ford's crack use and addiction problems hit the news. But throughout the mayor's public ordeals, and after his cancer diagnosis, the elder Desousa would still try his number just to check in and "see how he was doing," his son said.

"For [the lane fix], he's forever going to be on his [father's] mind," Mr. Desousa said. "He made an impression, right? He kind of won him over with that. And maybe that's true with a lot of people."

Raquel Belanger was just 14 when she started working at the Metro grocery store near Mr. Desousa's bakery, and later she went to work at the bakery. Mr. Ford was a frequent customer at both and always made a point of greeting her, she said.

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"It's nice to be recognized," said Ms. Belanger, now 21.

He usually had his two young children with him, "at their beck and call," and when campaigning for office, he was often surrounded by local high-schoolers.

"He was always willing to interact with anybody and everybody of all ages and all colours," she said. "He did genuinely really care about people. And I think that's how he should be remembered."

The quiet reaction from his constituents to his death followed a year of hushed concern over his illness. After Mr. Ford's cancer diagnosis in 2014, locals saw that his family preferred not to talk about it and that his wife, Renata, in particular, wasn't "overly open" about his condition. People who knew them respected that, said Ms. Belanger.

"It was never brought up if you ever saw the children," she said.

Mr. Ford was famous for staying close to home, living and shopping near where he grew up. He went to the same barbershop all his life, with his father, his brother and, later, his son.

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"He didn't act like a mayor in here," said Joe, one of the barbers at Westway Barber Shop. "He liked to talk about sports, his kids, family, stuff like that." He reminisces about the former mayor's love for football and hockey, the unrelenting passion for the Leafs, and then pauses, as though suddenly processing his own use of the past tense in reference to the larger-than-life personality.

"At least he's not going to suffer anymore, right?" he said.

The owner of the barbershop, Peter, who has been cutting the Fords' hair since 1968, said he'd attend the family funeral if possible.

"He was a good guy, for all I knew. That's life, I guess."

It wasn't that Ford Nation turned a blind eye to the mayor's drug use, they said. On the contrary, they watched him grow downcast at times, even as he played down his problems in front of cameras at city hall, said Mr. Desousa.

"When you hear the stuff about the drugs … you start wondering, 'Well, wait a second. You shouldn't be in office,'" Mr. Desousa said.

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"Some people are angry that he would do that – having that power, being a public figure and doing that. And other people are like, 'Well, he had a problem, he couldn't help it, right?' He still tried to do the best he could."

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