Toronto's streets were not planned or plotted by Italians. Had they done the job, each curve and dip in the landscape might have been caressed with a lover's respect. Instead, John Graves Simcoe and his Queen's Rangers -- hungry to impose Anglo order in the wilderness above Lake Ontario -- laid down a severe, artificial grid.
But that doesn't seem to stop modern day Italians from meandering along the short, straight stretch of Danforth Avenue between Woodbine and Greenwood avenues as if they're on a winding road in a mountain village.
In the August heat, an older man with a slight limp, wearing black dress shoes, grey slacks and an open-collared shirt, drifts between groups of men gathered on the sidewalk as he wends his way home.
Friendly grunts of "ciao" rise up from cafés. Liver-spotted hands pat him on the back as he continues on, stopping once or twice to put down his grocery bag -- its baguette popping up, periscope-like -- and rest his leg.
Two minutes later, a quicker, more robust man wearing a trim white mustache and a Hawaiian shirt walks the same circuitous route, stopping to chat with the same men.
A man with a white brush cut and a face as creased as the leather interior of his rusting Pontiac Parisienne sits with the door open so he can rest his feet on the pavement as he waits, engine idling, for his wife to come out of a bakery. An old widow, dressed in black from head to toe, nods to him as she shuffles underneath a faded Brio sign.
This is one of Toronto's littlest "Little Italys," and it's even smaller today than it was in the 1970s when I grew up there. Once almost every business in the neighbourhood was owned by southern Italians and Sicilians -- who offered everything from cannolis and cappuccinos to textiles and tombola cards -- but today only hints of those glory days remain.
Now, gathering places such as Seb's Cappuccino, the Pachino Club or the aptly named Sidewalk Café are islands surrounded by Ethiopian, Jamaican and Mexican restaurants, a bubble tea shop, a bright red cellular phone store, a Tai Chi society and a Filipino grocery store. Groups of men who gather to talk -- mostly with their hands -- are older, and smaller in number.
"Before, I remember, Friday and Saturday you could not walk on the sidewalk," chuckles Corrado Bonfanti, "because there were so many people." Mr. Bonfanti came from Sicily in 1963, and took over a gift store at Danforth and Linnsmore Crescent a few years later. In 1976, he opened Bonfanti Jewellery a few blocks east of there, while his wife Lucilla taught French to hundreds of Italian children (and a few mangiacakes like myself) at St. Brigid's Roman Catholic elementary school.
"The business is not like before," he laments. "In 1980, there was a boom; it was very nice. Around here, in a house lived 10 people; now there's one old person, two old people."
A walk along Woodington, Glebemount or Gillard avenues confirms this: Where dozens of kids once played in front of tiny Depression-era semi-detached homes, there are now only elderly folk on front porches.
So where did all the Italians go?
Nicholas DeMaria Harney, author of Eh, Paesan!: Being Italian in Toronto (University of Toronto Press, 1998) and now senior lecturer in migration studies at the University of Western Australia, says "chain migration" is to blame. Just as people from the same hometowns -- paesani -- followed each other to the Danforth neighbourhood 40 or more years ago, they also followed one another, as their incomes improved, to the greener pastures of Scarborough and further afield, he says, just as the west-end Italians moved up to Woodbridge.
In danger of being engulfed by an expanding Muslim community to the west or Little India to the south (not to mention the titanic Greektown a few kilometres away), and too small to warrant themed street signs like the better-known Italian neighbourhoods, Toronto's littlest Little Italy is in danger of fading completely as the migration is fuelled even further by the frenzied housing market.
It's understandable: With housing stock in extremely good repair (Italians are nothing if not house-proud), reasonably priced and sitting atop a major subway line, this might soon be a neighbourhood of Brads and Jessicas rather than Nunzios and Alessandras.
And if newcomers can't wrap their heads around why there are chandeliers hanging in the tiny living rooms or grapevines in the backyards of their newly purchased homes, they'll know who to ask -- the few remaining old men walking crookedly home along the razor-straight streets of the neighbourhood.
Dave LeBlanc hosts The Architourist on CFRB Sunday mornings. Inquiries can be sent to email@example.com.