"Toronto will be a fine town when it is finished." So spake the optimistic Irish playwrite Brendan Behan.
Meanwhile, greed and stupidity continue to build, and the town is far from fine. For those with the capacity to derive comfort from a hopeful past, I recommend a trip to the Toronto Archives on Spadina Road, just north of the railroad tracks where freight trains still roll by.
Even its location evokes bygone Toronto. Nearby, looking down from its lofty, leafy hill is something that's always hard to believe is really there - Casa Loma.
The wonderful photo show on display in the Archives' first-floor gallery suddenly makes me realize I am part of this unfinished place whether I want to be or not.
There's a portrait by Pamela Harris of artist Gail Geltner and one of her illustrations. Gail gave me a home in the 1980s. There's a shot of the Hummer Sisters by David Hlynsky, for whom I also posed. There are images of working people by Vincenzo Pietropaolo and Peter MacCallum's detailed factory scenes. Suburban spots and places I know take on new meaning when they're presented like this.
Congratulations to whoever came up with the brilliant idea of a clear viewing platform from which one can see miles and miles of files. A little forklift tootles around amongst cardboard boxes stacked three storeys high in a climate-controlled environment. Reminds me of my friend Duncan's room - only safer.
The sight is possibly even more impressive from the second-floor window. On this floor there are absolutely sumptuous colour photographs of the Imperial Six and Uptown cinemas. (Both have been destroyed, natch.) And there is a room that contains 7,000 vertical aerial photographs of the city. It is possible to get a bird's-eye view of any neighbourhood and pinpoint local features.
Upon registration in the skylit research hall, one is presented with a researcher card valid for a year. Serious researchers can conduct electronic searches, visit the microfilm room and request bits from the miles of files. As a complete novice, I decide to just browse the shelves.
I am surprised to find folders that contain newspaper clippings. I pull the Parkdale file, which contains a book full of photos and stories. I didn't know that Parkdale was an independent village between 1879 and 1889. Its takeover by Toronto was fraught with controversy.
"A victory parade of about 100 annexationists carrying torches or lit brooms was led by the Toronto Bolt and Iron Works band.'
Over in the corner are binders stuffed with copies of historical photographs with titles like Workers, Waterfront, Island and Buildings, Fashion.
For a prim place, Toronto sure had a lot of amusement parks. The Long Pond bridge on the Island looks just the same today. The little swan pedal boats still in use at Centre Island are descendants of exotic swan gondolas.
Many photographs maintain an air of mystery, with only a guess as to what, where or when printed on the back.
A small library contains a copy of the book from which I pulled the Behan quote, by William Kilbourn, who was a fan of my early political comedy. Kilbourn wrote trenchantly about how working-class downtowners were displaced to build the then posh towers of St. James Town. Hang around the Archives a few days or weeks and you'll see patterns.