Growing up downtown was a mystical land. We never went there. It was far away from the bit of the north I inhabited where my school and home were. We also headed to the south for some activities. My parents worked downtown leading to rare encounters with their offices but that was pretty much it.
I first started exploring downtown on my own in grade nine. I’d transferred from a bad school in the northeast to a nice one out of district in the south. The hope was that the teachers would be better and the kids would be nicer. There was another kid who had transferred from my old school too. He was nice and had Wolverine hair. He quickly fell in with the skater/stoner kids.
I’d usually get a ride in the morning and be dropped off really early. I hung out with a random group of other kids who also got dropped off early until our friends arrived and we divided into our respective friend groups. In the afternoon I’d take the bus back home. It wound down Elbow Drive then I switched downtown. My transfer involved walking half a block and I quickly got the hang of it. I transferred in front of a beautiful old church. From there I could see the new law courts being built. Day by day I watched them slowly emerging from the ground. It’s funny looking at them now after all the time I spent staring at their shell.
In grade 10 I joined debate and found my people. I started going downtown to explore with my friends. There was one friend in particular that loved wandering and trying on expensive suits. We called it Doing Downtown. We would wear our nicest clothes so they wouldn’t kick us out of the nice men’s wear stores. We strolled Stephen Ave and got to know downtown for the first time. I also loved going to McNally and Robinson to look at the books.
We found a spot on the +15s that lead to a rooftop garden. It was on the second story next to a couple of one story buildings. They provided a great view and meant we could climb out onto their roofs. They were flat and it never seemed weird for us to be there. Many angsty teenage heart-to-hearts were had. It was only open on weekdays. On weekends they locked the doors and we’d be frustrated by how close but out of reach it was.
Now I know downtown well. I’m a street photographer and into urban design. I’ve walked down all of those streets at least once. Still sometimes I remember that phrase: doing downtown. That’s exactly what I’m up to.