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Dreaming the City
writer, notebook
How do you fall in love with a city? I keep wondering this, wondering when and how it happened. How did Toronto cease to be that distant metropolitan centre (where the mayor had called in the army to deal with the snow, and the rest of us were never going to let them live it down), that ugly duckling cousin of Ottawa's? When did it become MY city?

It certainly wasn't intentional. Giving in to the gravitational pull of the city was an economic necessity, not a voluntary motion. Spouse and I (and the dog, and the cat, and the two rats, and the goldfish) moved to Markham because working five part-time jobs simultaneously - even in a city as lovely as Kingston - was killing me.

Markham, as anyone will tell you, is not Toronto. It took us another six years and three apartments to finally end up IN Toronto. South of Bloor, even. We got rid of the car ($200/month just to park the damn thing? Yeah, No.), got a pair of TTC metropasses, and started walking. Maybe that was the turning point: even when we lived across the street from Fairview, we would sooner drive over than walk. Even going to the library required the car. Not so any more.

You don't see a city while you're driving. You don't see its people the way you do on transit or on foot. You don't have time to take in the architecture, the messy but fascinating hodge-podge of styles and facades. The character of a city is so much more visible at a slower pace, when you're not watching for the next obstacle or intersection.

A year after we moved downtown, I finally found a job downtown. My new coworkers thought I was a bit strange for being so fascinated by the ugly yellow brick buildings, the remnants of late-1800s York. But there was so much history within walking distance - historical plaques on buildings just a few doors down! So many stories to enchant a storyteller. Suddenly, Toronto was walkable, livable, fascinating.

Confluence happened - like it does:
  • I was reading Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest, intrigued by her notes about how she had changed the history of Seattle.
  • Steampunk was the word all over the Internet.
  • William Lyon Mackenzie had returned, as @rebelmayor, to steer the city through an unpleasant municipal election.[0]
  • Torontoist's Historicist had a piece about... I don't even remember what, exactly, except that it was the city's early history.
  • I was also reading A City in the Making: Progress, People and Perils in Victorian Toronto.[1]
  • I found an article about the Tallest Building in the British Empire, on a site calling itself The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog - interest piqued? Oh yes. Very.

That was the Toronto Dreams Project in its infancy. In case you don't want to click through right now, the synopsis (because it's important):
The Toronto Dreams Project is a series of fictional dreams about the history of the city, printed on postcards and left in public places.

The Dreams project was one of those rare things that completely and utterly captivated me from the moment I read the description. It didn't matter that - at the time - there were no postcards to find. The anticipation of them was enough to keep me reading the blog. (Granted, I would have been deeply disappointed if the postcards had never materialized, but I trusted the intent.)

History and mythology combined with urban exploration/scavenger hunting in the city I'd fallen in love with. What was not to like about the project? Nothing, obviously, save the delay in collecting.

I admit, I became a bit of a stalker (Internet only, at least). I'm more of a lurker than a commenter, but I emailed Adam Bunch, the author/creator, just to express my interest in and encouragement for the project. I followed the blog, and the Twitter account, when it became available. (I don't do Facebook, but I would have happily "Liked" the project page many times over.) I even had the tweets sent directly to my phone so that I would know the instant that a postcard was left.

On the day city council voted to undo the Jarvis bike lanes, Adam was out dropping postcards.[2] I was so frustrated following the discussion online (mostly on Twitter), that I had to get out for a walk. And lo, there was a postcard waiting just far enough away to make it a good walk without sacrificing too much time from my workday. So I stalked over to St. James Cathedral and collected The Ghost of Jean Ridout, 1826[3]. I was nervous - what if people thought I was stealing something from the church? - but no one would have even noticed me, if not for the click of my phone's camera. That was a little disappointing, actually, as I had hoped to be able to share my find and spread the word about the project.

Did postcard drops always line up so conveniently? Well, no, of course not. But what they did do was let me focus on something other than politics for a while. They distracted me into planning routes across the city, and deducing locations from (often less than) 140 characters and a sometimes cryptic photo. They encouraged me to just get out instead of sitting at my desk or stewing in frustration. (When I can go postcard hunting in the evenings, I try to take the puppy with me.)

The search has also taught me a few things, and reminded me of others - not just about the history of Toronto, but of practical skills. How to layer maps on my smartphone and figure out my location relative to map markers. How to locate a book in a particular library branch instead of relying on the website and loan system. Did you know that the Northern District branch has a mini-reference library dedicated entirely to Toronto history books? I didn't, until I went to claim a couple postcards there.[4]

I sometimes wonder if Adam's become frustrated with my habit of snagging a postcard within hours of his leaving them. I hope not. I only ever take one of each. As much as I want a complete set (gotta catch 'em all!), I also really hope other people are enjoying the hunt. I tweet about my finds, both to confirm that they've been taken and to spread the word about the project. It deserves more attention than it's getting. (Surprisingly, for example, it was only this past Tuesday morning that one of my coworkers finally asked about the postcards on my cube wall, as I was adding postcards number 08 and 10. It led to a ten minute chat about Toronto history and the cool things I had learned.)

I want people to appreciate Adam's work, because the dreams are really well written and the graphic design is really striking. At the same time, I selfishly don't want the project to draw too much attention if that means there will be a postcard shortage. I would happily support a crowd-funding effort to offset the (likely considerable) expense of printing the postcards, and have suggested such. Likewise, when (if ever) the project is done, a book of the postcards would be really cool to see. (I know, it goes against the concept of 'ephemera'.) I'd probably buy a copy, too, for the sake of supporting the artist.

So how did it happen, me falling in love with Toronto? I don't know. It's one of those things you can't work out from hind-sight. But I'm glad that it did. I love my city. I love that other people love my city enough to write the fictional dreams of its historical figures. I love that we have history and mythology, and people who are inspired to share it.

XOTO. I'll be walking around collecting dreams about you until I figure out the right words to tell the ones you've inspired.

[0] Speaking of ephemera, @rebelmayor is sadly missing from Twitter now. Glad I archived his tweets when I had the chance.

[1] I had aspirations to write a steampunk!Toronto novel. It didn't work out, primarily because I realized how very much more historical research I needed to do. And the history was so fascinating, I kept getting sucked deeper into the stories that already existed, rather than finding fodder to draft my own.

[2] They weren't the first postcards, by any means, but they were the first within reach at a time when I could manage to get there.

[3] Out of respect for Adam's work and in the spirit of the search, my photos show only the graphic images, not the text of the dreams.

[4] I'm especially fond of the library drops, because it's more of a challenge to find the right book and because some of the library branches are really cool. The puppy prefers the outdoor postcards, as I cannot leave her tied up anywhere and she is Not A Purse Dog, thankyouverymuch.

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