Regooding (archived)

Pining for Toronto's 'gone world'

Globe and Mail Update, Toronto, ON
May 31, 2007 at 12:15 AM EDT

To commemorate the fest, we commissioned 10 best-selling authors to write for Globe readers. Vancouver's William Gibson launches the series.

A FRIEND OF MINE in New York has been pointing out surviving bits of what he calls his city's "gone world" to me for the past 20 years or so. When I first started getting to know New York, in the early 1980s, it consisted mostly of that gone world, or so it seemed to me. People who lived there didn't seem to believe it possible that this would change. My friend was the first New Yorker I knew who noticed that things there were changing, becoming gone.

The sewing machine spare-parts quarter, for instance (gone), or the tenement that once housed McGurk's Suicide Hall (gone). Bits and pieces of SoHo and TriBeCa and Chelsea, all gone. Had I not had so observant a guide, I certainly would have missed them, these glimpses of vanishing things, but my friend had treasured them all, and was pained by their going, and took care to show them to me. It was his conviction that they were invariably replaced by much less interesting things (to put it mildly), and I generally agreed.

But I had, in this, a secret, if only half-recognized. There was an element of déjà vu for me about this "regooding" (my friend's term) of the gone world. I felt as though I knew where it was going. I felt as though I'd seen it before, and knew where it led, though I wasn't quite aware why.

Now, in retrospect, I know that I knew it from Toronto, which had been my first city (if one didn't count Roanoke, Va., or Tucson, Ariz., or Los Angeles, none of which, for their various reasons, were quite the ticket).

Toronto was a city I discovered directly, stumbling upon it with almost no previous knowledge.

Montreal I at least had heard of. Toronto. A city. In Canada. Quite a big one, it seemed, riding the bus in from Washington, one afternoon in 1967.

It consisted largely, I found, of the most amiable sort of repurposed semi-ruins. A vast Victorian colonial seashell of blackened brick, shot through with big, grim grey bones of earnest civic Modernism. I marvelled that such an odd place could have existed without my having heard of it. North of New England, all this baroque, mad brick; sandstone gargoyles, red trams, the Queen's portrait everywhere.

New-found friends, often as not, rented high-ceilinged rooms in crumbling townhouses, their slate rooflines fenced with rusting traceries of cast-iron, curlicues I'd only seen in Charles Addams cartoons. Everything painted a uniform dead green, like the face of a corpse in those same Addams cartoons. If you took a penknife and scraped a little of the green away, you discovered marvels: brown marble shot with paler veins, ornate bronze fixtures, carved oak. In the more stygian reaches of cellar, in such places, there were still to be found fully connected gaslight fixtures, forgotten, protruding from dank plaster like fairy pipes, each with a little flowered twist-key to stop the gas.

This was mid-town, walking distance in various directions from Yonge and Bloor. And by the time my friend started citing the regooding of Manhattan, it was a gone world, massively regooded. When friends from New York returned from Toronto, and I told them that Yorkville had been my bohemia, they were baffled. I explained that it was as though the Trump Tower had been built on St. Mark's Place, but still they didn't get it, so thorough had that regooding been.

Toronto got there first, in my experience, and in getting there, lost me. Too much money, too much ambition. To remake oneself architecturally, too thoroughly, in the seventies, was to don a very wide tie indeed. And to then have to live with it. Toronto became my gone world, a source of some frustration, of early loss. Too much erased, too quickly, around the footprint of my early 20s. Too many tiny landmarks vanished beneath wide ties. The Uptown Nuthouse. The sepulchral dining room above the original Pilot Tavern, where I drank my first legal glass of beer. I married a girl from Vancouver, who took me there, where lots of things were still made of wood, and the regooding was still several decades away.

The experience taught me something about the past, how it moves into and inhabits the future. Or rather, about how it should, ideally. Because it doesn't, always. When I first saw London, and Paris, I understood that (though, they too would find their own regoodings, further along).

Wide-tie development and big footprints belong particularly to China now. I recently wrote an introduction to Greg Girard's Phantom Shanghai. Girard's photographs of old Chinese houses standing forlornly amid fields scraped bare of rubble, awaiting the New Buildings, remind me of my Gone World Toronto.

When I return, there is no returning. Some crucial few square blocks are simply gone. Altered beyond recognition. Only the febrile tackiness of Yonge below Bloor preserves something of my past, and I invariably find myself walking there, considering how the cheap, flashy goods of the 21st century resemble the cheap flashy goods of the 20th. An immortality of battery-operated plastic crap, the business of its retail sheltering the actual texture of the gone world, these queer old buildings unnoticed above the lights and bright laminates and shining tat: weird Masonic dreams, blackened finials carved like chess pieces. Under a fresh fall of snow their former gaslight solidity can loom, breathtakingly peculiar, like Castle Gormenghast held overhead, at bay, by sex shops and knockoff sneakers. To the extent that I ever find the place my memory tries to take me to, in Toronto, I find it there.

Having had this experience quite some time ago, I've long imagined my friend in New York headed for something similar, though without quite having had the heart to tell him. Times Square. Who would have dreamed? Not the science fiction writer, certainly.

I suppose this could all be put down to any generation's sense of nostalgia, but I find it rather more complicated. Nostalgia for a life lived among ruins, in cities that were transitional, semi-empty shells of what they once had been. The past as unmediated playground, raw material, cheap rent, absent landlords.

But I find I forgive Toronto, now, as the regooding spreads ever further abroad.

Really it wasn't her fault.

William Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, is among the most influential science fiction novels ever written. His new novel, Spook Country, will be published this summer.
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