Category Archives: Toronto

bike warrior

i’m looking forward to spring, but dreading the inevitable onslaught of bikes on Toronto sidewalks. i’ve never lived in a city with such impatient bikers (i ride a bike in Paris, but even notoriously rude Parisians are gems of patience & civility compared to Toronto bikers)

so how to resolve the cyclists vs pedestrians dilema–and both groups vs cars?  a beautifully-articulated NYTimes article by Robert Sullivan examines how we might all benefit from living more politely together.


(my local Velib station in Paris…waiting patiently for spring)


difficult exteriors

Toronto green architect Carolyn Moss, of Moss Sund, recently renovated a High Park home, and i had the pleasure of visiting it last week. i wrote about the project for blogTO and i’m fascinated by people’s comments about the home’s new exterior.

it’s difficult to know how the finished project is going to look–i photographed the home during a snowstorm (welcome to home visits in Toronto in January) & the green roof will only be installed in the spring.

i think the planted roof of the entrance area is going to really soften the feel of the home. (below, a photo of the original house, then Moss’ computer sketch, then my photo of the current house)

High park original exterior

Moss drawing green roof

High Park exterior in snowstorm

renovating the outside of a building is a tricky proposition. on the one hand, there’s the community to consider–will the new look fit in, will it upset the neighbours, will it endure? and on the other hand, there’s the purpose of the renovation–more space, more environmental responsibility, more value for the owners.

what’s exciting about the High Park renovation is how Moss has balanced all of these considerations. the neighbours have been enthusiastic about the reno; the house roofline and basic window positions remain the same as neighbouring houses; and the green improvements in the house are extensive. (below, the back of the house during construction)

High Park back extension

the most obvious exterior change is the stucco exterior–and it’s a heck of a change. i’m not crazy about the colour–very bland, especially in grey Toronto winter. but the stucco does insulate the house, a major green improvement. the original brick walls were notorious for their lack of insulation…the only way to change the original masonry is to add insulation on the inside (diminishing the square footage of the home–and the rooms are already small by contemporary standards) or add the insulation to the outside–which is what the home-owners and Moss decided to do.

to create a more functional entranceway for the house, Moss created a small rectangular addition for the front of the home, using stone interspersed with windows and a translucent glass panel. i immediately fell in love with the personable grey Eramosa marble, quarried here in Ontario. Moss also used it for the interior floors.

High Park interior

“I wanted the sun to penetrate as far as possible into the house,” says the homeowner. And even during a snowstorm, the house was light and refreshing…with gloriously warm floors, heated by the geothermal loops that Moss has buried in the front yard.

renovating Toronto one house at a time

visited two houses by Carolyn Moss of Moss Sund yesterday…one in High Park & one in the Beach. Moss is a trail-blazer in green building & reno techniques, and the houses are gorgeous! more coming soon…here’s a sneak peak…

Moss Sund Beach Home

exterior of the Beach Home

(a complete rebuild of a one-storey brick bungalow)

Moss Sund High Park home

interior of the extension build for High Park Home

(i’m in love with the stone floor, heated with geothermal power)

Radiant stone floor

close-up of the floor…Eramosa stone quarried in Ontario

snow, Toronto, and the army

ten years ago, Toronto’s esteemed mayor Mel Lastman called in the Canadian army to deal with snow that had blanketed the city. well, it was a lot of snow, Toronto isn’t known for its winter abilities, and Mel remains our city’s very own misunderestimated politician. he thought it made sense: 400 soldiers from Petawawa drove down to Toronto in their armoured personnel vehicles & dug out the city…they drove sick people to hospital, shoveled out our bus stops, and organized the snow. and then, eventually, the snow melted.

today, ten years later to the day, it’s snowing again in Hog Town. but hopefully loyal citizens will remember how to use their shovels, and the army can go help out Ottawa…

Toronto snow

Habitats: Toronto’s Kensington Market

How do people create homes? And what defines a home–not just a shelter from the fabulous weather, but a real home? After all the hunting, the internet searches, the relentless house visits, apartment referrals, sleazy landlords, and real estate developers with questionable morals, often the hunt for a home just comes down to serendipity: the right place, the right time, the right kind of luck.

For the next few months, I’ll be looking at different urban homes. This is the first house I chose…it’s a classic Toronto style of building, in one of my favourite parts of town.


Finding Nadine’s dead-end street is an adventure in google-mapping: the house is in Kensington Market, and like everything else in the market, Toronto’s urban grid has been morphed by organic forces.

What: a Victorian row house in Kensington Market
Who: Nadine (arts administrator), Colin (theatre director), Megan (chef), and two cats
How much: $1650/month rent, plus utilities
Layout: two floors, three bedrooms, unfinished basement, small backyard.

Dwarfed by a nearby tree, the battered street signpost is obscured by a red arrow and a green [[[murmur]]] ear. But tucked behind the vintage clothing shops and the graffiti murals, there’s a brief block of dignified rowhouses from the 1880s, sedately watching the madness; bicycles and recycling bins jostle for position outside their narrow front doors and travellers looking for the youth hostel frequently stop, confused, trying to make sense of the irrational house numbers.

Nadine laughs telling the story of how she and her partner Colin first moved into this hidden street. “Friends invited us to brunch in the summer of 1999. We immediately loved the alleyway and the house, and we mentioned this to our friends, who told us that they were moving out in two months’ time.”

Talk about timing: “We took the lease and promptly got jobs outside Toronto, so we spent the first two years going back and forth.” Fortunately, in 2001, they found themselves living in Toronto again.

The rooms have gradually taken on different jewel tones–green in the kitchen, plum in the dining room, golden orange in one bedroom, burgundy in another. The house has three bedrooms, so they share the space with Megan, a chef; no surprise, with three people who love to cook living in the building, the kitchen has become the heart of the house.

There’s something about the place that seems to invite guests: summer backyard drinks tend to develop into block parties, and creative projects spill up and down the stairs. Maybe it’s the homey 1950s fridge and stove in the kitchen that encourages connection and creativity, and the plethora of cooks, but somehow this house reminds me of a community hearth. Centuries ago, a village had a shared hearth for baking bread; people could prepare the dough and take it to the community oven to bake it; these days it’s more metaphoric, but some homes do inspire entire groups of people.


the habitat questions:

What do you love most about the house? Location, location, location! And the cozy, homey, unfussy feeling of the house. It’s a very warm place.

What drives you crazy? Terrible insulation (the pipes freeze at least once every winter), too much dust, the sound of energetic spitting outside.

What’s your favourite place in the house? The kitchen and in summer, the little garden – it’s a godsend in a neighbourhood without much greenery.

What do you like best about the neighbourhood? The food, the convenience, and the fact that friends enjoy coming to the Market and spending time here, so that our home is a frequent destination for people we love.

What’s most surprising about the house? The fact that we’ve lived here so many years, not because we expected to dislike it, but because we don’t usually stay put for so long. But whenever we think about moving, we can’t think of anywhere else we’d rather live in Toronto. If we leave this house, it will probably be because we’re leaving the city (or because the owners want to move back here!)

If your home were a kind of fruit, what fruit would it be? Because the house is so colourful, I think it would be a bowl of fruit with deep rich tones and flavours: plums, mangoes, cherries, maybe a pomegranate…

for more photos, see this link to the series i’m doing for BlogTO

literary house #3: Al Purdy

Al Purdy (1918-2000) is remembered as one of Canada’s great 20th century poets. this is the CBC website’s quote from their documentary about him:

During the first forty-odd years of his life, Al Purdy wrote a lot of bad poetry. Where others would have quit, Purdy persevered until he found his own distinctive voice. And what he said startled people. His unconventional works poeticized barroom brawls, hockey players and homemade beer.

but the quote doesn’t mention one of the things that makes him particularly Canadian, in my eyes: Purdy lived in what amounts to a cabin in the woods, that he built himself, which means a great deal of the poetry which eventually won him the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, & the Governor General’s Award was written in a rough & ready A-frame near Kingston, Ontario.  it’s this home on Roblin Lake that interests me.

it’s not necessarily the kind of architectural masterpiece people usually get sentimental about, but it certainly suited Al Purdy. and now it’s in the news because his 84-year-old widow, Eurithe, is putting the A-frame on the market. despite her great fondness for the place, she expects a buyer may well tear the place down and build something more, well, substantial.

what makes a place perfect for a certain individual? whatever television decorating shows claim, a creatively-inspiring home doesn’t have to win any Martha Stewart awards. as the small A-frame proves, it only has to suit the people living there. so the question seems to be: is it a tragedy to tear down a home where great poems were written? i’m not sure.

for any Canadian literature mavens out there, Eurithe Purdy looked into having the cottage preserved as a writers’ residence, but couldn’t find any takers (the Writer’s Trust has just taken over Pierre Berton’s childhood home & has its hands full). so it’s possible that Purdy’s old writing shack, his typewriter, and the exact view from his window will soon disappear.

but i think it’s possible that Purdy’s home, now that he’s gone, is no longer all that important. his spirit may linger there, maybe sweeping leaves up on the roof (see the Globe & Mail’s recent article for more about this) but really, the home will stay relevant as long as the poems that Purdy was inspired to write here continue to be read and appreciated.

so instead of buying his cottage, i reread some of his poems & found this, about the house in question; i particularly like the lines about what the house dreams about. the guest is believed to be Milton Acorn, a fellow-poet who helped Purdy & his wife build the house.

House Guest

For two months we quarrelled over socialism …. poetry …. how to boil water
doing the dishes …. carpentry …. Russian steel production figures and whether
you could believe them and whether Toronto Leafs would take it all
that year and maybe hockey was rather like a good jazz combo
never knowing what came next
how the new house built with salvaged old lumber
bent a little in the wind and dreamt of the trees it came from
the time it was traveling thru
and the world of snow moving all night in its blowing sleep
while we discussed ultimate responsibility for a pile of dirty dishes
Jews in the Negev …. the Bible as mythic literature …. Peking Man
and in early morning looking outside to see the pink shapes of wind
printed on snow and a red sun tumbling upward almost touching the house
and fretwork tracks of rabbits outside where the window light had lain
last night an audience
watching in wonderment the odd human argument
that uses words instead of teeth
and got bored and went away

Of course there was wild grape wine and a stove full of Douglas fir
(railway salvage) and lake ice cracking its knuckles
in hard Ontario weather
and working with saw and hammer at the house
all winter afternoon
disagreeing about how to pound nails
arguing vehemently over how to make good coffee
Marcus Aurelius …. Spartacus …. Plato and François Villon
And it used to frustrate him terribly
that even when I was wrong he couldn’t prove it
and when I agreed with him he was always suspicious
and thought he must be wrong because I said he was right
Every night the house shook from his snoring
a great motor driving us on into daylight
and the vibration was terrible
Every morning I’d get up and say “Look at the nails-
you snored them out half an inch in the night-”
He’d believe me at first and look and get mad and glare
and stare angrily out the window while I watched
10 minutes of irritation
drain from his eyes onto fields and farms and miles and miles of snow
We quarreled over how dour I was in early morning
and how cheerful he was for counterpoint
and I argued that a million years of evolution
from snarling apeman have to be traversed before noon
and the desirability of murder in a case like his
and whether the Etruscans were really Semites
the Celtic invasion of Britain …. European languages …. Roman law
we argued about white being white (prove it dammit) …. & cockroaches
bedbugs in Montreal …. separatism …. Nietzsche …. Iroquois horsebreakers on the prairie
death of the individual and the ultimate destiny of man
and one night we quarreled over how to cook eggs
In the morning driving to town we hardly spoke
and water poured downhill outside all day for it was spring
when we were gone with frogs mentioning lyrically
Russian steel production figures on Roblin Lake
which were almost nil
I left him hitch hiking on #2 Highway to Montreal
and I guess I was wrong about those eggs

– Al Purdy

veranda livin’

veranda…verandah…porch…front stoop: no matter what you want to call it, the veranda is a public face on a house. must be the weather that’s making me notice them this week—verandas, by definition, have a roof against the rain.

I like walking past verandas in action—people sitting & watching the world go by, catching up with neighbours, spying on passers-by. on Palmerston, there are people sitting on their front stoop, waving to people they know, fidgeting with their laptops, talking loudly on their cellphones (probably complaining about new text charges), keeping an eye on their kids, playing with their dogs, fighting with their new giant recycling bins, going through their mail, and having friends over for a drink…

it’s all so much more public & sociable than the back deck, whether it’s the serious high-end High South veranda of Savannah Georgia or the generally more casual Palmerston veranda, like this one just up the street.

Miami’s Habitat for Humanity has simple but fabulous verandas on their public housing designs. and I wish there were a way to incorporate the concept into condo buildings & apartment towers. kind of the way some Art Deco Miami hotel/apartments have a veranda where you can eat breakfast or read the papers, and actually talk to our neighbours instead of staring straight ahead in the elevator as we come up from the garage.

seems like our condo balconies are more like pods, a module take on the backyard deck—here I am in my own private universe & I cannot see you.

verandas don’t stand for that kind of nonsense. they say “we’re all in this together.”

a friend is moving to Toronto this month & she’s asked people to make tiles to put around her front door, to bring blessings to her veranda—copying the Portuguese neighbours’ shrines & religious tiles. she’s not exactly a Virgin Mary type, so I’m looking forward to dropping by & hanging out on the veranda…