Urban Amnesia: A Reflection on Toronto

The phrase ‘urban amnesia’ had been tossing around in my head for the past several weeks. Ever since we arrived in Toronto while in transit to finding a new place to call home, we have been retracing our steps and visiting favorite haunts.

There is a profound sense of disorientation that comes from being absent over the last four years while we lived in South Carolina. Entire city blocks have disappeared and buildings have been demolished and replaced by seemingly ready-made villages.

Scaffolding and cranes have always framed the city of Toronto and there have always been cavernous holes in the ground where the foundations of new buildings are planted and steel and glass tower high into the sky. Clearly the change has been gradual, but in our absence, it seems instant. 

We zigzag the city from High Park, the Danforth, Chinatown, Kensington Market, and while there is an abundance of hip cafes, spectacular restaurants and unique shops, an overwhelming sense of monotony begins to take hold. Admittedly, overcast skies the color of dirt-covered asphalt have cast a gloom over the city since our arrival don’t help matters.  

LinkedIn: graffiti is a roadmap to a shared experience

I feel displaced by this change – everyone has long since moved on, but I frame my experience from a sense of homesickness. There is comfort that comes from familiarity, but the only place I find any connection is Kensington Market. The seemingly isolated block of eclectic shops merge seamlessly onto the cluttered streets of Chinatown. Alleyways decorated with impressive graffiti are like a roadmap to a shared experience. A group of friends practice new dance moves on the street, the smell of Jerk Chicken and empanadas permeates the air, and the fish monger (and yes, there is a also a cheese monger) stations himself at the storefront, taking a smoke break and watches over his neighborhood. I take comfort in seeing the same shops I used to visit as a teenager are still there.

defying gentrification, this half home tells a whole story

I look up urban amnesia online and the first reference that comes up is from urbandictionary.com: “urban amnesia is a symptom often experienced by curious people who hear a word and need to look it up” – while not entirely relevant to what I’m feeling, it does make me laugh. 

The definition I’m looking for is probably closer to gentrification, a feeling of disorientation from the physical absence of a building, a block or an entire neighborhood. I know I should recognize where I stand, but in the absence of landmarks I draw a blank.  Mixed in is a feeling of emotional displacement, everyone has moved on, and now it’s time for me to do the same.

As an immigrant to a new country part of a greater Palestinian diaspora, home has been associated with family and not with a physical place. With the passing of my mother several years ago, the bond that kept my family together with her fierce insistence of keeping traditions, as I presume is inevitable, began to fade.

how I felt after a bone-chilling walk through the city

Over the last four years we have made the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains bordering the Carolinas our home, and though it seems a relatively brief space of time compared to the nearly four decades lived in and around Toronto, I began to connect with the stories hidden in the Appalachian mountains. I am envious of a sense of identity that is bound to a geographical place.

Back in Toronto, after another bone-chilling walk through the city, we stop at a self-proclaimed Canadian icon, Tim Hortons, a neutral zone lacking in pretense. We step out of the way of the streams of people with their heads down against the cold, they pour into the underground, determined to pack themselves in the subway cars, hurrying to make connections. 

My first impressions returning to the city still hold - it is a place rich in diverse cultures, tolerant of our differences and, while I am not naive to the racism and intolerance that pulls at the seams of this multicultural heritage, I feel safe in this diversity which can give voice to our uniqueness and simultaneously embrace our similarities. 

Returning to Toronto has been a necessary and practical part of the journey, so has writing this post. With each step taken to retrace my experiences in search of home, I sense the grip of nostalgia beginning to fade, leaving space for new stories.

Toronto: a place rich in diverse cultures