A City is a Lot of People

When I see people in the hallway, at the grocery store, on the subway, walking downtown late at night or in any other space in which we see strangers, I wonder about them. I wonder where they live, where they work and what their hopes and ambitions are. I wonder whether they live with people they love, whether they’ve always lived in Toronto, and I imagine their challenges and their joys and disappointments. Yesterday after my night class I had one such moment when I turned to pick up my bags at the grocery store, and the coherence of the purchases of the man behind me caught my eye. A tiny package of Vector cereal. Four bright yellow bananas wrapped in plastic. Two firm red tomatoes. An apple. Sometimes it is something as simple as someone’s shopping purchases that gives clues to who they are, and the combination of firmly deciding to Eat Healthy but not stocking up on groceries left me curious to know more.

More than individual stories though, I wonder how I could ever take part in planning for a city without knowing about its heart and soul.

That heart and soul is difficult to discover though. I saw the film Dhobi Ghat a few days ago (it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is now playing at theatres more broadly) and the best way to sum up the film is to say that it is an ode to Mumbai, and a peek into the lives of some of the people who call it home. I loved it, and it reminded me that while Toronto is not the metropolis of Mumbai, to live in a city means that although you live in close proximity to many people, for the most part their lives are hidden from you. In my own case, I only just recently met my neighbours, and while I always try to break silences, it is possible to live in the same building and never speak to anyone. You can share an elevator and not exchange a single word, there are no front yards to talk and chat with one another, and we do things like checking the mail and taking out the trash whenever it fits into our schedule.

This isn’t a complaint, simply a comment that while I love the vibrancy and energy of the city, I want to understand its micro-spaces better. I want to share conversations in the elevator, the subway, the mailroom etc and I want to understand how these spaces can or cannot build community. Last week I was at the Engineers Without Borders National Conference, and it seemed totally normal to turn to the person nearby on the streetcar, assume they were going to the same conference and strike up a conversation. I did the same thing in December when I attended a week long retreat on Islam, when I would smile and speak to strangers on the subway who seemed like they were heading to the same place. In both cases, I had delightful conversations and met fiercely bright and interesting people.

Is it possible to build that sense of trust and community in everyday experiences though?

I’m not sure about the answer to that question (your thoughts are very welcomed though!) but more importantly, I want to hear (please) your recommendations of books about cities and people to help me along with my self education. I love Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series because it reminds me of my time in Edinburgh, (and Corduroy Mansions because it does the same thing for London), I love Cornelia Funke’s Thief Lord because it is inspiration to visit Venice, and in general, I love books that are fictional in their details, but factual in the way they make different places and their people real to us. This summer I visited Charing Cross Road, the London bookshop district, and one of the things I remember most about those marvelous shops are the incredible displays they had on books about London itself. Books about London’s history, books about people who lived in London, books set in London in different time periods, it was a intellectual feast, but I seem to have lost exact titles now. Such is what happens when you move.

So friends, do share and comment below, what are your favourite ‘books about places” that you’d recommend to read? (Or talks- I was listening the other day to a lecture called “Reading London” from LSE, and it was talking about the city’s incredible layered history, and how the present is simply another layer on a very old place. While that is something you see walking around the city, it is super interesting to hear about the details too).

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