Culture & Conversation

Ain’t Quaint No More

Went up to Don Mills a couple of nights ago to hear Eric Siblin, an old Westmount High School classmate, read from his book, The Cello Suites, at the new McNally Robinson bookstore. Don Mills, named for the mills that used to exist along the Don River, which feeds into Lake Ontario, was one of Canada’s first planned communities, started in 1953.

Don Mills is a new town more than it is a mere “suburb,” even if that was what it became. Perched on one of the ravines that characterize Toronto’s subtle topography (they’re subtle because you can’t see them unless you are on their edge or dip into them), it is a great gesture of 1950s and of Canadian hope. I’ve always had a high regard and even a fascination with Don Mills: I like its architecture; I like its story. A number of English Canada’s best novelists came from here—Barbara Gowdy, Paul Quarrington and Lawrence Hill who, in a conversation we had a few years ago, attributed his interest in the history of African-Americans and Canadians to a plain Don Mills upbringing in which the colour of his skin had never been that interesting. His parents, of course, were American civil rights activists. They’d come to Canada and to Don Mills to take and participate in that hope.

McNally Robinson is a Winnipeg-based chain, owned by a daring family plainly not intimidated by busy markets or whatever is the nature of these economic times. (I’m still hard put to call it a “crisis,” though I know it is that for the paper wealthy and the manufacturers of redundant automobiles). They’ve opened a store in Manhattan and now, as brazenly, here in the revamped Don Mills plaza that was the heart of the community from the 50s right through the 90s, when I first arrived here as the books editor of the fledgling National Post. It was one of those low-lying malls of simple build and manageable dimensions, with a bunch of 50s architectural details that were starting to give it a prized retro quality.

This is not to express regret over what has been done with it. Now it is a new town of a different sort, and quite convincing. Gone is the arrangement of ordinary big-box stores under one roof, its accidental benefit that it offers cover to pensioners taking exercise by walking it in laps. Now the stores are free standing, along streets and around a small green with an unintelligible Douglas Coupland sculpture that looks like a piece of space station debris but that is apparently a clock. There is no doubt that the new mall will be wonderfully impractical in the Canadian winter, cutting ice-cold winds blowing snow around the corners, but in summer it is winning.

“Reminds me of Orange County,” said Eric, before heading in to the store. He read in an upstairs corner with the cellist Tilmann Lewis playing the first suite before him. We’d eaten in the attached restaurant, not bad though overly air-conditioned on a sunny evening. Siblin, in that way that Montrealers do, put a gentle Toronto jibe in his remarks. “In Montreal, I was sitting on a terrace—what you call, I think, a patio.” Yes, yes, enough, already. But the tease went unnoticed. There’s nothing quaint about Toronto anymore, and what there is to mock Torontonians already do, relentlessly. The truth about Toronto is that even a seemingly unremarkable suburb like Don Mills has a history these days—and it is specific and unusual and there to be found out. Quarrington’s novel The Ravine, or Gowdy’s Falling Angels would not be a bad place for the interested to start.

Photo by Barbara Stoneham.

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