Toronto
3 min

Geography of desire

I’ve been living at Yonge and Eglinton for an embarrassing long period of time and I have no idea why. The food shopping is lousy, the corner is dominated by a kitschy multiplex and most days there are no gay people within miles. Other people tell me there are but I haven’t seen them. In all my years in the neighbourhood I’ve met exactly one guy (capital-M met) and he was still living at home with his family, a fate that tells you a lot about the area. Gays may start out here but they don’t stick around for long.

As far as I can see the notorious “Young and Eligible” is basically a holding pen for young straight couples awaiting their first condo. The intersection itself looks like an interchange on the 401, with cars whizzing this way and that and no one, certainly not the pedestrians, slowing down long enough to talk or gaze or amble. Mostly it seems like a place where people pass through on the way to someplace else. To my way of thinking that’s not a neighbourhood.

So I’m thinking of moving, probably back downtown, and it’s got me thinking about what I might call (collapsing two titles by Frank Browning or stealing one from Robert Boswell) the geo-graphy of desire.

If you are where you live then where exactly do I belong and just how gay does the place have to be? We are all more than the sum of our gayness. I once met a guy who looked very downtown but lived and worked near Oshawa simply because he wanted to be near the lake.

My own needs are just as simple, though maybe harder to fulfill. I want to be in the thick of things but I also want someplace quiet (for strategic retreats) and that can be difficult, especially if you’re gay and like to be reminded of that occasionally, preferably through interactions with other people. At least there are more options now than ever before.

Once upon a time gay neighbourhoods were an isolated phenomenon and not at all easy to find. I still remember my first solo trip to San Francisco, decades ago, and the surprise I felt when I got off the plane. I was expecting Sodom and Gomorrah and a homo on every corner. Instead it was pretty much like every other US city which is to say straight except for the Castro which was kind of disappointing, smaller than I expected and no more exciting than Church St is today.

For better or worse that kind of centralized gay ghetto seems to be on the wane as gay influence spreads throughout most downtown cores. While certain parts of Toronto might still be off-limits to, say, a handholding gay couple, any number of other neighbourhoods sport a liberal vibe that usually stretches to include gays. The Annex is for students, Riverdale for lefties, the Beaches for the media and Parkdale and Leslieville for the bohemian bourgeoisie. They’re all in their different ways gay friendly.

After that it all depends on just how much support you want. Me, I want more than simple tolerance. I want to be among like-minded folk who reinforce my own existence by indulging their own casual curiousity. Street life downtown is an ongoing call-and-response where a single glance held a second too long can have more impact than an entire conversation and I like that. It doesn’t have to be a cruise. Sometimes a simple smirk of recognition is enough.

For that I come down on the side of the ghetto at Church and Wellesley and not just because I want to be near sexual and social opportunity.

I’ve spent half my life wandering about the neighbourhood but it feels as if I’ve only very recently started to see it for what it is. Not just the size, age and condition of the buildings but the way they relate to the surrounding streets and alleys.

Few neighbourhoods have such a wild mix of styles and origins — Second Empire mansions cozying up to 1950s midrises — and I think that’s what makes it work. That and the fact that almost every building empties directly into the street, bridging the gap between public and private. You can live in a fairly small space downtown and still feel as if you’re living large because the street is your living room and all the surrounding buildings merely glorified guest rooms.

Just about every building in the village contains a memory of somebody I know or knew or wanted to know. On a personal level the area is riddled with connections.

The only problem with the village these days is that it’s getting way too expensive for anyone except the condo owners. So if anyone knows of a cheap, quiet one-bedroom apartment downtown that’s close to everything but far away from barking dogs, wailing ambulances and disco-playing neighbours, please let me know.