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Volunteer Musings
Gord Bell

Confession time. As a kid I was always kinda scared of Toronto. Doubly so for downtown. Growing up in Brampton, Toronto was talked about in one of two ways. First, and less common, it was discussed in hushed tones, as if Toronto was a mystical far-away land, not quite a spot on the map reading ‘here there be dragons’, but in that nautical area for sure. Second, and far more likely, Toronto was talked about as a dangerous place, where drugs and sex and guns lurked around every street corner and in every apartment building. The few times my parents took me downtown as a kid for Blue Jay’s games at the Roger’s Centre. We’d drive down the Gardiner and fight to find parking near the stadium. I remember being amazed at all the people walking to the game. Where did these people come from? Didn’t they also drive for 90 minutes to get here? Where were their cars?!?!

As I grew older and entered my teen years, Toronto started to take on a different quality in my mind. I started to question my parents’ assumptions about the big city. No longer a place of danger, Toronto started to hold a fascinating appeal for me. The city seemed so different and foreign from the suburban surroundings I was used to. I couldn’t help be intrigued by it. That I drove my parents nuts insisting I be allowed to take the bus downtown only enhanced the city’s mystique. So in 2014, when I was presented with the chance to volunteer for something downtown called Open Streets TO, I jumped at the opportunity. I had no idea what in the world Open Streets was. I mean, open streets? What does that mean? It’s not like streets are closed on Sundays or holidays. Weird. But still, a chance to be downtown? I couldn’t pass that up. Factor in volunteering helped me complete my required volunteer hours for high school graduation, and my parents relented. It still scared the hell out of them, which was icing on the cake as far as teenaged me was concerned.

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The day of Open Streets TO, I remember getting on the bus with other high school students, heading downtown. It was early Sunday morning. Most of the students seemed unconcerned with our destination, as if going to Toronto was a weekly thing for them. Maybe it was. For me, I was so excited to be heading downtown I could barely stay in my seat. It was only when we arrived at Bloor and Spadina that I realized I was actually going to have to work. I hadn’t thought about that. I was assigned a spot at what they called a ‘soft close’ intersection, where cars can pass through the open streets route at major intersections. Mine was Bay Street. At first I was completely confused about what in the world was going on. I was told to hold a stop sign and made sure people stopped when the light was red. So that’s what I did. After a while though, I started to take in my surroundings. I started to noticed people. Lots of people. Old people, young people, married people, kids, people my age. I heard laughter and music and conversation in many different languages. It was a lot of fun, but something stuck out. Something was different here, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. After four hours, the program ended and I got on the bus to go back home. It was somewhere on Highway 427 that it dawned on me. The thing that was so different was that I could actually hear the laughter and conversation. In Brampton, all you can hear on the streets were cars. At Open Streets, you could hear people.

That one realization hit me hard. I didn’t know anything at the time about what open streets really was or what it was trying to achieve. But I knew I liked being able to actually hear other people. It was so simple, and yet so wonderful. Even though I no longer needed the hours to graduate, I volunteered again in September 2014. And then again in 2015. And in 2016 and 2017 and 2018. I even got my parents to come out and they’ve started to think about Toronto in a different way. In their minds, it’s now a place where people live, rather than a place where drugs or guns lurk. I’ve learned more about open streets since 2014, but I still don’t think I fully get it to be honest. That’s ok. I know what open streets have given me. I think about streets in a whole new way. Well actually, I never used to think about streets at all. But I do now. Now I know what streets can be. Streets can be magic. They may not have dragons, but they sure can be fantastical.