Bikes and Toronto Skyline

Picture This! This Is My City

Sometimes there are those small, seemingly insignificant moments that crystallize how you feel about yourself and where you live. One of those happened last night at a fundraiser for a remarkable local charity called Serve that helps at-risk youth.

First a little background. My week actually started on the weekend. My wife and daughter surprised me with a trip to Chicago for my birthday. I’d never been. We did the whole tourist thing: the architectural tour, went to Second City, walked the Waterfront and Millenium Park. Downtown Chicago is a jewel of a city: spectacular art and architecture, well planned, pedestrian friendly and incredibly clean – kind of a grown up Toronto with a Waterfront that puts ours to shame.

After a while you look down from the skyline to street level. Downtown Chicago seems pretty white, mid-western and black – and prosperous. Then you begin to look down and see the panhandlers. Pained faces: young, old, men, women, a surprising number sitting there with their kids, pleading for money. There’s a lot of despair in the Emerald City and shockingly – it had a colour – almost uniformly black.

It was in cabs where I felt hope, the kind inspired by Obama in 2008. A series of articulate African and Caribbean cab drivers narrated the city for us, showed us where the Pritzkers and Wrigleys lived, and where the Playboy Club stood. They told us their stories, of learning English, going to college, hoping to be a nurse or a teacher. They were virtual poster boys for the American dream.

In Toronto, we’re not immune from street people, or despair. I’m not sure if we should be proud that our despair seems a little more colour blind. I’m always conflicted seeing people on the street. What’s the proper response? Give loose change, ignore people or offer an encouraging smile. It’s a tough one. My wife, Dorothy and I try and do our bit. Our website is one way. Another is telling stories for a number of different organizations like Serve, places that work at street level to help give people young and old a sense of direction and hope.

It’s in those stories and those people where I’ve felt the most Torontonian – lucky that I live in a city with an incredible tapestry of people like Alexx, Graham and Luis. It was at the Serve fundraiser that I met Luis and his beautiful, Dominican wife Victoria for the first time. One of our very talented young director, Jordan Canning, together with editor Anastasia Trofimova and art director Graeme Mathieson made this beautiful short film about Luis for us for the event.

Luis is a refugee from Guatamala who came to Canada when he was eleven with his mom to escape the civil war. Fatherless, adrift and angry, his mom kicked him out of the house at 15. He watched his friends go to college and university. He felt left behind, until he turned to Serve, where he was accepted into a program that helped build his self-esteem and gave him the tools to move forward. Serve is a grassroots organization that works intensively with youth to overcome obstacles in their lives and helps places them in the community through volunteer opportunities. With Luis, it was overcoming that anger and working with him to find a sense of direction. Today, Luis has an incredible story. He’s a poet, musician, a health promotion worker in native communities and he’s been an international election observer in Guatamala and El Salvador.

When the lights came back on after the film I was proud to be standing beside Luis. A line of hands reached out to shake his. Predominantly lawyers, bankers and business people, those who can contribute a bit of money. One young man in a smart suit and cool glasses came up and shook Luis’s hand. I imagined that he worked in investment banking. He began to speak with Luis in Spanish. Luis’s face lit up. So did his wife Victoria’s. The man was from Ecuador and he too had a story to share.

After the conversation, Luis turned to Victoria and I, laughed and said, “Spanish, it comes in all colours. Toronto is an incredible place, incredible place, people from everywhere.”

At that moment, I felt a kind of civic pride. I thought, “This is my city.”

Visit Picture This! to read more blogs by Richard.


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