My connotated urban spaces: what happened when I lost my childhood playground

To what extent should we overlook personal attachments when redeveloping a space?

Valerie Yao

I’ve always longed for the kind of friendship that transcends time, like the one between Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in Anne of Green Gables. Both friends keep their endlessly mutual love wherever they go and always know where the other has been. Unlike photos or letters, these lasting friendships are living preservers of memories.

But alas, many phases of my life were marked by sharp transitions without many companions. On my phone, I’ve kept many contacts whose intimacy with me faded with time, who couldn’t accompany me through different chapters in life, whom I can no longer contact. Friendships dwindled.

Phases of my life are thus seemingly disconnected. Waves of change propel me forward, leaving me nothing and nobody to cling onto but myself and past lessons. In a mundane sense, it’s lonesome because no friend who shares some past with you is there to witness your growth.

When I can’t connect my past with someone, I turn to places for solace. People often come and go, but physical places usually remain. I like to revisit the spots that are dear to me to experience feelings from before. To me, urban geography isn’t just made of points on maps; rather, it is constituted of places with their own connotative meanings.

Recently, I was desperate to recollect my childhood memories, and I was most curious about the community playground in the small coastal town where I grew up. But what I found out left me with an image that hardly contained any trace of my childhood.

The playground where I learned to roller skate and jump rope had become a train station. No longer are there children chasing each other around; instead, trains carry passengers to and fro, and office towers and hotels loom overhead. The places that shaped my identity, once so sweet to me, were gone — urban noises replaced the peace and laughter etched into my childhood memories. In the flux of changes, urban spaces change with the heartbeat of the economy and the adrenaline of innovation.

This isn’t necessarily harmful. My small town needed economic growth, and my personal memories are trivial in the grand scheme of urban development. But still, I shake my head with disappointment: to what extent should we overlook personal attachments when redeveloping a space?

Total attachment to economic benefits in developments is dangerous — it can even lead to ruthless exploitation. In 1910, the Songhees people of Victoria, BC were forcibly removed from their land because, as the government claimed, the Indigenous communities impeded developments and ‘progress.’ The land that held generations of Songhees’ memories was exchanged for government-issued cheques. The forces of colonial development, settler colonizers, and the general public viewed the Songhees’ lands as meaningless.

Seemingly, we move from one era or place to another, leaving the past behind without much to hold onto. In constant movements toward modernity, how can we maintain our identities?

Sometimes these endless, rapid changes can make us vulnerable. Once, when I was 13, my dad and I drove to northern Toronto for dinner with some family friends. After steering into the destined neighbourhood, we almost got lost. Countless identical houses engulfed us: they had the same brick patterns, structures, and overall tone.

You may call this ‘harmonized,’ but, looking closer, you might notice that the sight was extremely boring and dull. Later, I learned that these homogenized communities were an indication of progress for developers, but they were also mass-constructed with nearly identical designs to reduce costs.

This isn’t necessarily bad either, but for everything we do, there are trade-offs. In this case, the first trade-off of blindly drifting along with forces of changes would be aesthetics. For those identical houses situated closely to one another, the repetition of patterns became redundant and visually tiring. For the want of profits, the pursuit of beauty was abandoned.

The second would be individuality. Those look-alike houses make building individuality in the community difficult. The lack of uniqueness renders each of us more interchangeable.

The third would be our state of minds. If you stare at the scene longer, you can sink into feelings of entrapment — of being engulfed by the repetition in a quasi-high-modernist community — that can engulf you whole.

This trend does not merely happen only in northern Toronto. In some areas of downtown Toronto, streets are filled with international agglomerations and franchised businesses. Those businesses — restaurants, cafés, and other kinds of stores — can look almost the same. In some ways, finding personal connotations in these places is not so easy. Strolling around our gradually transforming urban landscape, I can’t help but worry that our Torontonian identity will slowly be carried away by the waves of emotionally detached urbanization.

I refuse to partake in the urbanization processes that push identity away. To me, the urban space is connotated and personal. I want to walk around to explore every part of the city and take time to learn about the stories that happened there.

I envision this: when I get older, I’ll open up a café at some corner of old Toronto. Its design will be unique, so no one will be able to find anything alike anywhere else. Memories and identities will persist despite the intensities of urbanization. And on sunny afternoons when the sunlight filters in, I’ll chat with my guests, and I will let their stories about the city guide me.

Cover visual: Urbanization can strip away a city’s character. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY