14 OCT. 2011 A hurricane formed off the Northern Coast of Africa more than a half a century ago. For five days it moved slowly west over the Caribbean Sea before it took a sharp turn north over Haiti, killing 400 people. The storm continued north along the Eastern Seaboard, tearing through several U.S. States and claiming another 95 fatalities.
The hurricane should have died out as it crossed the U.S./Canada border. Instead, it increased in strength when it merged with a cold front over the Great Lakes region, an area already saturated by two weeks of record rainfall. Environment Canada describes this chain of events as having "almost sinister timing."
On October 16, 1954, an estimated 300 million tons of rainfall fell on Toronto. Massive flooding along the city waterways claimed 81 lives, destroyed 1,868 city homes and caused more than $1 billion (AFI) in damages.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) assigns a name from an alphabetical list when a hurricane forms. If the ensuing storm causes an historical amount of destruction, that name is retired from the list to be forever associated with that specific disaster; a perverse reverse-christening where the baptized drops the water and is blessed with a name only after it dies and only if it kills.
The name Katrina was recently retired by the WMO. The hurricane that destroyed so much of Toronto in 1954 was named Hazel.
Rather than reconstruct, the city converted the devastated areas into parklands; verdant public spaces that now offer picnic areas, sports and recreation facilities, and kilometres of paths and trails that run along the creeks and rivers.
That decision has allowed mother nature to pay small reparations ever since.
The world-renowned medical journal The Lancet published a 2008 study that found the correlation between poverty and mortality—the poorer you are, the shorter your life—decreases for people who live near green spaces.
That's good news for me. I live a few blocks from Black Creek Parkland. A quiet walk or a bike ride under the sheltering trees makes it easy to forget that I live inside the angriest grid of thoroughfares in Canada.
In late September, the city paved a multi-use pathway along the hydro corridor across the street from my house. The new path crosses Black Creek trail and continues West for another three kilometres.
That weekend I cycled over new, smooth bitumen under the crackle and hum of overhead power lines. The sunny autumn day inspired a lot of other folks from my demographically diverse neighbourhood to come outside. It was an impromptu diversity day parade. I passed parents with baby strollers, dog walkers with one plastic mitt at the ready, joggers in spotless shoes, and kids immersed in the signals and waves of portable electronic devices.
An old guy in a wheelchair nodded at passersby, including the sinewy cyclists who flew by on bikes that weigh no more than a toothbrush. I wished for their expensive aluminum bikes. The wheelchair man probably wished for legs. It's all relative.
I rode along the edge of a sports field where a high school soccer tournament was underway. Parents and siblings cheered from the sidelines. It was an image of the community rarely seen on the local new where stories are usually related to the area's high concentration of gang activity.
Three smaller boys watched the game from atop a large mound of black earth set aside to be razed into the path's soft shoulders. Then they watched us coming up the path.
"Hey! Cool bike! Where d'ya get 'it?" they shouted. I stopped for a minute and answered a few question. A I rode away, the boys shouted to my back, "Can we have 'it?"
What? Did they really expect a spontaneous donation from a stranger?
Later that week I was biking along Black Creek trail. In the opposite direction a young man and a little boy walked hand in hand, most likely father and son. When the kid saw me, he started to pull at the man’s hand, jumping and shouting, "It's a bike! I want it! Can I have it? Can I have your bike?"
"Maybe next time," I said, smiling as I rolled by.
The father chuckled. He knew we would probably never cross paths again. The kid's pleas continued as I rolled off into the dark green shade.
My path had crossed briefly with these neighbourhood kids, but in both incidents I felt a bit blue as I left.
These paths run through the Jane and Finch area, a neighbourhood with one of the city’s highest rates for single parent families, public-housing and low-income earners. That doesn't mean the kids are unhappy, but it is likely that the boys on that mound of dirt already know that their parents can’t afford to buy them a bike. It is likely that the father of that little boy walked away thinking about the things he couldn't provide for his son.
How often in these crossing currents do strangers carry something away from each other?
A half a century ago Hurricane Hazel burst through these waterways and stole away life and property. In the wake of that natural disaster lies a legacy of urban forests that break the effects of poverty, the unnatural disaster that slowly erodes the lives of those who live along its edges.