AFTER NEARLY TWO MONTHS IN LOCKDOWN IT WAS TIME TO SEE WHAT’S HAPPENED TO MY CITY. News stories and tweets weren’t enough – Toronto is my hometown, and I was naturally curious about what it looked like when you took away its shopping and jobs. The only people I assumed were left downtown were the ones living there, and they had been told – like everyone else – to stay inside.
So on a sunny weekday morning I headed for Yonge Street, the city’s main drag, and started walking south. Up in midtown it was business as usual (except for all the closed stores), but as I got closer to the downtown pedestrian and street traffic thinned out where they would normally been bustling on a sunny day in spring.
I feel obliged to point out here that not everybody was masked. My estimate was that it was about half – less if they were working a strenuous job like construction (and there was a lot of construction going on, and why not, with the streets empty.) But masks are the totem of this unusual time – they’ll be visual shorthand for 2020 when it’s time to make movies set during coronavirus.
Yonge Dundas Square was also mostly empty, except for TV news crews filming b-roll footage, those hardy and/or reckless souls who’d be in the square anyway, or locals desperate for a bit of air and light. The big neon screens that make the square look like a tribute to Blade Runner were heavily on-message, broadcasting Covid-19 messages from banks and airlines and city government.
Street photography isn’t my long game, but I felt I had to get as many pictures of mask wearers as I could. Most of my shooting was done discreetly without looking through the viewfinder of my X30, shooting with the camera at chest level, hoping to get lucky with composition and timing. There was time for one portrait, however, with a couple I met while lining up for a coffee at one of the few open cafes.
There wasn’t much open, in an area full of stores, restaurants and hotels. I’m still trying to anticipate how bad the economic damage is going to be, in both the short and long term. For the most part it just looked like staff had cleaned up at the end of the night and locked the doors. Only a couple of shops had barricaded their storefronts, and I couldn’t help noticing that the most valuable commodity in this time of crisis is apparently sneakers.
The financial district was the emptiest area – the place where no one lives, while all the jobs done at desks in the office towers are currently being done on laptops in home offices and kitchens. But the eeriest spot was Union Station, where the trains were only barely running, and the arrivals and departures board was dark. Travel will probably be the last thing to resume at anything like its former vigor, but I’m having a hard time imagining just when that will be.