2013 came to a close in the city of Toronto with an ice storm and, as luck would have it, I was there. I arrived on Thursday, December 19, in town for a few meetings and an annual holiday party at my cousin’s house. Saturday morning I was booked to fly back to Chicago, but the day began with a series of flight delays that turned into cancellations that continued for the next four days, until I was finally able to board a plane the evening of the 24th.
Having grown up in Wisconsin and lived in Chicago for almost thirty years, I have experienced plenty of ice storms, including one in rural Quebec four years ago over Christmastime where power was lost for five days, and a small wood-burning stove kept everyone warm and melted snow for water. This storm was different.
This is what happens in an ice storm: it is the result of an ice formation process, influenced by general weather patterns. Ice accumulates when super-cooled rain freezes upon contact with surfaces, such as tree branches, that are at or below the freezing point. This generally occurs when a winter warm front passes through an area after the ground-level temperature reaches or falls below freezing. Accumulations of ice can increase the weight of a tree branch by 30 times or more, and branch failure occurs when loading from the weight of ice exceeds wood resistance. Strong winds substantially increase the potential for damage, particularly as the temperature drops.
A light rain began in Toronto late Thursday afternoon; it was not continual, but it didn’t completely stop until the following Tuesday. Temperatures hovered just above 32F during the day and a few degrees below freezing at night. By Sunday at noon, thousands of fallen trees and tens of thousands of broken branches filled the streets and yards of the city after the rain-turned-ice began snapping trees and branches in the early morning with magnificent force and the loud crackling of wood splintering. After an uproarious year of political folly, this storm gave a new meaning to ‘crack’ for Torontonians, but not the kind of international press coverage that was realized by their mayor the previous three months. In this circumstance, the mayor was firm in stating that the ice storm did not constitute an emergency - even though 300,000 people were without power that Sunday, two-thirds of which were not restored until late Tuesday. (And, at this writing, hundreds still remain without power.) Yet with financial losses in the tens of millions, if not the hundreds of millions of dollars, the mayor was, once again, steadfast in refusing help.
Toronto is the sister city of Chicago, both figuratively and literally. Their climates are the same. Their urban population is the same. They both are in the political-economic centers of their countries. They are both situated on beautiful lakefronts. Of course, there are pronounced differences. One has had a prodigious master plan for its lakefront and city center for more than a hundred years; the other still does not. One city identifies with the east coast, dresses in black, and is truly international; the other one dresses in Eddie Bauer and thinks it is (international). One city has a mayor whose appetite for alcohol and drugs is insatiable and who believes he is the boss; the other city’s mayor IS the boss.
The one absolute thing these two cites have in common is the people that inhabit them. They love their city, they know their city, they are self-critical, and they are interesting, intelligent, inquisitive, and warm. Sometimes it takes something like an ice storm to bring clarity to people’s character, and that is what I saw in Toronto. In spite of any faulty leadership, when the lights went out and people moved from their homes to friends, neighbors, relatives and hotels, there was no insurgence of crime, there was no looting, but there was collaboration, or as one dear friend said, the reliance on community. The holiday parties continued on dark streets with glowing fires and candlelight, generators to run the microphones and amplifiers, not the furnaces, and before the city crews could get out to remove the trees blocking the sidewalks and streets, neighbors were there to help each other first, laughing as they did, holding onto each other’s arms on the ice, and calling out to dodge the next falling limb.
One of my favorite things about Toronto is its topography - ravines that create a geographical space unique among large cities, like a web of wooded canals and rivers, where pathways of gravel surrounded by dense foliage replace water. At 2 a.m. a week ago Monday, I left the comfort of indoors and went outside to a disserted neighborhood. I walked along the ravines and through the streets to a symphony of percussion that was created by the movement of tree limbs, and I stared at the glistening of reflected light from the glazed canopy of trees. It was extraordinarily beautiful, but also very dangerous, and slowly the sounds of branches surrendering to the ice gave way to the memory of listening to the piano of Keith Jarrett the night before. Obviously, I was taken by the storm. My delayed return was not disastrous, but a wonderful gift in many ways. From the time the first guests arrived at my cousin’s party, to the sun appearing five days later, I was fortunate to experience the intimacy and warmth that you can only find on the edge of a potential crisis.
As the year comes to a close, the ice storm has reminded me of the fragility of our own conditions, but has also framed the beauty and optimism that exists with them. The residential streets and ravines of Toronto will not look the same in the spring, but trees and plants will grow again with time. It is more difficult to replace people and, fortunately, the ice storm didn’t take them away in Toronto - it just made them better.
In the world of architecture we lost a few people this year who lived very full and long lives, like Ada Louise Huxtable, Henning Larsen, and Paolo Soleri, but unfortunately we also lost some far too early, such as Allen Eskew. Allen was a true gentleman and an architect’s architect, and if there was a storm in your town, he was the person you would want leading your community to better things.
As David Brininstool and I embark on our 25th year together as a firm, we are keenly aware of the fragility of our world, yet we are perhaps more optimistic than ever about doing good work, creating new experiences, and working with wonderful people.