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“It was kind of like camp”: How a community in Leslieville came together during the pandemic

By Debbie Berlin
"It was kind of like camp": How a community in Leslieville came together during the pandemic

Debbie Berlin, a social worker and therapist, on how the residents of a Leslieville townhouse complex came together during the pandemic 

–As told to Roxy Kirshenbaum

“I’m a social worker and therapist in private practice, and the co-founder of Neshama Hospice, Canada’s first hospice based on Jewish values. I grew up in Forest Hill and lived in a few different neighbourhoods, like the Annex,  the Village and Deer Park.

A few years ago, I lived with my daughter Izzie, who’s 15, and my partner Rob, who’s 52, in a 9oo-square-foot condo in the Distillery District, but my daughter was getting older and we needed more space. 

So in the fall of 2019, we decided to move to 50 Curzon Street, a townhouse complex in Leslieville. It ended up being the most amazing place I’ve ever lived. There are a total of 55 units, populated by all types of people: young families, divorcees, immigrants, downsizers. 

When Covid hit, at first, everyone stayed indoors. Then, one morning, in April 2020, I was sitting at my kitchen table and I saw a few neighbours outside with their kids. This was the first “sign of life” I saw at 50 Curzon following lockdowns.

I remember thinking, Kids have to get outside or parents are going to lose it. All the parks were locked up and closed in Leslieville (and everywhere in Toronto, for that matter). It was the most surreal experience.

But before long, the whole community rallied together, forming closer bonds instead of letting the pandemic separate us. 

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We started having outdoor meet-ups in the courtyard at the centre of the townhouse development. There’s a long stretch of grass, about 5,000 square feet, which all the residents can access.

In the summer, there were parties at night. We pulled together folding tables and outdoor furniture.

"It was kind of like camp": How a community in Leslieville came together during the pandemic

We played music, ordered in food from Fresh, had guitar singalongs. It was kind of like camp. The kids played along the pathway to the courtyard, riding skateboards and scooters.

"It was kind of like camp": How a community in Leslieville came together during the pandemic

Eventually, when the weather turned and the ground got muddy, we moved the parties to a paved stone courtyard in front of the development, called “the Piazza.” It was named by one of the residents, Max Starnino, 52, a lawyer who grew up in Quebec.

He comes from an Italian family and he’s an unbelievable cook—he makes authentic Italian recipes from scratch. We often said, ‘Why would we go to any restaurant when Max is here?' He brought a wood table, six chairs, a large Weber BBQ, and a smoker from his place. It was like our very own outdoor restaurant. 

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"It was kind of like camp": How a community in Leslieville came together during the pandemic

When the weather turned cold, we bought a couple of heat lamps and a fire pit. A lot of the families have kids under the age of 10, so everyone would come outside in their coziest winter wear looking to let off some steam.

We drank wine and hot chocolate. Kids came out with their toboggans and you could hear their laughter in the distance as they took turns going down a homemade slope.  

My partner, Rob, loves the community and the camaraderie. When we step outside our place, we see our neighbours and greet each other warmly. We love stopping at Bagel World and dropping bagels off to the neighbours on Sunday mornings. 

My daughter thinks everyone at 50 Curzon is so friendly, and they genuinely care about people’s well-being. During Covid, especially, Izzie has been so encouraging of us socializing.

She would be her typical teenage self—wanting to be on FaceTime or PlayStation, hunkering down, but at times, she would come out and join meals and hang out with the kids.

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She was so happy for me and Rob and the other adults who were feeling the strain of the disconnection of people in their lives. She loves that we can all be together, but in a safe, socially distanced way. The best part: no one ever tested positive for Covid from these outdoor gatherings.

"It was kind of like camp": How a community in Leslieville came together during the pandemic

So how did all of this happen? Well, necessity is the mother of invention. People need to get outside and connect in order to maintain their well-being. The pandemic forced people to isolate, creating widespread mental health issues. We’re lucky our community found a way to overcome it. 

To quote Jane Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

I truly hope that this can set an example for other neighbours and communities out there. Recently, a new couple moved into the complex and joined the WhatsApp text group. A flurry of welcome messages immediately flooded their phones. Now that it’s freezing cold outside, our meetings are more casual. As soon as the latest dump of snow melts away, we’ll be planning for the next big gathering.”

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