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The Community That Covid-19 Built

2020-07-17 20:56:32

The wagon on Jennifer Ois’s front porch is a symbol of the coronavirus’s silver lining. It’s red and wooden, with black rubber wheels that once fell off, when Ms. Ois was towing her first child and a frozen turkey home from a store many years ago.

These days, the wagon is crowded with homemade things like fermented turmeric soda, ginger-berry kefir water, lemongrass ice cream and fresh lettuce from the garden, all waiting to be picked up by a neighbor.

“Now it’s got a whole other purpose,” says Ms. Ois. It’s carrying kindness down her street.

Since visiting her neighborhood on Hiawatha Road a few weeks ago, I’ve returned to it many times in my mind. I find it comforting. It reminds me that despite the virus’s darkness, it has offered some illumination — a slowing of time and a return to life’s essentials. The people on this street have used that time to learn old-fashioned skills like fermentation and growing vegetables, and in the process they’ve become a community.

They’ve been lucky, too — while some on the street have lost employment to the virus, this part of the city has been relatively unscathed by Covid-19 infections and deaths.

The street is classic east-end Toronto — three long blocks of houses huddled together, as if for warmth. It was once part of a 600-acre farm owned by the Ashbridges, an English Quaker family from Pennsylvania who fled to Canada as Loyalists after the American Revolution. It remained a farm outside the city limits for more than a century, until the land was parceled and sold off — for shacks for the immigrating poor and for planned subdivisions.

Walking down the street, you can see the signs of that history in the architecture — old working-class bungalows wedged beside gentrified two-story brick homes. You can also see locals homesteading in ways that Sarah Ashbridge, the matriarch of the Quaker settlers, would likely recognize.

Ms. Ois is known locally as the “fer-mentor.” On her stove, a pot of water, grated ginger and molasses cools next to her “ginger bug” — the makings for ginger ale. Her slow cooker is warming milk for yogurt. She pulls colorful jars out of her “fermenting cupboard” — homemade vinegars, kombuchas and pickles.

For many years, she bugged her neighbors to try her hobby, but they were too busy, rushing from work to children’s hockey practices. When the country went into lockdown in March, she found a captive audience with long days to fill and anxiety to expend.

Jon Harris lives a few doors down. Both he and his wife had been deemed essential workers, so time had not stopped still for them. But he found making bread soothing. The baking section of grocery store shelves was bare, but he knew of a commercial mill and put out a call to the street. His first order was for 300 kilograms of flour and 25 pounds of yeast.

“There’s something magical happening,” said Mr. Harris, 44, an electrician.

He added, “I wonder if there is something about watching the world spin around you and thinking about your mortality. We have a little more space to grab onto the things we want to be important.”

The trading and pioneer hobbies have continued, even as the city has begun slowly to open up. Ms. Ois set up a swap page on Facebook, and offers went up from neighbors for homemade granola, freezer strawberry jam, lavender, eggs, espresso syrup, bitters for cocktails. Deborah MacDonald ventured to the red wagon to pick up champagne yeast to make raspberry mead, with Ms. Ois’s handwritten recipe. She left fresh-baked bread.

“I used to joke I didn’t know anybody on the street,” said Ms. MacDonald, a film producer who often clocked 11-hour days at the office. While there was a sense of community before, many of her neighbors barely knew each other before the virus stitched their friendships.

“We’ve all helped each other get through this crazy time,” said Ms. MacDonald. “In some respects it’s allowed us to forget a little about all the terrible.”

Ms. Ois’s husband hammered together a greenhouse in their backyard that she called “the house Covid built.” She and the del Aguila family plan to grow seedlings for their neighbors’ bursting gardens next spring.

“There’s no going back,” said Kara del Aguila, Guillermo’s wife, who considers the street her “precious lifeline.”

“We don’t order flowers for delivery anymore,” she said. “We go to our neighbors’ homes and knock on the front door and give them something we made.”


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