Taking a City’s Pulse

By Jason Menard

Noted poet El DeBarge, before he plunged into the particular circle of Hell reserved for 80’s pop Jackson-wannabes, implored us all to feel the beat of the rhythm of the night. But how do you feel the beat when the city you live in has no pulse.

Recently I had the pleasure of spending two days in Toronto on a conference. Now, Hog Town’s not my favourite city in the world, but being in the heart of downtown for two days reminded me what a real city is like – and what I’m missing where I currently live.

No, I was not dancing ‘til the morning light – in fact, my dancing machine’s in bad need of an overhaul. But I did take the opportunity to walk – a hell of a long way, if you ask my feet. It was a practise that I used to engage in quite frequently living and working in Montreal.

There is a pulse to the city and you can tell the tourists not by the gaudy clothes or the slack-jawed, gaping stares as they look heavenwards at the steel and glass monstrosities that rise up before them. You can tell who they are by the fact that they don’t engage in the dance of the street. They’re unable to walk any distance without bumping into people, the become confused and double-back on their steps, and they generally get in the way of those who feel the rhythms of the city in their bones and march along in time.

Unfortunately, absence doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder, it makes one forget the notes that sing so sweetly for city dwellers.

Once I was able to walk the busy downtown streets of Montreal, along with thousands of dance partners as we emerged from our underground transportation blinking into the light of day. Huddling our jackets about us in winter or trying to catch our breath stolen by the oppressive humidity of summer, we would steel ourselves for the march and move in time – one harmonious, intertwined mass that would only break apart as we would reach our destination.

In fact, many of us, myself include, would do this while keeping our noses buried in a book or newspaper. The morning and evening commute danced along the city streets, through the cacophony of horns as we regarded streets signs as a suggestion.

Yes, this time I noticed I was one of “them.” I was one of those unfortunate few who appeared to be dancing with two left feet. The notes, although familiar, weren’t coming back to me as quickly as they once did. And the reason is because where I live now just doesn’t play the same tune.

Oh, sure, there’s a rhythm to London, Ontario – unfortunately when it comes to the downtown it sounds more like Taps. And where I work it could be the theme to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. My day job is in an industrial park area, near a residential section, but certainly not conducive to an engaging walk. It’s an area where one doesn’t walk for pleasure – it’s an area where you have to force yourself to walk. But, more often than not, we all pile into our cars, shut out the great outdoors, and drive to whatever destination and errand awaits us.

And that’s one of the biggest thing big-city dwellers miss about big cities. It’s not the events, it’s not the size or diversity – it’s not all that external stuff. What’s most missed by those that leave is something more organic – something internal. It’s not the style, it’s not the flash that you miss, it’s the heartbeat of the city. It’s that factor that you can’t fake, that you can’t just feel in a one-week visit, but rather that slow and steady pulse that’s made up of all those who are a part of it.

I’ve felt it in Montreal, Toronto, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. These are not cities built upon foundations of steel and glass, but rather they’re nexus points where millions of souls converge to engage in a dynamic dance of life.

For those two days, even though I can’t consider myself a fan of Toronto itself, I have to admit that it was nice to feel the rhythms and remember how I was once able to dance those steps. Perhaps it will happen again, but at the very least I know that when I’m back in a city with a true pulse, I’ll be able to feel it, slowly, reassuringly. And in large cities where people often feel alone despite being surrounded by millions of people, that pulse, that heartbeat is what makes us feel a part of something bigger.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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