TORONTO – Nicholas Dimitrakos is proud of the home that he’s made for his family, and he should be. With a few modifications, he’s managed to salvage an entire floor of what was once a posh downtown Toronto condo. The catch? It’s on the 38th floor, and while the building does have a generator, most of the residents consider fuel too valuable a commodity to keep it on more than a few hours a day – and even then only for the water. No elevators.
It’s necessary,” Dimitrakos says, as we climb our way to the top. “And we knew what we were getting into when we moved here.” Somewhere around the 20th floor I began to wonder if this was something that I spent enough time considering before this story.
“But how could we turn it down? We have a view of the city in every direction. And say what you will about the state of things around here, but it’s still beautiful. And besides, no one else wants to live here. They’d be crazy to take it from us.” Bent over at the top of the stairs and panting, I decided that he’s right. A forty minute — for me, anyway — climb uphill is not something that I want to have to consider at the end of each day. But Dimitrakos is in great shape, and his calf muscles, which seems as if they might explode at any moment from underneath his skin, are gargantuan. He jokes with me as I pant, holding my knees in my hands and highlighting my difficulties occasionally with a cough.
“You want a glass of water? A pillow, maybe, so you can take a quick nap?” I smirk half-heartedly, my brain too overheated to think of a clever retort. He’s right, anyway. He’s in great shape and I am not. How often does he make the climb, I ask.
“No more than twice per day — if that. Well, sometimes more, but only if the water isn’t working and we have to go down to get some. Emergencies, of course we would have to go down. You can imagine what a challenge that is. But my wife and I are both trained in first aid, and we keep more than the usual stock of supplies in the closet. When our kids are old enough, we’re going to train them too.”
Dimitrakos has three children, all between the ages of four and ten. He says that most of the time both he and his wife are with them, but the kids are never alone. If both parents have to leave, whatever the reason, the kids come with them.
“I don’t trust them with the neighbours,” he says. “Before, maybe. But the world is a different place, and without elevators, it is too dangerous.”
What did his wife do when she was pregnant?
“The only one that was born here was the youngest, Cristina. We couldn’t stay here, are you kidding? Too risky. So we locked up and lived with her sister for a while. Luckily it was winter and we didn’t have many crops to tend.”
Wait, I ask — crops?
Dimitrakos smiles. “Sure,” he says. “We grow all kinds of things here. We try to be self-sufficient. Here, let me show you.”
He leads me into one of the five suites that he has reserved for cultivation. That’s about half the floor. Each room has an additional entrance in its main hallway, cutting the hallway off from the outside-facing rooms. The extra entrance is padded with alternating scraps of pink insulation.
“I built this,” he says. The pride resonates sharply in his voice.
But what is it for?
“You’ll see,” he says.
We open the tightly sealed door set in the middle of the insulation and immediately feel a cool blast of wind. What I see next makes my stomach turn flips, and I find myself pressing back against the door when I’m on the other side. There are no walls. They’ve all been knocked out. A wooden railing about three feet high and a metal screen above that is that all that stands between us and oblivion, though maybe that’s not the exact term I should use. I’m sure there would be something left when you hit the ground.
Dimitrakos smiles, something that I remember finding very annoying. “It takes some getting used to. You should have been there when I was building it. Tough job. And I had to be careful not to spill anything, because at this height…” He whistles, pulling his hand high out of the air into his palm. I nod.
“Of course, I installed nets, and that caught most of the extra. But if I had knocked a whole wall into them, the strain would’ve been too great and the whole thing would’ve fallen down. Still, what a view, eh?”
I can’t deny that. As vertigo-inducing as it is, it is quite inspiring. In fact it is so impressive that it is only now that I realise the reason that he brought me here — the crops. In planters about a foot high, crafted with some of the debris from the walls, little green sprouts push their way to the sun. It’s quite striking, actually, a marked contrast from the heavy concrete that predominates in this side’s view of the city.
“We grow all kinds of things here. This is potatoes and cabbage. But we have beans, carrots, onions, tomatoes, and other things too. The railing is to protect the plants from the wind. They don’t do too well without it.”
So why expose them to it in the first place? Doesn’t sunlight travel through windows?
“They weren’t big enough, not for the amount that we wanted to grow. We need to make a few more. We still have a few more suites to convert. And this way has the added benefit that if it rains, we can catch some of it. Water is a scarce commodity.”
That explains the tarp on the floor, another detail I was slow in noticing.
“This is really amazing,” I say, meaning it.
“Sure. Do you want to see the other rooms?”
I expect to see more plants, but he doesn’t take me there. It’s all the same, he says. Instead he leads me into the family’s rooms, two adjoining suites which he has turned into one.
“We took the biggest,” he says, “we have a big family. It’s going to get crowded when the kids grow up.” Speaking of the kids, they’re nowhere to be seen. “Out with their mother,” he explains.
The rooms are pretty much what you’d expect — even before the collapse. The kids sleep in single beds arranged in the same room, Dimitrakos and his wife have a king bed in the next room. There’s a living room also, with bookshelves, couches, and a hand-crank radio, but he explains that this is probably only temporary.
“We might move this to where the elevators are when the kids get older, give them an extra room to sleep. Now they’re young so it’s good for them to be together.”
They have a dining room and a composting toilet, of course, though they don’t share the same space. Most of the furniture is so diverse and in such good shape that you expect that it was there when they moved in. One major change they made was the removal of the extra kitchen from combining two suites. Refrigerators are a liability, so they’ve converted them into shelves for storing vegetables and preserves. The dishwashers are gone, but there is a stove in the kitchen, though it’s not the original one. Theirs is made out of brick and has a chimney leading up to where the fan vent would’ve been.
“It works quite well. It’s very rarely smoky. I wish that it could have been cast iron, it loses heat less quickly, but the bricks were hard enough to bring in as it is. In the winter we board up all the windows and keep the fire in the oven going all the time. Sometimes we sleep here, right in front of it. It gets cold, this high up. We wear a lot of sweaters and wrap ourselves in blankets. But it’s worth it. Before the collapse we lived in a basement apartment, sharing the rooms with my wife’s sister. There was no space for a garden, and we always had to go out for food. Here, we have almost everything.”