By Minh Truong
At first glance, it was just an ordinary old lady pushing her shopping cart crossing the street. Diane Walton quickly raised her Canon T5, and smoothly slid the zoom dial on her lens. She slowly took aim at the lady, as the beeps of the walking signal filled the quiet corner of Jones and Queen East. “Click,” the shutter blended itself with the ringing of Dre’s collar as she shook off the silence at the three-way junction. “When I started taking photos five years ago, that lady was walking across right at this spot, in that exact jacket,” said Walton. “Isn’t it exciting?”
What had started off as a way to deal with her old dog Sunshine’s dislike of parks became two special photo projects that brought the people of Leslieville together. In the winter of 2015, Diane Walton started her 365-day photo challenge A Day in the Life of Leslieville, followed by a take on Humans of New York – Leslieville Lives – in the following two years. Now with her new dog Dre, Walton still takes photos and meets people on the street, but life isn’t the same.
A Day in the Life of Leslieville introduced her to people from the community that she had never met before. “And I have been living here for ten years,” Walton cheerfully said. When that project was over, Walton’s new journey Leslieville Lives: Stories from the ‘Ville not only introduced her to new people, but found quite a following as well. Some came to her the next day, excitedly talking about how they were approached on the streets by the people in the community after their stories were posted.
A real estate agent by day, both projects transformed Walton into a storyteller by night. When she bought her house in 2003, she had “no idea what Leslieville was.” Located near Greenwood and Queen, Walton’s house is not a giant manor or townhouse. With muddy vines hanging on the brown wooden fence, the little home resembles a vintage doll house. It looks as if the house has grown itself some hands to crawl closer to the street, unlike its neighbours that are laid far away from the sidewalk. Like an upside down ice cream cone, the vanilla wooden walls mix well together with light brown roofs, with a white cream twist at the entrance.
The ground rumbled at the door as if a giant was approaching me from inside the little house when I first paid Walton a visit on one of the last snowy days of winter. Dre, a large Goldendoodle, sprung onto me when I tried to take off my boots. Her tail wiggled onto the tight walls of the hallway as if an artist was giving a painting the final touch through little dabs. Dre’s mouth was wide open. Her excited panting was interrupted by Walton’s chuckle. She patted Dre and slightly pushed her back to make room. The fluffy yellow fur ball bounced back and forth along the tiny hallway, back to Walton, then back to us. “Let them in,” cried Walton as Dre started rubbing herself between my legs.
Walton had inherited Dre from her friends after she already had Sunshine. “What I ended up doing was adopting these older dogs,” Walton explained. She had spotted Sunshine at Toronto Humane Society. The big white Great Pyrenees had been in there for several months. “She was kind of sick when I first got her,” she said, “so they wouldn’t let me adopt her, I had to foster her.” Sunshine came from an unknown background and was in an unhealthy condition. She had a “liver failure disorder,” according to Walton. She was supposed to live for six months to two years.
Adopting Sunshine changed Walton’s life, but not in the way she had thought when she first took the ailing dog into her home.
Sunshine didn’t like dog parks at all. “She was old and she didn’t want to play with the dogs,” said Walton. “We walked all around the neighbourhood most days and while she was sniffing and getting patted by people on the street, there was really nothing for me to do,” Walton told me as she tried to maneuver Dre as the dog ran back and forth on the sidewalks, “which is why I decided to bring my camera with me. If she doesn’t want to go the dog parks, we would just walk around the streets and I’ll just take pictures for myself.”
She bought a camera at a computer store near Gerrard Square for quite a bargain. One of her first photos was a man and his son sitting with their dog. She snapped the moment and uploaded it to the local Facebook page I am a Leslievillian. “Day one: a day in the life of Leslieville,” says the caption. It was just for fun at first. She thought it might only last for a week.
“I did it for 365 days,” she said, “and everyone started to recognize Sunshine and me on the streets.”
It’s not like that anymore. Sunshine lived for three more years, passing in May 2017. Walton, sitting on the couch, lowered her voice and paused for a bit at the memory , while Dre, her new dog, gently tapped her paws on my feet. If Sunshine had enjoyed the dog parks, the photo projects wouldn’t have even existed.
On a later sunny day of early spring, we headed out on the streets of Leslieville for a photo walk. Dre, like a giant compass needle, tilted left and right, dragging Walton along the trail of Queen Street East. Suddenly, she halted and sniffed another dog walking by. The lady walking the pooch cried out Walton and Dre’s names as she recognized the two. They shared a warm embrace, while Dre leaned her head onto the other dog.
When Sunshine had gone out for walks, she had to be on a leash the whole time and she was much slower. Sometimes Walton even had to direct her where to go, unlike Dre the “navigator”, who controls the direction most of the time. Nowadays, with Dre walking and running around, Walton doesn’t bring the camera that often. The photos she takes now are for her personal blog A Day in My Life and Beyond Leslieville.
Furthermore, with her real estate job being busier than ever, Walton has taken a break from working on a more public photo project. But, she is bringing her “stories of the ‘Ville” into print.
A local decor shop Home James is now selling posters and photobooks of the project A Day in The Life. On the walk with Dre, Walton bumped into James Lane in front of his shop, and they talked which poster had been sold, and which could be reprinted. “Ask her something personal,” Lane chuckling, urged me. “She never tells me how old she is.”
“Don’t ask me about it,” Walton laughed. It seems that she would rather tell stories in pictures.
Some of the subjects in Walton’s photos have come to mean a lot to her. A small, personal project she is working on now – a printed version of Leslieville Lives – is mostly for the very first: Don McManus. “If I hadn’t talked to Don, I would never have known about his life and continued the project.” Walton explained at her home.
McManus has resided in Leslieville over 30 years, and the “youthful octogenarian” lived his life as a TV commercial actor. “Don has been really sick lately,” said Walton. “I want him to read it before he passes.”