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Layton’s death sparks impromptu memorial at Nathan Phillips Square - Globe and Mail

August 23, 2011
Patrick White and Elizabeth Church
Globe and Mail

They came from Parkdale and Pickering, Richmond Hill and Rosedale, Markham and Mississauga.

They came with baby carriages and flowers and bicycles and tears from all over the GTA.

And here upon the heart of Toronto, they scratched messages of dust to a man who made an indelible mark on the city as a former councillor and federal MP.

Great streams of multi-coloured chalk have bloomed across Nathan Phillips Square since news of Jack Layton’s passing first set in. Starting on Monday afternoon with a red-haired woman writing one statement in capital letters and in orange chalk taken from Mr. Layton’s letter to Canadians (“Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair”), hundreds of mourners have added to the technicolour tribute. It currently measures 25 metres by 62 metres – roughly the size of a hockey rink. And it’s growing by the hour as crowds numbering 100 and more watch and commiserate before pulling powdery nubs from a bucket labelled “CHALK 4 JACK.”

Some wrote in Arabic. Some wrote Sam Cook lyrics. Some just wrote “Thanks Jack.”

Fifty-five-year-old Tina Tu, from North York, scrawled some Chinese characters on the concrete: “Rest in Peace. We Will Never Forget You.”

“I never met the man,” Ms. Tu said with her son, 20-year-old William, translating. “But I could see that he was genuine. And I could see how he helped this city’s homeless.”

She was crying now. “He is in my heart. He is in so many hearts.”

Nearby, another woman, 29-year-old Krysti Allison, stared at a text on her phone as she wrote out “We will not lose hope and we will not shut up,” a message she scrawled on her mother’s behalf. “I also did one from my boyfriend and one for myself,” she said. “I’d never voted until I saw Jack. He seemed like an actual person.”

The impromptu memorial is so unprecedented, city staff are photographing its expansion for the archives, fully aware that the next rainfall will wash everything away.

When city council meets in the fall it also will have an opportunity to consider a more lasting tribute for the man who held civic office for the better part of two decades, a city spokeswoman said.

On Friday, thousands will tread over these messages when Mr. Layton’s body comes to lie in repose at City Hall. No one in the building can remember when it has played such a formal and informal role in a memorial for a former councillor.

At around 5:30 p.m., with the chalk eulogies threatening to surround the reflecting pool, an old confidante of Mr. Layton’s happened by on his bike. He had spent the previous 36 hours making composed statements to reporters about his old friend, but couldn’t control himself at the site of Nathan Phillips Square.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Franz Hartmann, Mr. Layton’s city hall assistant for four years, “I’m in despair that he’s gone. But I’m inspired by what he’s bringing out in people. He’s had this magic effect on me for the 20 years I’ve known him. It’s clear I’m not alone.”

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