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This month's edition of Conde Nast Traveller has an article about Toronto. Good read. Brace yourself though - it's a long one.



Toronto (Who Knew?)
April 2005 by Clive Irving

Not nearly enough people, apparently. So now the city on the lake is building striking new cultural venues and, says Clive Irving, learning how to boost its many other assets

"Tronno, eh?" The young Chinese-Canadian serving me Algerian Coffee in an Italian bar, using the colloquial compression of the name of his hometown, spoke with a note of naked surprise. He had asked me why I was visiting. I had told him that I wanted to see how the city had changed in the twenty or so years since I'd been a resident—and to write about it. As proud as he obviously was to have grown up in Toronto, he still found it a stretch to believe that the city was worthy of being profiled in this magazine. "Tronno, eh?" he repeated. "The coffee is hot, be careful."

Modesty becomes Toronto; without any hype, it has evolved into an exceptional place for those who live in it—safe, clean, courteous, and, in total, nice. The problem: Modesty doesn't sell. Last year, those whose job it is to promote the city as a magnet for travelers spent $400,000 to find out how Toronto is perceived in the world at large. In short, it isn't. Researchers found that "Toronto is uncharted territory throughout much of the world—people may recognize the name, but they do not know much about it. Toronto has a low level of international awareness."

What I found fly below the global radar is a very large city—trying hard to temper its size by encouraging a rich patchwork of diverse neighborhoods, some based on ethnicities that reflect the large immigrant population and some on cultural and vocational concentrations, such as the entertainment and financial districts. This is not a preservation exercise in social terms, since the ethnic neighborhoods don't have a long history, but it is one in architectural terms, because the older parts of Toronto include large swaths of Victorian and Edwardian buildings of the sort that many other cities have carelessly destroyed—a lot of very fine redbrick town houses, row houses, churches, warehouses, small factories and shops.

Canada's least Canadian prime minister, the raffish Pierre Trudeau, once said that he wanted the country to be more than just a collection of shopping malls, at a time when it seemed that this laterally extended nation, with most if its population centers just north of the U.S. border, might end up being exactly that, an entirely consumerized limbo. Toronto does have its share of malls, but I bet that Trudeau, who died in 2000, would have been happy with Toronto's success in creating a cellular city rather than a monolithic one.

As I walked around the neighborhoods at the height of the summer, the atmosphere was invigorating. I remembered living near a particularly lively intersection of the West Indian and Chinese populations at Spadina Avenue, a wide north–south axis that extended from neat bourgeois villas at its upper reaches to the garment district a mile or so down. The West Indian streets included the odd Jewish deli and discount tailor, as they still do, but this area west of Spadina, called Kensington Market, now embraces Islamic and Latino pockets as well. The food markets are equally multicultural today, selling everything from deep-fried plantains to kebabs, with the steady throb of reggae from Jamaican bars as background. The markets in Chinatown, on the other hand, immediately east of Spadina, remain examples of undiluted industrial-strength Chinese—not so much a case of soup to nuts as of strange early sea forms to herbal Viagra.

A few blocks south lies the hart of downtown as well as the theater and financial districts. But the nearer you get to Lake Ontario, the plainer it is that the whole coherence of the city suddenly falters: Just short of the lakeside rises an arbitrary barrier, the elevated and frequently coagulated Gardiner Expressway. This eyesore runs parallel to the waterfront and, beyond its own impact, seems to have served as an architectural datum for a wall of corporate towers and residential high-rises, as well as the bulbous, eight-acre SkyDome stadium, the home of the Blue Jays, which includes a hotel with 348 rooms, all overlooking the playing field.

In fact, Toronto's topography is strikingly similar to Barcelona's: The terrain cants from an escarpment down to the water and is built between long snaking ravines that have morphed into parks and green space. Okay, this is Lake Ontario, not the Mediterranean. Over the horizon from Barcelona lies Mallorca. Over the horizon from Toronto lies...Buffalo. But if the city were to truly exploit the amphitheater effect—that is, to arrange its sight lines to end in the waterscape—it could be one of the most spectacular places in North America.

This town has yet another thing in common with Barcelona, whose many great buildings have a planned symbiosis with the intense Catalonian light: In Toronto, great ridges of high pressure that float down from the Arctic give the sky a clarity and sharpness of blue that polarizes brilliance and shadow. The lake picks up the brightness of the sky and boosts the light as though extra voltage had been assigned for urban spectacle. Only with several waves of immigrants from places of a more sunny disposition—notably the Mediterranean and Asia—has the city begun to tap its heliotropic energy, setting tables outside the leafy, sun-sparkling avenues and inaugurating the many street festivals where you can eat, drink, dance and be merry for hours on end.

Despite this natural asset, Toronto has struggled to bring life to its waterfront. Recently, millions of dollars were spent adding a boardwalk to a cultural and entertainment complex, and the result has drawn many more people to bars and restaurants where the view is refreshingly maritime. Reaching the boardwalk, however, is another matter. Because of the expressway and its many ramps and feeder roads, venturing there on foot from downtown is a daunting and even hazardous experience. Going to an open-air chamber music concert in a garden near the water one evening, I was confronted by a ramp where a sign warned to pedestrians to "wait for a gap" in the speeding traffic before daring to cross.

Having survived this gauntlet, I resolved there and then that the flaws of downtown and its isolated waterfront should be one of the issues I took up with Toronto's mayor when I met him at City Hall a few days later.

The cold, Scandinavian severity of City Hall—two semicircular towers grasping between them a saucerlike council chamber—was very much of its time, the 1960s, and of its architect, the Finn Viljo Revell. It superseded the wonderful, broody late-nineteenth century Gothic City Hall next door, which, impeccably restored, now serves as a courthouse. The two buildings neatly expose, in architectural shorthand, the generational rebellion at the heart of the city's soul: the dour Presbyterian paternalism of the Victorians who built and enriched Toronto, and the wishfulness of utopian immigrants who, in the 1960s, began shaping a new multiethnic metropolis from what had been an eighty percent Anglo-Saxon enterprise.

As with so many municipal edifices of the 1960s, the new City Hall looked, upon close inspection, a tad too Brutalist, its concrete surfaces not weathering well. Revell was a hard man to mess with, though: When I was shown into the mayor's office (sans mayor), one of his staff explained that the desk—nouveau Scandinavian—was anchored to the building's structure, the architect apparently having feared that new brooms would sweep clean.

There was, indeed, a new broom stuck on the wall behind the desk like a totem of change, the same broom that David Miller had waved when he took over as mayor in late 2003. Earlier that year, the city had been hit by the largest outbreak of SARS in North America; 38 people had died out of 225 identified cases. All but three of them were traced to a visitor from Hong Kong. Most of the transmission of SARS in Toronto took place in and between hospitals, either patient to patient or via households linked to patients. The health authorities had failed to nip the outbreak in the bud, and the city's grasp of the crisis was not aided when the then mayor told CNN that he had never heard of the World Health Organization. An ensuing WHO travel advisory virtually shut down Toronto's tourism industry, and the cost to the local economy was put at about $20 million per day.

What had delayed the mayor for our meeting was an ice-cream vendor. Or, more precisely, Miller's penchant for a stubby, capacious cone—vanilla with a drippy chocolate coating, from which, during our chat, there was a certain amount of spillage.

Miller, a chunky, quarterback-sized man with a good thatch of fair hair, is a lawyer (via Harvard and the University of Toronto) with an American father, an English mother, and an Irish grandmother. The family, he told me, landed in Montreal on a boat in 1967, a time of much migration from Europe. His wife is Venezuelan, although born in Trinidad. He was clearly proud that his own pedigree and marriage had produced a family with the same intermingled energy as the city he runs. (There are people from more than a hundred ethnic groups in Toronto, giving the city its cacophony of tongues.)

One of the marks that Miller would like to leave on this city is to fix the shoreline. "Toronto is a great waterfront city, and we must make sure downtown reflects that greatness," he said. When I related my hair-raising pedestrian crossing, he replied sharply, with a look at his aide that implied a kind of Churchillian command, "That is not acceptable." Explaining his plan, he added, "We will be looking at whether the expressway can be removed."

That's a laudable ambition, but an infrastructure challenge that Miller would need big money from the province and the state to meet. His regime is far more likely to be able to bask in the glow of a cultural renaissance that was already under way when Miller arrived in City Hall, one centered on three projects which will certainly add luster to the city's standing: a dramatic revamping of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) by Daniel Libeskind, a Frank Gehry makeover of the city's major art gallery, and a new opera house and center for the performing arts. Of the three, it is the museum that best describes how Toronto is carving its vibrant (one of Miller's favorite words) new identity.

ROM was a child of the period when the great European museums were stuffing themselves with archaeological plunder from Egypt, Greece, Asia Minor, and all points east. The building, opened in 1914, had the aura of a cultural cathedral. Its grand halls displayed what were, in effect, the field notes for a classical education at the University of Toronto, which then ran the museum. It also helped to put on the map a distant dominion of the British Empire as something more elevated than a place discovered by fur trappers. In the 1970s, obeying another fashion in presentation, the grand halls were broken down into clusters of little black boxes to create audiovisual theaters in which artifacts were rearranged as historical narrative. Thus introverted and architecturally vandalized, ROM languished for more than two decades.

In the meantime, something poetic happened: Immigrants from many parts of the world that had been scoured and pillaged by those Victorian archaeologists had settled in Toronto, and some had become rich enough to serve as museum benefactors. "Instead of being the cultures of strange and foreign lands, they are now the cultures of the people down the street," ROM's director, William Thorsell, told me.

Libeskind has made sure that the future will be as far from the little black boxes as you can get. The original museum was built on a classic H plan, two long halls joined by a lateral corridor. Where a more sober architect might have felt obliged to at least retain a few links with the old building, Libeskind has broken completely from its idiom. Into the cavity between the northern wings he is inserting six new galleries in a way which suggests that the new century's most advanced architectural ideas have crash-landed atop the old century's most formalized public architecture. These Michael Lee-Chin Crystal Galleries (named for a major benefactor) are unruly by design: Acutely angled planes of glass and extruded aluminum zoom out of the confinement of the old site plan, one new gallery settling like a possessive limb over the roof of an original wing, the others soaring to diamond-sharp peaks. From the street there will be clear views of each tier of the new galleries, purposely breaking the old sense of a barrier between the people and their museum. In one headlong millennial leap, curator and architect have moved museum psychology from enclosure to exposure.

And one culture ushered into clear light for the first time will be that of the people whose land this first was. Toronto is the Huron tribal word for "meeting place." When Thorsell arrived as ROM's director, the only native artifacts on display—apart from a couple of totem poles in the old entrance hall—were in a small section of the basement that he recalls as "lugubrious." Before the Crystal itself opens, a new ten-thousand-square-foot exhibition entitled "Gallery of Canada: First Peoples" will emerge in a renovated wing of the old building. Thorsell was keen to stress that in addition to deep coverage of tribal art and anthropology, there would be contemporary art: "These are not dead cultures."

Libeskind's bravura display of the new museum mantra of transparency is picked up again in Frank Gehry's transformation of the Art Gallery of Ontario, on a charmless block of Dundas Street at the edge of Chinatown. The current building, an agglomeration of parts amassed since 1911, has nothing like the imperial self-confidence of the original ROM; the north frontage looks like a bad copy of a Bauhaus factory, and the inside feels claustrophobic. Gehry's response to the challenge, given the constraint that the building's core has to remain, is to cover its north face with what looks like the world's largest solar panel, a tilting, warped frame combining huge areas of clear glass with sheets of metal cladding. Gehry grew up in Toronto. He seems therefore to have intuitively understood the force of the city's light and how to collude with it for architectural power.

Thorsell had confirmed my impression that no construction of any architectural significance had taken place in twenty years. Nonetheless, the metropolis had changed organically, in ways that didn't need new buildings—not trophy corporate headquarters, not shopping malls, and not rampant demolition. Communities had flowered into neighborhoods content to live within the scale already determined by the Victorian builders and those who followed their disciplines. The so-called Corso Italia, for example, which I remembered in its infancy as a few blocks of the best Italian food in the city, had spread west along many more lengths of my old street, St. Clair Avenue. An elegant extended family from Milan (notable for the buttery suede they all wore, whatever the weather) had lived in my building, and they introduced their own Lombardy cuisine with a restaurant as stylish as they were; there are now at least a dozen equally good places on the Corso, as well as Tuscan cafés and trattorias that would do credit to Florence or Siena.

"Every wave of immigrants has changed the city in its own way," says Mayor Miller. "Toronto's success is neighborhood-based. The face of the streets is the face of the world." And then, alluding to the old ruling caste with the humor of a very different time, he added, "At one point, diversity was the Irish."

Of course, lurking behind the regeneration of any urban neighborhood is the risk of gentrification, which can, as one class displaces another, drain energy. One of the earliest examples of neighborhood transformation in Toronto didn't follow that pattern, however. Yorkville was the first village incorporated into the city, back in 1883. In the 1960s, its staid bourgeois streets became a café-based bohemia where Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Neil Young performed. Then, in the late 1970s, Isadore Sharp, who had started modestly in Toronto's hotel business in 1961, chose Yorkville as the site for his first Four Seasons property, the much-emulated luxury brand that has since spread to twenty-eight countries.

The hotel, with its well-heeled and picky clients, became the catalyst for a new Yorkville: twenty-seven blocks of conspicuous affluence and style that have somehow managed to retain enough of the old bohemia (including a favorite of mine, a saucily named haberdasher, the Brick Shirt House) to seem Canadian rather than a barren copy of Rodeo Drive or Worth Avenue.

If Sharp's hotel vision became, with the emergence of an über-Yorkville, a piece of unpremeditated civic work, there is nothing unpremeditated about his latest gift to Toronto: His company has donated sixteen million dollars toward a new opera house and arts complex, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The design, by Jack Diamond, is more conservative than the work of Libeskind and Gehry, but the location is superb, in the heart of downtown. Announcing his contribution, Sharp said, "The building will rank with the Paris Opera and La Scala in Milan." That kind of boosterism—which is still, I suspect, less than instinctive to the Canadian nature—is in tune with Toronto's final realization that if it is really to overcome its global invisibility, it has to have high-profile cultural destinations.

Until now, the city's buzziest cultural asset has been its film festival, widely acknowledged as the most important in North America and, each September, the most watched indicator for Oscar nominations. Nonetheless, it has retained a local charm, as the New York Times critic A. O. Scott wrote last year: "Important as this festival is, it also has the distinction of being one of the least self-important…, offering a cinematic menu as diverse, democratic, and unpretentious as that metropolis itself."

Toronto has also been an astonishing incubator of wit. A roster of marquee names in comedy got their break at its Second City theater, including Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Mike Myers. There must be something in the air—or the water. Whatever it is, Toronto should bottle it.

Before I departed from City Hall, Mayor Miller having finally polished off his chocolate-coated ice cream, we leafed through a bound set of large paintings done by young kids in Toronto's notably successful and racially integrated public schools. Most of them were loving characterizations of neighborhood streets, the colorful row houses interspersed with the places where people congregate—a market, a newsstand, a café—describing a tapestry of daily life on a village scale that reminded me of the more benign kind of medieval tableaux. One, however, departed from the canon: It featured a streak of brilliant blue, with the sun above as happy as a yellow smile button. The caption read, "I like the ocean." From the eyes of the innocent…A lake can be an ocean, and a city can be blessed by many things, not the least a lake and radiant skies.

Outside again, in the square, I spotted the ice-cream vendor. There is little, if anything, containing chocolate that I am able to avoid. Watching the mayor consume his cone had been a form of torture hard to endure and even harder to conceal. Now it was my turn to experience that sublime, progressive meltdown of the brittle chocolate robing into the rich, creamy vanilla heart. There was, I confess, a bit of spillage in the square on that warm August afternoon.

Tronno, eh? You bet.
 

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Great article. I think many people who get a bad impression of Toronto when they visit do not take the time to understand that the city is one of the best cities in the world because of its rich neighbourhoods....and you just can't experience all of it in a handful of days.
 

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^ Especially when so many people limit their experiences to the CN Tower and Eaton Centre.

Toronto's 're-branding' will be launched in May. It will focus on TO's neighborhoods and urbanity as opposed to the typical Ontario Place/Skydome crap. I look forward to seeing the campaign.
 

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Now I'm home-sick, thanks a lot. =P. J/k. It's cool how when there's an article that truely disects your hometown, you are surprised what you learn about your own city sometimes. Even with the things that I know and love, the history about them is foggy to me. I should be ashamed of myself. :|
 

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I don't entirely agree with parts of the article, but it's well written.

How the **** is Pierre Trudeau the least Canadian Prime Minister?? What a bizzare thing to say.
 

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The article hints on what I have suspected. On a total international level, I still believe Montreal is more well known internationally, left over from its heyday, which is only starting to change. 'People know the name', which is definately expected due to the amount of immigrants coming. Even though I don't like the IOC, I reckon the Summer Games could give the exposure that it gave Sydney on a world scene, outside of Finance. But quite frankly, I prefer Toronto now how it is being a major N.A. city, future change could be good and bad. I hate to mention the GaWC again, but this article, though maybe not scientific, does lend support to Toronto's short comings, with its strengths only being economy/diversity. But its improving, I bet 20 years ago, not too many people have never heard of Toronto, which is a big sign of progress.
 

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Torontonian's and Canadians alike are way to modest about Canadian cities especially Toronto..Americans on the other hand, its like they go out of there way to be the exact opposite and show American cities in every movie...even when its filmed in a Canadian city they pretend its an American city, its like they are obsessed with showing off there cities to the world......which despite it seeming arrogant and sometimes in your face..it pays off throught the recognition they get, so in a way its actually a good thing..Canadians should be more like that but not as much so its as "in your face" wow im losing myself here..lol
 

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"I hope Tronno in reality is as good as its hype."


But doesn't Toronto have the rep as a shithole in Vancouver? I think all the hype, and the resulting backlash is all created in the minds of westerners.





KGB
 

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The young Chinese-Canadian serving me Algerian Coffee in an Italian bar

Oh my god.. the diversity!

"Then we walked along the street and ran into a Mongolian-Venezuelan-Canadian who works in a Namibian restaurant in a Malaysian neighbourhood that sells Tajikistani food exclusively to expatriate Singaporeans with precisely one Romanian parent, and he said 'Eh?'".
 

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Yea...I find that article no different than many other I have read...same cliched lines, that really don't describe the Toronto I know at all....at least not the interesting things I would talk about if I were to take the time to say something interesting.

I think there is one article that has been floating around the desks of international travel magazines for about 15 years now...and when somebody says it's time to write something about Toronto, everybody just changes a few words and prints it.





KGB
 

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"Tronno, eh?" The young Chinese-Canadian serving me Algerian Coffee in an Italian bar, using the colloquial compression of the name of his hometown, spoke with a note of naked surprise."

LOL! I love it.
 

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Haligonian said:
The young Chinese-Canadian serving me Algerian Coffee in an Italian bar

Oh my god.. the diversity!

"Then we walked along the street and ran into a Mongolian-Venezuelan-Canadian who works in a Namibian restaurant in a Malaysian neighbourhood that sells Tajikistani food exclusively to expatriate Singaporeans with precisely one Romanian parent, and he said 'Eh?'".
LOL

good one
 

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How the **** is Pierre Trudeau the least Canadian Prime Minister?? What a bizzare thing to say.

He's the least Canadian because Canadians actually liked him, and generally continue to do so years after he left office. Over the last few decades that has been rather rare.

Martin (dolt, AKA the big Liberal mistake)
Cretien (Sponsorship scandal)
Cambell (do nothing put into place to set a record -- first women and first native British Columbian prime minister)
Mulroney (problems with air-travel)
Turner (who?)
Trudeau ("Woo", say my parents and grandparents)
Clark (bwahahaha)
Pearson (Got an airport, must have been notable in some ways)
Diefenbaker (AKA the guy who cut the Avro Arrow funding)

... and I don't know anything about anyone prior to that.
 

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Trudeau was different, because he's the only "cool" leader we've ever had. In fact, they are pretty rare anywhere in the world.





KGB
 
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