When it comes to saying the name of Canada’s largest city, only people outside Ontario and crisp-dictioned CBC announcers say “Toe-RON-toe.”
That would have been me, for much of my life, until I moved here in 2012.
TRAH-na by local pronunciation, Toronto by name, it’s Canada’s biggest urban experiment: 2.7 million people (North America’s fourth-largest city after Mexico City, New York City and Los Angeles) live in the city proper. It anchors a Greater Toronto Area that has six million residents (including Toronto); extend out to include the “Golden Horseshoe” of southern Ontario, and the region is home to more than one-quarter of all Canadians.
It consistently ranks among the best cities in the world by various measures: in 2016 it was No. 3 in “Cities of Opportunity” rankings by PricewaterhouseCoopers and one of top five “most liveable cities” ranked by the Economist.
It is also, famously, the place the rest of Canada loves to hate.
I’ve never hated Toronto, apart from the often-awful traffic snarl-ups that can more than double your travel time if you’re trying to get into (or out of) Toronto to a southern Ontario destination on the clogged highways, which is how I experienced Toronto before moving here.
I’ve always appreciated all the arts and culture on offer: opera, ballet, modern dance, theatre, museums, galleries, music.
It’s also home to a nowhere-else-in-Canada diversity of peoples from around the world. While it’s often been promoted as the world’s most multicultural city, that’s a hard thing to prove. The BBC in 2016 declared Toronto the world’s “most diverse” city, with 51 per cent of its residents foreign-born and Torontonians hailing from 230 countries. You see those faces and hear the multiplicity of languages, travelling on transit or attending public events.
There is no truly “Toronto” food, for Toronto food is all food: on the retail street nearest to where I live in Cabbagetown, a residential neighbourhood northeast of the main core and still considered “downtown”, in a three-block stretch there are locally owned restaurants with food from Sri Lanka, India, Mexico, Ethiopia, Italy, Japan (barbecue, sushi, and Izakaya), Jamaica, Korea, and Thailand.
What image flashes in your mind when you think “Toronto”? Perhaps red streetcars, powered by electricity, the crisscrossing overhead wires and street tracks adding a distinct look to the downtown’s main streets. There’s the striking but functionally awkward city hall, two tall, curved white brackets. The CN Tower, for a time the world’s tallest freestanding structure, acts as a navigational beacon: if you get turned around, you find the CN Tower poking up into the sky and know that’s south, toward Lake Ontario, on whose shores the city crowds and spreads.
“It would be a life-long effort to explore every pocket of this place, to understand its varied geography and nearly 150 officially recognized neighbourhoods,” writes Shawn Micallef in his 2016 book, Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness. “Most people living here don’t have a grasp of how big it is … there are entire populations in Toronto that exist in separate social, cultural, and economic spheres.”
That bigness is a challenge, on so many levels: how do I (or anyone) write about all this place contains, its glories, its challenges? The contrasts in Toronto can be stark: it has a vibrant downtown filled with both residents and commerce, restaurants and attractions, and also people sleeping on sidewalks and begging in doorways. Housing prices are nutty to the point where the July 2017 issue of Toronto Life, that celebrator of all things chi-chi Toronto (with occasional social-justice coverage thrown in for good measure) has a cover story on how expensive housing is causing a flood of migration to Hamilton, a nearby city within that “Golden Horseshoe”. And yet there is so much that can be accessed for free: from concerts to exhibitions to recreation opportunities, even transit for children 12 and under.
I had a friend from British Columbia on Canada’s west coast visit recently and we walked to the Historic Distillery District, a collection of renovated industrial Victorian-era buildings now housing stores, studios, galleries, theatres, and restaurants via Riverdale Farm (yes, with pigs and sheep and goats and cows), Riverdale Park West, the Lower Don Valley walking and cycling trail, and across the Canary District, rejuvenated as part of the 2015 Pan Am Games legacy.
Another day we walked north through the tony residential neighbourhood of Rosedale to connect to the “urban forest”: the 17 per cent of Toronto that are ravine lands, with the largest ravines home to the rivers running south from the Oak Ridges Moraine north of Toronto to Lake Ontario: the Humber River, the Don River, and the Rouge River. We walked through the forest on trails for a short distance, stopping at the Evergreen Brick Works, a former brick factory and quarry that’s now a community environment centre, and the Don Valley Brick Works Park, where the large pond was full of waterlilies. “I had no idea there was so much green in Toronto!” she exclaimed. “You think it’s all just concrete and tall buildings.”
The future of many of those tall buildings, concentrated between the east and west ravines, has been the subject of a huge, far-reaching planning exercise dubbed TOCore. City planners are proposing a set of policy directions to be enshrined in a Secondary Plan that will “shape the future grown of the downtown and link that growth to needed infrastructure.”
“We face a tipping point where further growth threatens to undermine the liveability that has long underpinned Downtown’s success,” the proposal warns. As a representative of the Cabbagetown Residents Association, in the past two years I’ve attended several of these consultation sessions and workshops. The challenges are, indeed, huge.
Where and how do those with mental health, addiction, or other issues live and be supported as pressure mounts to clean up low-cost, run-down housing stock? What happens when all the singletons in the army of glass condo towers, chock full of bachelor and one-bedroom suites, become families? If, as planners are predicting, the downtown population grows from today’s 250,000 to 475,000 by 2041, where will these people shop and play? What services will they need and how can the waterfront and environment be improved? How can the city ensure that the downtown district — which currently houses 40 per cent of all jobs in the city of Toronto — continues to provide enough office and business space?
Tourism Toronto recently launched a promotion video dubbing Toronto “Canada’s downtown.” It showcases what’s shiny and beautiful — from the Aga Khan Museum (opened in 2014 to showcase “the artistic, intellectual, and scientific heritage of Muslim civilizations across the centuries”) to music supernova Drake (a Toronto lad) to Pride celebrations: where “all flavours are welcome.”
Toronto is indeed all these wonderful things. But the video doesn’t show the impatient and aggressive drivers ramming their cars into cyclists and pedestrians at an increasing, and alarming, rate; nor the low-wage workers who can’t afford to live near downtown jobs so have long, crowded transit commutes; nor the crumbling state of Toronto’s subsidized, public housing with its 100,000-plus waiting list; nor the fact that while the city may indeed be among the world’s most multicultural, police and other authorities routinely and demonstrably treat people whose skin colour is other than pale beige worse than their Caucasian neighbours.
As Micallef puts it, “The headlines still tell of a city that could go either way.”
Main photo: By some nice fellow at Nathan Phillips Square at Toronto City Hall, in front of the popular Toronto sign first installed to celebrate the 2015 Pan Am Games, who offered to take our picture after we had taken his.