This was my essay for the 40th anniversary issue of Toronto Life magazine.
The well-dressed Japanese girl seemed to have been pasted to the sidewalk at the corner of Carleton and Sherbourne, pursed over a guidebook with a look of determined bewilderment. Out of equal parts civic duty and carnal fascination, my roommate Phil and I stopped. When she told us, in her terrible English, that she couldn’t find an appropriate hostel or cheap hotel, that she was on a sort of atypically Japanese mission to find the authentic reality behind this mythic city, we were moved by her courage, and promptly invited her to stay at our disorderly student apartment for a week.
“No CN Tower, please. No Eaton Centre,” she told us, apologetically, over a beer in our kitchen. “I want to see what is really Toronto—what makes you dream about Toronto.” She had read the guides and strolled around, but found it all strangely sterile, impenetrable. “I want to go home and tell people about a new place I have discovered,” she said. “Show me what is the special thing about Toronto.”
It was the 1980s, a time when Toronto had become the sort of place that a well-read Japanese traveller might have heard about, as a potentially interesting second-string Canadian destination for those who had exhausted the delights of Prince Edward Island. This was in large part because Toronto, in a premature blush of self-importance, had begun to promote itself that way. We were all infected. That boosterish tagline, “world-class city,” never made much lexical or logical sense but nevertheless seemed briefly to contain some ineffable truth, and the equally improbable and equally well-worn description, uttered by Peter Ustinov in a 1985 conversation with Cinema Canada magazine, “New York run by the Swiss,” had not yet revealed itself, after the embarrassing morass of the Mel Lastman years, to be misleading on both counts.
So, in our summer-break lassitude, a project: To make Toronto’s recently swollen soul visible and evident to a well-travelled foreigner. We wanted to bring this exotic guest somewhere, to some suitably grandiose and central and historic location, gesture grandly, and say “Now this is Toronto.” Where was that place?
My failure, over the next few days, to find that distilled essence of Toronto would forever transform my view of the city. Toronto, so often compared to New York and Chicago, actually has more in common with Los Angeles or Shenzhen or Bombay—cities that did almost all of their important development in the age of the telephone and the automobile, that built their centres and their suburbs at the same time, with equal primacy to both. These cities have to be examined a different way, a way I learned to appreciate when I lived in L.A., another immigrant-driven city whose centre is somewhat beside the point.
Unlike cities that boomed before the 1870s, in the age of monumental urban cores, Toronto is not a city of significant points, of centre and periphery, but a newer kind of city, a more interesting and difficult sort of place that has no distinct core, no symbolic heart, only an evolving and colliding set of human trajectories—populations moving across a geographic space, leaving buildings and communities and cultural ways of life in their path.
Let’s try to imagine a map of Toronto drawn this way. My own youth followed one significant path, what I call the Queensway Trajectory, from Hamilton to Burlington to Toronto, along the route of the Queen Elizabeth Way, which built in 1939 to give Halton and Peel and Hamilton and Niagara regions easier access to Toronto — unlike its U.S. and European counterparts, which were built much later in the opposite direction, to extend the urban centre’s power into the suburbs. This route, and its east-end counterpart along Highway 2 and later the 401, carried countless people from the suburbs, almost all of them children of immigrants from the countryside and from abroad, into and through the city. Other routes define Toronto just as deeply: the Bathurst Trajectory, pulling successive waves of downtown Jews and Italians and Chinese in the opposite direction, into increasingly remote communities; the Steeles Trajectory, which begins in the denser suburbs such as North York and makes a gaudy snail’s trail far up Yonge Street, moving into the increasingly thin air of York Region, toward Newmarket, without touching downtown; the 407 trajectory, in which people from, say, Oakville move across to Vaughan or Whitby, without any obvious physical contact with Toronto itself. For these people, Toronto’s symbolic points might not be so monumental or obvious: the nightclubs of Richmond Street, the wedding-dress bazaars of Spadina, the dim sum palaces of Richmond Hill. Having a centre is not really a concern.
Those of us who have built our lives around the myth of a centralized Toronto, who have lived in the downtown core and prefer to believe in its primacy (a group of people that includes most of Canada’s journalists, novelists and a good many of its academics) don’t like to think of Toronto this way. We prefer to liken it to New York, a place that sprang from its core and whose citizens’ lives are driven by their economic and emotional bonds to that centre. But Toronto, for all its half-hearted efforts to monumentalize and mythologize itself, is not that kind of place—and, I would argue, is better off for it.
In our ’80s enthusiasm, my roommate and I still believed the city had to have a symbolic centre, and eagerly showed the Japanese girl our urban treasures. She was mystified. In Tokyo, she spent her days working as a window dresser on that city’s chic shopping streets. Perhaps because of this, she dismissed our obvious first choice—the celebrated stretch of galleries and shops and hangouts along Queen Street West that had only just made their appearance but had already become the emblem of that era’s civic pride—as yet another carbon-copy hipster district suited to most of the world’s medium-sized cities. This stuff is background noise in Seattle and Hamburg—why did we consider it a symbol? We could have explained: in a puritanically work-obsessed city where even outdoor dining had been unlawful until 1985, a stretch of sidewalk devoted to culture and leisure seemed shocking and revolutionary.
A lot of the supposed focal points of Toronto existed only in our imaginations: there wasn’t a grand lakefront sweep of lively activity, only a shabby government shoreline plaza suited to a much smaller city. Unless there was an infrequent festival or protest taking place, Nathan Phillips Square was just, well, square. The big cluster of financial buildings at the centre offered little aside from square footage. The city’s one grand boulevard, University Avenue, was devoid of cafés and served absolutely no civic role unless you’d pulled jury duty or had to renew your drivers’ licence or found yourself hospitalized. Yonge and Dundas occupied a far more relevant space in the civic imagination but we sure didn’t want to let her know that. Were mid-priced shopping arcades and windowless striptease joints really the apogee of our existence? We hoped not.
Toronto’s historic points of origin, like Fort York or Mackenzie House, played no real role in the day-to-day civic imagination. Unlike residents of London or Paris or Mexico City, our emblems of the past did not provide a regular touchstone in daily life. The structures that had been built to fill those central places in the civic imagination, like the CN Tower or New City Hall or Ontario Place, seemed isolated and disconnected, signifying only themselves. Much of the torontismo that so inflamed the ’80s (and, to a more honest degree, has returned to excite us during this most recent boom) was simply an imaginary composite—that is, when we thought about Toronto, our minds pulled together a disparate and disconnected range of sites and incidents, and conjured them into some grand but nonexistent location, a phantasmic You Are Here inscribed into the red-brick monotony.
We like to imagine that cities coalesce around important and meaningful centres. At first, in Rome at its classical zenith and in the fast-engorging European centres of the early 19th century, this was true because it was simply necessary: without high-speed transportation, people had to live together in dense and smelly clusters; for their safety, they built walls and defences around them. These places were naturally where they put their temples and senates and markets, and they remained central. Even today, people who live almost a day’s journey from St. Paul’s or the Zocalo or the Grand Bazaar, in high-rise slums or housing projects on the outskirts, still consider themselves citizens of London or Mexico City or Istanbul because they’re intimately tied to those locations, in ways that are at once functional (citizens visit them and use them) and emotional (citizens feel they’re represented by them) and historic (they’re where it all began).
Other cities decided to create their own symbolic centres, usually at breathtaking expense. Paris was something of an aimless sprawl until Georges-Eugène Haussmann, drawing deep from Napoleonic coffers, essentially invented the boulevard and remade the central arrondisements into living emblems of imperial power. New York City’s boroughs will always be linked to Lower Manhattan, but it took the visions and fortunes of powerful billionaires to create equally potent centres further uptown in Times Square and Rockefeller Center, thus turning the whole island of Manhattan into something of a high-capitalist Jerusalem.
Toronto has made halting efforts to monumentalize its centre. The most successful, in spite of itself, is the CN Tower, which was meant to be a strictly utilitarian housing for microwave telephone-signal transmitters (a giant shopping mall had been planned at its base, and this, but for the grace of 1970s financial stagnation, was meant to be Toronto’s new centre). It has done an amazingly good job of providing an emotional hitching-post to the far-flung outskirts. But it also draws attention, in equally dramatic fashion, to Toronto’s essential lack. It is, after all, a lighthouse-beacon that guides people to a drab patch of cement by the train tracks.
When we think about decentred cities, we envision the great U.S. cities and the phenomenon known as “white flight”—inner ghettoization combined with outer sprawl. This vision has distorted our view of Toronto. When we look at our outskirts, at our Peel, York and Durham regions and our inner enclaves of Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York, we can’t help adopting an Americanized view of them: as bedroom communities that were thrown out by the centre, as diluted extensions of the original core. But Toronto followed an opposite path. Its centre, to the extent that it has one, was in many respects forged by its outskirts. Until the very late 1920s, Toronto didn’t even really come second to Montreal’s financial and industrial dominance. Until then, it seemed just as likely that Hamilton might win the prize. Toronto still resembled not so much a major city as a large town: a regional hub, a place for the ships and trains to arrive and the farmers to sell their goods. Industrialists and politicians may have seen it as the end point of the National Dream, but its industrial and financial power was still mostly unrealized potential, not always visible on the mainly unpaved streets.
A large number of Toronto’s residents wanted nothing to do with this potential. The historian Richard Harris, in his startling analysis of the city’s property records published under the title Unplanned Suburbs, demonstrates that the city’s turn-of-the-century pioneers were really anti-Torontonians. They were building their own, independent municipal entities on the edge. This is how the neighbourhoods along St. Clair, most notably Earlscourt, were created, along with several other big stretches of west-end Toronto and much of what is now known as Etobicoke. These pioneers were poor immigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland, who had come looking for a better life, lured by the great immigration campaigns of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. Their principal desire was to own a house, an act that was all but impossible in Britain then, and they wanted houses in treed, Canadian-looking settings, not in the sort of industrial mill zones they had fled. They were very poor, but Toronto was still a frontier, so the immigrants, hundreds of thousands of them, simply decamped to the northern and western wilderness beyond the city limits, and built their own houses by hand, without building approval, water lines or sewers, on land they’d bought from farmers. They thought of their homes as semi-rural cottages, and turned their backs on the port-and-railway city that was taking shape to the south and east. Their own, independent economy arose in the outskirts.
This was not a marginal phenomenon: more than a third of Toronto’s population just after WWI was living and working in these squatted enclaves. Urbanists have since said that these houses were probably undercounted by the municipality, and the number of people who built a Toronto that had nothing to do with “Toronto” may have been half the population. It was only the depression of the 1930s that brought these places under central control and transformed them into more traditional suburbs. This outside-in growth would continue to be the norm: Oshawa would boom, in 1918, a decade before downtown Toronto did; Scarborough’s Golden Mile strip development would become the city’s transportation emblem five years before the first subway lines were built, and so on. It took the great waves of postwar immigration to create the illusion that Toronto was an older, more centralized, more New Yorkish sort of city.
Two things happened, between the 1950s and the present, to reinforce this image: First, waves of postwar immigrants followed a trajectory in which they landed in the downtown core and then, in successive generations, moved uptown. Of course, the majority of immigrants during the past 60 years have actually made their start in the outer suburbs, but these downtown ethnic-restaurant immigrants would become key to the city’s self-mythologizing. Second, in the ’70s a lot of people from the suburban outskirts started to develop a taste for the old houses of the core, buy them up, and recolonize a centre that had never completely been a centre in a process that was the precise opposite of America’s white flight. Between the new immigrants moving out and the well-established moving in, we created the myth of an original, old-city core. If you believe that something’s central, then it becomes central, as much of downtown Toronto did. But no wonder visitors have a hard time picking it out: It wasn’t built that way.
To stroll the cleansed streets of the world’s major centres today is to visit a Madame Tussaud’s of the urban past. The great cities of the world, to a large extent, have become museums devoted to their former selves. In Paris and Rome, this is entirely the case: Those cities are now more or less exclusively devoted to their own backstory, to their erstwhile cultural importance. They exist as centres of government, and as emblems of their own continuity, with little space left for the present.
Something similar is true of the Manhattan of the post-Rudy Guliani years and the London of the Ken Livingstone era. The second largest industry in both cities, rivalling banking and finance, is tourism, and both cities spend huge sums of money trying to resemble what they once were. You walk their streets, and you feel time freeze around you. Others want to follow this lead. The European Union doles out billions of euros each year in grants to help other European cities find their mythic past, trap it in aspic, and serve it on a silver platter to visitors. From Tallinn to Lisbon, the city is becoming a beautiful but lifeless artefact.
Efforts to create a city-museum district in Toronto, such as those conducted around St. Lawrence Market or in the Distillery District, have generally been scanty and disappointing. This is partly because Toronto’s crucial historic, formative period is still taking place - - in most important respects it began in the 1970s, when Toronto finally ended Montreal’s reign as Canada’s financial and cultural capital and a wave of immigration ended its dour Orange Order asceticism. It doesn’t need its bricks sandblasted yet. People visit, when they do, to see the live, actual culture of Toronto, not its fossilized origins.
Still, as any first-time visitor to Los Angeles will tell you, the living, breathing city of trajectories has some real disadvantages over its centralized, museum-ized cousins. It leaves a terrible impression on first-time visitors, who inevitably get lost in the outskirts and wonder where all the excitement is meant to be. Toronto suffers from this fate, albeit without the violence and breakdowns. We learned that this summer, painfully, as the expensive dollar caused visitors to stay away in droves. Hadn’t they loved us because we were beautiful? Nope. They’d loved us because we were a cheap date.
In the city of trajectories, the pleasure lies entirely in the human experience: there’s no point hanging around and looking at the buildings. Class structures become highly permeable, cultural barriers porous. Life is a constant felicity of unlikely juxtapositions and sidewalk collisions. Guidebooks are almost instantly obsolete. Street corners, like College and Spadina or Yonge and Sheppard, have been remade completely every five years throughout my life, as successive populations sweep over them. Los Angeles flushes out and replaces a third of its population every ten years, rendering its recent history ancient, its black neighbourhoods brown and then white and then yellow and then another shade of brown. I’m sure that Toronto flushes itself out with equal frequency. This can have disturbing results: you easily get lost here, because Toronto so glibly destroys its own memories, routinely bulldozing its storied watering holes and legendary hotels and turning its culturally meaningful districts into high-rent malls. Just try to find the Yorkville of the sixties or the Queen West of the eighties or the Spadina of the fifties: there’s no trace. At the same time, there seem to be two or three new interesting neighbourhoods emerging every year, each of them the result of ten thousand acts of self-invention: Little Persia gets discovered, the groovy hinterland of Keele and Dundas becomes an artistic hub, Mini-Moscow comes of age. Such events become our landmarks, allowing us to ignore all the ugly buildings and ill-thought public squares. In the Torontonian mind, a bland and seamy intersection takes on the power of a Place de Concorde or a Rockefeller Centre, because it has become a palimpsest, an unshaken etch-a-sketch, containing all our memories of the things it was before.
But there is always the risk that a generation will come along, like those who follow the 407 trajectory, who don’t share that set of common experiences and memories, who see the city’s significant points as nothing more than grubby intersections, piles of houses, retail footage. Without a monumental and symbolic centre, Toronto runs the risk of drifting away from itself, losing the affection of visitors and new citizens alike, perhaps next time the economy craps out. And its monumental instincts are poor. Torontonians seem perpetually inclined to be the sort of people who’d disguise their opera house as an insurance building, who shuffle uneasily away from something as exciting as a buried expressway or a lakefront airport. We need to cultivate our taste for the grandiose and the outrageous.
Twenty years ago, facing our increasingly flustered Japanese friend after several polite but fruitless walks across the city, Phil and I were finally struck with the possibility that Toronto, like other 20th century cities, was little more than a large collection of houses—one of those places that architectural historian Joseph Rykwert described as “all-housing cities,” a term he used to describe most cities built after monumentalism went out of fashion in the 1870s, sorely lacking in distinctive points of reference. Was it possible that this “city of neighbourhoods” was a city of just neighbourhoods?
After some thought, we took our guest to a place that seemed to be an emblematic embodiment of our imaginary Toronto. We knew a guy who lived above a café at Baldwin Street and Kensington Avenue, a jolly Maritime hermit who played trombone and lived amidst a mountainous record collection. We spent a long afternoon sitting on his balcony, smoking pot, eating seafood, listening to Roland Kirk and checking out the scene below. This was what we considered a very Toronto moment. It seemed to do the trick.
This, she said, was what she had been looking for. This was the Toronto of the Torontonian imagination, something that set it apart from everywhere else. Or at least, I suspected, it was a distinctly non-Japanese way to waste an afternoon. She thanked us for this epiphany, returned home, and for a number of years sent us gifts.
At the time, I wondered if she was just being polite. After all, what we had shown her was a fish market in a grubby corner of town. Its interesting Jewish history is barely visible today. Its colourful demimonde, which is a big part of its appeal and the reason I later lived there for half a decade, is generously leavened with various crackheads and glue-sniffers, and it is architecturally horrendous. Those who do use it during the daytime—new arrivals from Europe, Latin America and especially east Asia—are indeed a good portrayal of Toronto’s polyglot self-image, but if you bother to talk to any of them, they’ll all tell you that they’re saving their money so they can move somewhere far away, maybe north of Steeles, with a big clean supermarket.
You really couldn’t call any of this the heart of Toronto, just an important stop along the trajectory of my Toronto, of their Toronto—a zone on a map of a city without points, only lines and arrows and artefacts left behind in five million journeys. There is, as Gertrude Stein famously said of the Toronto-era city of Oakland, no there there. In Toronto, there is never here for long; it is endlessly moving somewhere else, and all the joy is found in this movement.