This week marks the tenth year I’ve been writing this column. It’s been both a pleasure and frustrating to pay so much attention to Toronto, this city I love. I’ve written about the great things in this city and the things that need to be fixed. My theory is if we do not have reasons to love the place we live, we will not bother fighting to make it better. There are lots of reasons to love it and I’ve tried to resist being cynical but I’ve been failing on the latter of late: it feels like Toronto is heading in the wrong direction in many ways. Still, Toronto is like an onion with layers to keep peeling and learning about, a work in progress that is endlessly fascinating. Here are ten things I’ve learned over these ten years.
- Toronto is big, geographically. “No guff,” you might say, but I’ve found people here do not appreciate how vast the city and GTA is. Often touted as a “city of neighborhoods,” Toronto can be inward-looking. That’s not a bad thing, but I’ve met countless lifelong Torontonians who’ve barely been on the other side of town. Toronto is largely unknown to Torontonians.
- Toronto is cheap. Parsimonious. With some notable exceptions, Torontonians do not want to pay for nice things despite complaining we do not have enough nice things. This is a historic condition: when New City Hall was completed, there was a revolt at the expense of the Henry Moore sculpture in Nathan Phillips Square. Today Toronto has great plans on the books like the Ravine Strategy, but no or not enough funding attached to it. Then again, we have no problem spending billions to rebuild a short freeway, so maybe we’re spendingthrifts.
- Those ravines? They’re inexhaustible. Despite exploring them with intent, walking or cycling the trails for two decades of living here, I still discover new ones, more passages, and secret-seeming trails that reach into neighborhoods like an octopus with dozens of arms. Exploring all of them, from the lake up to the Oak Ridges Moraine, will be a lifetime project.
- Toronto’s establishment, business and social, is largely content to sit out weighing in on Toronto’s politics and direction as long as they’re making money. Perhaps they dabble in some philanthropy, but they will not rock the boat. In the past there were figures like June Callwood and even David Pecaut who rocked the boat in their own ways. Today, with exceptions like Maytree Foundation heads Al Broadbent and Elizabeth McIsaac who penned a letter last fall condemning the shameful lack of leadership on the rooming house issue, they sit it out. Imagine what they could do if they threw their social and political capital around. John Tory, our establishment mayor, might listen.
- Torontonians think condos, homes that are smaller and cost less than stand-alone houses with yards, are “luxury,” but the houses with yards that are bigger and cost much more are never considered “luxury.” Ridiculous condo marketing, where even shoeboxes are advertised as luxury, feeds this notion, but it contributes to the myth that houses are normal and good in Toronto while condos or even apartments are not.
The status quo is an incredibly powerful force in Toronto and this is a deeply conservative city. It’s a conservatism that runs from left to right: risk-averse and utterly incremental. Only something like the world-changing force of the pandemic nudges us out of this, but barely. I first wrote a column about Toronto’s public toilet problem in 2012 and the problem has been barely addressed. Despite being the third year of the pandemic, and getting people outside remains an ideal scenario, the city is still incredibly slow to open even the few public washrooms we do have this spring. It’s pathological, habitual negligence that the mayor and most councilors do not seem interested in fixing. Worse, people are killed and grievously injured by drivers on our streets, but even that is not enough to spur real design and enforcement changes. Toronto is OK with this collateral damage and death.
- Toronto is a teenage city. Though big, and populous, in its imagination of itself it’s still a mid-sized, Midwestern North American city stuck in the 1970s, the kind of place where you could easily drive and find parking in front of your destination. That’s at odds with the fact that Toronto is actually a big city where, like in every big city, driving will never be easy. Our brain needs to catch up to our body.
- Related to that, Toronto’s infrastructure and built form have forever been catching up to the city that it is. Unlike Montreal, which knew it was a proper city from the start, Toronto was a provincial backwater that accidentally became what it is. Sometimes it looks shabby, evidence of its humble origins. Growing pains are nothing new: before the Yonge Street subway was opened in 1954 our main drag was impossibly clogged with traffic. Things get to the breaking point before they’re fixed here. It’s an old story.
- Despite how the demographics in Toronto have changed as it became one of the most multicultural places on earth, the WASPy “Toronto the Good” mentality is baked deep into this city’s DNA. The recent inability of the mayor and council, both on the left and the right, as well as staff, to loosen up on drinking alcohol in parks, like so many other cities easily do, was just a symptom of how Toronto officials treat Torontonians and our public spaces versus people with their own yards. The outrage a few weeks ago at their stick-in-the-mud position was not so much about the booze in parks but the utter absurdity, double standards, hypocrisy and pietism in Toronto, the smothering paternalism and the wretched scolding Toryism that comes from the right as well as the left, and the mendacity of official communications around encampment evictions and other recent issues.
- A long weekend walk in Toronto is one of the most beautiful experiences in the world, and a reason why I love living here. One neighborhood leads to another, random things and interactions appear, places to eat or drink present themselves, and there is art to see and culture to gobble up. No plan is needed, just walk in the direction that looks interesting. Toronto is not boring. Those who say it is are not paying attention.
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