The International Writers Magazine: CANADA

Why Toronto is Canada's Least-Loved City
Stefanie Stiles

I owe Toronto.  During my one-year sojourn there, it treated me kindly: I attended one of its fine universities; found a well-paying part-time job; enjoyed its ethnic cuisine, its world-class museums and other cultural institutions; and took advantage of its efficient public transit system.  Its streets were clean, its residents polite, and its public amenities were in perfect order.  Nonetheless, I wouldn't care if I ever laid eyes on the place again.

Toronto, you see, is like the one-night stand of Canadian cities. Many who visit for work or pleasure leave it with a feeling not of intense like or dislike, but merely a sort of benign indifference. (Unless you're Qu ébécois, and then it's your duty to hate it on principle, as the anti-Montreal, as it were.) It is ethnically diverse, safe, well-governed, and eminently liveable. Its character is typically Canadian–subdued, pleasant, reasonable–albeit a trifle pushier than the norm. Famed travel writer Jan Morris aptly damned it with faint praise a decade ago, writing that living in Toronto was like "capturing second place in the lotteria of life". Put another way, in a country culturally disinclined to use or inspire superlatives, except in reference to its geography, Toronto is the least superlative of all.

Why this is the case is a puzzling matter. Toronto's power should at least earn it respect, if not affection. Despite the phenomenal growth of Western cities like Calgary, or the highly Pacific Rim-influenced Vancouver, Toronto still has the edge as the social, economic, and political centre of Canada. Numbering 5 million people in the Greater Toronto Area, or the GTA, as its municipal officials so snappily call it, it is far and away Canada's largest city. Its geographic location is ideal, squarely in the middle of the country in prosperous Southern Ontario, practically flying abreast of the American eagle just below, and only a couple hours' drive away from the capital of Ottawa, which it so often overshadows.

Like a great sucking wound, it has the tendency of drawing Canadians in, lured by its resources, large universities, and job opportunities. Yet it is imbued with not a drop of the glamour of a New York or Paris. Ask many a displaced Newfoundlander or bewildered, former Moosejavian wandering Front Street why they moved, and their answers are unfailingly practical–they are there for the work, to save, and if at all possible, return home. Perhaps the city's very introversion and impersonal air is the direct result of the fact that a great number of its population is mentally living elsewhere. In the mean time, Toronto is something to be endured, like a mild skin irritation, or perhaps a hectoring, but well-to-do great-aunt on death's door. And after all, it's not soooo awful here, there is still the SkyDome and the CN Tower and...and...the Eaton Centre.

As a rule, different groups tend to cluster in specific areas, giving rise to Toronto's "city of neighbourhoods" branding. But Toronto feels more heavily segmented than other cities, often ridiculously so. Invariably, when Torontonians meet they ask each other what neighbourhood they're from–depending on the answers, no common civic bond necessarily unites them. Residents of the chummy "Beaches", the wannabe-bohemian students of "The Annex", the new-money of the Bridle Path, and the old money of Rosedale, wouldn't have much to say to each other at a dinner party, let alone to the residents in the sprawling outer circle suburbs outside of the city proper, like Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough. Striving desperately to generate some community feeling and neighborly warmth, Toronto's neighborhoods have a habit of adding the cosy "village" to their names, for example: Roncesvalles Village, Bloor West Village, Forest Hill Village, etc. Occasionally, they succeed in capturing small town insularity, without the usual accompanying small town charm. Unlike smaller, lesser cities, one of Toronto's greatest flaw is that it is unable to generate a cohesive sense of place

A century ago, mock-English Toronto suffered from a reputation of bland self-satisfaction, one of Her Majesty's overwhelmingly white outposts. Today, the buzzword is "multiculturalism", repeated ad nauseum, and indeed, over 40 per cent of its population is foreign-born. Take the #63 bus down shabby Oakwood Avenue, midtown, and you proceed past "Uhuru Bar", "Portugal Brasil Mix", "Helin", "Russian Stuff & More (the ampersand is a sickle), to name just a few "ethnic" businesses.

The cynic may well point out that this marvelous multiculturalism is a tad too self-congratulatory. It's worth noting that Toronto is only multicultural (read: non-caucasian) in spots. The Jane Street-Finch Avenue area in the North is a case in point. References to Jane and Finch have become Toronto shorthand for images of crime, drugs, poverty, and thuggery. They are also often coded racism, because the area demographics are largely black, with significant numbers of southeast asians and middle eastern immigrants.

As a grad student attending York University, which is located only five minutes northeast of this area, for three months I was contracted to a consulting firm downtown, near the historic Waterfront area. Over my hour-long commute, I noticed an interesting urban phenomena. The flat, bleak North York suburbs, particularly its tracts of subsidized housing, were inhabited by chocolate and mocha-coloured people, but the further downtown I went, the paler the people became. By the time I reached Union Station, on Bay and Front, deep in the heart of Toronto's financial district, there was scarcely a brown face to be seen, except those waiting tables and washing dishes in the posh restaurants.

Marching down Front Street at 8:20 am, three times a week, I merged into a sea of tightly-drawn white faces–human resource managers, credit analysts, and account executives. The mass stopped and started in lock-step at each traffic-light, firmly clutching briefcases and purses. Every fifth person held a take-away coffee which they intermittently gulped back without tasting or observing; it was fuel, not food. High heels tapped briskly on the pavement. This is Toronto, I thought, this is its core. I was not part of an invigorating economic force, so much as I was a drone among drones.

Then again, perhaps this is a bit over-dramatic and unfair. I haven't mentioned things I enjoy about Toronto, like High Park, Chinatown, Kensington Market, midnight sushi, or even just the feeling of being young and superficial in young and superficial Yonge and Eglinton. But overall, I can't bring myself to really like the place. Insipid cities inspire only insipid emotion.

© Stefanie Stiles November 2006
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