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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Canada, let her keep a memento

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“I could fill up the lake with the things I didn’t say
Had a good run anyway
Had a good run anyway”
— Final Fantasy, “The CN Tower Belongs to the Dead”

When I close my eyes I see red and white streetcars streaking past: eight years and forty-nine weeks ago I moved to Toronto with not much more than the notion that it might be a good idea. I had visited a handful of times (concerts at the Opera House, a romantic weekend or two away on the Scarborough motel strip) but hadn’t lived there, nor even lived in Kit-Kat sign-filled Canada before.

In 1998 Toronto was a different place and in many ways I see it with the same clear eyes now that I did then. It deepens my fondness for the city to not be as immersed in it, and it also gives me enough remove to compare it to the city I arrived in. Those two Torontos are very different.

I remember a Toronto where there was nowhere to live. I looked at maybe fifty apartments that October and November. Fifty! Most were highly competed for (by people without pets and with actual jobs) and many were dodgy. A weird apartment on Roncesvalles with a shared bathroom. A pet-filled dump over top of a Bloor West KFC (advertised as over a bridal shop). A Parkdale apartment painted entirely bright orange shown to me by a drunk landlord who derided the current tenant. A Summerhill apartment shown to me by a drunk landlord who drove to the showing up a steep hill. A basement on Ferrier, mispronounced. An apartment in the beach which came with a lecture on responsibility. To this day I can’t go more than a couple of miles in the city without going past some sketchy apartment in which I might’ve led another life.

I remember a Toronto full of old-school weirdness: squeegee kids under every overpass. Record stores with Jesus sayings stamped onto all the inner sleeves. JJ Muggs before it was JJ Albanys before it was an Israeli-run espresso parlour. I remember thinking eating at Golden Griddle was fun. I remember when each TTC stop had a phone number on it — you could call it and it would, in theory, tell you when the next, say, 505 streetcar would be barreling towards you in the dead cold of winter. Of course it wouldn’t be accurate, but it gave you something to do in that Bell payphone box. I arrived a few months before a record blizzard in 1999, me and my boxes of stuff just slightly in advance of the National Guard and their melting machines. I would take streetcars home that winter, or try to, and not understand when they short-turned and wouldn’t take us all the way. Living at Roncesvalles and Dundas I would later understand this was completely normal, like the driver parking at Coffee Time and making you wait for his snack, or shift change.

I remember a city pre-crazy-adorable gentrification, where a parking space on empty Dundas outside of Saving Grace cost only $1.00 an hour, and you weren’t parking behind a BMW sport utility vehicle.

And most of all I remember a Toronto that hated itself. Arriving in Canada from the US, I was met with such a strange blast of low civic self-esteem mixed with ardent Canadian nationalism. “I’d never live in the US!” everyone would say, while out of the other corner of their mouth acting baffled that I’d moved from there to Toronto to begin with. Then they’d pause and admit — “I mean. Unless I could live in New York City.”

And though I do now live in New York, it’s not because I figured out that that city is better than Toronto, but that now that Toronto has figured out it is just as good, it seems somehow more okay to leave for my own reasons. In the years between my arrival and departure, the city has transformed, bloomed — I have said it again and again and I will say it here — due in large part to the kind of people who would be reading this blog in the first place. Street furniture activists. Zealous gardeners. Transit nerds. Kids with bubble guns. People who close streets to cars. Wanderers and photographers and romancers of the city at and above and below street level — those who look up and around when they are traversing blocks, rather than dully forward. People who engage and take ownership. They have found a city to love and in response it has thrived. Some of these goofballs even go drinking with the mayor. Toronto. What a beautiful place.

On my second night in New York City this wekeend, watching Final Fantasy perform songs about Brad Lamb and the CN Tower here on the Lower East Side, I was so proud and homesick in the same breath. I knew I was in on something most of the audience wasn’t — the experience of living in one of the most charming and usable cities in North America, one whose romance is just building and one where the DIY attitude has merged with notions of civic responsibility and the creation of common space. I will passionately miss the city that strung a utility pole on Harbord like a bass guitar, and where every outdoor patio is filled to capacity the first day of late winter that surpasses 11 degrees. Where houses teeter and tip into Shaw Street, where you can have a campfire on an almost private island overlooking the glittering lights of downtown, where you can walk home from anywhere at all and feel more or less completely safe, see stars between the sodium lights, and pulse with Toronto’s wonder and potential.

Though it seemed to me like my time in Toronto would go on forever, it amazingly didn’t, like the endless construction at the ROM (once that crystal was built, it almost felt like I was allowed to leave). As I drove away from the city (Friday night, tons of traffic, of course, yes, and why?) the Gardiner sparkled and menaced, more ads than ever on the side of the highway, more big box awfulness stretched far into Burlington. But as I wound my way along the Burlington Skyway, the Garden City Skyway, up into the lamps and ramps towards the Empire State and back to USA — it felt so much like the days I was just dawning on Toronto. I am so glad it has learned to love itself and is in such good hands as yours, ours. I promise to be its ambassador if you all promise to keep up the good work. Do not squander what you have: I have seen the rust belt and too much has been wasted. We are all lucky for Toronto’s existence — now take that city and run with it.



  1. Liz,

    Our Second Poet Laureate, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, told me the night of the Humanitas Festival launch in 2006,

    ” Toronto is a city that has yet to fall in love with itself. ”

    You true insight is almost lost in the last paragraph…I had to re-read it to ensure it was really there,

    “I am so glad it [Toronto] has learned to love itself….”

    Thanks Liz, our Diogenes-like search has now ended.

    And remember to smile whenever you mix up N.Y. for North York in your travels around Gotham City.

    ~ HiMY! ~

  2. Thanks for the post. I empathise with every word.

  3. I have always loved Toronto. As a little girl stuck in suburbia, it was the Manhattan to my New Jersey. Now I live here (finally in an apartment and a neighborhood I love) and it is a little bit like a fairy tale sometimes.
    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way.

  4. “I arrived a few months before a record blizzard in 1999, me and my boxes of stuff just slightly in advance of the National Guard and their melting machines.”

    National Guard?!

    I arrived in ’99 too. And my experiences and observations were quite similar. Including one particularly bizarre apartment viewing on Jarvis where the small, dark, yet-to-be-vacated suite in a ’60s era building was crammed from floor to ceiling with all manner of antiquities including portraits and stuffed animals. It looked like the tenant had previously lived in a haunted mansion and brought all the contents with him.

    The city has changed in these few, short years. In some ways for the better and some for the worse.

  5. Thanks for your comment Liz. It is a reminder that Toronto is still a wonderful place with tons of potential. Sometimes, due to my pessimism, I forget how lucky I to live here. 😉

  6. I was also at the same concert and couldn’t help but feel overcome with a flood of emotion. I spent my whole life in Toronto and just moved to New York this past June whith a huge amount of confusion, excitement and immediate longing for a city that feels so ready, so poised to finally realize what an amazing place it is.

    Thanks for the post.

  7. Fantastic post and great summary of some of the changes in the city’s environment over the past decade.

    I’m also a member of the class of ’99 and thought I got extremely lucky finding a half-decent place to live early in the hunt. My introduction to the city came when I was nearly side-swiped at Avenue and Eglinton on my first day of apartment hunting and the other driver tried to provoke a confrontation (I fled down a side street). I wondered if moving down here might have been a mistake.

    Things have definitely gone uphill since then.

  8. It took me 4 months to find a job after I moved here in 2000, as I watched the little nest-egg I accumulated in grad school rapidly dwindle (mostly given over to rent — funny rent went down as I moved around subsequently).

    One warm June day, nearing the end of my nest egg, I walked from the unsexy/ungalleried/unhipstered Queen and Dovercourt area along queen to see a Windsor friend who worked at the Chapters at Richmond and John. Along queen street there were car accidents, a bloodied homeless man crying, people yelling at each other, 7 street cars backed up, cars honking, — it was like that hot day in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (without the Italian racist guy) when shit goes bad. I was a bit overwhelmed and having a mild anxiety attack by the time I arrived at Chapters and my friend said “hey let’s go home to windsor this weekend” and we did and we escaped terrible Toronto. One terrible afternoon , glad it didn’t keep us in Windsor.

  9. Did you pick up one of my posters at the show?

    Nice article. I now dislike Toronto a little less.

  10. Interesting to read stories of people arriving her in 1998-1999. Having grown up here, my earliest memories of being aware of the city was the excitement of seeing the bank towers rise downtown, everyone on my street watching the Olga helicopter topping off the CN Tower, going to the Zoo and CN Tower when they first opened for school field trips. There was an excitement over the growing awareness of the coolness of Toronto’s multiculturalism – the Caravan festival, the countries of the world pavilion at the Ex. It was an exciting time to be growing up here… there was still the Toronto of “old”, the EXPORT “A” signs on the variety stores (which were replaced by the Kit Kat signs), the red & cream streetcars and red subway trains I loved, the old Italian man with the sharpening machine ringing his bell down the street. At the same time there was a really seedy side that I never knew about except for a few news headlines I vaguely remember – stabbings in rooming houses downtown, the young shoeshine boy murdered in a bodyrub parlour on Yonge St. While some of the excitement of Toronto becoming a big metropolis faded away in the 90s after the recession, it seems to have finally returned, with passionate people trying to keep the city a livable place and so many neighbourhoods coming back to life. In the 80s, if you said you were going to Queen & Ossington, people asked why on earth you’d ever go there. Much of downtown was a wasteland of parking lots and used office furniture stores. It’s great to see that people are excited about what the city is now, and that so many are passionate about keeping it a great place to live.

  11. Ha ha. I almost snorted OJ up my nose in laughter when I read that remark about drunken landlords. They’re a civic institution right up there with the venerable streetcars and Ed Mirvish.

    I remember when I moved to this city barely able to afford rent and being completely flabbergasted at how an army of semi-literate gomers could lord over vast tracts of expensive Toronto property.

  12. Those who tend to have knee-jerk anti-condo sentiment should perhaps think about how condo’s are related to lower rents in general, more choice and less power given over to these semi-literate gomers. Never had a gomer myself, just lazy, but alright.

  13. Thanks for this Liz… I hope things go great for you in NYC!

  14. I love Toronto. I can never move back to the Suburbs. I may not have as much money as I would, if I lived in Brampton. But it is a small price to pay to live in such a lively city.

  15. Great post. It reminds me that Toronto is a city that I love to miss. I like to travel and tell others in other places, and other travellers about Toronto. I like to be one of Toronto’s ambassadors. I enjoy coming home to Toronto after having been away. Either after a short trip, coming home to comfortable, known places and landmarks. Or after longer trips, to return to see what has changed and what’s stayed the same.