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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Toronto from a San Franciscan’s perspective


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Toronto writer Robert Fulford has called Toronto “San Francisco upside down” as our ravines echo that city’s famous hills. Connections between the two cities were strengthened a little more when SPUR — the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association — chose Toronto as the focus of their annual urban study trip this past May. Among the group who had a four-day crash course on everything Toronto was Lawrence Li, and these are some of his observations:

Terminal 3 bus boarding zones lack overhead signs. Which one is for the 192? Not this one. Nope. Not this one. ‘getting colder. Go back the other way. Oh, hi David. I think the 192 is this way. Oh here it is.

Hotel websites all say that wifi is available. This city must be well-wired.

Retro TTC logo. Information graphics are bold, functional, not pretty. Subway reminds me of Boston’s system. Fabric seats. Cozy stairways and corridors lack escalators. This system has been here for a while.

Residential towers sprout from the middle of blocks. There are some unobstructed mid-block alleys or lanes that nicely go all the way through the block.

Metro Central YMCA is open until 11PM! The pool is designed as a postmodernist church. There are children at this YMCA, and they’re in the pool after 10PM on Wednesday night. The lane sign says to choose the lane that best matches your “effort” rather than “speed”. The shower room provides a few curtained stalls — I suppose for more modest members. These stalls are always used, with brown feet visible under the curtains. The not-hot-enough sauna is set-up as bleachers, observing a wall of towel hooks through gi-normous windows. I keep bumping my head on the ceiling from the top bleacher row. Members are from all over the world, with unusually shaped, scarred bodies that suggest a hard life. At closing time, people are still lounging around the sauna.

Restaurants post that they close at 11 PM and still seat people at 11:30.

Why would I need butter for my bagel?

No metal detectors or bag search at City Hall?

My meeting is in the City Hall “flying saucer,” a building I loved so much as a child.

City officials we meet are white, although it is a city of 50% immigrants. The code used to speak about race and immigrants is different here–a bit quieter and more polite, if not unspoken. Are newcomers threatening Canadian identity? This kind of cultural integration may be something new here. Perhaps some cultural shifts loom ahead for this polite society.

Folks say “prO-ject” and “prO-cess”, “zed”, “Torontonian” and mention “Jane Jacobs”, “Richard Florida”, and “you can download it from our website” a lot.

University Toronto building with multicolor glass panels resembling a DNA or protein sequence. It’s probably not the English department.

Some streets like Jarvis lack a yellow stripe down the middle separating different traffic directions. Streets are very tight. On the sidewalk, my face is up against retail windows. It makes me feel like I am inside the store or restaurant. Streetcars are a functional part of the transit fleet and are not merely a tourist attraction. The narrow, polished shops, galleries, and restaurants on Queen Street West resemble Hong Kong at midnight.

Mom says that the Chinese food in the outer Chinatowns is superior to San Francisco, New York, and even Hong Kong because all the top chefs left HK for Toronto.

Recognizable Ikea furniture at the Centre for Social Innovation and Baldwin Village Inn.

Waiting for my pizza slice on Church St, I understand enough Vietnamese to spy on an unpleasant conversation behind the counter.

At Buddies and Bad Times theater a black drag queen dressed spidery with superbly built, sculpted body, performs in heels. Another drag queen dancing with McDonald’s french fries also in heels. Old CRT TV’s light-up for a video presentation. The crowd seems familiar with each other, with large groups of friends. There is no designated dance floor, which makes this feel more like an indoor street fair. Everyone seems to sing along the Bon Jovi-esque song playing when I leave.

To minimize interaction, sequester convention halls and tourists on the waterfront, like at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Elevated expressway must come down.

Cute cabins on the island. Swallow airborne bugs as I run. Boardwalk along a Great Lake. I discover a nude beach here. I guess some locals are not as reserved as they claim. If I lived here, this is where I would spend my summer weekends. Waiting for ferry at Hanlan’s point, a group of loud kids with boombox ironically make racial jokes and dance to Mamma Mia. Someone practices his flute.

The houses on McCaul Street, north of Baldwin, have nightly parties on their porches across from mega healthcare facilities. Guys with beer bong yell at me, “You know you want it!” I moon them.

At Dundas West station, across the street from the Lithuanian community center, there is a small market where I purchase a bag of lightly salted cashews and a banana for my flight from a Chinese lady. While waiting to checkout, the woman behind me in line stealthily drifts beside and moves ahead to pays for her cigarettes before my turn — a sneaky breach in this orderly society?

I could live here. I prefer it to any other Canadian city. I could hang out with many people I have met. I want to stay here longer — perhaps something will go wrong with my flight home.

Lawrence Li is a Chinese American urbanist living simply in San Francisco, spending time on sidewalks and at cafes.

Photo by Reza Vaziri



  1. strange and interesting. nice that he didn’t really try to give some sort of lame “overall impression” of toronto in a few days.

  2. Why are there so many line cutters here? I swear at least one person sneaks ahead in the line for the streetcar at Spadina station every morning.

    An entertaining stream of observations.

  3. I completely enjoyed reading this. When I travel these are the things I notice about other cities so it’s great to read someone’s perspective on Toronto.

  4. Steve: In the case of Spadina, the lines can be so thick and chaotic that they really disintegrate into crowds sometimes, but since the cars come so quickly, it doesn’t bother me much.

    You should go to China. It’s an epidemic there, and perfectly normal. I honestly haven’t noticed much line-cutting here at all.

  5. Wow…you did a lot while in Toronto. I think you’ve done and seen more than most Torontonians. Good for you. I’ll be in San Fran in August and hope to have the same experience!

  6. Two questions:

    1) What’s a beer bong? Is that American for ‘funnel’? Bong implies bubbling a gas through a liquid, and I just can’t picture how that would work for beer; and,

    2) Was he leaving too much space in front of himself while waiting in line? Acquaintances of mine from elsewhere had the same problem, and while observing them, I decided that hanging back a little too far invites queue-jumpers.

  7. This is really interesting. I’d love to read more things like this.

  8. Very enjoyable to see it through someone else’s eyes, but I’m curious about “I could live here. I prefer it to any other Canadian city. I could hang out with many people I have met. ” The second sentence isn’t sufficient explanation for the first… but maybe it is. As a city atmosphere I prefered living in Montreal, but in Toronto I easily found more people “I could hang out with” somehow. Maybe I’m too Torontonian (psychologically-Presbyterian, despite my Irish-Catholic roots) to integrate into Montreal. His reason, who knows?

  9. I really enjoy his writing style, his impressions of the city – it’s all so sweet. Does he blog elsewhere?

  10. Toronto used to be known for the orderly lines at streetcar stops and such. Now it’s becoming known for rude linejumping.

  11. I also liked the mention of the YMCA’s architecture. That was the early work of Jack Diamond by the way.

  12. Ah, you guys haven’t seen linejumping until you’ve lived in New York. The way little Chinese ladies will cut right into a subway car before people even get out has to be seen to be believed.

    Nice observations. Glad that he didn’t mention Toronto’s homeless lying on the sidewalks, something not tolerated in most American cities not named San Francisco.

  13. People say “prO-ject?”

    People line up for the Spadina car?

  14. Why are orderly queues treated like a sign of a civilized society?

    As for the TTC, I’ve noticed its a behaviour that varies by location. For example, busses at Lansdowne and Dufferin have no line-up, the crowd just waits around near the stop and crams in when it arrives. Eglinton Station is full of neat, orderly lines of people (sometimes two! back and front doors).

    I frankly suspect it has something to do with the whiteness of the area. I know I prefer the free-for-all approach to boarding the bus as I do everyday at Lansdowne.

  15. Good god, if Canadians have lost respect for queuing, might as well haul down the maple leaf flag and throw in the towel.

    Queues are signs of civilized society because they impose an equal waiting time and measure of fairness. Why should the biggest or pushiest or sneakiest person win? It’s not unreasonable at all for a foreign visitor to expect to see orderly lines all over this supposedly docile and polite country and comment on any variation from this ideal.

    That said, the worst queue design in all of Canada is clearly at Pearson airport customs. Imagine this — you are a citizen of some other country, and when you arrive at your home airport you always line up in a “bank queue” at customs where you have one line that sends you to the next available booth. Home citizens usually get their own bank queue as a sop to paying taxes – let that plane full of foreigners suffer in the non-citizen line. You come to Canada, expecting peace, order and good government, and what do you find? A customs hall with a half-dozen scattered booths, each with its very own line, with no preference given to Canadians (how noble). You now get to play a game of racial profiling as you scan each line for potential immigrants, terrorists, smugglers, etc. in order to try and avoid getting stuck behind a problem case that ties up the agent and therefore your whole line. Can you find the line filled with single white Canadian businessmen?

    It’s ridiculous, and it’s government policy. (I’ve written to them about it and they refused to understand/change.)

    There. That’s my queue rant.

  16. TTC subway cars always seem to have one small female who will shove their way from one end of a car to the other to find a seat.

    As for boarding streetcars – it would be better if TTC went crazy and implemented Proof of Payment and All Door Boarding… but no, that’s not the Toronto way!

  17. I used to be angry at line jumpers until I spent some time in Beijing.

    Buses there would come every hour (maybe) and when they arrived they were already packed with passengers. The mob waiting would literally push and shove their way on or miss that bus.

    After missing the first bus to this action myself and waiting until the two hour mark I went “native” and fought my way onto the next bus. In a situation with limited resources this behaviour sometimes wins out (kind of like working at the CBC!)

    It is this experience and hundreds more which I think new arrivals bring with them. Hard to blame them for their previous life experience but sometimes a smile helps.

  18. As a new-ish arrival in Toronto, the thing I find most amazing is that even when people don’t queue, the huddle seems to filter through the door of the streetcar in the exact same order in which people showed up to the station.

    I should also confess that I am that small female who pushes my way through the streetcar/subway car. But I’m not in search of a seat. I’m trying to make room near the door for the mob of commuters behind me who presumably also have places to go. And when people don’t ‘move down inside the car’, it is sometimes necessary to ‘make them move’. Of course, I’ve been in Canada long enough that I set the ‘excuse me’ tape on loop as I go.

  19. People who do not move to the back deserve no mercy. I have pushed through, muttering “move to the back” and likely risking some kind of retaliation (I suspect the “small female” can get away with more pushing).

  20. Smallish females pushing through to get a seat are doing everyone else a service if there is, in fact, an empty seat to be had. The most considerate thing to do when there is a seat available is to take it — it frees up space for everyone else to stand.

  21. From Lawrence’s post:

    “The code used to speak about race and immigrants is different here–a bit quieter and more polite, if not unspoken. Are newcomers threatening Canadian identity? This kind of cultural integration may be something new here. Perhaps some cultural shifts loom ahead for this polite society.”

    Given the various other comments posted here about “whiteness”, Canadian “civilization”, and queue-jumping, we may have unwittingly identified one such “cultural shift” in action. I hope not.

  22. Greg, I noticed that paragraph too. My first thought was that he was measuring Canadian society by American standards, and seeing a problem that isn’t really there. It’s hard to know without the context, but the reference to “cultural integration” almost sounds like an expectation of the “melting pot” model instead of Canadian-style multiculturalism. (I know a lot of people dismiss the differences between the “melting pot” and the “cultural mosaic” model. But I lived in the US for five years, and came to believe there are subtle but crucial differences in the way Americans and Canadians view race, culture, and immigration, even if those clichés don’t quite capture them.)

    But I’m a Canadian-born white guy, so it’s quite possible that if a problem was emerging, I’d be one of the last to know.

  23. Back in the ’70s, I pointed out to some visitors how
    TTC riders varied by route.

    On Bay Street, they’d line up single file just as they would do at the coffee machine.

    Conversely, at Spadina Avenue, the textile workers would simply swarm around a bus stop.

    I’ve not noticed how it is these days. Maybe someone could offer an observation.

  24. I am not unsympathetic to the move to the back argument although my preferred peeve are the people who won’t clear the doorway on the platform side, followed by people who keep their backpacks on with no regard for those behind them (sized not so much for commuting as for Special Forces treks through the desert).

    However, the “small females” don’t tend to wait for people near the seat to sit down but treat their fellow commuters like an assault course to get there first. That’s what bugs me.

  25. I hit this page by accident (looking for photos of Toronto ravines. Read the text because I once lived in San Francisco. Was delighted to find that it read like poetry … I’d love to post the text on my website ( if Mr. Li agrees. e-mail if that suits you, Mr. Li [btw, according to Canada’s last census, Li has become the single most common surname in Canada, replacing “Smith” and “Tremblay”, long the titleholders.]

  26. A Bay Area resident, I visited Ottawa every other week for four months in 2006, and I was also struck by people cutting in line. It surprised me, because in every other way I found the people of Ottawa to be gracious and friendly.