Let’s All ** Toronto
I grew up in Toronto in the fifties when it was an over-sized, small town and Eaton’s and Simpson’s drew curtains over their shop windows on Sundays. Daily papers scarcely bothered covering city hall, but they all had society columnists, women who wore gloves when they typed, and wrote up events like pink teas and coming-out parties. The city had a reputation for cleanness and moral rectitude.
Toronto the Good was a good place to be from. I left at the first opportunity.
When I returned, in the middle of the October Crisis of 1970, I discovered another city altogether. Troops were not in the streets but everyone was on red alert as civil rights had been generally suspended. Toronto had become a hotbed of political action, and pressure for radical social change was coming from many quarters. Women, gays and lesbians, the far left, the peace movement. Serious of purpose, yes, but no longer was this the City Fun Forgot. This revolution came with music, theatre and dance!
By the seventies, Toronto’s multicultural past had caught up with her. Miraculously, or so it seemed to me, there were restaurants and markets offering wares from a staggering diversity of places. You could criss-cross the planet in an afternoon — from Little India to Little Italy to Chinatown. Streets were full of people, especially on Sundays. And this, more than anything else, struck me. How much more public the city had become.
When the new city hall was built in the early sixties, Old Toronto scoffed at the notion of a public square. What did people think this was anyway, Rome? Media guru Marshall McLuhan once remarked that Canadians were a people who go indoors to socialize. Well, if that had ever been true of Torontonians, it’s certainly wasn’t any more. Streets were being used in all kinds of thing, festivals, parades, marches, street parties and celebrations like Carabana, Gay Pride, and the World Cup. Nathan Phillips Square, as we know, has never empty.
The city, in short, had found its groove and was opening up to the world. Toronto was quietly becoming cosmopolitan.
A reform council under Mayor David Crombie had set about revitalizing the downtown by resuscitating neighbourhoods — and it was working. To the younger generation it felt as if the city was shaking off the torpor of decades. Attitudes were a’ changing, ours included. I started riding a bicycle again. And joined the demos to stop the Spadina Expressway. Being engaged meant discovering hidden histories. Christie Pits, the anti-Greek riots of 1918, signs in parks declaring “No Jews or dogs”, want-ads announcing “Three I’s need not apply” meaning Indians, Irish and Italians. As my walks with Michel Lambeth revealed, this is a city of layers. It also meant taking part.
Over the last thirty years, Toronto has developed a public culture that is much more porous than the one my generation encountered in the seventies. There is an openness now, an admission of ethnic, gender and social difference in daily life that was almost unthinkable then. Along with this shift has come an awareness of the world, the dual effect of immigration and globalization, no doubt. Certainly, Toronto is an out-going place now, as much as an in-coming one. Torontonians are travellers, it seems.
During the time I was discovering Toronto in the seventies and eighties, I was writing copiously about culture and politics, and working as a journalist for the CBC which meant investigating stories set in other parts of Canada. I saw a lot of the country, spent time in all the provinces and talked to people in all sorts of communities and occupations. It was a crash course in Canada, and I learned a lot about Toronto, too.
It was then I encountered, firsthand, the Toronto that is deeply and genuinely despised by some. The sentiment that isn’t exactly new, or specific to non-Torontonians for that matter. It goes back fifty years or more yet remains as powerful today as ever. Just google the word “Let’s”, and “Let’s All Hate Toronto” pops up along with half a dozen other possibilities. Whatever its meaning, it’s part of the culture, and perhaps part of Toronto’s mystic. It reminds me of my own love/hate relationship with the city. And the power of contradiction.
The nineties took me to British Columbia where I researched and wrote a book on Emily Carr, and put down roots on Gabriola Island. I still think of myself as by-coastal, but coming back to Toronto was coming home. Perhaps it was moving back in mid-December to winter sunshine on Lake Ontario. I astonished myself by slipping into a state of euphoria that lasted for weeks. I’d go down to Ashbridge’s Bay and watch the city in the sunset, sit at my desk listening to Queen streetcar rumble past, or savour the sharp smell of the cold on a snowy night.
Reacquainting myself with the city on the TTC, it occurred to me the city had changed again, even if my neighbours hadn’t. It wasn’t just because Toronto had amalgamated in my absence, and city hall was becoming dysfunctional. It was because a new and enthusiastic generation had appeared along with the Internet. I saw it first in the graffiti. On the one hand, there were more homeless people living outside than I’d seen in Vancouver, where the climate, is, at least, kinder. On the other, there was all this quirky local stuff happening. Like our neighbourhood café, the Tango Palace. When I left in the late eighties, our street was known as the B&E capital of the country. I returned to find the gangs playing soccer in the park at the corner had been replaced with 2 year olds in the sandlot, and Chinese grandmothers with their boom-box doing exercises at dawn.
Thinking about how the city evolves made me wonder what it really is at heart. What the sum of its past and its promise might be. I read Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s meditation on Istanbul in which he describes a city steeped in history, and tinged with melancholia. And I reread Michael’s Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, which is dedicated to Michel Lambeth.
Lillian Allen calls Toronto a ‘three million-sided heart’. For years the word Toronto was popularly thought to mean meeting-place. In fact, as Archer Pechawis says, the First Nations called it ‘where there are trees standing in the water’. T’Karonto. A good place to begin.