Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 8, 2009

Toronto the Urbane: Arts, Culture, Gastronomy — and A Good Time For All

Can you, or can you not, go home again?

In his novel You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe created a narrative that is in itself the quintessential journey home, a problematic task at the best of times. He also conceived a title that has entered the collective mindset of North American culture. His timeless depiction of the dilemma of “going back” and risking disillusionment is also, in a generic sense, what we as travellers always face when we decide to return to a favourite or well-known (to us) destination. We also risk having to come to terms with the passage of time and change. Things may no longer be what they seemed.

How does a travel journalist describe the city in which he has spent most of his life, either “downtown” or in its outer orbit?

Well, here goes.

A Latin professor of mine at university many years ago insisted that we speak certain rather arcane sentences. I remember especially:

Occidet miseros crambe repetita magistros (Tis the twice-chewed cabbage that slays the poor teacher)

and

Strepitum odi urbium; rus est semper mihi gratissium (I hate the din of cities; the country is most pleasing to me.)

I always understood the general drift of both, but like many odd bits of knowledge we pick up along the way the general concepts take awhile to sink in, be applied, or be experienced.

Repetition indeed can be stultifying; variety is the spice of life. No two cities are alike; each has its own distinct character and culture. And as far as the second maxim goes, there is the perennial love-hate relationship with cities and their cultures of “the rush.”

The presumed buccolic life of the countryside can of course be very appealing but so can the razzmatazz, glamour, and percussive rhythms of cities. So where are you going to go? Are you going to be “inside” or “outside” the city? It can be a dilemma.

As poor angst-ridden Woody Allen said in a recent documentary, “I like everywhere I go; I just don’t like where I am at the moment.”

The déraciné in us

Human beings have always been and continue to be restless spirits, constantly on the move, always migrating; perhaps its the vestigial hunter-gatherer in us. Travel journalists are especially afflicted in this regard.

And we do have this thing for cities; and getting it all together by going downtown.

I think it was the great philosopher Petula Clark who said:

“When you’re alone and life is making you lonely

You can always go — downtown.

When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry

Seems to help, I know — downtown

Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city

Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty

How can you lose?”

The most multicultural city in North America

In Toronto, you are smack dab in the middle of urbanity and gutsiness, and in many ways everywhere at once.

In this multicultural megacity, life happens as it does in other similar urban centres in North America — lickety split. It is a metropolitan and cosmopolitan environment in which your senses are fully engaged and your mind is always in overdrive.

And if from time to time your idea of a fun getaway is to immerse yourself in someone else’s urban culture, then Toronto is your kind of town. Here a distinct culture of “din” will give you the kind of adrenalin rush that excites, entertains, and stimulates. You can then return home sated and endorphinized.

Toronto is a world-class North American city. And although comparisons can be misleading, let me nonetheless be so bold as to make the following comparison.

When you think Toronto, think Chicago. In many ways they are sister cities — different but similar: architecture, world-class cuisine, cities of neighbourhoods, art, theatre, music, sport, museums, multicultural, wordly.

And both are major inland seaports on the largest inland waterway in the world. (By the way, the film Chicago was shot … wait for it … in Toronto! And I have been told that this occurred somewhat to the chagrin of the Windy City.) And Toronto, like Chicago (and Montréal) is a major jazz capital, as its annual International Jazz Festival attests. At any time of the year, the joint is jumpin’.

Sounds like … Toronto

Cities are indeed noisy places, and Toronto is no exception. But the din in Toronto is the aural evidence of human enterprise on a large scale, of a lot of people doing a lot of different stuff, of urban energy.

It’s not hard to understand why young people who are just on the verge of “breaking away” from the presumed order and common sense of the adult world find big cities so stimulating, in particular Toronto.

The louder, the better; the more energetic, the more fun. But you will discover that Toronto is the kind of urban metropolis that crosses all sectors of society; this is a city for kids of any age. It has evolved this way; its urban design and planning (especially the downtown core) is increasingly people-oriented. And with his colleagues in other major cities across Canada, David Miller — Toronto’s dynamic, and mildly charismatic (in a low-key Canadian way mind you) mayor — has consistently and vigourously negotiated a new economic deal for cities with the Canadian federal government.

As the economic engines of Canadian society, our major cities are demanding an increasing share of federal tax revenues in order to continue to flourish. And as the de facto commercial capital of Canada, Toronto continues to be re-energized. As we say in French, “Ça boum!

The Toronto persona

Urban culture is a dynamic process. Cities have individual personalities. Consider how you can characterize (even personify) cities such as New York, Paris, Sydney, New Orleans.

Toronto’s personality is as distinct and idiosyncratic as any of the aforementioned. And the best person to describe that personality is the visitor to Toronto. If only we could see ourselves as others do…

When I think of great cities I have visited, I can actually hear specific sounds. And as I write this, I am aware that I can also hear Toronto. I hear the steel-on-steel sound of Toronto streetcars and the insistent clanging of their bells advising motorists or pedestrians that it might be a good idea if they moved a touch to the right or left.

A Toronto streetcar after all has a kind of divine right of way. I hear the descending three-toned sound in the subway cars of Toronto announcing that the doors are about to close. I hear the slightly muffled sound of thousands of heels on the marble floors of downtown Toronto’s labyrinthian underground shopping city. I hear the scalpers outside Toronto’s Dome flogging their last-chance wares in provocative tones and ingenious phrasing; perfect ambiant clamour for a movie’s soundtrack. Like all major cities, Toronto’s urban cacophony can at times seem overwhelming, especially to those who didn’t grow up here, or those who just visit …. or those who move to its suburban hinterland … but if you listen carefully you can hear the distinct patterns of Toronto city life.

But most of all, I hear the voices of many nations. Toronto is perhaps the most representative city in multicultural Canada — a mosaic as opposed to a melting pot. And in this city of neighbourhoods, many of them enthnically designated but by no means ghettoized, I love to amble slowly and or just stand still and hear the sounds of many tongues: English, French, Cantonese, Urdu, Spanish, Farsi, Greek, Hindi, German … and the list goes on and on.

Megagrowth

When the megacity of Toronto was created in 1998 (previously it was five cities cheek by jowl), it became the fifth largest city in North America.

At 2.4 million, it was bigger than all 12 provinces and territories in Canada except for Ontario, Québec, British Columbia, and Alberta. And today its amoeba-like pods reach far out into what we call the GTA (Greater Toronto Area).

At over 4.6 million, this former colonial outpost on the shoreline of prehistoric Lake Iroquois has now become the financial and international focal point for Canada. We Canadians tend to be a quiet lot (or seem so from the point of view of outsiders) but we do have our family squabbles. And Toronto comes in for its fair share of criticism. (Or is that envy?) Speaking disparagingly of the financial and cultural dominance of Toronto has been de rigueur among many Canadians for a long time, but it’s the most visited city in Canada.

Whether you love it or hate it, mythologize it or escape it, for anyone who has spent time here, Toronto resonates deeply in your consciousness. Toronto is the quintessential Canadian city.

How to get a handle on Toronto

(a) How to get here

Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport (named after the Canadian Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister who conceived the United Nations peacekeeping role) is the busiest in the country.

From here, many airlines have direct and non-stop flights to all major cities and hubs around the world.

(b) Take it from the top: The CN Tower

For the first-time visitor to Toronto, one of the best ways of getting a visual overview of this city, is from the top of Toronto’s most famous landmark, the CN Tower. (I have also found that if life is getting you down, a trip to the Tower is a quick and easy way to look out over it all and get things back into perspective. It can be a great place to lighten up.)

For more extensive information on the CN Tower, go to www.cntower.ca, but here are some essentials:

Height: 1815 feet … and five inches. The publicity people tell me it is the world’s tallest building. It is essentially a major telecommunications tower but also a vertical theme park.

Two million people a year get high at the CN Tower. It took 40 months to build, opened in 1976, serves 16 Canadian television and FM radio stations, and employs 550 people. It is one of Toronto’s premier entertainment destinations and its award-winning 360 restaurant is frequently the venue for major events.

(Because Toronto is also a major convention city and corporate incentive getaway, the CN Tower is also used to create that first big impression.)

The views across the city and out over Lake Ontario are spectacular. Dinner or lunch at the top of the Tower (a “dissolving” restaurant as one friend prone to malapropisms called it) is an experience in itself.

While enjoying a cuisine of regional ingredients you get to watch the world (um … I mean Toronto) go by every 72 minutes. However don’t leave your purse or camera on the window sill; it doesn’t move. The restaurant revolves internally, kind of like Toronto. And if you go to the bathroom, pick an internal visual locator to find your way back because your friends will have moved on while you were freshening up.

The details of the construction of the tower are impressive and its numerous other amenities are quite something. See the website for that, and more.

(The photo is courtesy of the CN Tower.)

(c) The Toronto Tourism and Convention Board

This is probably your first stop when planning your trip to Toronto.

A very traveller-friendly website, this site has what teachers and editors call high readability. You will have no difficulty negotiating your way through it nor finding what you want. Neither, by the way, will you have any difficulty finding your way around Toronto. It is built primarily on a grid system.

To a large degree, the city’s essential layout is due to the building of the streetcar system — initially horse-drawn — in the 19th century. And Toronto’s safe, secure, and increasingly aesthetically pleasing subway system along with a myriad of other rapid transit methods including two LRT (Light Rapid Transit) rail lines, will get you wherever you need to go at one low price.

The TTC system also connects with the regional GO commuter train service which is operated by the Government of Ontario. (GO. Get it? Good.)

(d) Frommer’s Online Toronto

When travelling, my wife and I frequently use the Frommer guides. We have learned through experience that the information is well-researched, practical, and oriented to the average traveller.

In most cases, we have found Frommer’s suggestions, descriptions, and reviews quite accurate. Although not the definitive guide to Toronto (the city is far too complex to be defined in such a way), the Frommer’s material is quite good. I found myself either remembering neat things there are to do here or actually discovering new ones.

The books about Toronto that Frommer’s mentions are also bang on, although I must admit I haven’t read John Bentley Mays Emerald City: Toronto Revisted; so I’ve just reserved it online at my local library.

(e) For the very urbane or just for a good time

This hip (Does one still say that?) website certainly has the look of trendy Toronto. Being a person of a certain age, clubbing and finding the latest in restaurants or piano bars isn’t quite my thing; perhaps that’s because I live here and it’s so easy to get home early to bed.

(f) The Green Tourism Association of Toronto

“Green” awareness is increasingly integral to the Canadian way of life. So I was not surprised to find the Green Tourism Association. Nor was I surprised to find that it makes a lot of sense and that many suppliers to the travel and tourism industry in Toronto also support the Association’s principles. The statistical information in itself is a learning experience, especially for anyone involved in travel and tourism. And as I did, you may find that you have actually been participating more than you thought in green tourism. Toronto’s “Green Facts” are also quite impressive especially the reference to Rouge Park, the largest natural and cultural heritage park in an urban area in North America. Given that I live on the edge of that park, I think I’d better have a closer look.

(g) Where Canada

This magazine is part of “an international network of magazines first published in 1936 expressly for visitors and distributed in more than 3500 leading hotels around the globe.” As a quick and entertaining resource for a city, it’s a good read. In Canada Where covers Calgary, the Canadian Rockies, Edmonton, Georgian Bay, Halifax, Muskoka, Ottawa/Hull, Vancouver, Victoria — and of course Toronto.

(h) Toronto CityPass

If you already know about CityPass, you know what a great money and time-saver it can be. The program is available in Boston, Chicago, Hollywood, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Southern California and … Toronto! (“CityPass is a ticket booklet containing an actual admission ticket to the top attractions in each city. With CityPass, you pay one substantially reduced price and avoid main entrance ticket lines at most attractions.”)

(i) The TTC (Toronto Transit Commission)

Compared to most major world cities, Toronto is safe and walkable. But as in any big city, be sensible. If a big city woman in ruby red shoes approaches you and asks if you have the time, just say, “Sorry, I’m not wearing my watch. I’m on holiday.” And go where other visitors to the city go. It’s that simple. And if you are having difficulty finding your way around, just ask somebody. We’re a friendly lot up here and for the most part tend to keep a civil tongue in our head. It’s the Canadian way, eh.

If you want to get even farther out and about, take the TTC.

Other stuff about Toronto

(a) Toronto is on the shopper’s pilgrimage route

I must admit; I am not a shopper. I have a short attention span. However, I have it on good authority that Toronto is one of the best shop-till-you-drop destinations on the continent. What’s interesting however is that when I was growing up (in the Middle Ages), Canadians who wanted to do some big time shopping went to the nearest U.S. border city. If you were a Torontonian, you went to Buffalo. But the flow has reversed.

For Americans especially, this is in large part because of the favourable exchange rate between the Canadian and U.S. dollars. If you are looking for all your favourite big box stores and chains, there all here. And if you are after designer stuff, that must-buy pair of Gucci shoes will cost you less here.

As for the Canadian shopping scene, we have our own homegrown and international merchandising success stories. The days of beaver pelts are long gone. Here are a few examples:

Roots (www.roots.com). They also designed the most recent Olympic uniforms for the Canadian, American, and Barbadian teams.

The Bay (www.hbc.com). Known originally as The Hudson’s Bay Company, it was incorporated in 1670 and is the oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company in the English-speaking world. The “HBC” is Canada’s largest retailer, operating about 400 stores in four retail groups.

Tilley’s Endurables (http://tilley.com). Alex Tilley’s story is a fun and fascinating one. And I can personally vouch for his hats. (No self-respecting travel journalist should be without one. As my friend Anne used to say, “A good hat is like a well-brewed beer; it comes to a head.” Anne said some strange things. If you are somewhere in the world and you see someone wearing the distinctive Tilley hat, they are probably Canadian or a wannabe.)

Toronto is a fashion capital and has always had a large garment industry. It is also a prime marketplace for art, antiques, and many speciality items. If shopping is on your agenda, (Toronto.com’s shopping page) will direct to where you want to go. And don’t forget that in downtown Toronto, there is a subterranean shopping centre of six interconnected passageways and 1100 stores.

(b) Hollywood North

As previously mentioned, Toronto is a favourite film shoot location. After LA and New York it is actually the largest film and television production centre in North America. The exchange rate, government tax credits, and highly trained film and television production crews account for this. Toronto has doubled for other cities such as Chicago (I told you about that), New York, Boston, Vienna, and even Tokyo, Shanghai, Tehran, and Siberia!

Remember: Cinderella Man, X-Men, The Hurricane, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forester, Bollywood Hollywood, Serendipity, The In-Law?

Well … welcome to Toronto.

Ever heard of these Torontonian actors: John Candy, Jim Carrey, David James Elliott, Paul Gross, Eric McCormick, Mike Myers, Matthew Perry, Donald Sutherland and son Kiefer, Neve Campbell, Catherine O’Hara, Sarah Polley, Raymond Massey, Walter Huston (father of John), Christopher Plummer, Morely Safer, Peter Jennings, (OK, they’re journalists) … oh and “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford? And I musn’t forget the directors David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and Norman Jewison.

Ever heard of Joe Shuster (creator of Superman) or Frank Gehry (an architect of some renown)?

Musicians and bands from Toronto include the genius Glenn Gould, Moe Koffman, Teresa Stratas, Neil Young, Dan Hill, the Irish Rovers, Rush, and the Barenaked Ladies.

(c) Architecture

Toronto is a city of diverse architectural styles (over 22). If you like architecture, be sure to see the following: The Gooderham Building (also known as the Flat Iron building); Union Station (my favourite); The Royal York Hotel (one of the classic railway hotels in Canada); Old and New City Hall (I got married in the former.); all the big bank buildings in the downtown core; Eaton’s Centre (an indoor multilevel retail mall that is at the core of the city).

And if you haven’t seen Toronto’s new Fours Seasons Opera House

or

the newly renovated Royal Ontario Museum (the very avant-garde new section is now known as The Crystal), you are in for a treat.

(d) The Arts Scene and Theatre

As I said, Ça boum! See What to SEE + DO on (Toronto.com)

(e) Gastronomical Toronto

The ethnic diversity of the city makes for good eating in Toronto. When you arrive, pick up copies of Toronto’s annual Dining Guide, WHERE magazine, or Toronto Life magazine, and check out (the dining page on Toronto.com)

A grab bag of facts about Toronto

(a) Each year ther are over 40 major city events in Toronto such as: The International Boat Show, Toronto WinterCity Festival, The International Automobile Show, the very popular One of a Kind Craft Show and Sale, The Toronto International Dragon Boat Race, The Queen’s Plate (Thoroughbred Racing), The Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival, Gay & Lesbian Pride Week, The Toronto Street Festival, The Molson Indy (car race), The Beaches International Jazz Festival, Caribana, The Toronto International Film Festival, The Canadian International Marathon, The International Festival of Authors, The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.

(b) More than 60 per cent of the population of the United States is within a one-hour flight of Toronto.

(c) Toronto is a Huron name that suggests meeting place, or trees in the water. Less flattering names for the city have been Hogtown and Muddy York.

(d) What is known today as Toronto was part of the all-important fur trade route. It was a fortifed French post in 1750 but was burned by the French garrison retreating from the British in 1759 when England won out over France for control of Canada.

(e) After The American Revolution, Toronto was a destination of choice for “Loyalists” who preferred a British way of life to the new American reality. The Loyalist settlements along the upper St. Lawrence River and the lower Great Lakes led to the creation of what was called Upper Canada. It was the first governor, John Graves Simcoe, who named the little town on Lake Ontario York. Simcoe’s view of York was that it would essentially be a garrison to guard against invaders from the U.S. but it quickly became much more than that.

(f) During the war of 1812 when the U.S declared war on Britain, York was raided twice by American forces. For more information on the War and its complex (like all wars) implications and ramifications (even Napoléon Bonaparte played a role) go to the online Canadian Encylopedia at http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com and enter “War of 1812” in the search field. It’s fascinating history, North American style. Since that time Canada and the U.S. have been pretty good buddies despite the occasional transborder squabble.

(g) For a long time Toronto was known as “Toronto the Good” because of its dominant English Protestant population, big on church life and morality. (There was a time in my living memory when you couldn’t get a drink in Toronto on Sunday.) All that of course has changed, not that it has become “Toronto the Wicked” … more “Toronto A Good Time Any Day of the Week.”

(h) The gay sector of the travel and tourism industry is one of the most important markets today. And Toronto is a very gay-friendly city especially since June 28, 2005 when same-sex marriage was approved by Canada’s House of Commons in a vote of 158 in favour of equality and 133 against. For more information on gay Toronto, visit the Gay Guide Toronto. As they say at the CN Tower, “Things in Toronto are looking up.”

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