City Guide: Toronto
Toronto has a talent for reinvention that would be the envy of any pop star. Not long ago, the city was known as the Belfast of the North for its abstemious ways. In the 1970s, Sir Peter Ustinov quipped that Toronto was New York run by the Swiss, creating an image that still lingers of a town that is cosmopolitan but politely reserved. In the 1990s, the United Nations named Toronto the world’s most international city, in no small part because by then, the former British outpost was home to more than 90 different ethnic groups from all over the world.
Then in 2003 came the crisis. Toronto became one of the first cities outside of southern China to be slammed by the SARS virus, and it was the only city outside of Asia that the World Health Organization warned people not to visit. The effect on Toronto was both negligible and monumental. On the one hand, the city’s residents went about their business as usual, with nary a face mask in sight, happy to score tables easily at many of the city’s best restaurants. But those tables were empty because both business and leisure travelers were steering clear of the city. The tourism trade was in tatters, and it seemed as if the city’s business and cultural life were going to suffer as well.
But Toronto, maverick that it is, saw an opportunity to make itself over yet again. Instead of trying to quietly fold up the memory of the SARS panic, Toronto hosted a blockbuster event to herald the city’s comeback. Dubbed SARSapalooza by local wags, the event was headlined by the Rolling Stones and turned into Canada’s largest rock concert in history. The city put forward a bold new face in other ways, too. Suddenly, it seemed like the right time to re-create its key arts institutions: Frank Gehry was tapped to design an inspiring new space for the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Royal Ontario Museum began work to build a network of crystal galleries envisioned by Daniel Libeskind. Construction began on the opera house that will be the permanent home of the Canadian Opera Company.
The city has changed in other ways in the past few years. Almost half of Canada’s new immigrants now come to Toronto. The city’s downtown was never abandoned, as in many of its American counterparts, but only recently has the “core” started to expand. Neighborhoods that have languished for years are being reclaimed and revitalized by local artists and entrepreneurs. Take Parkdale, a once gloomy area west of the downtown core that has been designated the Art & Design District. East of the downtown core is the new Distillery Historic District, which housed a 19th-century industrial complex and is now home to several dance and theater troupes, art galleries and bistros.
Here’s the kicker: Toronto has got the style and showiness of a great metropolis. But it is still a startlingly clean and safe city. And yes, it’s still polite.
The city’s characterThe strangest thing about Toronto is its modesty. Adopted Torontonians can be the exception, such as Jane Jacobs, the urban philosopher who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She moved to Toronto in the late 1960s and has written extensively about the city’s thriving community life ever since. But born-and-bred Torontonians will seldom tell you their city is the best in the world, despite international studies that say Toronto has one of the highest quality-of-life standards anywhere
It’s impossible to understand local reticence without understanding Toronto’s position within Canada. Toronto is the economic engine of the country: The Toronto Stock Exchange is the most important national exchange, and the headquarters of Canada’s five largest banks are located in the city, as are the headquarters of about 80 percent of foreign banks operating in the country. Toronto is also the leader in education: The University of Toronto is consistently the top-ranked college in Canada; York University is famous for its law school, and Ryerson for its journalism school. Toronto is the heart of Canada’s cultural life: National troupes such as the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada are based here, the Canadian Broadcasting Company is headquartered in the city, and it’s home to renowned authors such as Margaret Atwood, Rohinton Mistry and Barbara Gowdy. And Toronto is known as Hollywood North for its entertainment industry. It’s still a favorite place for American productions to film, and the Toronto International Film Festival every September is the largest movie event in the world after Cannes.
Given this impressive résumé, it’s easier to understand why the rest of the country considers Toronto arrogant, and why Torontonians go out of their way to prove otherwise. Imagine New York, Los Angeles and Boston all rolled into one—that’s Toronto’s status in Canada. Just about the only thing the city doesn’t house is the federal government (though as the capital of the province of Ontario, Toronto is home to the provincial legislature).
What Torontonians want you to know about their cityTorontonians display a level of openness unlikely in any city, let alone a city of Toronto’s size and magnitude. Toronto isn’t just diverse; it’s the most diverse city in the world. Torontonians don’t look to settle their differences; they are inspired by them
Toronto offers innovative architecture, a theater district, hundreds of ethnic restaurants, distinct neighborhood character, open-minded legislation, a multitalented workforce, museums that are themselves works of art, storied street corners, cleanliness, the International Film Festival, parks, a lake, and the celebration of humanity. Toronto is a city built with and for the limitless imaginations of the people who come here. And it is these people who make Toronto the city of imagination.
Top five topics of long-standing interest to Torontonians
- The Waterfront regentrification
- Hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs)
- The rebranding of Toronto
- Tourism to Toronto from China
- Toronto restaurants, hotels, theater, nightlife
Hilary Davidson is a freelance writer born and raised in Toronto, but currently living in New York. Email Hilary at firstname.lastname@example.org.