Great Cities: Toronto

by John Spragge

After spending years in the United States and Canada, for most of my life in the eastern part of the continent, I have come to the conclusion this part of the world has many big cities, but only two truly great cities: Boston and Toronto. By great, I mean cities large enough to have the variety which gives a city its soul, making the life of the city equal or more than equal to the sum of the lives lived in them. Put simply, I mean cities that can bear comparison with great European cities such as London, Paris, and Amsterdam.

 My first memory of the American perception of Toronto comes from the nineteen seventies, the time Toronto crawled out from under its reputation as "Toronto the good", that insufferably priggish city which made its money exporting liquor but frowned on drink, and whose most prominent citizens seemed to want to transport themselves to Britain, to an infinitely more respectable existence. Then, as now, outsiders found Toronto an unusually hard city to comprehend, and many Canadians knew better than to try it. Americans coming to Toronto in the seventies saw a cosmopolitan city which worked, and someone dubbed it "New York run by the Swiss". At the time, New York had skidded to the edge of bankruptcy, and Toronto seemed proof that a great metropolis could work.

Toronto has proven its admirers right many times, yet the secret of its success seems curiously elusive. The Algonquin peoples first traded where the two rivers meet the lake, and the name they gave the place reflects this activity. If I understand the name "Toronto", correctly, it comes closest to the Persian word "bazaar". And Toronto lives up to this name. More than any other place I have worked, visited, or lived, Toronto has the relationship with commerce that the rain forest has with biology: an extraordinarily exuberant diversity of all kinds. Walk along one of the major or minor streets of Toronto, and you pass a dizzying variety and number of shops and restaurants, mostly one of a kind. Toronto plays host to all the usual franchises, but the sheer number of individual businesses drowns out and subdues the franchises' voice of commercial uniformity.

Nearly every city has a commercial thoroughfare: the "main drag". If the grim suburban black holes which go by the name "mega mall" and "factory outlet" haven't sucked them dry most cities have a street with some commercial vitality and variety. But in Toronto, every major street has the same flaming vitality, spilling across the sidewalks in great bouquets from flower shops, spreading out in tables from restaurants. The amount of money in the neighbourhood has nothing to do with its vitality; the shops in the poorer parts of town merely have lower prices, and in fact, the "smartest" shopping district of Yorkdale presents the most subdued and bland appearance. The true character of Toronto comes out most strongly on the streets many tourists never see: the Bloor Street West Corridor, with Honest Ed's the most famously flamboyant commercial establishment of Toronto, and possibly of anywhere else. On the streets known to few tourists, Dundas and Mount Pleasant and Bayview, the character of Toronto emerges most strongly.

Unlike Boston, whose founders proposed a city on the hill and a beacon to the world, the founders of Toronto hardly intended it to exist at all. They had a capital for Ontario on the shores of Presqu'ile Bay prepared and surveyed. Fate made Toronto the capital when a ship carrying the Ontario elite left for a trial at the new capital, and vanished without a trace. Ever since, Toronto's character has developed outside the bounds of the official pronouncements. To a great extent, the earnest intentions of thinkers, scholars, and believers have created the character of Boston; the scholars come to Toronto not to teach, but to learn.

Toronto stands, to some extent, as a corrective to the ills, and a counterpoint to the virtues, of Boston. Its greatness does not come from dreaming great dreams, but from fulfilling each of the obligations of the day well. Boston stands as a product of inspiration; Toronto offers perspiration. Where Boston offers the soaring dream of the pilgrim, Toronto offers the reality of people, working together on the day's tasks, who can still create, together, something worthy of a pilgrimage. Toronto's real character has never stemmed from the official pronouncements, but from its people, who worked each day to make a humane, liveable city, and found in surprise that they had achieved greatness along the way.

John Spragge is a Canadian software developer presently living in Michigan.