I`m going to say something very shocking, and deeply unfashionable. People around the country, and beyond, will be shaking their heads in bewilderment. “Did she really say that?” they’ll ask. “That can’t be right.” You might question my sanity, depending on where you yourself live.
Here it is: I love Toronto.
I don’t want to live anywhere else: not Vancouver, not New York, not London, not Montreal. Right here.
There. I’ve said it.
Some people won’t admit to this, but there are others out there like me. We aren’t usually vocal enough about how we feel; sometimes it’s easier to keep quiet in the face of the sneering we get from the rest of the world. (The Toronto Star did go on record, though: check it out here http://www.thestar.com/Entertainment/article/596779). One of the few people who will also admit that he loves the place is a transplanted Londoner I met recently; he moved here about 10 years ago and has no intention of ever leaving.
The rest of the country hates us (never mind that many of them have never been here), with the possible exception of Vancouverites, who claim to just pity us. Tell someone in Vancouver that you’re from Toronto, and they’ll say cheerfully, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll like it much better here.” Tell someone from the East Coast that you actually LIKE living in Toronto, and they’ll stare at you blankly and ask, very seriously, “Why?” Montrealers would just look down their noses at you, thinking that being French and stylish means they automatically win. (They don`t.)
Even some Torontonians bash the city. They’ll bitch endlessly about the TTC, or the smog, or the traffic, or the cost of housing, or how much property tax they paid last year. They complain that Toronto isn`t like New York, or London, or that it`s too busy and crowded and dangerous compared with the `burbs, or small towns.
Here’s what they forget: this city rocks.
No, it isn`t New York, or London. It doesn`t need to be, and I don’t want it to be; I like it for what it is. There’s a reason this place is one of the few cities where the downtown population is actually increasing, instead of everyone fleeing to the suburbs; people want to live here. It`s big enough that you can be anonymous when you want, but with neighbourhoods where you can actually get to know the folks next door.
Within walking distance from my front door, I can find restaurants serving the cuisine of just about any country in the world. (Including our own: there’s an entire restaurant devoted to poutine, and another one where you’re encouraged to bring your own marijuana.) I can wander neighbourhoods where I won’t hear a word of English, and where I definitely won’t blend into the crowd. Something like 180 different nationalities call this city home, and somehow we all manage to co-exist peacefully; it`s the most multi-cultural place on earth, more so than London or New York or anywhere else you`d care to name. There`s a Little Italy, and a Little India, and a Little Portugal, and too many Chinatowns to count; there`s even a Little Malta (with the largest Maltese community outside, well, Malta).
I can walk almost anywhere I want to go. If I don`t feel like walking, I can hop on the TTC; unlike some Toronto people I know, I actually like it. It isn`t perfect, by any means, but it`s pretty good, compared to the public transit in some other cities I`ve visited! I can actually manage to get off at the stop I want even in rush hour; for that alone it beats London. And it`s safe; it was a treat coming back from South America and realizing I didn`t have to worry about my bag getting slashed or my pockets picked. Most of all, I won’t ever have to own a car as long as I have a Metropass. If I really want to, I can even take my Christmas tree home on the subway.
I can find green spaces to get lost in, wilderness trails in a huge urban park from which I can’t even hear the distant hum of city traffic. I can take a 10-minute ferry ride to cottage country, if I really want to get away from it all, and hang out on the Toronto Islands for a day (if I`m feeling very daring, I can bare it all at Hanlan`s Point). I can run or bike or roller-blade for kilometre after kilometre, along the shores of one of the largest lakes in the world. And, nowadays, it’s even safe to swim in it again.
I can see Broadway shows, BEFORE they make it to Broadway, and opera that is the equal of any production in the world. I can cheer on poets good and bad at underground poetry slams on Queen Street West. I can play spot-the-celebrity at a huge international film festival (I saw George Clooney once, but haven`t yet managed Johnny Depp). I can go watch Canada’s favourite game played by the boys in blue, a team so steeped in history and with such passionate fans that every single game sells out; it doesn’t even matter that they haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. And if I don`t feel like hockey, there`s basketball, and soccer, and lacrosse, and baseball; occasionally there`s even cricket.
In the summer, I can choose from at least half a dozen festivals most weekends. I can go hear the best jazz musicians in the world in not one, but two jazz festivals. I can hear free opera and classical music and indie rock and pop in outdoor concerts around the city. (Country music’s a bit harder to find, but as I don’t like it much anyway, I don’t really mind that.) I can take in fringe theatre at venues around the city, or catch a performance of the Bard in a magical outdoor space in High Park. I can eat deep-fried butter or other artery-clogging delights at the venerable Canadian National Exhibition (“the Ex”, as we call it). Millions of people can crowd the streets at one of these events, and nobody even gets mugged. The entire population of the city takes to patios in May, and stays there till at least September.
It isn`t always summer, of course. But it’s a proper summer when it arrives – hazy, humid and scorchingly hot, with tropical thunderstorms to keep things interesting. Forget the mild spring-ish temperatures and occasional drizzle that passes for summer in Vancouver. Seasons are emphatic, to say the least, and I like that: I like having them clearly defined and changing with the time of year (I`d get bored with 365 days of sunshine and mild temperatures). Give me snow in January and 45 degrees Celsius in July any day; it sometimes changes abruptly from one to the other with barely a pause for spring.
And the sun doesn`t disappear for months on end in winter – it might get cold, and sometimes even snows (occasionally giving the rest of the country more cause to poke fun at us, when we call in the army to dig us out), but it`s often brilliantly sunny and crisp. So take that, London or Vancouver, you can keep your dreary gray non-seasons. If you get too cold here, you can just go underground: if you lived and worked in the right places, you could spend the entire winter in the PATH without ever having to brave the outdoors.
To know the city, and to truly appreciate it, you have to get to know its neighbourhoods. There’s my own ‘hood in “Boystown” or the gay-bourhood where the world’s largest Pride festival runs rampant in late June. Further afield, I can wander streets wildly different from my own, less than half an hour’s walk from home:
* To the south, there’s Regent’s Park, a less-than-perfect 1960’s experiment in social housing that’s long been one of the poorest parts of the city and as close as Toronto gets to a “slum”, but for all that it’s still not so bad. Down by the lake, there`s the Distillery District, with my favourite coffee shop in the city, or St. Lawrence Market, where I can eat my way around the world without even leaving the building.
* To the north, I’d reach first Yorkville, former hippie enclave that’s now awash in trendy restaurants and designer shops for the beautiful people, and then Rosedale, where the smell of old money lingers in the air.
* To the west, there’s the ivy-clad walls of U of T (so much more beautiful than my own alma mater of Waterloo, within its 1960’s neo-Soviet architecture), and Kensington Market further on, where current-day hippies rejoice in vintage clothing stores and vegan-friendly markets.
* To the east, there’s Cabbagetown, probably my favourite neighbourhood of all, named for the cabbages that the original Irish inhabitants used to grow in their front yards when they first arrived here after fleeing the famine back home; the Victorian homes are mostly gorgeously restored and I love to spend a sunny afternoon wandering its streets. Further out, there’s Riverdale, where I used to live; born as a lawless enter-at-own-risk slum east of the Don, these days it`s a pretty civilized and friendly neighbourhood, with an eclectic choice of restaurants on the Greektown stretch of the Danforth.
I like it all.
Besides, this city is the only place I`ve ever been that understands shoes are important enough to have a whole museum dedicated to them; how can I not love it?