Toronto - "Land of Contrasts"

Remember: travel changes your brain

A friend of mine made it known that he was thinking of taking a trip to Toronto and would I be interested in going. I didn't think I could get affordable tickets on short notice but I did. So it was that I spend 4+ days in this beautiful city.

I expected Toronto to be:

  • A clean city
  • A safe city
  • A beautiful city
  • A friendly city
  • A city with a lot of green
  • A city with some Maple trees in it

On the whole, I was not disappointed.

It's often been said that you figure out the perfect way to study for a given class, just about the time the class is finished. So it was for this student.

At the last minute, I sent email to Everythingites who I believed to be residents of Toronto. This was less than optimal on my part. I was forced to play the unwitting role played by so many other hapless American Tourists with the map, the camera and the whole bit. No checkered shorts though, sorry. My friend was mortified that I carried the camera. He was sure that locals would be casting aspersions upon us as we went. I endeavored to conceal the camera under a black Canadian army surplus jacket I bought in the Army Surplus store on Yonge Street.

Back to the topic, the thing I found most intriguing about the city was the incredible variety of different cultures intermixing everywhere. I take this to be partly a result of the liberal Canadian immigration policy which allow floods of new people to come in all the time. They do that in the US also, but its called illegal immigration. I am accustomed to people in Chicago and New York speaking in many languages when I overhear random conversations on the street. But a stroll down the street in Toronto means you may meet people from 20 different cultures in a single block.

The next most surprising thing was the lack of Fast Food Chains. Or indeed, any kind of chain store. I was heartened to find a Wendy's in the center of Greek Town, otherwise known as Danforth Village. There are a few McDonalds and Burger Kings as well. But the vast majority of eateries are hole in the wall restaurants many of which have outdoor seating. This I found enormously gratifying. It was nice to see the small mom and pop stores where they still give personal service and remember your name. I had heard years ago that Canada made it difficult or impossible for US Companies to open any businesses in Canada. That seems pointlessly xenophobic to me at the time. But now that I see the results, I say, "More power to you!" It seems like a perfect city to hold a convention for The Slow Food Movement. The streets were a cocophany of old and new buildings and signs. On my first day there Mordecai Richler was on the front page of every paper in the city, having just died. Some of the best advice I ever received was "When visiting a city, always use its public transportation." They have a pretty well developed public transit system including electric and natural gas powered vehicles. It's known as the TTC. I recommend you look it over carefully before you go, it's well worth understanding it. They have the old fashioned electric trams like they have in New Orleans. In the subway they have those cool signs which say Mind the Gap like they used to have in the UK. The words Canada and Canadian seemed to be in evidence quite a bit. But I bet the words America and American seem equally ubiquitous when people visit the states. I just never notice the latter...

Another big difference is the incredible proliferation of Posters. Where I come from there are no posters whatsoever, unless they are taped on the inside of a restaurant window. It's illegal, mind you. But in Toronto, they attach these plastic sleeves to every streetlamp specifically to accommodate these posters. There are also people who will do your postering for you. I saw flyers for Ted's Postering Service and Dr. Jaime's Events. It seems to me that the use of these posters makes it possible for much smaller venues with little or no ad budget to get the word out about their performances. This in turn adds greatly to a prolific local scene. I was quite envious of this. I also noticed that judging by the people on the street, you're far more likely to run into a crazy ideological teenager who still thinks that clear, free, rational thinking can save the world.

In the first or second day we went to the AGO, Art Gallery of Ontario. It seemed oddly named to me, it's not a gallery but instead a full fledged art museum. Square footage wise it's about the same size as the Art Institute of Chicago. The best part of this was a show of Canadian artist Greg Curnoe's work. Greg pulls together a lot of influences that I like, from Kurt Schwitters and Hanna Hoch's collages to Joseph Cornell's boxes to the Fluxus sensibility of the 60's on into conceptualism and even elements of Mail Art it was all there. I loved it. There was a lot of the historical exhibits you expect to find in a major metropolitan art museum. I was amazed to find a quote from Jacques Derrida prominently displayed on the wall. I wish now I had written it down.

I was Jonesing for an Internet connection so I ducked into one of the many cybercafes. Sure enough there was an email from birdonmyshoulder*. She had several recommendations one of which was Little Italy which is on College Street. We were part of the way there so we thought we'd walk the rest of the way. It didn't seem far on the map. Our big error: we went there during the day. It's far more interesting at night. There are lots of cafes and restaurants. The streets are very small scale, no big buildings in sight. There's also a mix of hardware stores, vegetable and fruit stands and convenience markets with no brand names. People actually live in this neighborhood. I heard from my friend that there's a law which states that any building MUST have a living space in it.

There are small trees on the street, a mixture of sunlight and shade. There are big sudden gusts of wind. We settle on an outdoor restaurant to eat lunch. The food is good but there's only one waitress for about 12 tables. There are lots of flower boxes. We engage in people watching. The trolleybus run right down the middle of the street in Little Italy.

I saw a place that simply had the name "Culture", but it was a stinkin' yogurt shop.

Another place recommended by birdonmyshoulder* was a place called "The Green Room" which caters to a Film/Cinema/Actor crowd. It's on west Bloor Street. It was easy to get my directions backwards (which way is North?) so I ended up walking in the wrong direction from the subway stop. I walked into what seemed like Korea Town. When I went into the Internet cafe the menus on Internet Explorer were all in Korean. This neighborhood had a decent Seed Index, I would say a +8. I finally found the place, which I would never have done without the directions I got in email. It's only accessible through the alley around back. There is a sign in the alley though. I was a bit aprehensive because I thought I might look out of place. It would be impossible to look out of place there. Rarely have I seen such a great mix of people. Please see the full write up: The Green Room Cafe.

Another place we went was Queen Street W. It reminded my friend of 2nd Avenue in Greenwich Village. We walked by Active Surplus where we spent time gawking at all the electronic surplus through the windows. We found a place called Pages Books and Magazines which had a LOT of interesting stuff. Please see full W/U. We ate at a restaurant called the Bamboo Club which was quite enjoyable. They have a small outdoor patio on the ground floor, a much bigger roof garden, and a decent size indoor club where there is a big stage. Alas we saw no performance during the day. It was Carribean food.

We also happened to be there during the Toronto Street Festival. Two full days of music, dancing and activities for kids. We sat in on some performances, one that really impressed me was a group called "Saneria" who played a fusion of Flamenco/Caribbean/Middle Eastern. They had a prominent Singer/Guitarist and an Electric Violin. They were playing on the FIDO Global Grooves stage.

On the last day we made it down to the Harbourfront area where we visited a gallery called The Power Plant. We also took a boat ride that toured the Toronto Islands. We didn't get the opportunity to get off and visit, the boat made a circle and came right back to shore. This was my first and only experience of Lake Ontario. I did not see any fish. There was one of those Tall Ships moored near where we got off our Tour boat called the "Kajama".

Canada is a huge mass of land with 30 million people on it. There are 11.5 Million in Ontario Province. Toronto is approximately 5,867.73 sq. Km. Toronto Metro area has about 5 million people in it. In 1996, 1.7 million of Toronto's residents were immigrants.

I was very glad I went.

Be sure to see The Toronto Metanode for other insight.

Thanks to birdonmyshoulder*for giving me good suggestions on places to go.

Sources: Statistics Canada, 1996 Census

Last Updated 10.22.01

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