Downtown Diary: Oot and Aboot in Toronto, Eh!
by Jenni Burton
Posted on December 8, 2007
I know I’m late on my column, but I was incredibly busy the last two weeks finishing up some business so we could embark on a family trip across the Northern Border to Toronto to celebrate my friend Bonnie’s nuptials. I don’t know if any of you have had to prepare a family of four (including a toddler) for a looooooong flight, a three-hour layover at O’Hare, a three-hour long drive from Buffalo, and a cold they’ve never experienced before, but it’s arduous to say the least. This was the first time I had taken the kids on an airplane, and though I was sure my 7-year-old son would be fine, I had to pack for the possibility of a very cranky, inconsolable 20-month-old.
I have had some terrible experiences with airport security before. As a child traveling with a mother whose U.S. passport read, “birthplace: Jerusalem” didn’t help. Traveling with an aunt with a Jordanian passport didn’t help either. But suffice to say I was pleasantly surprised by the polite and professional manner of our local TSA employees as they tried to make the systematic chipping away of our civil liberties a little more tolerable. I don’t know about you, but I found it rather disconcerting to explain to my son the concept of collective punishment when he asked why we had to take the baby’s shoes, coat and sweater off too. Who would be stupid or crazy enough to try to carry a weapon through airport security? Oh yeah, that’s right. Mayor Wardy.
After a short flight, a long layover in Chicago, and another short flight, we found ourselves in Buffalo -- one of a long list of former industrial cities that are trying out Richard Florida’s prescription for economic rebound. Freeway banners advertised the importance of the arts in Buffalo, and newly renovated factories advertised loft space.
We proceeded from Buffalo to the U.S. side of Niagra Falls. We followed the cloud of mist, found parking, and took an incredibly frigid walk through the state park to marvel at a river unencumbered by dams and irrigation. It was amazing.
The downtowns on both the U.S. and Canadian side of Niagra Falls are built around the park, for obvious reasons. While the U.S. side has an understated quality, the Canadian side resembles a permanent carnival, complete with a couple of haunted houses, wax museums, a Ferris wheel, a water park, the Guinness World Records museum, a Lego brick city, franchised restaurants, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, casinos, and movie theaters. One thing I found a little strange was the lack of public restrooms at the park. Really ... it’s a waterfall. My poor son was dying while we tried to find a convenience store on the U.S. side with public restrooms. Was this a lack of public planning? Or was this contrived to encourage needy tourists to patronize businesses?
As we approached Toronto, the suburbs faded into a garden of glass and steel condominiums advertising “loft space.” I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that condos were now to be called “lofts.” My understanding was that a loft generally comprised a floor of a dilapidated office or factory building in a cheap-rent part of town inhabited by college students who reuse coffee grounds so they can buy beer and cigarettes, not 1,100 square feet of glass and concrete on the fifteenth floor of a shiny new complex sold to professionals for $200,000. But what do I know?
We stayed with Bonnie during our trip, and she lives in the arts district known as Queen West by the hipsters and otherwise known as Parkdale. Though much of the area is gentrified, there is still a diversity of business. There are still cheap take-out places, local coffee houses, and essential services like coin-op laundries, cobblers, discount groceries, bodegas, and tailors who intermingle with the expensive boutiques, Starbucks, and fancy restaurants. Flop houses have been renovated into fancy hotels, like the Drake, where one can buy a $12 martini or an $18 burger (remember the Canadian dollar is now worth the same as the U.S.), and rents average $1,200 a month. But considering that the minimum wage in Ontario is $8 an hour, it’s not so bad. One Canadian comedy show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, sarcastically remarked that this was Ontario’s little thank you to its large immigrant community. Several buildings have public notices declaring their impending demolition for condos, and billboards every 100 feet declare condo space coming soon. These new complexes have ridiculously pompous names like “The L,” and, I kid you not, “Bohemian Embassy.” As Moon Unit Zappa would say, “Like, gag me with a spoon.”
The apartment block where Bonnie and her husband Bonz live is slated for demolition, but they are happy with the impending change. They have been promised first dibs on a condo, which they will pay the same monthly amount, but what they would pay in rent will now be their mortgage. The building in which they live is a modified factory space, with incredibly cozy radiant heating and creaky wood floors. Though it does have that certain dilapidated chic, it is in substantially worse repair than my building, and is much more expensive, so more power to them.
One of the truly beautiful things about Toronto is its amazing public transportation. Throughout the city center, which is about the size of El Paso’s entire University, central and south side, trolley access is plentiful, buses run in a timely manner, and even at nights and on weekends trolleys run every 12 minutes. During the week you can catch a trolley the second you step outside and its connection meets you almost immediately after you step out. Bicycle docks are plentiful. Even in the most bitter weather, there were still bicyclists out. Drivers are incredibly courteous for a major city. This may have something to do with the fact that it is both expensive and difficult to obtain a drivers license in Canada, hopefully ensuring that there are no wingnuts out on the road.
As for chain stores, they were mostly relegated to Yonge Street in the heart of Downtown. Yonge Street, for lack of a better analogy, is the Broadway of Toronto. Theatres, chain stores like H&M and the Gap, Future Shop (which is a big box electronics retailer), enormous video screens, and the occasional strip club present themselves with the enormous signage typical of New York. There are plenty of small locally owned stores to soften the corporate feel, and there was a plethora of ethnic cuisine.
Kensington Market is the place to go for inexpensive everything. Certain areas reminded me a LOT of El Paso Street, with its countless tchotckes shops and bodegas. All of the grocery stores presented their vegetables and fruit outside, no matter the weather, and an entire street was devoted to vintage clothing. One building we entered reminded me of the tourist Mercado in Juarez (the one across from the Cathedral). The mall like setup was divided into stalls. There we found a small record shop, a vintage clothing store, and a store selling silk-screened clothing and comics by a local artist. The locals told us that Kensington is also one of the more affordable places to live in the City Center. One girl we met told us she was paying $675 a month for a 1-bedroom apartment all utilities included, which is comparable to Sunset Heights. But that may change too. Kensington Lofts is a development above a row of shops, and I’m sure more of these developments are in the works.
Bonnie took care of the sleeping kids Tuesday evening while we stepped out for a couple of hours. We went to the Drake, which was expensive, but very nice. On the roof of the Drake Hotel is a video screen, which plays films every night, and there’s a rooftop garden. Video screens were also placed in the main bar, and there was even a tiny video screen above the ATM playing the Jean Luc-Godard film “Masculin Féminine.” The main bar hosted folk music and a very toasty fireplace. From there we took the trolley (which runs 24 hours) to the Horseshoe Tavern, a great venue where we saw the Waking Eyes, a very good band from Winnepeg. We walked a couple of miles to Kensington (why we walked, I don’t know, but I was freezing my buns off) and hung out at a bar/Chinese restaurant called Last Temptation where the smell of lo main and the good drinks lulled us into a stupor. We took a cab (cabs hover in Kensington all night) and we hung out at the Bovine, a club in Queen West where Bonnie’s husband plays frequently, and then took a cab back home. The nightlife wasn’t as busy as we thought, but it was a Tuesday night after all.
We visited a couple of tourist traps while we were in town. The view at the CN Tower was amazing to say the least, but the real star of the trip was the Science Centre. We spent four hours at the Science Centre and still didn’t scratch the surface of the exhibits. All of the exhibits were interactive and the Technology and Arts exhibit took the cake. Some of the many interactive displays included a shoe making demonstration in which you used recycled materials to design and create your own footwear, music mixing using a room sized MIDI interface, record pressing, and a stop motion animation console in which you could make your own animated short films. It was wonderful to see people’s tax dollars and private donations actually used.
Shops were not open on Queen West late except for weekends. The abundance and cheapness of fresh local produce, of free range and organic groceries was refreshing. Sushi was incredibly inexpensive, thanks to the advantages of living near large bodies of water. A party tray of 20 pieces of nigiri and three rolls ran $25 as opposed to the $40 and up that a sushi place would charge here.
Toronto prides itself on its tolerance and diversity. The immigrant population in Canada is incredibly diverse, from Somalis, Ethiopians, West Indians, Mexicans, Arabs, Bengalis, Pashtoons, Vietnamese, Thais, Koreans, Cubans, Turks, Persians, Armenians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians, Latvians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Greeks, and every other color of the rainbow, one can find a representative from all these ethnic groups in a single neighborhood. Kensington Market ebbed and flowed between its status as the official Asian neighborhood, and the Indian Subcontinent coffee shop owners, the Russian tchotkes shops, the hipster vintage stores, the Chinese green grocers, the Irish pubs, the record shops that carried mostly reggae and Caribbean music, and the hippie botanicas and headshops. Yes, certain neighborhoods had a higher concentration of their respective ethnic group, but it was nothing like New York, Chicago or Boston’s ethnically segregated neighborhoods. Even twenty minutes (driving) away from the city center, one could find an Indian restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, and a shawerma stand on the same block.
On the other hand, I met a young woman of Ojibwe decent at Last Temptation who told me horror stories about her treatment as a Native Canadian in elementary, middle, and high school. Native Canadians are referred to by the arcane British term “aboriginal”, and though the government has made concessions for amends (like giving Native Canadians completely free social services, as opposed to subsidized), the sentiment of resentment from non-Native Canadians is palpable. My reply to both parties is this: talk to a Native American who grew up on the Res and see what THEY have to say about injustice, and really, you try paying $500 a month for health insurance (for just yourself) and then talk to me about your healthcare. The latter Canadian sentiment (ooh, it’s not fair that they get free healthcare and we have to pay $10 co-pay, boo hoo) has given the Mediterranean population reason to dub White Canadians “mange cake” or “cake-eaters” in the sense of, “What, that’s something to complain about? Try living in a third-world country for a while. Ingrate.” The Canadian perspective is “Well, we’ve always been nice to you so why do you have to be racist?” and “If you don’t complain now, it might just get worse.” What this all boils down to though, the fact that people are people, and people will always have something to bitch about and people will always have their personal prejudices. Some are just more obvious than others.
If Canadians' tolerance was ever in question, a quick look at the local comedy channel sets things straight. “Newfies,” the residents of Newfoundland and Labrador, are the butt of almost every Canadian joke. These jokes play on the bumpkin stereotype: with strong Gaelic accents and a hunter’s lifestyle, “Newfies” make easy targets for the more “cosmopolitan” Canadians. It doesn’t help that they have their own time zone a half-hour later than EST. Another such easy target is the Quebecois, whose desire for autonomy and legendary bitterness makes easy comedic material. To be fair, Torontonians were also the butt of many a joke, much like New Yorkers are in the States.
I personally found Torontonians to be very friendly, and I don’t live there so I’m unqualified to complain and oblivious to certain nuances and inside jokes that a local would know intimately. I was lucky that I had both a local and a transplant guiding me around, so I got some perspective that most tourists would not be privy to. I hope that I conveyed this perspective adequately.
It was great spending some quality time in a big city with plenty to offer any visitor, but I was happy when my journey was over and I was home with my tolerable winter weather, my own bed, my friends, my neighborhood, and the devils that I know.
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