Sunday, August 18, 2013

Toronto Redux

While it wasn't the main point of my vacation, I was certainly glad to have a chance to visit Toronto again last week. I'm having a little trouble reconstructing my journeys there. I lived there from 1993-94 while doing a Masters at UT. Then I visited roughly once a year with the last major trip being in 1997 (a while after my mother died and my brother and I had wrapped up her affairs) to go to a conference, as well as get some solace from friends still in Toronto. Then there was a long period when I didn't visit, as I finished my studies at Northwestern and began full-time work in transportation planning. I think my next trip was around 2002 or 2003 (after we had returned from living in New York), though the only passport stamp is for Jan. 2004. That just seems a bit unlikely that I would have visited Toronto in January, esp. as I would have just gotten back from visiting DC for TRB. On the other hand, my wife was 5 months' pregnant and maybe we just thought this would be the last major vacation we would get for a while (which is sort of true and also not true as we headed off to Europe (with our son) in July 2005). But we didn't have a vacation without the kid(s) for years afterwards. So perhaps 2004 was my last visit until last year (2012). I do recall that it was grey and chilly. I also remember meeting my friend Annika and her husband, Ric. I only remember that my wife didn't really think Toronto was much like Chicago, despite what everyone says...

Anyway, I actually started making trips to Victoria and Vancouver in 2010 and 2011 before taking a position here. I had two opportunities to get to Toronto in 2012, but only one of them panned out. That trip was basically a training session. While I did manage to sneak out in the evenings to see the revamped AGO (Wed.) and ROM (Fri.)* and then I saw Anthony and Cleopatra on Thurs., I didn't really have much of a sense of what the city was like anymore. I stayed an extra day at Annika's, but then we went out to the McMichael collection in Kleinburg, so I still didn't really experience the city.

Last week was my first time with a lot of time, relatively speaking, to explore the city during the day. I landed in the afternoon and it took forever to get to the hotel. I really can't remember Toronto traffic being that bad, but it is quite gridlocked. Some of this has to do with summer construction and some is just due to relatively inefficient land-use patterns. I noticed how many more people were cycling than in 1993-94, despite having a mayor who has more or less declared war on cyclists. I didn't really have a lot of time Wed., but I did go back to AGO and then grabbed some food in the Kensington Market/Chinatown area. That started to bring me back. I did come through that area a fair bit as a grad. student. Thurs. I wandered around the most. I went on the Queen St. streetcar, though I didn't really have time to wander into all the funky little shops. I then went up to the Toronto Reference Library and did a bit of research. I checked out Yonge and Bloor, which didn't seem terribly different (even a couple of the book stores I used to go to are still there). I spent some time at Spadina and Bloor, which has changed quite a bit. I checked out the Ai Weiwei statues on display at Nathan Philips Square near the City Hall. Finally I wandered through the Annex and ended up meeting some folks from HDR for dinner.

I really enjoyed my visit. What I really like (in the area close to the core) is that there are so many small quirky shops. I would say there is less chain-activity than in comparable neighbourhoods in Chicago and even Manhattan (St. Mark's Place is so distressing/depressing to me that I no longer visit). Of the various places I've been, Toronto's texture strikes me as pretty close to that of Brooklyn (which is a compliment actually). Of course, it is much safer than New York and certainly than Chicago.

I probably am falling a bit too hard (again) for a city that is bound to disappoint me in some ways, mostly because of the heavy suburban influence on the City Council (and that means infrastructure is neglected and the transportation politics are a bit crazy to say the least). I probably will have to live further out than I would like because of high housing prices, and that will be a stumbling block that I will have to work on. But in a lot of ways it felt like the city that I enjoyed so much back in the early 90s. There are certainly fewer 2nd run movie theatres than back in the day, but there are still several in existence (better than Vancouver or Chicago and perhaps even New York, though of course Film Forum is still around). It looks like quite a few of the used book stores I used to visit are still open, though one or two have relocated. I suspect that is due to the proximity of UT (in a sensible location, unlike the ridiculous locations of the universities in Vancouver/Burnaby).

I did notice how many dopey millenials there are with their eyes glued to their phones, but I guess that is everywhere now. And the drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are all quite a bit more aggressive than I remember. It definitely is edgier than I recall, but last week even the people in Chicago felt edgier and even angrier -- must be a combination of the poor economy and being around so many chill people here in Vancouver. However, I think I'll adjust quickly.

* I agree completely with Peter Newman who thinks that the AGO expansion was a smashing success and the reconstruction of the ROM is an abomination. Not only have they closed off the entrance closest to the subway, the architecture is ugly and not very functional. I think they must actually have less display space than before. Such a wasted opportunity. I'm sure I'll take the kids once in a while, but I will never become a member of ROM unless they get rid of this hideous hypercube thing they embedded in the museum -- whereas I'll probably become a member of AGO the first week I am officially back in Toronto.

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