We can’t get where we’re going till we know where we are

We packed the Gladstone Hotel ballroom Monday night, several hundred of us at tables, in tight rows of chairs, or shoulder to shoulder along the walls, most of us there to do what Torontonians are very prone to do. We were there to talk about ourselves.

Not the way the rest of Canada imagines, though. Sure, we can’t figure out why other Canadians think Toronto is cold, unfriendly, and snobbish when it’s pretty much the exact opposite. So we’re always fretting about that, but not in a “we’re better than you and why don’t you agree” sort of way.

The topic preoccupied us for different reasons this time. At the latest event in Pages Books’ This is Not a Reading Series, Key Porter Books launched Toronto: A City Becoming, an anthology of essays by several prominent Torontonians, edited by David Mcfarlane. What we dearly wanted to know was — “becoming what, exactly?”

As five contributors to the book discussed their ideas about the city, moderated by CBC Radio One’s Jian Ghomeshi, there were as many separate conceptions of Toronto as there were panelists.

One idea that took some unexpected battering was the “city of neighbourhoods” characterization. It’s my most cherished Toronto label, yet Globe and Mail city columnist John Barber finds it meaningless. He asks what city isn’t a “city of neighbourhoods,” and fears the concept is being corrupted along ethnic lines lately. Meanwhile, architecture and urban design professor Michael Awad believes it’s a fragmenting, “adolescent” conception, meaning Toronto needs to grow up and be whole. And architect and urban planner John Van Nostrand points out that there are no “neighbourhoods” north of Eglinton anyway, in the sense most Torontonians mean when they use the word.

That “north of Eglinton/south of Bloor” divide entered the discussion frequently. Linda McQuaig, political author and Toronto Star columnist, decries the growing gap between the inner city rich, and the poor being shoved to the suburbs. Van Nostrand agrees this is a problem, though for structural rather than class-related reasons. Poorer people have always taken root at the more affordable edges, but the city then reached out with services (e.g. streetcar routes). Today, most municipal money goes inward, south of Bloor, and not outward to connect poorer citizens with the wider city.

The panelists concurred that there’s no single idea that sums up Toronto. Awad goes further, deriding the “branding” that the city repeatedly attempts. (What did the ad campaign of two years ago, “Toronto Unlimited,” actually mean?) If there’s any unifying aspect to the city, says Awad, it’s Toronto’s “history of failed Master Plans.” Which, incidentally, is a Good Thing. He agrees with Van Nostrand that we need less grandiose planning, allowing Toronto just to be itself.

What “really” goes on in Toronto, says David Mcfarlane, is barely connected to what visitors see; he views tourist attractions as “impostors.” Of tourists, he says you almost “want to invite them to your home so they don’t have to go to Casa Loma.” He means that the ongoing, day to day richness of Toronto life can’t be encompassed during a short stay. In fact, Mcfarlane reverses the old saying: this is a great place to live, but not to visit.

One moment stood out that perhaps belied the panelists’ belief that Toronto can’t be characterized by a single idea. A questioner from London, England, asked what Toronto contributes to the “human project” that can possibly compare to what London contributes. John Barber responded firmly that nothing like Toronto’s ethnic mix has ever happened in the world before. This is the one city on the planet where that is being worked out, and we will get it right (implication: because we have to, or else), and we will teach the rest of the world how to do it.

Perhaps, as Jian Ghomeshi suggested, Toronto should come to terms with not being and having everything, and recognize that that “cultural product” is what Toronto is ultimately known for. That alone would be a pretty spectacular legacy.

Do I want to read this book? Given the fact that these and many more fascinating perspectives await me in this volume — and given the fact that I’m a Torontonian, and like to read about myself — of course I do.

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