The bright lights of the Toronto-Dominion Centre, the recently completed centre-piece of the expanding city skyline, glared almost defiantly at me as I craned my neck looking out the train window. Commerce Court and First Canadian Place were nearing completion. New tall buildings stretched north from the TD out to the curves of the city hall. To the south, the dome and pods of Ontario Place glistened like a jewel on the lake front. And, dominating the scene, like a sword in an anvil, was the ambitious CN Tower, proclaiming to the world that Toronto had arrived as a great metropolis.
To a twenty year old kid from Brantford, Toronto stretched like an endless horizon into the eternity of the future. Later achievements like the Eaton Centre, waves of new Canadians from all corners of the world, the creation of festivals in the arts and culture, combined to inspire a belief that the city would become great.
Nicknames like "the city that works" and "megacity" evoked size, energy, and progress. Peter Ustinov, the British actor and wit, claimed that Toronto was like "New York run by the Swiss." Everything seemed bright, efficient and positive.
And then, just as surely as my train ducked under the stale old roof of Union Station and obscured my view into the future, the lustre of the "world-class city" vanished. Today, Toronto is crowded, congested, ugly, nasty, and soul-less.
In the November edition of The Walrus , writer John Lorinc describes the decline in "Where Toronto Went Wrong", an article that excellently chronicles the downward spiral. I will not attempt to paraphrase the article here. I suggest that, if you are curious, you read it on line at http://www.walrusmagazine.com/ . It is long, but well written, and, most importantly, correct.
For me, however, the article crystallized what I have observed for a long time. Toronto, despite the busy activity of the financial sector, in spite of the many festivals and concerts, the tall buildings dwarfing the TD Centre, has not lived up to its promise of greatness.
Other cities in the world have caught up and passed it. Chicago has a better waterfront: so too, do Cardiff, Sydney, Liverpool, Cleveland, and Reykjavik. The nightlife is better in Austin, Montreal, Dublin, and Newcastle. The scenery is better in Vancouver. People are more enthusiastic and joyful in Rome, Philadelphia and Havanna ( where they have little to be joyful about). The sports teams are better in Boston and Buffalo. The traffic is worse than Los Angeles. The transit system is older and more unreliable than London or Paris. The politics is as trivial and devoid of creativity as any city or town in Latin America. And the crime, though not as bad as many believe, is rife with guns, gangs, frauds and drugs.
Toronto built a new opera house recently. It looks like a high school: no soaring sails like Sydney or golden undulations like Cardiff. The concert hall, built in the 1980's by a Vancouver architect, has terrible accoustics. The museum completed a highly publicized renovation that looks like dry wall exploding from the classic stone walls of the old building, and not with the daring, futuristic lines of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, ironically designed by a Torontonian architect named Frank Gehry. The current building boom is cookie-cutter condominiums. There is no train link to the airport. Our stadium, once an engineering marvel, is no longer unique, and has empty spaces where restaurants once gleemed: it only has a capacity of 52,000 and is rarely that full: Cardiff's Milennium Stadium, with retractable roof and 80,000 seats is often full. The CN Tower is now the "second" tallest free-standing structure in the world. The current mayor wants to redevelop the old harbour, known as the Donlands, with a monorail, a shopping mall, and a ferris wheel. The zoo and libraries will probably be sold or shut down in an effort to save money and get off the "gravy train". We settled for the Pan American Games and forgot about the Olympics.
I think of myself at 20 emerging from the depths of Union Station and staring up. What I see when I do this now is harried commuters rushing for late GO trains. The soul of the city core is made up of well-dressed bankers who have the good humour of people with severe constipation. The old suburbs are made up of recent immigrants who have escaped their old hell-holes and still have the thousand yard stares of those places. The middle- and working-classes are gone, fled to the 905 and are forever caught in the gridlock of a "rush" hour that never ends.
I could go on. Suffice to say that, whenever I think of all this, I can comfort myself with the truth that Toronto is at least not Detroit. But the decline is there, plain as day. Toronto is at a cross-roads in its history. It can never go back to the safe, satisfied, orderly days of the provincial backwater it once was, controlled by a dour and parsimonious Orange-order elite. But it has lost the promise of the young, emerging, talented and forward-looking city is was supposed to be.
Who has the vision, strength, and courage to pull it back together? Rob Ford? Don Cherry? John Derringer? Marilyn Dennis? The Rogers family? Brian Burke? Bank CEO's? Dalton McGuinty? Police Chief Bill Blair? Snow? The ghost of Timothy Eaton? Executives from Nortel or RIM? Chris Bosch? ......
Detroit, here we come !!