Thursday, October 20, 2011


In 1975, while I was in my first year at Western , I took a long train ride from London to Toronto. It was not a particularly happy occasion because I was going to a funeral. But what stands out in my mind was the appearance of Toronto in the dark evening as I approached Union Station. I hadn't been to Toronto in a good long time and it was quite a sight.

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 . 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 !!


  1. I always loved Toronto from the first time I visited on holiday before we came to live here,I dont go to the city often enough to comment on how behind other countries cities are I do know it certainly isnt as safe as it once was, I remember how proud my uncle was of how unlike the States cities were as re. violence not so now,Newcasle has a fantastic night life they come over from the Continent for the weekends to party and shop ,Paris was so very clean the streets washed down everyday ,dont think they do that in Toronto also dont remember being harrased by street people years ago in Toronto as we now are ,glad we are as yet not compared to Detroit and hope we never reach that stage .

  2. Seems to me that you want Toronto to be the best at everything in the world. Perhaps you were expecting too much and got disappointed. Completely negative attitude and outlook. Comparing it with Detroit is laughable. Toronto has many faults(just like any other city) but is still the envy of many other cities. Already it is being compared to Chicago and New York even though Chicago is almost double the population and New York has almost 4 times the population of Toronto. Toronto is able to run with the big dogs even though population wise it is still only a midget. Other cities around the world could only hope to do the same.

  3. This comment is so bitter. Toronto, for all it's faults is not like Detroit. That comparison is not necessary. I think Toronto is a dynamic, exciting and cosmopolitan city. Maybe it's because you are too old to enjoy what this city has to offer.

  4. Johnny Lax.... your comment are soo laughable! lots of the people from around the globe who came to Toronto ended up loving Toronto so much and you comment lots of negatives things about Toronto. You don't get it, Toronto has some problems relate to crimes, traffic gridlock, and commuters service because Toronto is growing so fast and its booming than most cities I have been to. For an example, the city of Dubai is an ultra-luxury city filled with tourists but the city itself have problems. There are 85% of the condos in Dubai are vacancy in which they are losing billion of dollars a year and the city of Dubai is actually sinking about 3" every year. Every city in the world have problems and no cities is perfect in every way. You cannot expect the city itself to be magically perfect. You are just a crap who happened to be a high school teacher posting negatives thoughts about Toronto. Get a life and have Detroit up in your ass!!

  5. I see where you are coming from, but I believe you are being quite negative. It is all in your outlook. Toronto is definetly on the rise and has been for a while. I moved here from Vancouver recently and I must say, its a whole different atmosphere, I dont think its fare to compare. This city is not the same as other cities, for good reason.