Toronto, “the World in One Place…”

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First off, an apology as I’m hideously late with this seeing as though I got back from Toronto at the end of June. But nevertheless, I felt that I should perhaps at least try to document my brief but exhausting visit to the ‘Hollywood of the North’. Thanks to the people at the Martin Prosperity Institute, I was invited over to their annual Experiencing the Creative Economy conference, and a big part of the scheduling is designed so as we get to see and experience as much of Toronto as physically possible in 4 days (short of an urban exploration tour with crowbars and manhole cover keys). Suffice to say, it was nowhere near as much as I wanted to experience, but as with any city I visit, I try to seek out as many instances of urban subversions or subcultural urbanity as I can. What follows then is a brief story of those which I saw…

Upon arrival in Toronto, my first trip was from the airport to Dundas Square where my hotel was situated. The Square itself is a gargantuan, haphazard monument to replicative spectacle urbanism. The details of the development of this square are outlined superbly in Prof. Moore Milroy’s compelling prose, Thinking Planning and Urbanism, which highlights the complexities of how private interests can torpedo publicly-led development plans. And, unfortunately for Toronto, it definitely shows. By day, you feel constrained in the square; the concrete emanating heat (it was over 35 degrees for all four days which I’m guessing is atypical for Canada) and the towering images of film characters and subliminally invasive advertisements felt overtly oppressive. By night, the enforced frivolity of the street entertainers was matched only by the lack of interest shown in the street preachers bellowing the good news of the Gospel. Dundas is clearly a poorer Times Square lacking the thick soup of awe that engulfs New York’s beating heart.

However, I soon discovered that not all of Toronto is as unimpressive as Dundas. In fact, the more you pound the streets of the Downtown area, the more you see how Dundas is the exception rather than the rule. One street that we were marched through on numerous occasions was Queen Street West. Often referred to as hipster alley (often by me, that is) this street is the gentrification highway of Toronto. Despite the obvious signs of ‘hipsterfication’ and the irking that can entail, there were some quirky instances that highlighted the palimpsest that is formulating. The telephone pole covered in rusting staples a clear indication of the vast quantity of posters, flyers and other notices that had been attached throughout the years. While I was not aware at the time, I also passed via ‘Graffiti Alley’ (a good description by @GrinyerTyler can be found here) which is one of those ‘legal graffiti’ (a horrific oxymoron) sites similar to Leake Street in Waterloo, London. These kinds of areas, while sanitizing and perhaps reducing graffiti to a world city development tool (that’s the cynic in me talking by the way), do contribute to the overall ‘buzz’ of an area and can do more for the creative milieu of an area than any multi-million dollar redevelopment policy.

Another area that I deliberately sought out was Cloud Gardens, as I heard it was a popular spot to practice parkour. I was not disappointed as there were 7 or 8 traceurs in place, practicing their art form across the ledges and concrete walls. There happened to the Great Urban Race going on that day (like a smaller intra-city version of the Amazing Race) and one of the tasks involved performing rudimentary parkour in Cloud Gardens. Speaking to a few of the traceurs, they were in position to help the ‘teams’, and as I was there, at least 3 teams came through. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to conduct some on-the-spot spontaneous ethnographic exploratory research (perhaps there’s a new type of academic research method here, ‘pop-up’ methodologies maybe?), I asked them why they were helping, and they explained that they were volunteering on behalf of the sponsors of the event. What struck me here is that parkour is very much ‘in tune’ with commercial activities – this anecdote is part of a wider realization of parkour as a viable activity to be profited from (I have a paper coming out soon in IJURR which explains this ‘subculturalisation’ process in depth).

And what World City would be complete without the token architecturally ‘unique’ building that is usually the home to a new art gallery, museum or other cultural institution. In Toronto’s case it is the Royal Ontario Museum, by Daniel Libeskind and the OCAD University building which stand out (other than of course the CN Tower which pervades the city like the Eye of Sauron). These examples of ‘iconic’ architecture have became so ubiquitous across many cities that they have lost their uniqueness, serving only at best as impressive, eyebrow-raising aesthetic popcorn, and at worse, eyesores blighting the locality. Although having said that, the OCAD University building is perhaps one of the most visually impressive examples of iconic architecture that I have seen in a World City. And the Town Hall building is quite a feat a modernism; no wonder it features in the new Total Recall film, it’s brutalist curvature and windowless facades scream dystopia.

As a city though, it is of course littered with the signage of officialdom, “don’t do this here”, “no having fun there” – signs which goad as much as they deter. In this respect it is much like every other city jostling for position on those bilious livability rankings, the climbing of which seems to be the Holy Grail of urban policy makers everywhere. The rows and rows of waterfront condos each with their own pathetic attempts at marketing themselves as somehow different to the next identical tower block also detail a policy of urban expansion that is completely unrooted in any local culture or reflexivity whatsoever. Perhaps if Toronto (or indeed any other city) played more on its individuality, quirkiness and incumbent eccentricities rather then trying to replicate the perceived successes of other cities, then it would became an even more fascinating city to experience than it currently is.

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