Just came back from a Thanksgiving trip to Toronto, my old home town, to visit my mother, my father in an Alzheimer’s ward, and to drop in on some friends.
As always, I have been engaged in a favorite mental exercise: comparing these two cities, so close to each other (well, 6 hour’s drive – but not far apart by North American standards) and yet so different.
One thing that always strikes me, after having been first infatuated and by now – after more than a decade and a half – inured to the graceful disorder that is Montreal, is how drab and clunky Toronto is. Sure, TO has some pleasant shopping strips, extraordinary residential areas, and beautiful parks, but these seem overwhelmed by great swaths of urban ugliness. After a few days spent in that city, driving down eyesores like Eglinton Avenue or Dundas St. or the Danforth or even Spadina and Queen, my eyes felt literally -- sore. Hard-edged buildings and a mess of fluorescent signs. It’s so refreshing to be back in my new home town with its cornices and curlicues, spiral balconies, cathedrals and – French commercial signs. The contribution of latter to the relative gentillesse of la belle ville is not to be underestimated. French isn’t nearly as punchy an advertising language as English: more and longer words are generally required, and therefore smaller fonts. Instead of SALE! SLASH-DOWN PRICES! You have RABAIS! LIQUIDATION! Softer even to pronounce. Thus even an ordinary street like Jean Talon near Acadie – comparable perhaps to Eglinton Ave. – seems softer, more soothing. While driving around TO, one of the ways we amused ourselves was noting signs that screamed a weird, hard Anglo Saxon vulgarity. CUT N’ RUN HAIR PLACE. LION’S ROAR BISTRO. WONDER NAILS. WILD MOOSE BAR AND GRILL. PONDEROSA STEAK HOUSE. THE MARKETPLACE. MAGICASH. etc.
Perhaps the uninspired urban environment passes itself on to TO’s fashion sense – or rather, lack of it. The clothes people wear are – almost without exception -- drab, drab, drab. Standard business attire (prominent in this ville) -- or track pants, jeans, t-shirts, baseball caps, etc . Besides a variety of “melt in the crowd” non-descript looks, a popular stand-out look among women seems to be an extreme of glittery low-cut sleazy. (This from sitting on Queen St’s Rivoli terrace for an hour and checking out the people passing by.) We also saw tacky and not apparently conscious mismatches of style and colour: a tight blue-white striped top such one might see at an office over a sheer, glittery black party dress; a polkadot pink tank top over beige spandex. My partner and I checked out all the clothing joints on Queen St, and drove past those on Yonge – remarkably ugly (to our eyes at least), and cheap (except for the price tags). One place that appealed to us on Queen St. turned out to be La Cache, a chain of elegant Quebec-designed clothes based in Montreal. (Clearly, my partner's unerring fashion sense -- famous among friends and family -- has rubbed off on me. If I weren't with her, I probably wouldn't be looking at those stores.) Of course, TO has its Yorkville and its huge Holt Renfrew on Bloor for a particularly well-heeled moneyed look. But that requires serious cash, and even then, the taste that walks out of those doors is often peculiarly crass-looking.
Some cities have aesthetic sense, others just don’t, and Toronto, I’m afraid to say, just doesn’t. Chalk it up to its Presbyterian past – the systematic denial of image in its founding years that despite recent waves of multicultural incursion it still doesn’t quite manage live down. Catholic cities seem to have a better-developed sense of colour and décor. (Of course, Toronto is also about half as old as Montreal, and like most North American cities, suffers for it.) Toronto takes its cues from straight-edged London and New York; Montreal from suave Paris, and no other people have a more exquisite sense of style – from fashion to perfume to pastry – than the French. Beautiful women abound in just about any urban centre, but they seem to stand out, and present themselves with a greater self-assurance, in Montreal. In French culture everything is mediated through the senses; in English, through the pocketbook and an inbred sense of fairplay. Please excuse the frivolous – and highly subjective – sound of all these generalizations. I am speaking gestalts here. Spend any amount of time in these two cities, and the differences will leap out at you.
There are of course other points of view on the Toronto/Montreal question – and I give credence to them because I partly share them. One CBC (Anglo) journalist who lived in Montreal for a number of years and then moved and settled in Toronto proclaimed that Montreal may be a better place to visit, but Toronto is the better place to live. The latter part of that claim I find dubious – unless you earn or inherit a considerable wad you’re likely to have to resign yourself to a crummy basement apartment – but I can see why someone of a reasonably high income bracket (and I assume that journalist is) might see things that way. Toronto is a city of quiet, tree-lined neighbourhoods right downtown, and it is these neighbourhoods, so easily overlooked by a casual observer, that are perhaps its greatest cachet. One German architect, after ascending to the lookout near the top of the CN Tower, exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! 4 million people living in a forest!” From up there, that’s all you see over many residential stretches: the tops of oak and maple trees. If you have the means to buy into that – a number of my friends now have, and I’ve experienced their solid homes and lovely backyards -- then you will have your own leafy enclave from which to enjoy the many offerings provided by TO’s urban tangle. Even if you don’t, offerings there are aplenty.
Every cultural scene TO is quite hopping: film, theatre, music, dance, you name it, from the highest echelons to a thriving (if always struggling) underground. For top-flight readings by top-flight authors, nothing in the country compares with the Harbourfront series. Look through the literary listings in Now or Eye magazines: you’re likely to see readings and launches happening almost every night. The financial/advertising/publishing capital of Canada (Canada’s little New York – but without NY’s sense of humour), TO supports Broadway-style theatre, opera, a world-class symphony, the country’s biggest museum, art gallery and film festival. (Torontonians, by the way, are film addicts – I’ve known a number there who see 3, 4, 5 films a week, and get full passes to the festivals: maybe it’s a way to escape the city’s dreariness.) People come to TO primarily to work, and there is a buzzing work energy there that extends into the arts. It’s an excellent place to hobnob and network, if that’s your thing. People work hard, and a significant portion, evidently, play hard. On a CBC documentary last weekend I learned that TO’s entertainment district (bounded by what? Just north of Bloor? East of Church? West of Bathurst?) has 88 nightclubs, the highest concentration of nightclubs in North America. A phenomenal statistic for what was once called “Toronto the Good”. For all that, Toronto remains a city of cool, efficient energy. When I lived there, a common complaint was that it was a city with many things to do, but strangely without a pulse. Now I feel a definite pulse – hard, plodding and constant, like the motor of a barge ploughing through its harbour’s icy waters in mid-winter.