As much as it hurts to say so,Toronto may finally have something going for it

Allan Fotheringham

October 31 1977

As much as it hurts to say so,Toronto may finally have something going for it

Allan Fotheringham

October 31 1977

As much as it hurts to say so,Toronto may finally have something going for it

Allan Fotheringham

The musk of money is palpable in the air. The matrons down from Forest Hill, with concrete hair frozen into tinted swirls, mince along with their shoes and belts and scarves and purses rhyming Pucci and Gucci. A Bach concerto emanates from a bookstore that, typically, is stronger on Alistair Cooke than on Richard Rohmer. The shops manned by young ladies masquerading as Russian peasants, their sleek pants tucked into their $ 120 leather boots, feature gold bidets. This, my friends, is Hazelton Lanes, the newest trendy spot of newly trendy Toronto. This is Camel Hair City.

All Canadians have a proprietory right to second-guess their few large centres and what we have here in Toronto in 1977 is the New Imperial City. The wealth is obscene. The luxury is cloying. The style wobbles narrowly close to being international. Instead of the old lumpish arrogance of prim Presbyterian faces, in Toronto today is a brittle assumption of superiority—based on the fact that it is clearly the centre of a Canada that is increasingly becoming truncated. Montreal, the brash days of Drapeau expansion and Expo fallout all over, seems to have passed its days of architectural blossoming. Toronto, these days, is wallowing in it, lying down and rolling in its own self-importance.

The most obvious manifestation of all this is Bloor Street. For years Toronto has suffered from a most apparent defect: there was only one street where a civilized man could stroll. It is well away from the towers of mammon that early huddled along the lake (but, naturally, didn’t have the wit to venture close to the shore).

Bloor exists in symbiotic relationship with Yorkville, the refurbished proof that small is beautiful that Toronto snatched from the flower children and deeded instead to the inheritors of the capital gains tax. Here is Hazelton Lanes. It is here where the concrete coiffures are manufactured, a whole street of hairdressers, acolytes of Vidal Sassoon, an entire industry of young men in tight-assed Italian pants pretending, and dreaming, to be Warren Beatty. Within the ambience of Bloor is the courtyard café, camp verging on flash, where Toronto gossip columnists never tire of recording supposed assignations. (One out-of-town lawyer, booked into a legal conference at one of the airport hotels, noted that no one could get into his room until 2.30 p.m. “One hundred and fifty guests, all named Mr and Mrs. John Smith.”) In the 1970s, the nooner has been elevated to a cultural form.

Nearby is Noodles, a restaurant of leather and chrome that illustrates what happens when the Beautiful People are mated with Clockwork Orange. Bloor by now has surpassed Montreal’s Sherbrooke as a shopping street, if not yet as a strolling space. It is not one of the world’s great streets, not Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm, not the Ramblas of Barcelona. But, God knows, it is greatly appreciated.

The second example is the new Eaton Centre, a final attempt for that empire to rescue itself from its recent troubled days. It demonstrates the most attractive feature of the New Imperial City: the extravagant use of uneconomic space. Its magnificent Galleria—125 feet high and attempting to recreate the atmosphere of a European street scene—is not original of course (if you want to see a predecessor, view the turn-of-the-century crystal palace Botany Building at the corner of College and Queen’s Park.)

What rudely struck the Anglo-saxophones who visited Expo 67 in Montreal was how mingy the rest of us are in the use of space. The Eaton Centre is a reflection ofthat need. Ten years behind Montreal, it releases the Great Unwashed into wideopen uncontrolled spaces. The limiting factor of Toronto has always been that the city lacked prospects—neither hills nor mountains (nor the interesting bisecting rivers that other great cities, London, Paris, Budapest, have). The great soaring escala-

tors, lifting off into the void and passing each other in space in the Eaton open areas, at last provide some prospects. It is a modern version of the London tube system. The Galleria is what the 1930s would have done if they could have afforded it.

The final example of the delightful gluttony of the New Imperial City has been the childish nonsense around Mint Corner, King and Bay. A friend from Europe touring Texas once told me it was noticeable that the churches looked like banks and the banks looked like cathedrals. If New York, that other famed provincial city, built skyscrapers in the 1920s to the greater glory of industry, it was only natural that the parsimonious nature of this country would rise to the skies through banks. All of it, of course, the fiscal equivalent of penis envy. So we had, on one corner, the Toronto-Dominion quill-pen experts rising to 56 stories, the jealous Bank of Commerce outdoing them to 57 stories, and the petty minds of the Bank of Montreal jumping to 72 storeys. It was locker-room macho, corporate competition by guys who lunch together producing wind-tunnels at street level for sport.

The touch of sanity at last: the shifting gold panels of the Royal Bank’s two towers, sacrificing height for quality, another extravagant inner space with great sheets of colored plastic spaghetti dropping from the 130-foot ceiling while bank tellers flounce about beneath as if auditioning for stand-in roles for Faye Dunaway. It is the first sign that Toronto has finally grown up, finally curbed its Manhattanization syndrome.

What has happened is that Toronto is the first city in Canada to develop an uptown and a downtown. The shoppers from suburbia who throng Eaton’s fear Bloor Street. The townies on Bloor, seven blocks north of Mint Corner, would never venture where their husbands work. This is civilization: we have achieved a division of work and spend, male and female, slave and play.

Toronto is nearly, for the first time in its history, coming to develop some character. It has never had the lazy superiority of Vancouver, the aggressive belief in itself of Winnipeg, the resigned charm of Montreal (Ottawa is a great place to raise kids, Toronto is built for adults). The New Imperial City—even more than in the insular days of Joe Krol, Syl Apps, John Bassett and Marilyn Bell—is turning its back on the rest of the country. It is almost developing some confidence—if it ever can get over its provincialism.