After two years as editor of Maclean's, Blair Fraser left Toronto last month to become overseas editor in London. This is what he remembers now about the city he once thought he had every reason to dislike
FIFTEEN YEARS IN Montreal and then sixteen in Ottawa give a man a double dose of Canada’s endemic disease, Torontophobia. He knows and believes all the standard jokes—first prize one week in Toronto, second prize two weeks in Toronto: I spent a fortnight in Toronto one weekend: Toronto would be fine if it didn't have so many Torontonians: and so on. Two years in Toronto looked like a grim exile—in fact, that’s one reason why I stipulated it should be two years and no more. Now the two years are up. and I find I’m no longer qualified for membership in Canada’s largest and least exclusive fraternity, the Toronto-haters.
The town is no Garden of Eden: it has faults like any place else, but the conventional critic doesn't know what they are. The ones he loves to talk about, the themes of all those tired old jokes, don't exist any more.
Let's start wdth the commonest of all the common scoldings. the internationally notorious Toronto Sunday. In the small Nova Scotia town where I was born there were two things for a boy to do on the Lord’s day—go to church in the morning and Sunday school in the afternoon. Because our parents were unusually lax we were allowed to go on picnics on summer Sunday afternoons, and even to go swimming, but many a contemporary was less fortunate and spent the whole day immobilized in his blue serge suit.
From what I’ve gathered in later life, this was true all over Canada. When we mocked and pilloried the Toronto Sunday we were really picking a scapegoat for the sins of every English-speaking community from Middle Musquoidoboit to Saanich, B.C. Up to fifteen years ago, they tell me. the cliche had at least the merit of being true—Toronto actually did have a Sunday as tightly closed as Sundays in most Canadian towns still are. But here are some of the things you can do in Toronto on Sunday nowadays: to begin with, you can go to a professional ball game—though few do. and the Maple Leafs are said to be losing money. Or you can go to watch the Italians and Hungarians massacre each other at soccer, assisted by imported professionals from various lands. You can take in a show at any of a hundred movie houses, some of them “little" theatres giving long runs to European films that most Canadians never see at all. You can also, by an interpretation of the law that was strenuously debated but accepted in the end. watch a strip tease or Minsky-type burlesque show, if you want to. (At least, you could until recently, but burlesque isn’t madly popular in Toronto and its leading theatre went broke a year or so ago.) As a rule the seven legitimate theatres are not open on Sunday, though there are almost
as many exceptions to that rule in Toronto as there are in London. Any other night, you can go to a play. There was at least one week last winter when you could have gone to a different play every night. Monday through Friday, and then spent Saturday evening at a night club watching a real native Canadian comedy team, complete with native jokes about Diefenbaker and Mackenzie King. There were also about a hundred and fifty concerts last season, counting the major jazz presentations but not the small ones that go on all the time in coffee houses. And you could spend every afternoon, if you liked, at different exhibitions of paintings in the four public and twenty-two commercial art galleries.
You can also dine out in Toronto. Canada as a nation is not a gourmet’s paradise—it’s doubtful if we have a restaurant in the whole country that would rate even one star in the French guide Michelin. But if we have as many as two dozen worthy to be listed in the Guide without stars, then at least half of them would be in Toronto. Only Montreal and Quebec City, and only a few places there, can compete with Toronto’s best food. And all good Toronto restaurants serve good wines.
THINGS WE NEVER SAW IN TORONTO THE NOT TOO GOOD
Having listed all these urban amenities, let me now confess: we never did use them much. I got to know Toronto’s restaurants mainly at lunch, seldom at dinner— Torontonians even yet don’t go downtown to dinner very often. Neither are they great playgoers—that’s why the Crest theatre, an excellent repertory company, still doesn't show a profit at the end of a season of good productions, and the ancient and honorable Royal Alexandra is in danger of being torn down. (For one thing, the plays in Toronto tend to be either too old or too new—ancient, almost classical revivals, long-run road shows with thirdstring casts, or pre-Broadway tryouts that are painfully unready for the real opening in New York.) I’ve never seen a professional ball game, never been inside a Toronto night club, never seen a Toronto burlesque. The coffee houses, which are many and rather charming, are the preserve of the younger generation.
All these things are valid debating points in defense of Toronto the No Longer Too Good. But they haven t much to do with the real Toronto, the town that’s so pleasant to live in. Among those standard sneers, one has a certain amount of truth in it: “Toronto isn’t a city, it’s a small town that goes on for miles." In many ways Toronto is a small town, but it's a rather uncommonly agreeable one. Ottawans have a habit of telling newcomers that the great thing about Ottawa is, it’s so easy to get out. This is true, too—half an hour and you can be in the wilds ot Gatineau Park, picking your way across a beaver dam. But what Torontonians don’t tell you is that Toronto, too, is easy to get out of—provided you don't actually try to leave town. Looking out from the CONTINUED ON PACE 44
CONTINUED ON PACE 44
FAREWELL TO TORONTO
continued front page 20
“Canada's best hotel and best newspaper are both in Toronto”
roof of the Park Plaza Hotel (which, incidentally, is the best hotel in Canada) you get the impression that Toronto is dismally flat. This is because in Toronto the hills don’t run up, they run down. The slopes and the greenery are hidden in the ravines that cut through the city like the veins of a leaf. In the ravines you can walk for miles among trees and green grass. Fred Bodsworth, the well-known naturalist and outdoorsman who lives in Toronto’s east end, says a normally alert birdwatcher should log up to two hundred species in a season there. You can also ski after a fashion (on a very short hill with a rope tow), or skate on the thirty-eight artificial ice rinks that the city maintains, or swim in the thirty-three swimming pools, or play tennis on the 207 municipal courts, or otherwise disport yourself on the 3,600 acres of municipal parkland.
But the quickest and best way out of Toronto is to take the ferry, as eight thousand people do on a summer Sunday, to one of the three islands that enclose Toronto Harbor. The islands used to be mostly summer homes for the rich, then year-round homes for the not-so-rich, and there are still about two hundreds families who own houses there. But they are gradually being winkled out as the city takes over when owners die or move: already the islands are mostly parks, public beaches and yacht club moorings. From anywhere on the islands Toronto appears as a distant, lovely silhouette. The air, if the breeze is off the lake, is as fresh as it is in the Laurentians. A few years ago the whole waterfront was too polluted for swimming, but that situation is improving—three miles of beach can be used now, and more each year as conservation measures take effect. For anyone who owns a small boat, as thousands of Torontonians do, the delights of rustic solitude are only half an hour away. And if you think only the rich can afford boats, you are wrong. Even a fairly large boat costs less than an automobile, and you don’t need a car in Toronto. You can get around just as fast by bus and subway (plus the occasional, very occasional taxi). To go from end to end of Canada's only subway, almost five miles, takes only fifteen minutes, and this of course is very metropolitan and a point of civic pride—but the subway is not what I’ll remember about Toronto. I’ll remember the rather old-fashioned bus that trundles, every ten minutes or so. through the old-fashioned district where w'e lived. You don’t have to run for our bus, or not more than a few token steps, to indicate you want to catch it. If the bus driver sees you. he w ill wait. He will also stop and pick you up at any point on the sidewalk. It’s even a little difficult to walk downtown, which is a pleasant thing to do on fine mornings, without seeming a bit ungracious w hen the bus slows down alongside and opens its door. It’s not just the bus drivers who
are human, it’s everybody you deal with in a household way—the milkman, the laundry man. the man who puts on the storm windows. I remember once telephoning to see if the grocer sold turpentine. “No. we don’t carry it,” he said, "but there’s a hardware shop just up the street—HI buy you some and send it w ith your order.” He did, too. The place to buy green vegetables was a shop called Dom and Tony's. Dorn and Tony have prospered of recent years, but they still run the shop as the kind of family enterprise it w'as before the war when it was a hole in the wall operated on a shoestring. “1 wouldn't buy asparagus today if I were you.” they will say. “It's not very good. We may have some better tomorrow.” Dom and Tony are Italians, of course—by origin, that is.
Toronto now has about a hundred and thirty thousand Italians, four times as many as in 1951. There are also four times as many Germans, twice as many Dutch, more than half again as many Frenchmen. Altogether about a third of all Torontonians are “non-Anglo-Saxon,” compared to only a quarter of them ten years ago and a much smaller fraction before the war. You can buy French and German magazines at almost any newsstand now, and you can find a restaurant serving every kind of exotic food you ever heard of. So the new' cliché about Toronto is the vast change the New Canadians have wrought, the cosmopolitan city they’ve created out of old true blue Tory Toronto. Actually, the new cliché is almost as misleading as the old ones. True, there are parts of town called Little Italy or Little Germany where the shop signs are in foreign languages and the movie houses advertise strange titles. These are for the newcomers, the newest Canadians
who have only just arrived. Mainly they are not the heirs and purveyors of old European cultures. Mainly they are penniless workers who came not to teach but to learn, and who are learning. Give them a few' more years and they’ll be Canadians without a hyphen, as Dom and Tony and thousands of others are now. They’ll be proud of it. too. They may be changing Toronto hut not as much as Toronto is changing them.
Toronto is not turning into a new Rome or a New Hamburg or even a New London—Toronto has a self of its own. There’s plenty in it to dislike. The big convention hotels, for one thing, which are all the average visitor ever sees of the place and maybe the reason why those old jokes survive. The raucous, strident afternoon papers (though the Star .is a lot better than it was and the morning Globe and Mail is the best newspaper in Canada). The big expressways that gobble up huge tracts of town. The fiat faceless architecture that’s soon going to have a monopoly of University Avenue. The dreary square miles of strawberry-box houses, all dull and all identical, that stretch into a Sahara of suburbia. Toronto's reputation for stuffiness isn’t wholly unfounded, either. It’s possible to gather a party of leading citizens, and have it turn out the dullest damn party you ever found yourself trapped in. But come to think of it. I've known that to happen in other towns, too. Come to think of it. there aren’t many of Toronto's faults that are wholly unfamiliar elsewhere. Maybe if the rest of us Canadians spent a little less time telling each other old Toronto jokes, and a little more time contemplating the beam in our own eye. w'e could make Canada more fun to live in. ★
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