City of Imagination

Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting....

ROBERT FULFORD March 17 1997

City of Imagination

Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting....

ROBERT FULFORD March 17 1997

City of Imagination


Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting....


The great secret of Toronto is its passion. There are those who doubt that any such force exists: the idea of Toronto as a coldly efficient money machine, an ATM with streets, dies hard. But this political season has thrown an unusual light on Toronto. At the moment, the city—or, at least, a significant and highly articulate part of it—is passionately upset, passionately indignant, passionately defensive.


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The great secret of Toronto is its passion. Citizens like it as it is.

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VC) . BY ROBERT FULFORDt ‘ -Michael Ondaatje,

rfí-'V'i ‘ In the Slim of a Lion

The great secret of Toronto is its passion. There are those who doubt that any such force exists: the idea of Toronto as a coldly efficient money machine, an ATM with streets, dies hard. But this political season has thrown an unusual light on Toronto. At the moment, the city—or, at least, a significant and highly articulate part of it—is passionately upset, passionately indignant, passionately defensive.

Believing itself threatened, Toronto has reacted with an explosion of angry political action. Furious citizens have been shouting at their provincial MPPs in public meetings, buttons and signs have blossomed everywhere, and the city government asked the citizens to vote on a question whose wording was so hideously biased it would embarrass the Parti Québécois: “Are you in favor of eliminating the city of Toronto and all other existing municipalities in Metropolitan Toronto and amalgamating them into a megacity?”

The answer was No, of course, overwhelmingly (the suburbs also voted No). Flow could it be otherwise? Who in the world could vote for eliminating the city of Toronto? As for megacity, it evokes megaton bombs, an abrupt form of civic elimination. Of course, no one plans to eliminate anything, except some jobs in the public service and politics. You could say, with as much accuracy, that what’s likely to happen will enlarge and strengthen the city of Toronto. The Ontario government, which has constitutional responsibility for all the municipalities, plans to restructure the councils of Toronto. The city now runs on a kind of federal system—a metropolitan government to provide certain broad services for everyone, plus six regional councils to provide local services. There’s a council for the old city of Toronto, and one each for five suburbs, like Scarborough and North York—which

A city of dreams, a metropolis with the mind of a village

are called, with blissful inaccuracy, “cities.”

This arrangement is now 43 years old, and the most striking thing about it is that almost nobody outside government, the media and the land development business understands how it works. Most of the citizens probably know that the police are under Metro control, but few citizens could tell you which level of government runs the fire halls (they’re local), the ambulances (Metro), or the libraries (both). Nor does anyone know why the power is divided this way. Everybody is represented by a local councillor and a Metro councillor, but few of us even know their names. In truth, Toronto people don’t much like to vote in local elections. A turnout of one-third of eligible voters, which would be a disgrace in a federal or provincial election, is considered not bad in local elections across Metro. People get elected if they run often enough to achieve a bit of local fame. The late William Kilbourn, an author and professor who was himself an alderman for a while, called Toronto elections “name-recognition contests.”

Is this the democracy Toronto is fighting to save? Are the citizens inflamed by changes in a political system to which they normally pay only minimal attention? There are other, separate proposals on the table, such as changes in welfare funding that may cost the city dearly.

Some of the opposition to One Big Toronto is a spillover of indignation from those issues.

But the real anger has been created by amalgamation itself. To understand why people are upset, we need to understand Toronto as a city of dreams, a place in which a multitude of citizens have slowly and reluctantly invested deep emotions. Torontonians may not know how the place runs, but they know they like it as it is, and they can grow hysterical over any suggestion that it significantly change.

Toronto is a big city that dreams of being little. It adores smallness. It’s a metropolis with the mind of a village. Neighborhoods are the focus of local politics, right across Metropolitan Toronto. In 1971, the Ontario government of Bill Davis, exercising the province’s traditional right to control the cities, cancelled plans for the Spadina Expressway, which would have ripped through the downtown core and probably ruined certain districts, such as the Annex. Soon after, David Crombie became mayor of the central city on a pro-neighborhood platform. He was the best-loved mayor in a generation, and ever since he took office the desire to preserve the quality of local life has been spreading out, from downtown to the distant corners of the suburbs. There’s no logical reason why One Big Toronto won’t also preserve neighborhoods, but you can’t prove that idea in advance—and many Torontonians prefer not to take the chance. They don’t want anything to endanger, even slightly, the city of which they’re remarkably proud.

Toronto’s pride is all the more powerful for being recent. In ancient times (until the mid-1960s), Torontonians were more than willing to apologize for their city. The rest of Canada disliked Toronto—it was considered too rich, too busy and too shallow. Visitors found the place flat and boring. So the locals learned to denigrate it before outsiders got the chance: I remember many people who were eager to declare, even after many years there, that they lived in Toronto only because their work made it necessary. But in the past three decades, conversation about the

city has taken an entirely different tone. Toronto began discovering itself, and finally came to the conclusion that what it had discovered was all right— no, actually, it was better than that. It was unique, and precious, and not to be fooled with.

The great discoverers of the city turned out to be—it now seems inevitable—immigrants, not all of whom are as well-known as they deserve to be. One was Jack Diamond, a South African architect who saw the beauty and charm in old Toronto j streets, qualities that not all of us had noticed. He « showed the rest of his profession how to save É those streets from destruction by restoring old buildings with care and filling in the spaces around them with new housing—his designs did as much as any to create the redbrick Toronto architectural style of the 1970s. The late Albert Jacques Franck, an artist from the Netherlands, made a reputation in the 1960s by exploring and poetically painting the city’s back alleys and rundown 19th-century streets; his work revived interest in the streets surrounding Yorkville Avenue, all of which soon became fashionable. Jane Jacobs, a 1968 immigrant from the United States, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, became seer and counsellor to a generation of politicians and architects, always preaching in favor of practical, local projects and against grand ideas imposed from above. And Michael Ondaatje—born in what is now Sri Lankaawakened Torontonians to their own history by building a poetic myth around the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct and the east-end water-filtration plant in his 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion.

The film version of The English Patient has made Ondaatje the most famous Toronto writer in the late 1990s, but he’s only one of a dozen or so distinguished novelists who have helped create the mythical Toron-

to. Physical cities are made from concrete and asphalt and brick, but mythical cities are made from the dreams and desires and disappointments of those who grow up there or move there to find themselves. These imaginary cities are in part the creation of writers, who must invent the city before we can be satisfied to inhabit it. Their work is a great collective creation. They can give shape, meaning and distinctiveness to a city’s inner life— as James Joyce did with Dublin, Charles Dickens with London, Honoré de Balzac with Paris. Books in which cities come to life are acts of city-building in themselves, and in recent times Toronto has had more than its share of such books.

Morley Callaghan was the great figure in the prehistory of the Toronto novel. For a couple of generations, he wrote, with a wonderfully sweet sadness, of a seldom-named city that was recognizably Toronto. The city of his youth still physically exists, but in moral tone it seems like a different planet. A typical early Callaghan, It’s Never Over (1930), places its young lovers in east-central Toronto, around Riverdale Park, where they live intensely local and intricately connected g lives. Their neighborhood is their world, and § everyone knows everyone else’s family. Sexual g love is charged with a power drawn from social context—an affair can’t be easily abandoned, since the lovers will continue to live near each other and will (so far as they know) encounter each other for the rest of their lives.

Callaghan’s books, though he never intended them as such, can be seen partly as essays about the good and bad of neighborhood life, as demonstrated in Toronto—his characters have relatively secure lives,

— Atwood; but within a network of prohibitions. In 1997, It’s Michaels above Never Over will produce in some readers nostalMoore Park gia for a lost world; in others it will induce grati-

(left): ravines tude for the more relaxed moral codes of today. as the city’s In Callaghan’s day, it was unusual for a Toronto

subconscious writer to place as much emphasis as he did on the texture of the city. Since then, it has become commonplace. Beginning with his most important novel, Fifth Business (1970), Robertson Davies began to develop a comprehensive picture of Rosedale, the University of Toronto, Bay Street and Upper Canada College. At first, he looked to some readers like a rather limited figure, a stodgy product of the old British Protestant ascendancy, but those who followed his work discovered within it an openness to a wide variety of influences. Davies was a realist who could perfectly catch the tone of life in his adopted city, and at the same time a fantasist whose Torontonians shared their lives with saints, shamans, angels and trolls. In the last quarter of a century, he wrapped Toronto inside a series of brilliant fairy tales that drew on Rabelais and C. G. Jung. Boy Staunton, the rich businessman of Fifth Business, found dead at the bottom of Toronto harbor, sitting in his Cadillac, his mouth filled with a large chunk of pink granite, was the first of a series of spectacular Davies characters. He invited us to accompany them on, as he said, “the descent into the depths of the spirit.” Mythologizing Toronto, turning everyday gossip about leading citizens into grand fables, he gave the city a multi-book saga of enormous power, thick with local detail but universal in meaning.

Margaret Atwood’s accomplishment has been no less notable, and no less local. She brilliantly evokes the spirit of the city in two Torontocentred novels, Life Before Man and The Robber Bride, the first focused on the Royal Ontario Museum, the second encompassing the Annex. And Cat’s Eye, her terrifying novel of childhood, takes her readers into the landscape that is characteristically and uniquely Torontonian: the ravines. Tributaries of the six rivers that flow southward to Lake Ontario through Metropolitan Toronto, the ravines symbolize everything good and bad in Toronto. They’re the topographical signature of the city: no other metropolis has so much nature running through it. As the architect Larry Richards once pointed out, Toronto is like San Francis¡ co turned upside down. Or maybe inside out. But its topographical na| ture isn’t clearly evident, the way San Francisco’s is. People can visit I Toronto and go away thinking it’s flat. Actually, Toronto is a city of hills,

5 but many of them are buried and most of them are hidden, ü It’s occasionally said that life in Toronto has a kind of furtive quali-


The great discoverers of the city

ty, a certain habit of evasion, a weakness for secret codes. If that’s true, blame the ravines. This is where Torontonians do a lot of their growing up, and first encounter nature, in a hidden world that outsiders seldom see. The ravines are the subconscious of Toronto, the city’s half-hidden, littleknown underside. In a certain way, these hundreds of semi-natural zones operate like a private club: there are few maps, and not many entrances. Old Torontonians learn them in childhood. NewTorontonians have to be guided in.

What makes the ravines so startling and so valuable is their context, the sudden and shocking change from ordered street life to disorderly nature—wildflowers, foxes, trees, raccoons, even families of coyotes. This juxtaposition is one reason the ravines have appealed to writers. In the 1990s, three of Toronto’s most absorbing first novels have used the ravines as a major focus—Amnesia by Douglas Cooper (1992), Minus Time by Catherine Bush (1993) and Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996). In Amnesia, Cooper describes a Toronto ravine as a place that mocks the planned order of the city. At the end of the street, chaos replaces planning. It is “where the city combined with the darkness. ... It was part of a network of wild spaces that laced the body of the city like a net of veins.” To Cooper’s characters, the ravines “are the margins on the edge of the known.”

Catherine Bush’s Minus Time, one of the most Toronto-centric of recent novels, puts much of the action at the CN Tower and Nathan Phillips Square, but locates several vital sections in the ravines. A young man named Foster tells us: “When I was 13,1 ran away from home and lived in the ravines by myself for over a week.” While he was missing, the newspapers called him the Ravine Boy. “I started out in Wilket Creek Park and made my way down, south of the Science Centre. Down towards the Don Valley Parkway.” Eventually he gets tired of it, surfaces in a parking lot,

turned out to be immigrants

and asks someone to phone his parents. This anticlimax describes one of the great advantages of life in Toronto: a child can escape into wilderness without venturing more than a mile from home.

The rich and image-laden Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels does more to uncover the nature of Toronto than any recent novel I know. The two men who dominate much other story burrow into the city of Toronto and take possession of it. They are immigrants from Europe, but in Toronto, Michaels says, “almost everyone has come from elsewhere... bringing with them their different ways of dying and marrying, their kitchens and songs.” Her characters discover Toronto as a city of interconnected ravines: “Through these great sunken gardens you can traverse the city beneath the streets, look up to the floating neighborhoods, houses built in the treetops.” This is a place of “forgotten rivers, abandoned quarries ... a city built in the bowl of a prehistoric lake.” In one perfect phrase, she speaks of the ravine bottoms in summer as “rooms of green sunlight.”

When they succeed, these civic mythmakers affect both how we think about a city and how we live in it. Novelists, of course, no longer dominate the mind of a society. Some of these writers, in fact, are read by only a tiny minority. But when they make their home town a home for the imagination, their myth seeps through the city, flows into the stream of oral history, and shapes conversational pride. It has subtly transformed Toronto, giving it a precious, many-layered story. What animates the politics of recent months in Toronto is the perhaps overblown fear of losing this lovely thing, only lately won. □