Tuesday, September 27, 2011

No Sleep Til Williamsburg

Coming home to Toronto from New York City reminds me of that line in The Big Lebowski where The Dude wistfully says, "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm once they've seen Karl Hungus?" I've always loved that line, because as our experiences expand, places and things that once seemed oh-so-important start to wither next to the grandiosity of our new explorations. (Plus, The Dude is my bathrobe-wearing, cream-sniffing ersatz life coach.) I'm not going to play the "Toronto isn't good enough" game that well-traveled folks often do. I love my city. It's safe and friendly, it's interesting and fun, it's arty, cosmopolitan and youthful enough to still be figuring itself out. Comparing New York City and Toronto are like comparing Yoko Ono to Katie Stelmanis - both accomplished and inspiring in their own right, but who knows if Stelmanis will have the longevity, the adaptability or the tragic and playful stateliness of Ono in 25 years? Only time will tell.

It's true that New York, being older and larger, has amenities that Toronto can only envy from afar. Take, for example, their metro: an all-night, far-flung subway system with a universal user interface (everyone gets a metrocard! All the stations take it! Oh, plus the buses!), stations that are simultaneously classically beautiful and falling apart in a very appealing way (although probably not for the people who ride it daily), and a long and storied history. It's hard not to ride the TTC and feel, for a moment, that we got into the transit game during an ugly-looking era, and that efforts to expand it will constantly be truncated by whining about expense. Meanwhile, the suburbs and the downtown stay part of two different Toronto experiences, and New York City enfolds its outer boroughs.

I'm not sure if Toronto has "hipster" neighbourhoods the same way New York City does. I know Stratford sure doesn't: Stratford has "the cool coffeeshop" or "the indie video rental place," because it's made up of five or six neighbourhoods, one of which is called "downtown." Coming from a small town into a larger city like Toronto can be a bit of a mind-blower. What do you mean there's more than one cool coffee shop? How can that be? How do people know where to get expensive, artful lattes?

On the other hand, Toronto definitely has "cool" neighbourhoods, like both East and West Queen Street, but we rarely sustain them. Yorkville, our former hippie enclave, has been transformed in the last few decades in a showy and expensive neighbourhood catering to the Rosedale crowd. I guess we'll see, in the coming years, if Parkdale and Leslieville and the Junction can retain their indie vibe, or they, too, will get GapKids and exorbitant rents. In New York, Brooklyn has suffered from its successes: rents have risen and the influx of new residents have most been young, white, and employed in "careers" like barista and web designer. The diversity in ages, lifestyles and backgrounds is slowly getting lost.

I don't mean to sound spiteful. I love Brooklyn, because in addition to Brooklyn Heights and its plethora of hipsters, it's also home to places like Bed-Stuy and its sizable, and creative, Black population; plus, Crown Heights and the Hasidic Jews who call it home. It's huge, bigger than Manhattan in both population and area, but it suffers from the same inferiority complex that Toronto often seems to. Hipsters will stuff themselves into an area of a supposedly dowdy place (like Toronto or Brooklyn) in order to maximize their cool points and to find others like them. Hep cats in cities like Montreal or San Fransisco don't need to congregate into tiny little areas. Those cities spread their fun out to all compass points. Besides, have you ever been to Haight-Ashbury? The damned place is just tourists and drug dealers, and any semblance of genuine counterculture has been neatly erased with the opening of another soup-and-sammie joint. Spread the wealth, you know? As a Torontonian, my city definitely has cool and uncool pockets, and it can be exhausting to navigate them. Not to mention that, when I try, it leaves me feeling like I'm paddling in awfully shallow waters.

The long and the short of it? I refuse to believe that Toronto is a B-team city. We have our shortcomings, it's true. But I've been places - New York City, Chicago, Montreal, not to mention Halifax and Savannah - and Toronto is still very much in its learning, building stages. We're so young compared to a lot of these places. We can make something of ourselves. Frustratingly, we also seem to suffer from a lack of leadership - a monorail and a ferris wheel do not a world-class city make. We need green spaces, integrated transit, a thriving theatre and gallery scene, one-of-a-kind shopping, and a sense that each neighbourhood has something new and different to offer.

Look, NYC has a 200-year head start, and it took some wrong turns - remember the 1980s? Seedy Times Square and a soaring crime rate? There's no reason we can't get there too. We need visionaries: leaders and critics who aren't following some other city's plans, but who can put Toronto on the map on our own merits. Expand the subways, open the waterfront, fund the arts, and give out-of-towners - and ourselves - a reason to ooh and ahh over us. We'll finish fulfilling our destiny as the New York/Paris/Hollywood of the North, and then ditch that mantle to finally, gloriously, be Toronto.

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