In the months leading up to the upcoming Toronto municipal election, the city has found itself repeatedly caught in the crossfire. If some campaign speeches, newspaper columns, blog posts, and op-ed sections are to be believed, Toronto is a city perpetually in crisis. This kind of obnoxious discourse is, unfortunately, a fact of life in today’s media and political landscape, but it has the mutually-beneficial effect of keeping the intellectual underclass of angry, barely-coherent online news commentators off the streets. What’s more worrisome is how commonplace it is to have a vague dislike of the city. It’s such a subtle and commonplace phenomenon that it can be easy to miss, but when was the last time you heard anyone (besides a politician) say that they like, let alone love, this city? I am by no means innocent of the offense of offhandedly speaking ill of our city, but enough is enough: Toronto, it seems, has become a city that everyone loves to hate, and nobody takes the time or inclination to appreciate it.
The most common gripe, at least among students, is the TTC. It’s a complaint that has a lot of validity behind it—fares are among the highest in the world, vehicles break down, signals fail, streetcars are often missing-in-action at the most inopportune times, and the drivers aren’t always the most friendly or communicative bunch. Everybody has a collection of juicy TTC horror stories in their back pocket. While the TTC is a mess anecdotally, the fact is that, for the most part, it gets the job done. Around 1.5 million trips are taken on the TTC every day, and it’s safe to assume that all but a small fraction of the trips are relatively painless. Terrible anecdotes are always unfortunate, but if there’s one thing that I hope most take away from this election, it’s that no amount of anecdotes are a valid substitute for a sound argument. The TTC, at the very least, does quite a good job with what it has—it’s the only major city transit system that’s entirely self-funded.
The TTC aside, Toronto is often characterized as a boring, sterile, less culturally-significant version of New York. It’s unfortunate because, while Toronto shares some characteristics with New York — most notably the mix of big city and neighbourhood, multiculturalism, and the strong financial industry, characterizing Toronto in relation to a city that could be fairly described as the financial, and perhaps cultural capital of the world is bound to lead to unfavourable conclusions. PricewaterhouseCoopers, in a joint study with Partnership for New York, recently ranked Toronto as the single most liveable city in the world. This year, Mercer ranked Toronto 16th, and The Economist ranked Toronto 4th. These studies are of questionable real-world value, but they do demonstrate that sane minds are viewing Toronto as a competitive, if not thriving, city.
Meanwhile, Toronto is better at being Toronto than any other city in the world. Neighbourhoods are effortlessly, genuinely multicultural—between Spadina and Parkside one can pass through Kensington, Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal, Roncesvalles, and Koreatown. Besides the obvious culinary choices, you wouldn’t have a hard time finding Indian, Carribean, Greek, Middle Eastern, Japanese, or Thai gems in between. The multiculturalism rarely, if ever, feels stilted, and though some neighbourhoods are relatively culturally homogeneous, there’s never a sense of tension — it just feels right. This isn’t a forced, show-the-tourists-what-they-want multiculturalism—it’s authentic. Toronto’s neighbourhoods, cultural or otherwise, are its greatest strength, and have an atmosphere few other cities can match.
Add to that our often-overlooked wealth of green space and natural attractions within close proximity to the downtown core — think Toronto Island, High Park, Allen Gardens, the Beaches, Ashbridge’s Bay, Dufferin Grove, Rouge Park, and the Botanical Gardens — and Toronto’s unique, but solidly world-class character is apparent. Despite the common refrain that the city is resting on its laurels, recent developments such as Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common, the Evergreen Brickworks, the Bell Lightbox, and even the conversion of Gould Street and Wilcocks Street to pedestrian zones show that progress is still happening, provided that you’re looking for it.
It seems to me that complaining about one’s city (and really, complaining in general) is a near-inextricable part of modern urban living. The ability to communicate surface-level insights to a mass audience and to receive instant feedback, is a reality of modern life where pessimism is in style, the world is smaller than ever, and sanitized accounts of the lives of others are all-too-accessible. In short, it’s never been easier to be cynical. One of the few things that most can agree on is our apparent shared disdain of our city, and there’s a certain comfort to that.
It’s almost certainly the case that living in Toronto has never been better. Despite the hysteria, cynicism, and grass-is-greener syndrome that has taken a hold of discourse about our city, life goes on. And for the most part, life is good.