Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

The Accidental City

Why Canada’s largest city is also its most insecure

Until very recently, Toronto has suffered from an inferiority complex. Although we're beginning to shake ourselves out of that self-conscious malaise with an ongoing civic renaissance that we're just getting used to, there is still an impulse for Torontonians to be a little down on ourselves, and therefore many of us have a difficult time reconciling the rest of Canada's antipathy toward us. While some derision is understandable-Toronto is the country's media capital and its most populous city; there will always be a tension between it and the rest of Canada-this opinion is often mixed with more than a little mean-spiritedness that seems to get stronger the further Toronto slides into disrepair. Negativity reached a fever pitch during the SARS crisis in 2003, when one got the feeling that the rest of the country felt the city was actually getting what it deserved.

The truth is that Toronto's ego actually bruises very easily-a sense of decline over the past twenty years and a lack of mythology for its citizens to seek comfort in means that our civic skin isn't as thick as the rest of the country thinks it is. Torontonians habitually and chronically undervalue their city and its stories; we think that all the important things happen in London, Paris, Tokyo and New York. Even when comparing cities closer to home, a Torontonian will be the first to say that Vancouver is the most beautiful city in the world and that Montreal is the sexiest and the most fun. It's a peculiar thing, this cognitive dissonance between what Toronto is and how it is imagined to be-the mythmaking hasn't been able to keep pace with the city's evolution into the creature it has become.

Toronto is, as National Post columnist Robert Fulford has written, an "accidental city," its geography unplanned and its history offering little to explain how it came to achieve "importance." Though we do have an official history here, there are not enough stories attached to our buildings, neighbourhoods or our public spaces. Think of the Lower East Side of Manhattan-even without intimate first-hand experience as to what the area is all about, it still occupies a definitive place in our minds. It means something. Walk though the streets, and stories poke through the cracks in the sidewalk-from punks lining up at CBGB's to century-old tenement stories, these are narratives which form part of a worldwide popular consciousness.

In Toronto few areas enjoy similar mythologies-but those that do, stand out. The Prince Edward Viaduct spanning the Don Valley connects central Toronto with the east side, and was built by R.C. Harris (our kinder, gentler version of New York's Robert Moses) in 1917. It's our grandest piece of civic infrastructure and for many of us, it lives in our collective consciousness as the place where, during its construction, a wayward nun in full costume fell off the side, only to be caught in mid-air by a construction worker dangling from a rope below. That this event didn't actually happen (it is from Michael Ondaatje's book, In the Skin of a Lion) doesn't matter-it mythologized a piece of Toronto and made it larger than life, transforming concrete and steel into something Torontonians can feel emotionally attached to.

Toronto has a wealth of architectural and semiotic references which steer our minds away from the local. The city is built on a grid pattern that barely considers the local topography, and many streets show their colonial roots, having been named after places in the United Kingdom. I certainly wouldn't want to change these names-our British heritage is an important part of the city-but I suspect it adds to the impression of Toronto being "colonial," that we remain subject to a greater power located somewhere else.

In a corporal sense, the concrete of our edifices is also largely behind our poor self-image. Compare the city's architectural form to Montreal's. From the beginning, Montreal knew it was going to be a great city, and it built itself up accordingly. Grand avenues offer beautiful sightlines of the mountain, and buildings retain the importance of the spirit in which there were erected. Montreal has an urban feel that Toronto lacks, which emerges from the small details-the way that homes and apartment buildings meet the sidewalk, for example. These particulars lend the island more of a Manhattan-ish feel than is evident in Toronto, which was developed after the automobile had became the dominant factor in urban planning.

Toronto doesn't inspire in the traditional City Beautiful sense that other metropolises do, but slowly people are coming to grips with what we've got here, this strange mix of Victorian and Edwardian architecture jammed up against modern glass buildings and industrial warehouses. Because many of us have an urban "ideal" in our minds (one that often resembles Haussmann's Paris), Torontonians sometimes feel a bit down about what we've got. There is no cohesive or uniform Toronto "look," but the benefit of this architecture is that it's like a blank slate-there is no prescriptive history telling us what it means to be us. While mass identity speculation can be unsettling for some, there is lots of space for things to happen and for a new collective identity to be forged.

Because the definition of Toronto is still in its infancy, there hasn't been a clear way for people to reconcile the antipathy directed towards the city. "Why do they hate us when we don't even know what we are?" or, more appropriately, "There's nothing here worth hating," seem to be appropriate responses. How the city will react to continued disdain is unclear-perhaps we'll simply become better able to ignore it.

Guest columnist Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer who has an enthusiastic interest in the intersection of urbanism, politics, and theory. He is a founding member of [murmur], a location-based storytelling project that completed installations in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal in 2003-4.

Christopher returns in January. Read more columns by Christopher DeWolf.