A City Becoming
by Rob Brunet
After twenty-some years living in and around Toronto, it’s probably time to call it home. So why do I still feel like a visitor? Is it scale? Or the pace of change? Is it because I arrived with the quintessential Canadian-not-from-Toronto attitude that, surely, I couldn’t become one of those people who live at the centre of the universe?
I’ve come to regard my adopted hometown with skeptical admiration, but to say I know it enough to describe it to a stranger would be a stretch. Truth be told, I think the same could be said of most people who live here, regardless of how many generations their families have notched in the once-sleepy capital of Ontario.
With close to ten thousand new residents arriving each month, I’m far from the only newcomer. And given the fact I’m a somewhat-reluctantly-middle-aged anglicised Caucasian once-protestant heterosexual man with 400+ years of ancestry this side of the Atlantic, you might imagine I “belong.” But that would be so last century, when Toronto was still a drab commercial town slowly filling up with bankers fleeing Montreal—a place where you couldn’t buy booze on Sunday and why would you want to, unless it was to drink yourself silly to escape the boredom.
But really, how does anyone belong in a city changing as rapidly as Toronto?
Is it really just about scale? Our population has surpassed Chicago to make us North America’s third largest city. Our highways are as snarled as those of Los Angeles, and when you roll in the Greater Toronto Area and the cities on its fringe, you find growth rates that exceed those of the city proper. When friends visited us recently from Manhattan, they were stunned by the sight of cranes littering the place end-to-end, something we’ve grown accustomed to, having more of them operating here than in all of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined. Fly into Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport and you’ll touch down before a skyscape no one could have predicted for this once-sleepy town. It’s as if, when they built the CN Tower forty years ago, it summoned an eruption of glass and steel from the waters of Lake Ontario.
And we keep filling it with people, pulling them from across the country and around the world. If Canada is a cross-cultural experiment, Toronto is its nexus—yet another euphemism for that centre of the universe tag.
I live in a part of town called Yonge and Eglinton—sometimes known as Young and Eligible—the belly button at the centre of the universe, if you must know (there’s lint in it; I’ve checked). Over the past handful of years, no fewer than two dozen new condominium towers have begun construction within a five-minute walk of that midtown intersection. At street level, I can hear a half dozen languages spoken waiting for a crossing signal—even most ex-Montrealers obey them here—and they won’t be the same six languages I’ll hear at the next intersection.
If this all sounds like oh-so-much-concrete, don’t get me wrong: Toronto is a city of trees. Crisscrossed by ravines and littered with parks—two massive new examples of which have been announced this year—ours is a city that treasures its green space. And as much as we whine, and rightfully so, about the lack of vision apparent on our downtown waterfront when compared to, say, Chicago, we have beaches and islands and bluffs that put nature within reach of anyone with a bike or a subway pass.
Stepping into a ravine less than five minutes walk from my home, I can wander a mature forest and follow a trail all the way to Lake Ontario, with hardly a sense I’m in a city at all along the way (not that I’ve done that, because subway).
Sprawling around the creeks and forests is a city of neighbourhoods, each distinct from the next. The vibe is decidedly different when you walk Kensington vs. Rosedale vs. The Beaches or the Annex. But to move from one to the other, you’re gonna jump a cab or a streetcar. Toronto isn’t a walking city. Not the way Paris, New York, or Montreal are. Those cities are more compact. You can find your way from one tourist destination to another by foot. Even the most travel-hardened visitor would be daunted navigating this city on foot.
As a visitor, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this place has to offer. Every new person I meet has their favourite haunts, places they share with me, a piece of their neighbourhood it would be easy to miss without a guide. With so much left to discover, it’s too soon to settle down and call it home. Besides, if I did, I’d get too damn city-proud, and become one of those smug people at the centre of the universe I keep looking for. They must be here somewhere.
ROB BRUNET writes character-driven crime fiction laced with dark humor. His debut novel STINKING RICH was listed on Crimespree Magazine’s Book Picks for 2014 and named one of the year’s top debuts by Mystery People. Brunet’s short crime fiction appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Crimespree, Noir Nation, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and numerous anthologies. He loves the bush, beaches, and bonfires, and teaches creative writing at George Brown College in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son.
To learn more about STINKING RICH, click on the cover below: