City of light: Toronto is fervently remaking itself into a vessel of innovation & culture
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 December 2005)

Honore de Balzac wrote in one of his novels that the city of Paris worked like the boiler engines in a steamship, powering ''a superb vessel laden with intelligence.'' Set down in the first half of the 19th century, his image seems to predict the dream of all ambitious communities in the 21st century: To develop the brains that will power the societies of the future.

Every city now wants to become a vessel laden with intelligence.

Toronto has already gone a long way in this direction and wants to go much further. In the most profound era of civic renewal in half a century, we are labouring to make an environment that welcomes ingenuity and celebrates innovation.

And as if in preparation for the 21st century, the accidents of history have concentrated much of the city's and the country's intellectual energy in one convenient place, the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. It was mostly luck, but to deserve that luck our ancestors must have been almost as virtuous as they thought they were. Is there in all the world another big commercial city with a central core dominated by a research university? Does any other university own the largest piece of first-class real estate to be found within its national borders?

In this astonishingly compact district, professors of medicine work in offices only a five-minute walk from teaching hospitals, engineering students occupy classrooms only a 10-minute journey from many of the country's major corporations, and law professors give their lectures three subway stops from the Ontario appeal court. To intensify this knowledge cluster, Toronto decided five years ago to create the MaRS Discovery District on College Street at University Avenue. If things go as planned, MaRS will integrate research with commerce and promote the small research-based companies that produce many of the world's innovations.

At the same time, Toronto has been working furiously to realize its own vision of itself as a city of culture. Anderson Tepper, writing recently for, noticed that Toronto ''is being rewritten, remapped, reimagined.''

All at once (or so it seems) we have remade the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Conservatory of Music while building a handsome opera house, a sparkling ballet school and a new theatre complex in the Distillery District. Projects like those were idle dreams only a decade ago. Today they are reality, or about to become reality -- proof that the atmosphere of Toronto has fundamentally changed.

Will Alsop's deliciously original Ontario College of Art and Design building stands as the most spectacular sign of our civic reawakening; an art school that was considered painfully strait-laced for generations now occupies a building that strikes a note of wild originality even in the company of Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind.

Residential architecture has also changed with the arrival of the condo boom.

Whatever happens to condo sales in the future, we know that the central city has evolved in the right direction; it now seems far less likely to go depressingly dark after working hours. And just this month Toronto introduced car-pool lanes to improve air quality (a proposal discussed for decades) and won from the Ontario government powers that could end up improving our public infrastructure.

In this giddy period we need to remember that a city capable of greatness understands its past, appreciates its present, and has enough imagination to make a liveable future. To succeed, a city requires a myth, a way of seeing itself, and it continually rewrites that myth to suit new circumstances and evolving sensibilities. The people who once proudly called Toronto ''A city of homes and churches'' were expressing a certain idea about themselves. In the same way, the post-war generation that built the suburbs was inspired by a then-new belief that the workers as well as the well-to-do could have private homes on good-sized lots.

Over the years, fiction writers have helped define the mythologies that shape our lives. As David Bezmozgis says, ''Writers animate the city they write about.'' His first book, Natasha And Other Stories, embraces Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union who built their own community on the Bathurst Street corridor, from Sheppard Avenue to Steeles. This task of civic animation has been assumed over the last quarter-century by several writers, notably Michael Ondaatje (In the Skin of a Lion) and Margaret Atwood (Life Before Man, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace). A key Toronto novel of the 1990s, Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels, redefined the city through a wonderful array of details ranging from the tragedy of Hurricane Hazel in 1954 to the ancient trees that turn Grace Street into ''a summer tunnel of long shadows.''

For the young, as for their parents and grandparents, the city serves as a theatre of contact and personal display. Each new generation uses what it inherits and pours fresh enthusiasm into institutions and social forms that have grown stale.

That's the impulse behind one of the most surprising Toronto books ever, the recently published uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto (Coach House Books), edited by Jason McBride and Alana Wilcox. This 287-page collection of essays by many hands delivers a fresh and energizing view of Toronto's possibilities.

Remarkably, it addresses the whole city rather than a few celebrated districts like the Annex and Cabbagetown. McBride's and Wilcox's platoon of contributors insist that any honest vision of the city stretches to the far corners of Scarborough and North York.

In one of the best pieces, Bert Archer acknowledges that, like most of us, he has his own Toronto, designed to his own taste, encompassing in his case a 24/7 Sneaky Dee's, a movie house that regularly shows The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the Bob Miller Book Room, which sells philosophy from the basement of an anonymous Bloor Street building. But those who know nothing except their own chosen Toronto miss a great deal, Archer says; he wants us to realize that ''You could walk, as some folks do, from the outer edges of Etobicoke to the inner circles of Scarborough and not run out of stuff to see and do.'' Those who love Toronto, he claims, do not love enough of it. And I love him for that thought.

In uTOpia, John Lorinc goes farther than Archer and mounts a lively defence of that most despised of urban forms, strip malls. He sees them not as crimes against good taste but as spontaneous community hubs that spring up when needed. He argues that while big-time shopping-centre managers prefer renting to high-end chains, strip plazas function as free markets where almost anybody can make a start in retail. At the Finch Weston Centre, a busy L-shaped strip, he finds a Vietnamese restaurant, an Italian jeweller, a KFC, a cheque-cashing outlet, a store that for some reason calls itself Cleptomania Shoes, and an Argentine bakery where the owner makes a point of sprinkling the business cards of other Argentine businesses next to the cash register -- a now-common case of a merchant creating a community of those who share his origins.

When you study strip malls, Lorinc claims, you uncover hidden meanings. In ''these unassuming corners of suburbia there's already a there there,'' which shouldn't be casually discarded. While remaking a city we can make gross blunders, as Jane Jacobs famously pointed out. When planners replaced slums with vast housing projects they destroyed communities that were valuable even if they were invisible to outsiders. Jacobs teaches us that we should understand what a street means before we bulldoze it. Lorinc is right to argue that in a time of exuberant new forms we should avoid the temptation to alter something just because it doesn't please us.

These are the details, the place where God can be found, as Mies van der Rohe liked to say. By God he meant excellence, a concept that now preoccupies Torontonians. Ideally, in a time of wealth creation we should turn our minds to creating a place we can love as we live in it. For once we seem to be doing just that.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page