In a few months, I’ll be moving back to a smaller town, having spent much of the past several years in the wonderful city of Toronto. I’m really going to miss this place. It’s been a fantastic city in which to live and to study. I’ve loved exploring the different neighbourhoods and taking in the urban experience. Of course, it’s not perfect–like all urban centres, Toronto has its share of poverty and homelessness, a little bit of which I glimpse on a daily basis. But it also has a caring and passionate citizenry, friendly people, an amazing transit system (which I have used for the past 5 years for all my commuting within the city–I hate city driving), and a vibrant scene that includes all different styles of visual and performing arts, music… the list goes on.
Though the city where I’m moving is not far up the road, visiting the T-dot is simply not the same as living here. So, as part of my process of saying goodbye, I’ll be writing a few posts featuring the spaces and facets of this city that I love. And, how better to kick off the series, then with a list (in no particular order) of some of my favourite aspects of the city–just a small list of the places and characteristics that I’ve come to love about this place, during the time that I’ve been lucky enough to live here:
1. The Beaches and Humber Bay Park
These two parks bookend the lakeside regions of the city. The Beaches are on the east side of the city, and feature a series of lovely, sandy beaches, and a long wooden boardwalk that spans most of them. My favourite time to go, though, is when it’s a little cool, and grey, and the breeze is blowing, making the water rough and choppy. Maybe it’s because it’s on those days that it reminds me of the west coast, where I grew up. Or perhaps it’s because there’s fewer people out, and I feel like I’ve got the place to myself. Either way, it’s wonderful–and there’s nothing nicer, after a bracing walk by the water, than walking over to Queen Street, a short few blocks away, and warming up over a delicious lunch or a hot coffee at one of the many eateries that line the streets.
Not to be outdone, the west side of the city has Humber Bay Park, which blends into a series of other parks along the lake, all linked by a walkway and boardwalk of its own. Humber Bay’s beauty is different to that of the Beaches. Many portions of it have been restored to the native plants and trees and bushes. In the spring, the place comes alive with birdsong. The park features wonderful little nooks, seating areas and sculptures for the wanderer to discover. There’s a butterfly habitat, a crow garden, and two arcing white bridges–a large one that finds its echo in a smaller arc further down the trail. I live near here, and I find that a long walk along the water or some quiet time sitting by the lake are two of the best restoratives that I know of.
2. The Communities/Neighborhoods
There are so many wonderful neighbourhoods around the city, like the Roncesvalles area, the Danforth, the Distillery, Liberty Village–or any of another dozen or so pockets. They each have their own unique flavour, and while they were at some point no doubt planned by developers, they now have their own characters as a result of the people who have moved in, as residents and shopkeepers.
One of the areas that I happen to know best is Bloor West Village, with its Eastern European bakeries as well as its restaurants, tea and coffee shops. There’s fantastic sushi, thai, indian and italian food available, as well as Yellow Griffin Pub, where you can order one of 35 different burgers. The service might not be super speedy, but the burgers are certainly worth it. At Sweet Flour Bakery, you can order up a custom cookie, with your choice of mix-ins, and they’ll bake it up fresh, warm and melty within five minutes. Yum!
There’s also the wonderful Chapter’s bookstore here, which was built into an old theatre. Shelves, instead of seats, now occupy the main body of the theatre, and other shelves are up on the old stage, in silent display and performance. The balcony above features the children’s section.
Each of the neighbourhoods has its own array of unique little cafes, shops and eateries that are well worth exploring of a leisurely afternoon.
3. University of Toronto’s Downtown Campus
Even aside from its reputation, one of the major reasons I decided to study at U of T law school was because of the campus. I love being in this place. I love all the different colleges, with their own unique personalities. Knox, with its wonderful, cloister-like courtyard. University College, which for the longest time to me felt like Hogwarts, not just for its magnificently vaulting student common room that only lacks a magical sky and trestle tables, but also because, like the moving staircases at Hogwarts, the twists and turns of the corridors felt like they were rearranging themselves on me each time I turned my back. It also features a beautiful, cloister-like courtyard and a series of upper rooms that would be perfect for staging a live enactment of Hamlet. From Trinity’s formally pattered courtyard and mullioned windows, to Victoria College’s folly of a pink castle, other parts of campus are similarly charming. I may even be warming to the Brutalist parts of campus–though that may be going too far. I suppose Robards Library does have a certain post-apocalyptic, Absurdist Evil Empire charm to it, what with its whole peacock made of concrete vibe. The vanity of knowledge, perhaps–just to keep us students humble?
4. Hospital Row & Medical Expertise
A pragmatic one. I have several chronic illnesses, including very bad arthritis. When I had a question about my eyes and how the arthritis might affect my chances of eye surgery (because an eye surgery doctor once told me that I couldn’t get it done because of my arthritis), my rheumatologist immediately referred me to a doctor whose expertise was eyes and arthritis. I have stories about other such expert referrals–as well as the wonderful, expert care I’ve also received by all the support staff over the years as I’ve gone in for my regular infusions and treatments. The nurses, assistants, and coordinators are all heroes who give the treatments a human face and make everything so much more bearable, thanks to their generosity of spirit.
And, of course, there is the fact that my father in law was able to receive triple bypass surgery within a day of the problem being discovered, at no out of pocket cost to any of us.
All this speaks to how lucky we happen to be, to have access to these amazing resources, right on our doorstep. Some of the country’s top medical talent, and many of our niche specialists are here in Toronto, which makes it a very good place indeed, for someone like me.
5. The Libraries
One of the things I was most thrilled about when I moved to Toronto and got a permanent address here, was that I’d be eligible for a library card. I kid you not.
The Toronto Public Libraries are wonderful–from the amazing range of information and documents available to the public at the Toronto Reference Library, to the wonderful branches sprinkled throughout the urban scape, the libraries are such a blessing on the city. So many of the branches are in beautiful buildings–some newer, and some from earlier eras, featuring charming visual accents and layouts. I love libraries, and I’ve loved getting to explore the different branches of Toronto’s public system over the years (now if only other patrons would realise that it’s not cool to talk at full volume on their cellphones while at the library, I’d be even happier. What ever happened to the whole “shhhh! You’re in the library” etiquette thing?).
The U of T libraries also merit a separate mention, here. They’re not part of the public system, true, but they’re just as wonderful. I have loved spending time in these beautiful buildings and rooms, from those housed in chapel-like spaces, to others that feature gorgeous, wood-paneled intimacy, or creepy, steampunk-evocative fixtures and translucent floors and ceilings.
6. The Arts
I love the easy access to such a wide variety of amazing music, theatre, visual, and written artistry. The Canadian Opera Company, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and so on, are some of the many large, “establishment” venues in the city. But then there are also the indie places–the small galleries and shows, the independent opera companies, the theatre and live performance groups. There’s just so much going on, and such wonderful fermentation of ideas and creativity. It’s a scene that’s always changing, as world-renowned acts come through the city on tour, or to pair up with so many of the world-renowned talents who choose to make this city their home.
7. The Architecture
When I moved to Ontario years ago, Toronto’s architecture did not thrill me. But, in more recent years, the new renovations, buildings and civic projects have been more about taking risks, and being edgier. Many people loathe the new additions to the city scape, like the ROM’s notorious renovation (I rather like it–it’s like a Fortress of Solitude right in the middle of the city–how cool is that? Plus, it’s just so incongruous. I love looking at the spots where the new joins the old). Then there’s the AGO’s… blueness. OCAD also boasts a striking structure, and the new Four Seasons Centre looks oddly ethereal at night, its elegant patrons seemingly suspended on an open terrace that shimmers above the bustle and business of the University Avenue thoroughfare.
8. Nuit Blanche
Though not unique to Toronto, this 12-hour street art festival begins at sunset and ends at sunrise. Between those hours, the city becomes a surreal dreamscape of the strange and wonderful made real–artistic visions, projected from the minds of so many dreamers and onto the streets and alleys of the city. The TTC runs all night, and so you can make your way from section to section on transit, before heading back home in the wee hours, to a weary sleep seasoned by residual flashes of the strange and wonderful you’ve just seen.
9. The Hidden Nooks and Pockets of Coolness
Like any big city, where everything is densely piled atop everything else, Toronto is full of delightful surprises. Turn a corner, and suddenly, you find a labyrinth in the middle of a shopping district. An old farm, in one of the city parks–complete with chickens, hogs, and the historic buildings that made up the farm years ago, when the property was an actual, working farm beyond the edge of the city’s outskirts and poised to overlook the Don Valley. An old, allegedly haunted hotel whose grounds feature the ghosts of old Toronto buildings, in the form of the old facades that some previous owner purchased and had carted over to form a unique statuary. The Toronto Islands, which range from amusement parks to quiet walking paths by the water. You never know what you’re going to find around the next corner, and that’s part of what makes exploring this city such a pleasure.
10. The People
A friend of mine once told me a story about how a man arrived in a new town. He asked one of the townspeople: “So what are the people like around here? Are they nice–or are they jerks?” The person responded: “They’re probably about the same as the people in the town you came from.”
In other words: perhaps our impression of people in a given area has as much to do with us as it does to do with the people. This may be true, to some extent. But it’s also true that certain cities have different “feels” to them. It’s like when you take a wrong turn in an unknown city and end up in a part of town where dubious dealings take place. The glowers and the barely-veiled hostility isn’t about you and your perception–it’s about the place, and the people there.
That said, the random strangers and acquaintances I’ve encountered over the years in Toronto have, on the whole, been great, from the homeless folks I’ve spoken with to the people I take the bus with in the mornings–they’ve been friendly, helpful, and have made the city all the nicer a place to be.
So there’s my list! Over the weeks to come (if I manage to find time between studying for the bar exam), I’ll try to post specifics about particular spots, and favourite nooks.
But, if I don’t manage to find the time, then I’ll content myself with saying: Au revoir, Toronto–I’m going to miss you. I’ll remember you well.