Toronto the Old, Toronto the Driven, and Toronto the New. I’ve lived in this city for more than 3 decades now, and each decade has introduced me to a different Toronto. Not always a beautiful one, sometimes even one that made me question why I live here, but one that is more tied to my identity that perhaps I even realize.
I got to know ‘Toronto the Old’ as I call it, when I first moved here and by necessity I became a creature of transit. Metropass in hand, I got my monthly money’s worth using every subway, streetcar and bus route available, taking full advantage of all of them to run errands, explore neighbourhoods, and check out new bars, restaurants and shopping meccas.
I knew which side of the subway car would open at every single stop, and could make my way through the underground PATH system with my eyes closed. I mean, I KNEW this city! And as a young transplant from a much smaller Northern Ontario town, it felt great to be part of a such a thriving, cosmopolitan city.
Then I got a car, and Toronto the Old gave way to ‘Toronto the Driven’. And driven it was, by road-raging commuters and locals alike, death-defying cyclists navigating through the mean streets of HogTown, and the occasional tourist desperately trying to connect the dots between sporadic, badly-placed signs attempting to direct them to destinations like the ROM or the AGO. (Good luck with that, friendly foreigners!)
Being vehicularly mobile now, I revelled in the freedom to grocery shop without my ‘old lady’ bundle buggy, I hit far-flung boutiques and malls not serviced by the Red Rocket, and I moved into leafier neighbourhoods where I didn’t have to be within walking distance of a subway. I felt like a grownup, having left behind the twenty-something years of bus shelters and subway tokens.
Despite this freedom and mobility, there was a downside that went unnoticed by me for years, as I slowly began to lose the intimate knowledge of the Toronto I had once known so well. I didn’t realize it had been happening until a recent visit to Greektown on the Danforth left me feeling like an outsider – where did that giant kitchen retail store come from? What happened to that funky restaurant where they played Jason and the Argonauts on their screens on a never ending loop? Did I even recognize this Greektown? I felt like a stranger in my own city, and I didn’t like the feeling that came with these changes.
To be fair, some of these changes weren’t good: dozens of cookie-cutter condos sprouting like mushrooms, progressively obscuring views of the Lake as their glass facades advanced ever closer to the shoreline – with little thought given to the aesthetics of the buildings themselves. And to add insult to injury, the traffic congestion that came with all that construction and high density growth had become insufferable.
A little bird kept telling me, “this isn’t the Toronto of Old, maybe it’s time to get out.” Seductive talk to someone closer to 65 than 35, and an idea which made even more sense as I sat idling in traffic because of yet another construction delay.
But then I left the car at home one night last week, and took the subway downtown – a modern, updated subway that I almost didn’t recognize with its sleek new trains and sexy walk-through cars.
Popping up at King and University, it took me a moment to get my bearings amidst the forest of new condos, but as I walked around the city, I began to really see Toronto the New: glittery new hotels I had never been in before, thriving new neighbourhoods (SOCO, Liberty Village, the Distillery), each with a unique energy and vibrancy that felt different, but familiar.
The streets were busy with people of all ages, some who live in these new neighbourhoods, some who are visiting to see what Toronto has to offer, and some who are part of a new generation that are seeing this city for the first time. With all its rapid growth and uncoordinated expansion, I began to see Toronto as the awkward teenager it has become – not yet comfortable in its new skin, but keen to explore its developing identity.
Maybe I was feeling nostalgic (and yes, there was wine involved!) but what struck me as I considered the evolution of Toronto, was that it mirrored my own life in many ways: Toronto the Old will forever hold the memories of my early life here as I flexed my newly-acquired urban muscles; Toronto the Driven parallels the time in my advertising career when I was equally ‘driven’ to move from one rung of the ladder to the next; and now, Toronto the New coincides with my own reinvention as I look forward to new ventures on unfamiliar horizons. What’s exciting, though, is that the Big City energy that wooed me here thirty years ago hasn’t disappeared, and the energy and optimism it sparked in me when I was younger is still very much alive in me now that I’m a grownup.
Which is great news, because the future promises to be as interesting and exciting as the past has been – both for Toronto, and for me.
TIP: If you want to get the best out of a downtown Toronto experience, follow the Manhattan example and leave the car at home. You can get a TTC day pass for 2 people for $11 which gives you unlimited transit rides, and is a fraction of what you would pay to park.