Toronto: The Romance of Canadian Cities Series /// Reading List

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My most recent book was this one, about my home town Toronto, that I got shipped to Berlin. This book, written originally in 1967 and updated in 1979, traces Toronto’s history from a small hamlet to a bustling North American metropolis. The author, Bruce West, was a columnist for the Globe and Mail (one of Toronto’s main newspapers), and writes the book in a very personable tone.

There are several things that were fascinating about this book, and which I want to reflect on, especially as I now live on the other side of the ocean.

The first overarching point which I found interesting was the realization that so many books about Toronto are written by columnists and journalists. One could even call it a tradition. Journalists are actively engaged in trying to capture the essence of Toronto and to then communicate it to a wide audience. Be it through (as in this case) an extensive history of the city, or through more subjective reporting from the modernist suburbs by Shawn Micallef, or understanding the nature of the municipal political system like Dave Meslin, or even the steamy political exposé by Robyn Doolittle – the city seems to be overwhelmingly written by these individuals.

Regarding the content of the book, I found it extremely interesting to see the city through the eyes of someone for whom the 1970s was ‘present day.’ The hot topics that were on the mind of the author at the time comes through in his tone and the choice of which local histories are worth telling. Some controversial views about mayors, historical figures and bank towers made for an entertaining read.

Yet even with this view from the past, there are several themes that still hold true for the Toronto of today. West talks at length about traffic, provincial attitudes towards architecture, diversity/multiculturalism (as a positive thing), and the sense that Toronto was a peaceful (albeit somewhat boring) place to live and grow.

Even more persistent seems to be the typical Torontonian Inferiority Complex (The TIC) which I keep encountering in books about the city. This is especially true of West’s historical analysis in more contemporary times – historically, a certain class of Torontonians have preoccupied themselves with worrying about not being up to par with the other world cities. Yet as all the books I’ve read about Toronto seem to say, most other residents (and certainly all the cities these Torontonians coveted) couldn’t care less. When residents are told that Toronto has the biggest this or the longest that, people seem to often say “Oh really? Toronto?” This bewilderment produced conflicts over the ages especially in regards to architecture – avant-garde architecture that should have catapulted Toronto into the global stage was often met by a confused and skeptical public. Perhaps Toronto has paid for it’s high quality of life by not being able to see it.

The strongest point of this book was that it was written with very many stories of individuals place in context with larger global  events of the day. This was especially interesting since Torontonians, as I am increasingly realizing, love their local personalities. This is something that seems to cut across West’s history, that there were, throughout Toronto’s growth, a set of strange, staunch, stubborn, dangerous, flamboyant or otherwise remarkable personalities that would catch the attention of citizens and urban politics (arguably this is why Torontonians are so politically engaged at the local level!). The examples from the past and present are numerous and include such characters as Willaim Lyon Mackenzie, Ambrose Small, Banting and Best, Harold the Jewlery Buyer, Rob Ford and more or less all Toronto Mayors, Frederick Gardiner, Billy Bishop, Zanta, the Jesus guy at Dundas Square, Hazel McCallion, Desmond Cole, Jennifer Keesmaat, Jack Layton, Adam Vaughan, etc. etc. – the list goes on.

I think these themes – the voice of the journalist, the TIC and the eagerness for personalities – blare out to me mostly because I have not noticed these things here in Berlin. Local politics seems to give way to national or international politics, leaving many local politicians seemingly unknown to those they represent. As well, I would be hard pressed to name a local journalist or character who is at the pinnacle of local fame (except for, perhaps, techno viking – but that was externally imposed…). What the reasons are for this difference, or whether this really even is the case,  I am not sure, and will certainly be something I seek to better understand in the future.

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1 comment
  1. bobgeor said:

    Neat. I’ll have to look for this. Toronto DOES have a huge inferiority complex.

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