Toronto: Hogtown Sizzle

By Ilona Kauremszky

TORONTO -- American filmmakers have cast Toronto as virtually every major city in the United States, adding the latest movie blockbuster, the academy award winner, "Chicago" to its long list.

So when movie insiders label this metropolis that hugs the northern shoreline of Lake Ontario as "Hollywood North," I hope they remember that even America's sweetheart, Mary Pickford, the silent era film star, hailed from Toronto.

What this spells out to the more than 3.3 million residents of Toronto is a success story of sorts.

Consider the long list of festivals that have garnered worldwide attention. There's Caribana, Canada's celebration of its rich Caribbean culture, the Toronto International Film Festival, regarded as the third top film festival in the world and the International Authors Festival. It's clear that Toronto, which in Huron means "meeting place," is living up to its name.

You can't miss it. Upon arrival, the stark image of the CN (Canadian National) Tower with its long thin neck piercing to the heavens, stands as a symbol reminding us that it is the world's tallest structure at 1,815 feet. This omnipresent landmark looms next to the turtle-shaped SkyDome so people can always judge their bearing by a quick scan of the horizon.

But take a big breath if you decide to take the 58-second ride on one of the four glass elevators that blast off from the tower's exterior. As you gaze down, the busy street life reveals an unusual orderliness where buses and taxis have separate laneways from other motorists.

Visitors are quick to remark on how clean the streets are and how safe they feel as pedestrians. With its traditional city grid pattern, the downtown core resembles any street in, let's say, New York City. Sir Peter Ustinov once called Toronto, "New York City run by the Swiss."

By the lakeshore, rollerbladers, bicycle enthusiasts, joggers and pedestrians travel along the harborfront's boardwalk. Neatly sectioned off pathways along the Martin Goodman Trail stretch 10 miles around Lake Ontario, connecting the east end known as the Beaches with its cottage-like homes to the city's west end with its highrise apartments and slick condominiums.

But, things weren't always so neatly mapped out. During the 1700s, the British purchased the land from the Mississauga Indians for $3,400. Locals referred to this district as "Muddy York," reminding everyone of the squalid conditions of the town's muddy roads.

Later, when the city had the largest pork yards in North America, it became known as "Hog Town." Then, when churches stood on almost every street, especially during prohibition days, the city was "Toronto the Good," These days, "T.O." (for Toronto, Ontario) is a hip spin-off from L.A.

Most attractions are downtown and midtown, making traveling by foot or commuting by local transit easy. Affectionately known as the "Red Rocket," the Toronto Transit Commission with its metro buses and streetcars provides a service spanning the entire city for a cheap $2.50 ticket (Canadian).

Swanky boutiques, avant-garde art galleries, and trendy cafes fill the tree-lined district of Yorkville smack in the hub of midtown. Ironically, hippy squatters saved the architectural integrity of the area in the 1960s. Today, Yorkville is the destination for celebrity spotting.

Over to the west of midtown stands the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) with Canada's oldest and largest collection of artifacts. Visitors can marvel at the permanent collection of the bat cave, dinosaur gallery and other displays.

Vibrant, cosmopolitan Toronto is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to World War II, the city was largely an Anglo-Saxon domain, whose allegiance was to the Queen and England. With massive immigration after the war, things changed radically. The insurgence of such diverse cultures as the Chinese, Italians, Hungarians, Portuguese, Jewish, Caribbean and Greek have transformed the city's self-image from dowdy conservatism to a rich multicultural mosaic. Street signs mark out areas such as Little Italy, Portuguese Village, Greek Town and Chinatown.

Another example is the popular historic Kensington Market. Today, Italian butcher shops, Chinese fish markets, Jewish textile shops, Caribbean roti shops and Portuguese bakeries are crammed tightly together in the radius of two city blocks, making it one of the great examples of how different cultures not only co-exist but thrive. In 1989, the United Nations designated Toronto as the world's most ethnically diverse city.

Symbols exemplifying this ever-changing city are Nathan Phillips Square, and City Hall, constructed in the mid-60's. The modern-day piazza has a skating rink, park benches, and a radical bronze sculpture by Henry Moore. The installation of "The Archer" literally brought down a government, an event that most local historians agree marked the beginning of the city's transformation.

Many landmarks in Toronto incorporate design with educational and recreational attractions. The Ontario Science Centre was built by architect Raymon Moriyana, who insisted on following the natural contours of a ravine for the Centre's shape. The location continues to dazzle children and adults while teaching them about science. The Centre has more than 800 hands-on interactive exhibits.

For those with a shoe fetish, a visit to the Bata Shoe Museum is a must. For more than 30 years, shoe baroness Sonja Bata collected 10,000 different pairs of every description, dating back as far as 4,500 years. Now where to put them? How about a post-modern building inspired by a giant shoebox five stories tall? And that's how the world's largest museum devoted exclusively to footware got started.

Whether you're busy browsing the many shops, touring the museums, or soaking in the view, there's always time for Toronto's nightlife. Rated No.3 after London and New York, Toronto's entertainment district has a long list of shows for theater lovers. At the restored Victorian theater, the Canon Theatre, the longest running production, "Phantom of the Opera," was the spotlight showcase for years.

Once in T.O, it becomes evident that old hog town has a new sizzle. With attractions such as the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Air Canada Centre, the Casa Loma, more than 100 theater companies, hundreds of live music venues nightly, the National Ballet Company, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company and the Queen Street West district with its street artists, Toronto truly is "the meeting place." Who knows? You most likely will need a return visit.


photos: Stephen Smith

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All text & photos 2005.