Notes on a city: Looking, listening, lingering and thinking in Toronto

We all have our own ways of processing the tourist experience. Some of us bury ourselves in guide books; others crane their necks to get the best photos; still others take notes. The following is an excerpt from Lawrence Li's latest travel diary, an insightful catalogue of his observations while exploring Toronto.

Urbanist Article August 2, 2008

Terminal 3 bus boarding zones lack overhead signs. Which one is for the 192? Not this one. Nope. Not this one. ‘getting colder. Go back the other way. Oh, hi David. I think the 192 is this way. Oh here it is.

Hotel websites all say that wi-fi is available. This city must be well wired.

Retro TTC logo. Information graphics are bold, functional, not pretty. Subway reminds me of Boston’s system. Fabric seats. Cozy stairways and corridors lack escalators. This system has been here for a while.

Residential towers sprout from the middle of blocks. There are some unobstructed mid-block alleys or lanes that nicely go all the way through the block.

Metro Central YMCA is open until 11PM! The pool is designed as a postmodernist church. There are children at this YMCA, and they’re in the pool after 10PM on Wednesday night. The lane sign says to choose the lane that best matches your “effort” rather than “speed”. The shower room provides a few curtained stalls — I suppose for more modest members. These stalls are always used, with brown feet visible under the curtains. The not-hot-enough sauna is set-up as bleachers, observing a wall of towel hooks through gi-normous windows. I keep bumping my head on the ceiling from the top bleacher row. Members are from all over the world, with unusually shaped, scarred bodies that suggest a hard life. At closing time, people are still lounging around the sauna.

Restaurants post that they close at 11 PM and still seat people at 11:30.

Why would I need butter for my bagel?

No metal detectors or bag search at City Hall?

My meeting is in the City Hall “flying saucer,” a building I loved so much as a child.

City officials we meet are white, although it is a city of 50% immigrants. The code used to speak about race and immigrants is different here–a bit quieter and more polite, if not unspoken. Are newcomers threatening Canadian identity? This kind of cultural integration may be something new here. Perhaps some cultural shifts loom ahead for this polite society.

Folks say “prO-ject” and “prO-cess”, “zed”, “Torontonian” and mention “Jane Jacobs”, “Richard Florida”, and “you can download it from our website” a lot.

University Toronto building with multicolor glass panels resembling a DNA or protein sequence. It’s probably not the English department.

Some streets like Jarvis lack a yellow stripe down the middle separating different traffic directions. Streets are very tight. On the sidewalk, my face is up against retail windows. It makes me feel like I am inside the store or restaurant. Streetcars are a functional part of the transit fleet and are not merely a tourist attraction. The narrow, polished shops, galleries, and restaurants on Queen Street West resemble Hong Kong at midnight.

Mom says that the Chinese food in the outer Chinatowns is superior to San Francisco, New York, and even Hong Kong because all the top chefs left HK for Toronto.

Recognizable Ikea furniture at the Centre for Social Innovation and Baldwin Village Inn.

Waiting for my pizza slice on Church St, I understand enough Vietnamese to spy on an unpleasant conversation behind the counter.

At Buddies and Bad Times theater a black drag queen dressed spidery with superbly built, sculpted body, performs in heels. Another drag queen dancing with McDonald’s french fries also in heels. Old CRT TV’s light-up for a video presentation. The crowd seems familiar with each other, with large groups of friends. There is no designated dance floor, which makes this feel more like an indoor street fair. Everyone seems to sing along the Bon Jovi-esque song playing when I leave.

To minimize interaction, sequester convention halls and tourists on the waterfront, like at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Elevated expressway must come down.

Cute cabins on the island. Swallow airborne bugs as I run. Boardwalk along a Great Lake. I discover a nude beach here. I guess some locals are not as reserved as they claim. If I lived here, this is where I would spend my summer weekends. Waiting for ferry at Hanlan’s point, a group of loud kids with boombox ironically make racial jokes and dance to Mamma Mia. Someone practices his flute.

The houses on McCaul Street, north of Baldwin, have nightly parties on their porches across from mega healthcare facilities. Guys with beer bong yell at me, “You know you want it!” I moon them.

At Dundas West station, across the street from the Lithuanian community center, there is a small market where I purchase a bag of lightly salted cashews and a banana for my flight from a Chinese lady. While waiting to checkout, the woman behind me in line stealthily drifts beside and moves ahead to pays for her cigarettes before my turn — a sneaky breach in this orderly society?

I could live here. I prefer it to any other Canadian city. I could hang out with many people I have met. I want to stay here longer — perhaps something will go wrong with my flight home.

About the Authors: 

Lawrence Li is SPUR’s administrative director. He lives simply in San Francisco, and enjoys spending time on sidewalks and at cafes.

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