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(Fred Lum)
(Fred Lum)

Battle of the megacities

My kind of town, Toronto is … Add to ...

Toronto has always looked up to Chicago as its American cousin – richer, cooler and, of course, bigger. Until now, at least.

A new report on population should make Toronto reconsider its role as an awestruck second fiddle. Officials told city hall’s economic development committee that the city has pulled ahead of its Lake Michigan counterpart to become the fourth biggest city in North America, after Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. Statistics Canada’s latest estimate puts Toronto at 2,791,140 souls, while the latest for Chicago pegs it at 2,707,120. Who’s got the big shoulders now, Chicago?

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Chicago naturally shrugged off the news. “Congratulations, Toronto, on the extra people,” Neil Steinberg wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, after hearing of the demographic coup. “Let us know when you can make a decent pizza, or build a building that bears a second glance. Or when somebody writes a song about Toronto. Or shoots a movie in Toronto that actually takes place in Toronto. We’ll be here, waiting, humming ‘Chicago.’”

The milestone got only passing play in Toronto, too. As Mr. Steinberg notes, “The Canadians, in all their damnable fairness, are too decent to crow.” But, in fact, Toronto has a lot to crow about. In more ways than one, we are besting our cocky American cousin. For generations, Toronto has admired, even envied, Chicago’s triumphs – its brilliant modern architecture, its spectacular waterfront parks, its legendary big-league sports teams.

When my father, a Mad Men-era advertising executive, travelled there on business, it was as if he were shaking off the dust of his Toronto hometown and making a pilgrimage to a more advanced civilization, with bigger steaks and better martinis. Convinced that things American were always superior, he insisted on buying all his suits there (only to discover that they were made in Montreal).

That we now seem to have overtaken our model city, at least by this measure, is something quite amazing. For most of Toronto’s history, its population has been a fraction of Chicago’s. With its rail yards and slaughterhouses and bank towers, the Windy City drew hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Germany and Poland and Italy to build a new life in that booming Midwestern metropolis. By the middle of the 20th century, when its population peaked at 3.6 million, Chicago had more than three times as many people as Toronto.

Today, Toronto is the immigrant magnet, taking in tens of thousands from around the globe. According to city figures, the number of people living in the city grew by 133,000 in the decade ending in 2011 and, now, it is adding 38,000 residents a year.

Chicago, by contrast, has suffered a declining population in every one of the past six decades except for the 1990s, when a move to gentrifying downtown neighbourhoods reversed some losses caused by white flight to the suburbs.

Population growth is not the only way we are passing our American cousin. The city hall report notes that more high-rise buildings are under construction here – a stunning 184 – than in any other city in North America. New York is in second place with 91, Mexico City third with 88 – and Chicago sixth with 18. You do the math, Mr. Steinberg. Poky old Toronto has 10 times more high-rise construction than the city that invented the skyscraper.

Toronto’s thriving downtown is one of the most successful in North America.

A recent TD Economics report showed that population growth in the core tripled in the 2006-2011 census period, pulling ahead of growth in the outer suburbs for the first time since they took shape in the early 1970s. Toronto’s film festival is one of the most influential in the world. Events such as Luminato and Nuit Blanche have added to the city’s cultural lustre. Toronto’s film, television and creative industries outrank Chicago’s when measured by people employed, city hall says.

It adds: “TTC ridership continues to break records and there is more office space being constructed in Toronto (most of it downtown) than in any other North American city other than Mexico City.”

Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc says that residents often overlook their city’s success. “Everywhere I go, people want to talk about Rob Ford,” he says. “In the meantime, we’re building a pretty great city. Investment is coming in. We’re always in the top five for liveability. This is a pretty damn nice place to be.”

Now, let’s not get too carried away. It would be foolish to suggest that, because Toronto has edged ahead of Chicago in population and some other measures, it now stands equal to that great city.

Greater Chicago, known locally as Chicagoland, is still growing and has nearly twice as many people as Greater Toronto, with close to 10 million spread over three states. Chicago’s downtown, with its Magnificent Mile and its 108-storey Willis Tower, still beats us for big-city pizzazz. Its cultural institutions such as the Art Institute or the Field Museum are stronger and better endowed. Its universities, like Northwestern and the University of Chicago, are giants of higher education.

If its problems are worse – it had more than 500 murders last year and its public school system is a mess – its politics are more serious. Chicago enjoyed 22 years of strong leadership under Richard M. Daley and has another ambitious mayor in Rahm Emanuel, a former chief of staff to President Barack Obama. When our own mayor visited Chicago last fall, it was hard to ignore the contrast.

Toronto has problems of its own, goodness knows, from lagging transit expansion to gun violence to disadvantaged inner suburbs. Academic and author Richard Florida, a Toronto booster who moved here from the United States, says Toronto still can’t match Chicago as an economic power. And we still lack Chicago’s genius for thinking big – a habit that has yielded wonders such as downtown’s Millennium Park. “Are we really acting like a city that's bigger than Chicago?” he asked in a recent interview. “Do we have a leadership that looks like Chicago? Do we have a vision that looks like Chicago?”

But, with this week’s news, there is no doubt that Toronto is catching up. After years of frustrating delay, even its waterfront is coming together, with new parks, streetscaping and residential construction. Just as the early 20th century was Chicago’s heyday, the early 21st could be Toronto’s – if we are bold enough to seize the day.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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