Toronto has been making news in the past few weeks, for all the wrong reasons. Torontonians who travel find themselves being asked: What on earth is going on in your city? The right answer to that is: Quite a lot, actually, most of it good.
The mayor’s troubles are overshadowing what is a moment of brilliant promise for the city of my birth. The once-poky downtown is teeming with life. The long-neglected waterfront is being transformed at last. Cool new parks are opening. New transit lines are being built. Immigrants continue to pour in from all corners of the globe. The air and water are cleaner than they have been for decades.
Raise your eyes from the tawdry headlines, look around a bit and what you see is a city rising to heights that I could never have imagined as a boy growing up here in the fifties and sixties. You only have to take a few steps from my city hall office to get a feeling for the changes overtaking what was once a place of dour mediocrity.
Just outside the big teak doors of this gorgeous building, an inspired renovation of Nathan Phillips Square is coming together, with a new skate pavilion and a permanent stage covered by a glass roof held up by massive steel arms. In the centre of the square, a tent has been erected for the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, one of dozens of arts and neighbourhood festivals that bring people spilling into the streets. In the reflecting pool, meanwhile, the animal heads fashioned by Ai Weiwei stand sentry, a teaser for the Chinese artist’s coming exhibition at a renovated, expanded and ambitious Art Gallery of Ontario.
It used to be that people of means would hightail it out of Toronto on summer weekends. Many still do, but they miss an awful lot. This month alone brings a parade of tall ships in the harbour, the North by Northeast music and arts festival, the Luminato creative festival, Pride Week, the Indigenous Arts Festival, the Dragon Boat Race Festival and the Italian Contemporary Film Festival, among many others.
New theatres and event spaces are popping up all over. In the past few years, the city has gained a splendid new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre, and an equally splendid concert venue, Koerner Hall. Grand old Massey Hall is scheduled for a big renovation. Even Regent Park got a great new arts space, the Daniels Spectrum, as part of the rightly celebrated rebuild of the rundown public-housing development.
All over downtown, cranes labour and new towers reach for the clouds, transforming the skyline with buildings such as Daniel Libeskind’s dramatic L Tower and the 78-storey Aura tower on Yonge Street. Thousands of people are flooding in to live and work in the city centre, lending Toronto’s downtown a welcome big-city hum.
Renato Discenza, the head of Invest Toronto, says that when he takes visitors around, “I like to show them that beside the club district there is a mother walking her child. There’s people going to the gym. I love to show them in the morning, people just going to work, walking. That, again, is not a given, especially in U.S. urban centres.”
Yes, our infrastructure is crumbling and, yes, we are far behind on transit. But a subway to York University is well on its way to being built and the first of the tunnelling machines that will build the Eglinton Crosstown light-rail line was launched this month. The city’s first separated bike lane just opened officially on Sherbourne Street. A creative new park, Corktown Common, is taking shape in the West Don Lands, a great public asset in the midst of a whole new downtown neighbourhood.
“There is lots we need to do,” Mr. Discenza told me over lunch recently, “but step back.
“If you were to hear sometimes the way we speak about ourselves, a third party would think we were in the world’s worst hell. That’s not the case.”
Beyond the headlines, Toronto has lots to cheer about.