I realize it's like a food writer admitting he'd never tasted French cuisine before, or a book reviewer finally confessing she'd skipped the classic Greek plays in university, but here goes: Until a few weeks ago, I'd never been to Chicago.
It's not that I hadn't wanted to go. As an architecture aficionado, Chicago has been on my must-see list for more than a decade. And, during that time, my appetite had been whet by story after story in the mainstream media and blogosphere on Things Toronto Can Learn from Chicago. Filled with Truths That We Hold to be Self Evident such as "Their Waterfront/River System Puts Ours to Shame," "Their Architecture is Great/Ours is Mediocre," and "Their Tourist Attractions Are Better," I almost could've written one myself before going.
I'm glad I waited, because, you know what? Chicago was … meh. I prefer New York.
First, let's deal with Chicago's legendary handling of water. Yes, it's true that they have more parks along the waterfront. They also have a big bold river cutting through the downtown core, which affords tourists lovely architectural boat cruises (I highly recommend the one by the Chicago Architecture Foundation) and scenic bridge photo-ops. But Chicago has been thinking about its waterfront for a lot longer than we have: In 1900, they were a gigantic metropolis of 1.7 million souls, and had just come off of hosting the World's Columbian Exposition (1893) led by architect/urban designer Daniel Burnham, who practically invented the City Beautiful movement.
By contrast, the Toronto of 1900 held about 200,000 citizens who were more concerned with building up the city's economy than with leisure time (that would happen by the 1920s). By the time we hit a million, it was 1950, and civic planning had changed: "Big Daddy" Gardiner (our version of NYC's Robert Moses) was putting expressways between us and the waterfront, and we agreed that this was progress, because much of what we were sealing ourselves off from was dirty and industrial.
And this, in fact, has proven to be a godsend, because today Toronto is unique for possessing large parcels of waterfront land where completely new neighbourhoods are being built (have you seen what the Canary District/Don River Park is going to look like? It's breathtaking!); things that make older cities green with envy, I might add. And let's not forget what we've done right, such as the boardwalk, Tommy Thompson Park and the Toronto Islands, and recent good stuff such as the Music Garden (designed by Yo Yo Ma and Julie Moir Messervy), H2O Park, and Sugar Beach (in fact, a drive along Queens Quay West or Lake Shore Boulevard West these days looks a lot like a drive down Chi-town's Lake Shore Drive).
And when it comes to the Don, Humber and Rouge, remember that the only tour boats we'll ever see gliding along those will be full of bird-watchers, since our valley-systems prevented us from ever building up to their edges. This means tourists will continue to pack those double-decker buses to see the T-Dot.
Speaking of which, pretty much every tour of Chicago – whether by water, wheel or tennis shoe – mentions "architecture" as a key component. And while they do have a few more treasures than we do (again, they've been at it longer), how many Toronto tour companies point out our Mies van der Rohe (the tallest he ever designed), our I.M. Pei, our Edward Durell Stone, our Santiago Calatrava (theirs is a hole in the ground), or buildings from architects not as well-known in the U.S., but instrumental in shaping our Canadian cities, such as Peter Dickinson (is he mentioned when they drive by the newly-restored 111 Richmond West, where ultra-hip Google has located its headquarters?), John C. Parkin, Jack Diamond, Eb Zeidler, Raymond Moriyama or John Andrews?
Do our guides point out sculpture by legends such as Etrog, Hepworth, Moore and Eloul? In other words, do we promote Toronto's own place on the international architectural and art-world stage? Perhaps if the Toronto Society of Architects or Architectural Conservancy of Ontario were to team up and rebrand those double-decker bus tours, we would. And while Oak Park is indeed great, let's take our tourists through Rosedale and Cabbagetown and tell them of our unique Bay-n-Gable style, and of E.J. Lennox, Eden Smith and Ron Thom.
I won't deny that Chicago's "Bean" (Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor) brings tourists by the thousands to an otherwise ordinary park (which I thought was close to the water, but in reality is much closer to a busy street) to snap photographs, so if we really feel the need for something similar, why not finance a 20-foot-tall Weathering Steel Mountie by Charles Pachter for Dundas Square? Seriously, that would bring 'em in by the busload, and it would be a cheeky comment on a tourist's first impressions of Canada.
And despite what Doug Ford thinks, we can't just "invent" a place like Navy Pier to plunk down a giant Ferris wheel; if we listen to Toronto's story instead, we'll find places for those things already exist. The problem is, the Canadian National Exhibition isn't top-of-mind 365 days a year, so that would have to change, and the other suitable area, Ontario Place (if it ever opens to the public again) would require much better access by transit or tourists won't bother. That's if we decide we want a giant Ferris wheel, human-sized hamster Habitrail, world's largest waterslide, or what have you.
Here's one last thing to consider: During Google searches for this story, one "What Chicago Can Learn From Toronto" story actually came up (July 1, 2011, Chicago Tribune, in reference to Luminato). Get those Mirvish+Gehry towers up, the Pan Am Games construction over with and a few more improvements to our transit system tucked away, and I guarantee you'll see many, many more.
Let's shut down the Chicago love-in and be proud of who we are.