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Signposts of a new Toronto cool Add to ...

Just as one cannot bestow a nickname upon oneself and expect it to stick, a city cannot declare itself cool. Cool is a collective thing built by many hands, often working in isolation from one another.

It's my opinion that Toronto has been cool for a long time. Naysayers that hold Montreal up as the Capital of Cool until Toronto trumped it some time in the 1980s have no memory of Painters 11, the beatniks of Gerrard Street Village, Yorkville, Moses Znaimer, SCTV or the original CFNY.

Today, Toronto is cooler than ever, and much of its cool currency lies in what artists and graphic designers have discovered: it has more layers than an onion. Reflected in every neighbourhood and its signage is an Anglo core with a dozen or more layers applied by waves of immigration; John Graves Simcoe's rigid street grid explodes into unexpected parks or is stymied by meandering ravines; and old industrial lands are breeding grounds for new types of living.

In 2005, I wrote about David Vereschagin's love of the original TTC typeface and his quest to preserve it by releasing a font package. The good folks at Spacing magazine continue to elevate everyday urban infrastructure into aesthetic objects worthy of our attention. Artists paint portraits of our neighbourhoods (some covered here in August, 2009), and Rob Croxford uses his brush to compare and contrast the urban jungle with the ever-distant farm fields of the 905. Photo-bloggers continue to document our layers, from the demise of the Canary Restaurant to our abandoned factories and power plants.

And I keep finding more.

A novel way to represent the city's layers is with a mandala. Lynn Golding has been painting her "neighbourhood mandalas" since first attempting to organize the chaotic nature of Kensington Market with the ancient shape in 2007. At centre is a Victorian home, then, surrounding it, a jumble of images that are "tattooish and graffitish and so on," says Ms. Golding, with a nod to beloved local businesses such as the used clothing shops, bakeries and fish markets.

After positive response, Ms. Golding decided to continue. To date, she has painted 25 mandalas of Toronto neighbourhoods, from tony Rosedale and Deer Park to Leslieville and Leaside. Many include representations of local architecture and small swirls of print containing snippets of neighbourhood history. Alongside images of Kay Gardner Beltline Park and the historic Balmoral Street fire station in the Deer Park mandala is text that reads: "1837 Heath family purchased 40 acres of northwest corner and named it Deer Park. 1846 was subdivided and sold off by 1874. Annexed 1908." Leaside's mandala celebrates its early history as an aviation hub.

"I take notes, I do sketches, then I go to the library to look up some history," says the bright-eyed, sixty-something self-confessed "visual learner." When folks purchase a print, she provides a "cheat sheet" that reveals the identity of buildings and the inspiration for the text. Ms. Golding's Mandalas can be found at http://www.torontomandalas.blogspot.com/

Equally playful but much more rigid is the Toronto neighbourhood map by Ork Posters. Three years ago, Chicago designer Jenny Beorkrem came up with the idea after a failed search for a piece of Chicago-inspired art. After tackling 10 other U.S. cities, she divided up Toronto's familiar trapezoid shape into 178 neighbourhoods; in order to fit neighbourhood names into the rather awkward shapes, letters were rotated, expanded or shrunk, which gives the effect of an optometrist's chart seen in a funhouse mirror.

"The design is clever, clean and modern," says Ian Gillies, owner of Leslieville's Telegramme Prints, who adds that the poster has been "one of the top two or three" sellers since it was brought in last month.. "[T]is poster is a party, all about neighbours and neighbourhoods. It brings all of us together in one diced-up salad without being political or caught up in a debate."

TTC fetishists can find further satisfaction with the Toronto Transit Series by Walloper. Easy-to-apply vinyl letters representing every subway station (as well as a few way-finding phrases such as "Southbound" or "Next Station St. George") are available as wall decals. Not only are these cool, they're perfect for that second bathroom that's crying out for some character.

With all this cool cachet, it's time for a new nickname for Toronto. Since Hogtown and Muddy York are so last century, and the T-Dot is so last decade, what will it be?

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