Architecture writers often get caught up in a game of journalistic tag: Someone comes up with a sexy topic – such as "Is Toronto is a World-Class City?" – and then other writers feel they need to contribute their thoughts. This can go on for years. Decades even.
The example above, for instance, goes back at least as far as 1975. This is the first instance I can find in The Globe and Mail's archives of "Toronto" and "world-class" used in the same sentence (in an op-ed piece titled "Robert Nixon's Ontario" by then-Ontario Liberal leader Mr. Nixon). While there were only two more that decade, things exploded in the 1980s. There were more than 100 from 1980 to 1989, from then-mayor Art Eggleton offering it up during construction of the Metro Convention Centre, to the domed stadium debate of the mid-eighties, and, finally, Toronto's late-eighties bid to host the 1996 Olympic Games.
The 1990s were worse: The decade kicked off with Robin Leach shooting a Toronto segment for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that had journos scribbling and, no doubt, many water-cooler tongues wagging about our world-class status (it's hard to reject Hollywood's blessing), while the Blue Jays' back-to-back World Series wins stopped the nay side for a while. A victorious sports team is further proof, you see, and by 1996 one Vancouver-based Globe writer observed that Torontonians "now dread hearing" the term.
Yet, the stories kept coming: I found more than 130 entries for the 1990s, and about 160 for the first decade of the 2000s.
The good news, however, is that while I can't access the entirety of our current decade, it looks as if the count will come in at less than 100 by 2019.
To ensure this, I say: "No touch-backs, infinity plus one!"
As any tag-player will attest, this means that, now, no one can ever write a think-piece debating Toronto's status as world-class again. Not only will this save a great deal of ink, it's a moot point in 2016: we are world-class, and I'll prove it.
To do so, let's explore a few of the criteria outlined in an oft-quoted Forbes magazine article from 2009, which tapped "a dozen urban and urbane" professors, novelists, journalists and financial people for their opinion. Since Toronto already possessed many of the items for decades – "filthy rich people," "desirability as an immigrant destination," "a great train station," "sensational crimes," "a great park," "neighborhoods with strong, distinct personalities" and "enough top-class restaurants to constitute a scene" – we'll skip to the more ethereal ones.
Beauty at Night
This one, as posited by a Harvard professor, would have been hard to defend a decade ago. Our impressive skyline was dark and dull, as were everyday neighbourhood landmarks. The CN Tower, for instance, was mostly in shadow save for a couple of floodlights, and I remember thinking that if I owned that sucker, it would be lit up like a Roman candle. After the $2.5-million installation of the Philips Color Kinetics LED system in 2007, it was. (Now all the Tower needs is a phone app that allows tourists and locals to control the system, say for 15 minutes at a time, for a fee). The dozens of new condo towers that have since filled the old railway lands have added their own illuminated crowns, and, in 2009, St. Lawrence Hall was lit beautifully along with other low-rise buildings in that neighbourhood.
Capacity for new entrants to take root. This means a viable housing market
This one, as penned by Chicago law professor Richard Epstein, is harder to defend, since our city is second only to Vancouver as most expensive real estate market in Canada. However, what's often presented to us by the media are properties in the downtown core (or at least downtown-adjacent), while skipping over 1950s and 60s inner-ring suburbia. They might not be glamourous, but three-bedroom, two-bathroom condos near Kennedy subway station can be had for less than $200,000, and a quick search in Etobicoke and York turned up many townhouses (if a yard is a requirement) and large condos in mid-rise buildings at under $350,000, such as a two-bedroom, corner-unit condo on the Queensway with a 475 sq. ft. wraparound terrace.
And speaking of mid-rises, in 1987 then-city councillor Richard Gilbert called for four- to six-storey buildings to be built along the city's main arteries outside of the core (Eglinton, St. Clair, the Danforth) to create a more European feel. Twenty years later, "re-urbanization" of these corridors became part of the official plan, and in 2013 chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat pledged to streamline the approvals process for developers of mid-rise buildings.
A 'makes you think' dramatic back-story of some kind, typically involving ambivalence about the gentrification/destruction of old working class neighborhoods
This one, by author James McWhorter, can be combined with that of "NIMBYs, gadflies and community organizers," by author Suketu Mehta, since Toronto has all of these in spades. What would our city look like without Jane Jacobs, John Sewell, the Zeidler sisters and the countless others who fight to keep their corner of the city unique, whether that corner is Thorncliffe Park, Corktown, Rosedale or Bendale.
And, lastly, for fun, let's consider:
- Beautiful people, by Wall Street Journal editor Mary Kissel;
- A certain level of sartorial flair among ordinary people by Mr. McWhorter.
- Pretty women (the men can be drab) by Mr. Mehta.
When I lived in Montreal 20 years ago, I was struck by how beautifully both men and women dressed (even when out to buy groceries) and how drab everyone was in Toronto. And while I think we've come up to Montreal's level since then – heck, we've even been blessed with a Simon's store – blogs such as She Does the City and The Hogtown Rake make the point much better than I can.