Dear Toronto: I’d like to say that it’s me, not you, but I’d be lying. It is you. You have no passion, no ambition. You elected Rob Ford! I’m leaving you for another city
About a year ago, in what felt like defeat, I moved to Toronto. I was looking to overhaul (some might say “ditch”) my career. I’d spent five years in New York as a corporate attorney, warring with myself from the get-go over whether I could stay in a city that I loved on employment terms I despised. When I was finally laid off and I decided to leave practice altogether, Toronto was the obvious choice for a crash landing. Though I’d never lived there, I had a lot of friends in the city, there were cultural events aplenty, and rents seemed shockingly cheap after Brooklyn and Manhattan. Maybe, I thought, I’d been crazy to stay away.
Still, by the time you read this I’ll have left to go back to New York. And of course it’s unfair to hold a rebound relationship up to the glow of the love affair that preceded it. And of course I have reasons for leaving that have very little to do with Toronto qua Toronto. I’d be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t, in some sense, actively and consciously rejecting the city itself.
Certain Toronto friends have been defensive about that, asking me if I really thought things were so bad here. “You expected too much of Toronto,” said one, with a bitterness that surprised me. I’ve come to think she was right, though not in the way she meant. What I expected of Toronto was for it to expect something of itself. But this isn’t that kind of town.
I want to get something out of the way first: it was never about the money. So often, these city versus city essays gauge quality by material assets. But as we are not children comparing marble collections, I’m not here to tell you that the difference is that New York has a MoMA and Toronto only has an AGO, or that New York has Balthazar and Babbo and Momofuku and you don’t. For one thing, I hear you’re getting a Momofuku. For another, not once in my 11 months here have I thought: you know, what this place needs is better access to overpriced ramen.
No, my issue is anti-material in nature, so much so that you’ll probably think me a New Age crank. I’ll put it this way: Toronto is not a city for the world’s starry-eyed dreamers. It’s one resigned to the demands of practicality. Maybe it’s just a concentrated version of Canada itself, which is, on the whole, an unromantic, sober sort of country. Our collective nationality is best symbolized by universal health care, a prosaic sacred cow if ever there was one. But it’s more than that: Toronto has always been at greater pains to capture national and international hearts than Montreal or even Vancouver. And my sense is that Toronto doesn’t particularly mind being known for its lack of passion—which to me is just as bad as its historic inability to inspire it.
Yes, it’s true that around the time David Miller was elected, a wave of unabashed Toronto Cool began to build, revolving around The Drake and The Gladstone and Trampoline Hall and the mainstream success of any number of Arts and Crafts musicians. But that tide has receded now, which perhaps just goes to show that these things can’t be accomplished by fiat.
And even that renaissance had its infuriating elements, revealing a palpable and off-putting self-doubt. Leaf through the anthology uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto, which sought to capture the civic pride of the day in a series of essays, and you’ll discover that the most soaring aspiration its authors could muster was to make Toronto “livable.” Imagine your reaction if your lover called you that.
Livability does have a pleasant social science ring to it, emerging as it does from those silly city rankings put out by The Economist and innumerable consulting firms as a publicity exercise. And far be it from me to suggest that a “nice place to live” is always the wrong goal to have. But good God in heaven, why is it the only visible element of Toronto’s soul?