Election years have a way of reminding us what we love about our city. Whatever you think of our punchline of a mayor, there’s no denying the energy of the booming downtown, the world-renowned food and the renewed swagger of the Raptors…. Some of us are so proud of our hometown, we permanently tattoo our Toronto-love onto our bodies. We could go on and on about what we love. In fact, we did.
In the nervous run-up to a big criminal trial, the courts now almost reflexively order publication bans. The knee-jerk worry: media coverage will poison the jury pool. Which is why we were so impressed when Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer unsealed warrants in the police case against accused extortionist and Rob Ford sidekick Sandro Lisi. Lisi’s trial isn’t anticipated until next year, but in the meantime, as a result of Nordheimer’s ruling, we are afforded a window into surreptitious late-night meetings between Lisi and Ford, the handover of suspicious packages in a gas station parking lot, and Lisi’s penchant for issuing threats to anyone who crosses him or his good buddy. Nordheimer believes that juries, properly instructed, can render verdicts based on the evidence (trust in juries, after all, is the basis of our legal system), and that the Internet has rendered such bans pointless. Most importantly, though, is the value he puts on the public’s right to know. His simple justification for the sweeping release: “We are dealing with the actions of the duly elected mayor of the country’s largest city…it is hard to conceive of a matter that would be of more importance to the public interest.”
We thought it was a mirage last fall when we saw Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy having dinner at Woodlot, basking in a beatific glow. Then we spotted them again, walking with their baby down Queen West, and caught Danes head-bobbing to Arcade Fire at the ACC. Danes and Dancy are new Torontonians, living several months of the year here while Dancy films his CityTV series Hannibal, a prequel to Silence of the Lambs. Apart from being the grisliest show on television—in one scene, Dr. Lecter, played by the hollow-cheeked Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, sews together a pile of naked, still-twitching victims—it’s also thrilling and suspenseful, beloved by critics and obsessively anatomized online. Hannibal is one of several Toronto shows contributing to the box’s golden age. Among the new crop of hits is Orphan Black, the creepy Space sci-fi series about a troupe of clones, which films all over the GTA and sells out auditoriums at ComiCon. On CTV, Reign, a moony, Toronto-shot soap about Mary Queen of Scots’ teenage love life, has amassed a rabid fan base who call themselves Loyal Royals. And then there’s The Strain, an apocalyptic vampire show from weirdo director Guillermo del Toro, which films near Queen and Church. (Del Toro loves shooting in Toronto so much that he’s made his last three projects here, including 2013’s Mama and Pacific Rim, and next year’s Crimson Peak, a haunted house story starring Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska.) The Strain is the summer’s most anticipated series, set to debut in July on FX, a network that’s rivalling HBO in quality cable programming. Toronto’s TV industry is finally something we can brag about: last year, TV productions poured nearly $730 million into the local economy. Spotting Claire Danes at the AGO is just an added perk.
Reasons to Love Toronto 2014: #20. Because a Living Room Charity is Changing the Way We Raise Our Kids
Gwen Broda, a North York nurse who had three kids close together, and a few of her friends hatched a plan this year to help new parents. The New Mom Project is based on Finland’s famous baby box program, in which the government gives every expectant mom a starter kit of onesies, bedding and diapers. The system is often credited for helping bring down the country’s infant mortality rate from 65 in 1,000 to three in 1,000 during its 76-year run. Last January, Broda put out a call on social media for donations to help assemble her own first-year packages, which parents can access through a referral from their health care professional. Within three weeks, her home was so full of bouncy chairs, toys and tiny outfits, her kids couldn’t walk through the living room. She and her team of a dozen volunteers have already helped over 100 new families. The baby booty now comes in such huge volumes, she keeps it in a storage locker, and she’s scouting stand-alone space, with the long-term goal of turning the project into a national initiative. “Every mom in Canada should have the essentials,” says Broda. “I’m starting with Toronto.”
If you go down to the boardwalk at the foot of Spadina on a sunny day and peer over the edge, you’ll see something that seemed unimaginable even a decade ago: the shadows of darting fish. Both the number and diversity have soared in the past few years because of an underwater structure of boulders, logs and stumps, covered in a thick rug of aquatic plants—an ideal hangout for walleye, northern pike and largemouth bass. The man-made habitats—nicknamed “fish condos”—abut concrete walls where Waterfront Toronto built new boardwalks at the Spadina, Simcoe and Rees slips in 2008 and 2009. Underwater creatures adore the murky nooks and cubbyholes, and are thriving due to a recent improvement in the water quality, which has come a long way from the noxious swill of decades past. Should you manage to snag a fish-condo resident with a hook and line, it’s even safe to take home and eat for dinner.
Over the past few years, as a forest of condos and commercial towers grew in the core, the nighttime skyline began to shimmer and twinkle. Torontonians are the happy beneficiaries of a kind of artistic one-upmanship among developers, who are commissioning light installations to lend otherwise interchangeable glass towers some personality. The biggest concentration is in the 21 CityPlace condos, between Bathurst and the Rogers Centre, where the Ottawa-based artist Adrian Göllner used thousands of multicoloured LEDs to highlight the nooks, parapets or angles of each building. (He says his project, titled Warm by Night, is a reaction to the cold glare of the financial district.) Another 17,200 lights illuminate the RBC Centre on Wellington in the bank’s signature blue, and 19 strips of LEDs programmed to shift through a range of colours make the Arcade Building, at the foot of Yonge, seem to dance. Perhaps the most dramatic is at the Corus Quay complex, right on the lake, where the prestigious British art collective Troika installed a 12-metre-high polycarbonate lightning bolt–like sculpture covered in 35,000 lights. Each addition to the nightly show is another beacon drawing us to a new, vibrant downtown.
Brian Orser didn’t win gold when he was a skater—he’s a two-time Olympic silver medallist—but as a coach, he’s unstoppable. Orser has transformed North Toronto’s sleepy Cricket Skating and Curling Club into a breeding ground for the world’s best figure skaters. At the Vancouver Games, he proved his coaching prowess when his student, South Korea’s Yuna Kim, skated what many consider the greatest Olympic performance of all time. Her grace and power are hallmark traits of Orser’s skaters. Wannabe champions from all over the world send him YouTube clips, hoping to be one of the 10 students he takes on at a time. Orser reviews the films looking for that X factor, skaters who are naturals on their blades. He puts them through a rigorous training regimen: for hours, they’ll do nothing but crossovers, and it might be months before he lets them do a Lutz. Orser’s team of assistants includes a skating fundamentals coach, a spinning specialist and choreographers (Orser was a choreographer for a brief time until a season spent putting four routines to the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean made him re-evaluate). His pupils have included 2014 Olympic and World champion Yuzuru Hanyu and World bronze medallist Javier Fernández, as well as athletes from South Africa, Kazakhstan and the United States—turning the uptown club into a United Nations of Salchows, swizzles and spins.
Like the humble ukulele, Ping-Pong was once seen as kitschy and slightly embarrassing to play but has since been embraced by young downtowners celebrating their escape from the burbs by appropriating suburban cultural bric-a-brac. (See also: grilled cheese sandwiches, board game bars, picnicking, etc.) First came Spin Toronto, a King West club dedicated to the paddle arts. And now the sport has a concrete symbol of its revival: nine parks and public spaces across the city have brand-new, permanent Ping-Pong tables. They look a little like minimalist sculptures, cost $6,200 to build and install, and have a metal mesh ridge for a net—you need to bring your own paddles and balls. The tables are the brainchild of Dianne Moore, a Forest Hill Rotarian who asked a Brampton concrete company to design and build a prototype, and with that, was able to get community groups and like-minded councillors onboard. Funded by various means—private donations, development charges, infusions from the existing parks and rec budget—the tables started going in last summer, and have already given spaces as aesthetically unforgiving as Mel Lastman Square and as geographically remote as Scarborough’s Tall Pines Park a dose of quirk. More are in the works, which means pock-pock-pock will soon be the new sound of summer.
When Anthony Bennett, last year’s number one overall NBA draft pick, tweeted a picture of his tattoo—the CN Tower surrounded by a swirl of maple leaves, emblazoned on his forearm—we were impressed by his loud and proud (and face it, rather un-Canadian) patriotism. Little did we know, permanent stamps of civic pride are downright commonplace.
For all the noise around transit expansion and cancelled gas plants in the past year, Queen’s Park did us one solid: they brought wine to our farmers’ markets. This summer, on your weekly run for heritage-breed pork tenderloin and plump raspberries still wet with dew, you can pick up a bottle of Prince Edward County pinot noir or Norfolk County chardonnay from a VQA-designated stall. The newly relaxed liquor laws are part of a $75-million provincial plan to support Ontario grape growers (it also includes subsidizing equipment, launching marketing campaigns and introducing LCBO boutiques into two Toronto grocery stores by year’s end). Connecting small-scale producers with locavore consumers is a clear win, but more importantly, shopping at our booze-friendly markets now feels a little more like a traipse through Les Halles. Why shouldn’t we be able to buy a silky red to go with that wedge of stinky blue? And if Kathleen Wynne took the next step—introducing legislation that allows us to uncork that bottle in a neighbouring park—we’d be well on our way to picnicking like adults.
In this provenance-obsessed city, we swarm to farmers’ markets to discuss soil conditions with the people who grow our organic veggies and supply us with sustainably raised meat. It was only a matter of time before someone applied the same principles to our bouquets. That someone is Natasa Kajganic, a 29-year-old communications consultant who decided Toronto needed its own version of London’s Columbia Road flower market or Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt—especially since nearby Niagara is home to more than 100 commercial greenhouses. Last year, she launched the Toronto Flower Market, held one Saturday a month during the late spring and summer outside a factory turned event space on Sudbury Street. Local growers laid out rows of fluffy, fragrant peonies, spiky succulents and rainbow-hued gerberas, attracting thousands of people over the course of the season. This May, the market returned with several more vendors and a new, foot traffic–friendly location in an empty Queen West lot across from CAMH. The florists and growers relish the chance to chat with buyers about in-season varieties and proper plant care. And the shoppers get to feel virtuous, knowing their flowers weren’t flown in from farms thousands of miles away.
A pair of lavish newcomers are challenging Holt Renfrew for luxury department store supremacy. Last summer, Hudson’s Bay Company purchased the high-end American retailer Saks Fifth Avenue in a $3-billion takeover. To showcase its shiny new holdings, HBC will open a 150,000-square-foot Saks store inside the existing Queen Street Bay flagship, specializing in exquisite brands like Gucci, Prada, Givenchy and Céline. Across the street, in the old Sears space where we used to buy cheap tube socks and Tempur-Pedic mattresses, Nordstrom will sell Stella McCartney streetwear, Christopher Kane cocktail dresses and Lanvin gowns in a 213,000-square-foot, three-storey department store scheduled to open in 2016. It’s no surprise that these posh emporia have targeted Toronto: the city’s median household income hovers around $70,000, compared to $57,000 in New York and $53,000 in Chicago. Factor in the downtown density and influx of single, spendthrift professionals in condos, and it’s a vortex of free-flying disposable dollars. Two weeks after news of Saks’ arrival broke, Holt’s announced it would create a lavish men’s-only shop on the Mink Mile, in the space recently vacated by Roots. The new retailers have created a spirit of healthy competition in the city’s luxury landscape, and while Saks, Nordstrom and Holt’s fight their retail wars, we’ll be looting the spoils.
Last September, when Margaret Peters of Lancaster, Ontario, was called to the stage to collect the top prize at the Global Cheese Awards in Somerset, England, the room went quiet. Peters, figuring her chances of winning were minuscule, had decided not to attend the event. A decade ago, it would have been impossible to fathom her buttery, gouda-style Lankaaster cheese sweeping the competition against Euro stalwarts like Shropshire blue and parmigiano-reggiano. Ontario has been making nice cheese for some time, says Afrim Pristine, co-owner of the excellent Cheese Boutique off the South Kingsway, but it’s only in recent years that he’s seen such consistently transcendent quality from our local producers. They in turn have had the stones to stand up and say, what we do here is worth paying attention to. It helps that the public’s obsession with local, artisanal, handmade, pre-industrial, prettily packaged anything dovetails with the boutique cheese industry. The ruddy-cheeked farmers and cheesemakers creating small-batch, stinky works of art in the pastoral Ontario countryside nail that romantic checklist. Plus, our palates have matured far beyond marble cheddar and Babybel. We take pride in curating platters of hyper-local product: bloomy, camembert-style sheep’s milk rounds from Best Baa; grassy, sweet clothbound goat cheddar from Lindsay’s Mariposa Dairy; buttery, versatile Niagara Gold from Upper Canada Cheese Company; delicate, fresh ricotta from Quality Cheese; creamy water buffalo mozza from Bella Casara; and tangy, pungent Celtic Blue and that lush Lankaaster from Margaret Peters’ Glengarry Fine Cheese. We’re spoiled for choice—and Peters is currently expanding her aging cave to hold another 6,500 kilograms of cheese to keep us flush.