11 July 2012

My New York Problem

My love affair with Toronto began when I moved here for university in 2003, enjoying it as an endlessly refreshing counterpoint to my suburban past in Pickering. I saw it as the big city, not just a city among many cities in the world; as far as I was concerned, there was Pickering at one end of the urban spectrum, and Toronto on the other, representing a metropolitan wonderland in which I could feel at home forever. Because my standards of urbanism were painfully low due to where I came from, it was very easy, when I discovered Spacing Magazine, Torontopia, and this whole inchoate movement of Toronto appreciation, to love Toronto monogamously, and for itself, not as a mere stepping stone to other, better cities, as had hitherto been tradition. There was no temptation to temper my enjoyment of the city in light of other cities putatively being more worthy of praise.

I developed a fierce loyalty to this city based in a conscious refusal to even allow for the possibility of anywhere else being better, due not only to my genuine love for it, but also to its need for unconditional love in lieu of historic neglect. As I read over and over again, Toronto is a city that everyone loves (loved?) to hate, and its lack of civic celebration had rendered it a cultural vacuum in popular culture. It almost never played itself in movies, for instance, more often taking the role of New York, and tended not to be seen as a destination valuable in itself but merely a place one lived in instrumentally, due to necessity, or as a geographic compromise. I thus came to the belief that claiming undying allegiance to one’s local major city is an important political act as it would lead to the improvement of “underdog” cities which need the most help, rather than concentrating all care on culturally-dominant and popularly-acclaimed continental giants like New York. I wanted (and want) to “spread the wealth” in civic appreciation. Thus I wasn’t interested in New York or London or Paris not only because it seemed Toronto can provide all I will ever need, but because, even if it can’t, it's my duty to act as such so that, with the combined care of other Toronto loyalists, it can concomitantly improve. Surrendering to typical Torontonian insecurity would simply perpetuate the historical vicious circle of urban apathy and geographic infidelity.

But then one Ms Pamela Clark took me on a trip to New York and I’ve yet to recover. Although I explored this behemoth with a healthy sense of guilt, constantly aware of all the dangers in exposure to this quintessential source of Torontonian civic insecurity, traversing its streets carefully as though I risked betraying my true love, and maintaining a vigilant Torontonian-till-death perspective, it was impossible to deny its overwhelming charms. Many of my favourite manifestations of Toronto’s urban form – the unapologetic density and historical grandeur of buildings around Bay & Adelaide, the vibrancy and diversity of retail on Bloor in the Annex, etc. – seemed to be multiplied tenfold in New York, except, to make matters worse, with even greater historical depth, architectural splendour, diversity of retail, abundant civic pride, and better transit, pedestrian, and cyclist accessibility. The sort of exceptional building that I would see once in a while in downtown Toronto, that would make me stop in my tracks due to its architectural and historical magnificence, would stretch into infinite in Manhattan. I found myself literally surrounded by such masterpieces, with endless street walls in all directions comprised of what seemed like ancient skyscraper palaces forming urban canyons into the horizon. I felt like every New York subway station I went to was a blow to my TTC love, each amazing restaurant a stain on my enjoyment of Toronto restaurants. It was almost painful to behold New York’s beauty. My visit caused irreparable damage to my appreciation of Toronto by raising the bar so spectacularly high in so many respects.

While I still will never claim allegiance to nor live in any city other than Toronto, since my trip (and two subsequent trips since), it has became much harder to think of as the city. Even if my belief that Toronto remains the best city with which I’m familiar is completely intact, its supremacy is now more difficult to justify. New York has become, regrettably, an insidious elephant in the room in my extant unconditional love for Toronto, my oppressive awareness of its existence lying not far beneath my every acclamation of Toronto’s qualities, forever gnawing at my civic satisfaction.


  1. Does it have better cycling infrastructure? My brother said it was terrible, and it certainly seemed that way to me.

    It is hard to feel that new isn't everything any city could be and more. One thing I miss though- income diversity. At one time, NYC had a huge range of income from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and while that contributed to social conflict and crime, there were also all the artsy types who used to flock there and could actually afford it. I wonder if the theatre/arts/music scene is slowly eroding there.

  2. What?! At least in the parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn that I saw, the cycling infrastructure seemed 100 times more extensive than anything I've ever seen. Bicycle lanes were all over the place, were painted green, were often separated from car traffic, had a buffer between the lane and parked cars so that cyclists' wouldn't get doored, etc.

    What did you mean by “It is hard to feel that new isn't everything any city could be and more”? Did you mean “new” as in “New York”? If so, I agree.

    And yeah, the salient upper-hand that Toronto has over New York (and almost all American cities) that I can think of is the former’s less extreme income inequality, lack of ghettos, and lack of racial segregation. This is often pointed out by Spacing editors when people get too critical of Toronto while comparing it to Chicago and New York, as well as the fact that Toronto has much less suburban sprawl than (at least) Chicago. So I like to think that Toronto some day (in the far future) will be a New York done better, with a less brutal history of inequality and poverty. That's my consolation.

  3. Sorry I have a typo problem where I always omit the key word for some reason- it's like it's too obvious for my brain to write or something.

    Chicago is awful for that- I don't think I could ever live somewhere where the racial tension and living conditions were so bad that there are literally impassable regions. NYC used to be like that, 60s to 80s I guess.