Friday, August 01, 2014

Toronto the Unchanging

I had already started writing this post before reading this piece by Chris Selley, focused on the Union-Pearson rail link, on why it is that nothing ever seems to get done in Toronto, but I enjoyed Selley's piece more than you'll enjoy this post. Selley also makes my post somewhat timely.

When I was in Toronto a couple of weeks ago for the first time in a year, I was struck by the fact that so many things from those days in high school existed in the exact same way they had, more than a decade later. Islington station had the exact same shops, as did the Union Station concourse, the Yonge Street strip had pretty much the exact same shops and restaurants, the streets east of Yonge looked more or less the same. I could visit most of the restaurants I enjoyed in university, which looked exactly the same. I even recognized some of the homeless people I used to see while running around U of T.

It's not that I expect Toronto to reinvent itself as a city in the six years since I stopped living there, but I get the feeling, as much now as I did then, that Toronto is on the cusp of a great renewal that could start and finish at any given moment. Toronto is a really a city built during and for the post-war era, with a planning, infrastructure and public transit system better suited to a city of about a million people centred on Bloor Street instead of a city of 2.5 million centred on Eglinton (if not further north).

Toronto was worn out by the time I discovered it as a high school student in 2002, just before starting this blog, with ancient buses plying potholed streets, a haunting waterfront riddled with such chill-inducing structures as the Hearn generating station, the Canada Malting silos, and the mercury-polluted site of Tent City, ancient public housing projects at Regent Park and a perennial budget crisis. The perpetual financial crisis may continue, while progress has been made in several other areas, the waterfront being maybe the most notable and visible example.

That Toronto doesn't change isn't exactly a bad thing, nor is it necessarily notable that restaurants have existed in the same place for a decade or two. Unless, of course, you live in Seoul, where I remember being jarred out of my broken-escalator-in-a-subway-station-will-be-fixed-in-six-months doldrums by a pharmacy that became a functioning Dunkin' Donuts in the span of just over a week. Every neighbourhood where I've lived in Seoul has been transformed during my time year with the exception of one, which was basically carved out of nothingness (actually, I have no idea what existed there before, probably a much poorer neighbourhood) about a decade ago.

I also have no idea how long it should necessarily take before you don't recognize a neighbourhood. The answer is probably not five or six years, unless you live in Korea, China or some fast-changing, trend-driven neighbourhood. I suppose a maturing market that isn't rapidly developing wouldn't have as much change as one that is rapidly growing, Beijing and Shanghai being great examples of this, with apocryphal stories of businesses or even piles of dirt being transformed into other businesses in the span of a day. The sort of stability that Toronto has, where you don't have to wonder from year to year whether a given restaurant is still in business, is something of a blessing.

Something of a curse, though, is what Selley describes. You simply can't get anything done in Toronto because people can't be bothered. Construction, of which there is no shortage, is impossible to get started on anything and once it begins, it's painfully slow. Waterfront renewal, to the extent that you can more or less call it complete, took an incredibly long time. Maybe it's the result of a population that wants a dozen different things without any inconvenience whatsoever (I used to work on a street in suburban Seoul that consisted of about a kilometre of metal sheeting for 3-4 years while a subway line was built underneath), but projects that would have been discussed, resolved and then completed in Seoul are still under discussion in Toronto.

A classic example might be the issue of transfers. Toronto still uses paper transfers and it would be a minor miracle to expand Presto to the whole city within five years. Seoul used to be an order of magnitude worse than Toronto, with no transfers between buses or the subway system as recently as the turn of the century. The mayor and future president Lee Myung-bak essentially strong-armed the private companies that operated public bus service (can you imagine that in Toronto?) into adopting an electronic fare card system, something that may have well won him the presidency, along with his demolition of a central highway to uncover the ancient, historic stream underneath. What Lee accomplished, for better or for worse, in five years as mayor, would either take a generation or two in Toronto, if it wasn't impossible to begin with.

What that points to is just simply low expectations. Seoul is a city of tremendous scale, one that's much greater than that of Toronto. I always explain it to Canadians as all of Canada living in the Greater Toronto Area. If Seoul could give up a highway in the heart of the city to be replaced with a quaint little stream, Toronto can endure giving up the Gardiner or the present Union Station renovations, as inefficient and chaotic as they may be. Toronto doesn't, however, because expectations are too low. Decades, not years, of apathy and neglect, of the impossibility of improvement due to financial and political impotence have led Torontonians to just make sure that at least the city works for the basics, never mind the great things.

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