On July 10, 1997, I arrived in Toronto with a truck full of personal effects to take up residence. I had never lived in Toronto before, but I had visited, and it seemed like a good place to go. Just a month later, I met Aina Arro, to whom I have been married since 2000. Nearly every interesting, enjoyable, and profitable thing that has happened to me in the intervening 20 years has resulted directly or indirectly from decisions and connections I made in my first year in Toronto – in fact, to some extent, it was all in place by the end of that summer, though I didn’t know it yet. I sure wouldn’t be who I am now if I didn’t live in Toronto.

Toronto is like that kid in school who’s so popular nobody likes her. And then you happen to get to know her and you find out that she’s really interesting. And ridiculously insecure.

I grew up in Alberta. To grow up in Alberta is – I think this is still true, but it sure was at the time – to learn from your youngest years to resent the East, specifically Toronto. The biggest city in Canada, so full of itself, sucking all the talent from the rest of the country. Like New York, sorta, but really so not New York. In truth, Toronto is like if Chicago had become the biggest city in the US instead of New York. And if Chicago could not shut up about what it needs to do if it wants to be a real world-class city.

People in Toronto love living here but will not always admit it. The city has so much, there’s always something to complain about if you want, and Canadians love to complain. And if you really want to resent the moneyed smug-yet-striving obnoxiousness of certain sectors of Toronto, just pick up a copy of Toronto Life magazine. Any copy. I know. We have a subscription. For some reason.

The name Toronto has a different flavour from those of many other major cities. The consonants are all on the tip of the tongue, while the vowels are three o’s (each one pronounced differently). It’s not that no other major city name has those characteristics – London does, for one. But the t’s give a crispness. And the o’s lend an architectural quality. And it has an echo of brontosaurus, although the local basketball team is named after a different dinosaur (in fact, its name is that of a kind of bird, but in this case the branding makes clear that Raptors really means Velociraptors). Its football team, meanwhile, is named for a classical reference quite opaque to the average citizen – Argonauts – and the hockey team’s name involves a regularization of an irregular plural: Maple Leafs. They’re also famously losers. And every year their fans hope that will change.

If you pronounce Toronto fully, it marks you as not from here. The standard reduced local pronunciation is “Tronno” or “Tronna” – but many people don’t call it that either. I grew up knowing it as “T.O.” and that’s still common across the country. When I arrived here some people liked to call it “T-dot.” I don’t hear that much anymore, which is fine with me; it seems forced. Because the City of Toronto (formerly Metro Toronto, of which the old City of Toronto was just one civic unit) has the area code 416 and the surrounding suburbs have the area code 905, the area codes have been used as distinctions, and Drake has popularized calling Toronto “the Six” – oh, sorry, apparently I’m supposed to write that as “the 6ix.” You can also just say “the city” and anyone anywhere in the region will catch your drift.

There are different accounts of the origin of the name Toronto, including one meaning ‘meeting place’ and another meaning ‘plenty’, but the most accepted etymon is the Iroquois word tkaronto, meaning ‘place where trees stand in water’. Which apparently originally named a spot on the north side of Lake Simcoe, more than an hour’s drive north of Toronto, but as it happens, right now Toronto is also a place where trees stand in water, because the level of Lake Ontario is more than a metre above normal (unnervingly high, in fact), and has been for two months, thereby interfering with many usual summer activities.

But the trees still stand. Like people in Toronto. It’s a great place to put down roots and then get swamped. Most people I meet in Toronto came here from somewhere else. That’s one of the things that make this city so incessantly interesting.

Enough with the words. I like taking pictures, and Toronto is a great place for that hobby. A picture is not worth a thousand words – there is no fixed exchange rate, and really it’s a foolish conversion to try to make. I would like to ramify this word Toronto with just a few of the pictures I’ve taken of some of the places and happenings in Toronto over the years. Attach them to this word in your mind. You will not see all of the city, just the parts I frequent; you get no impression of the endless suburban sprawl. But you do get a good sense of why some people call Toronto a city in a forest. And why it’s one of the most multicultural cities on earth. I am also limiting myself to photos that I think are especially visually catchy.

Click on any picture to see a larger version on Flickr – and to see even more Toronto pictures there too. There’s also a book version.

See more photos – including many of people – in Toronto, part 2.

7 responses to “Toronto

  1. Oh, thank you so much for this! And for the photos (especially of the Galleria, which was so peaceful and beautiful before the AGO ruined it by putting a food place in it, ugh). (And how did you get that shot of going across the Viaduct on the train??)

    I moved here in 2000 from Calgary, where I had been born and lived until I was almost 44. Like you, I had been taught to dislike Toronto too, and I really had my eyes opened my first year here. I was staying with a couple who made sure to take me to festivals and different locations every weekend or so (even the McMichael), so I would get a real feel for the city and a little bit for Ontario too. I learned just how inaccurate everything had been about what I had been taught, back home, about Toronto.

    I also learned how so many Torontonians misunderstood the thinking of people in the West too. For my first few years here, I felt like an interpreter of some kind, trying to explain two very large groups of people to each other. (And I will always be a Flames fan above all else, nice though it might be for the Leafs to just get on with it and finally win the cup. Ha!)

    In my first temp job here, I met a 38-year-old guy who had never once in his life been outside the Toronto city boundaries. I was astonished, and I do recognize that some Torontonians really do think this is the centre of the universe and have little/no interest in anything outside. But on the other hand — given everything that’s here — it’s also easy to see how one could spend one’s entire life just in this city and never run out of great things, somehow forgetting to wonder about the rest of the world.

    I occasionally think of moving back to Calgary (which I also still love) to be closer to family as I get older. But then I look out my window or head down to a festival or walk along the boardwalk in the Beach or go to the park at Christie Pits or somewhere — and I think, “But how could I ever think of leaving THIS?”

    Thank you so much for this.

    • Thanks! I agree about Torontonians not understanding the rest of the country well, especially the west. I’ve occasionally heard sneering comments about Alberta. Well, folks, Naheed Nenshi is the mayor of Calgary, while Toronto elected Rob Ford! And then John Tory. And, a few years earlier, Mel Lastman. Now, the people who live in the thriving heart of the city for the most part don’t have much good to say about those guys. But there are a lot of people who live farther out and think a city is just a bunch of private houses and private businesses connected by roads to get between them in cars, and we have councillors – and even mayors – who are utterly oblivious to what makes a city work. But don’t get me into an extended rant on that! Anyway, Albertans are figuring out some important things at a faster rate than a lot of Torontonians are.

  2. I have never been to Toronto before – you certainly piqued my interest in the city. Your photographs are amazing – they really encapsulate the beauty of the city while also making it feel urban and alive.

    I think it’s really interesting how people describe cities – there really is an “inside” and “outside” or “us” and “them” sort of mentality. I live just outside of the Twin Cities and there is a completely different culture. The Cities are incredibly close to Wisconsin, where I live, but Wisconsinites tend to be more of the “country-folk” and Minnesotans are the more urban, weekend cabin dwellers.

    Anyway, I truly enjoyed your photography, thanks for sharing!

  3. Loved your write-up of the place of my university years, marriage, early career and raising our two boys.

    Toronto in the 60s and 70s was just blossoming from Tory-driven small town to an expanding arts and entertainment center. Liquor laws were beginning to loosen and after several years of legal skirmishes involving a local furrier, Sunday shopping was allowed. At night time, the sidewalks were no longer rolled up. The biggest influence culturally was the expanding aura of Montreal, which during the Expo ’67 World’s Fair showed visiting Torontonians how to lighten up and enjoy life.

    This was followed within a decade by an influx of anglophilic companies which moved their headquarters out of Quebec. Following that, the impending repatriation of Hong Kong opened the door to a huge tide of investment from the far east. And right after that, some local sports-minded leaders saw the need for a winning ball team and the world’s first retractable domed stadium for a playing field. The city has never looked back.

    Driving along the Gardiner Expressway today which borders Lake Ontario is like driving through a deep canyon of glass and steel, housing countless thousands of condominiums and offices, all competing for a microscopically sliced view of the harbor and the ferries which cross it regularly.

    They say a city’s farthest boundaries are within sight of its tallest building. You can see the iconic CN Tower–which was also popped up in the early 70s– from 30 miles away. Once it stood alone looking down on the three banks: the TD Centre, CIBC tower and the BMO. Now it is merely the tallest plant in a vast garden of office towers that extend to the northern most border of the city.

    Indeed Toronto is a magnet for investment and talent. It will be revealing for those folks who live in Ontario to see where its expansion finally stops: beyond sight of the CN Tower, or just to its gauzy image on the horizon.

    We moved to the far north suburbs of Chicago in 1990, but our boys and their families still live in TO today. We love to visit!

  4. “People in Toronto love living here but will not always admit it. The city has so much, there’s always something to complain about if you want, and Canadians love to complain.”

    When I lived in New York, I met Michele Landsberg at a book party. (This was when Stephen Lewis was Canada’s ambassador to the U.N.) Told her I loved Toronto. She was having none of it, praising New York City instead. I said, “Would you rather have an ocean liner or a nifty speedboat?” She said, “Toronto is more like a leaky rowboat.” At which point I realized no one is better at putting down Canada than a Canadian. She capped it by publishing “This Is New York, Honey!: A Homage to Manhattan, with Love and Rage”.

    While visiting Toronto, I saw a documentary about dance writer and self-chronicler Jill Johnston. She was present for this premiere, and said she was not pleased with the depiction. But, she said, rather than withhold permission for its release, she said it could be shown in Canada. “Good enough for Canada, eh?” an audience member sneered.

  5. Pingback: Toronto, part 2 | Sesquiotica

  6. Pingback: TORONTO: the book | Sesquiotica

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