Monday, November 21, 2005

Underwhelmed in Toronto

Zora and I spent the weekend in Toronto and were underwhelmed. We even caught an earlier flight back than the one we were originally schedule on. I don’t know what we were expecting. I guess I was hoping to go block by block and say, “Hey, that looks like Chicago! Hey, that looks like New York! Hey, that looks like Baltimore. Hey that looks like Hong Kong! Hey, is that Jane Jacobs!?”

And then Jane Jacobs would spot me getting off a streetcar and give me a guided walking tour of the city. And then, having drinks afterwards, we would stare longingly in each other’s eyes, knowing but for a 50-year age difference, we could live happily ever after….

I didn’t see Jane anywhere. Damnit. And I was looking, too!

Our trip did have a few strikes against it which weren’t Toronto’s fault.

1) We missed our train from New York. I don’t want to cast blame anywhere, but I can safely say that it sure as hell wasn’t my fault. Except for being at Penn Station at 6:45AM (for a 7:15 train... that we still managed to miss), missing the train wasn’t the end of the world. We were able to go home and take a nap and still get a cheap one-way flight that got us in, if anything, a little earlier. Alas, our packed lunch was all but wasted. The wine still sits unopened. Niagara Falls remains unseen (does it still fall?)

2) Because of my work schedule, we didn’t get in till Thursday. So I had already missed most of the conference I went there for. And then sleeping in late didn’t bode well for my attendance when I was there.

3) Zora just ain’t feeling right. Not quite the bundle of energy and joy one would hope.

But even given all that, it should have been better. We had a nice room. There are streetcars. It’s a new city. The weather was fine (chilly to cold, but fine). And Jane Jacobs loves the place.

First I want to say that residents of Toronto are unfailingly polite. It’s really noteworthy. Everybody says “excuse me” and “thank you” and “you’re welcome” and “please.” In fact, they’re so damn polite I occasionally wanted them to walk faster and push a bit. But that may just be the New Yorker in me.

Let’s keep moving, people! But I’ll take the occasional pedestrian bottleneck for a society of civility. They really are polite and helpful. None of that grumpy poorly-paid service worker or union-padded city-worker attitude you often get here. Maybe it’s universal health care?

That being said, there are a fair number of people begging for money. A bit more than New York, even. Where’s that social net, eh?

And yeah, they all kind of talk a little funny. But they’re so damned polite about it you can’t help but find it endearing in a small-town kind of way. But it’s the big city. And hockey is a major sport.

It’s a city of neighborhoods. For real. Lot’s of minorities. Many many Asians. And more Greeks than I was expecting. But the problem with a city of neighborhoods—the whole place is a bit like a laid-back Chicago—is it’s too damn spread out. Perhaps not compared to most cities. But it’s less fun to walk around than say, Montreal. And they do all speak English, making it inherently less exotic than say, Montreal. And let’s be honest, perhaps it’s not quite like any American city… but it’s awfully close. Why not go to Montreal?

2.5 million people. Five million metro. For the record, the city seems about half that size. A large Boston. I didn’t sense when I was there that it is just about the size of Chicago.

I’m looking this up online now: 50 percent foreign born. You can see that when you're there. 10% Chinese, 10% South Asian (Indian), 8% Black. Plus many Vietnamese, Greeks, and Portuguese.

Same size as Chicago… and about 10% of the murders. What do you make of that? Heavily minority, same screwed up Anglo-Saxon tradition of violence. And about 60 murders a year (and they think that’s high). Could Michael Moore be right? Is it really all about guns and fear? Perhaps. No poverty helps, too.

And the streetcars are very old school. They’re modern and all. Smooth. But they run right down the center of the road. And just stop in the middle of road. No “island” for passengers or anything. And people just pile off the sidewalk to board. Old school. The only place I’ve seen that is Sofia. Cars are supposed to stop for loading streetcars. They mostly do. But I heard more than one streetcar honking at cars that didn’t.

And they call them streetcars. Who was the dumb-assed geeky-foamer engineer that started calling streetcars “light rail” in America? We want to call them “streetcars.” Historically, we’ve called them “streetcars.” And “streetcar” just kind of rolls off the tongue. And yet new “streetcars” are called “light rail”? Oh veh!

The subway, not that you asked, has the same “ridefeel” as Boston’s T. I just made that up, “ridefeel.” It’s a good concept. To public transportation what “mouthfeel” is to snack foods.

And the TCC subway stations have a vaguely pleasant 50’s institutional feel. Like the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, before it was remodeled (assume it has been). Or like your elementary school lunchroom, if you're about my age. Or like the State Street Subway in Chicago. But with tiles that have a very bold early 60’s color scheme.

Here’s a street sign in Greektown. I just love transliterated English names in Greek letters.

Cafe Frappe, that’s how you know you’re in Greektown.

Preparing for winter. It snowed a bit the first day. Got up to around 50 when we left. It’s gonna get cold here in New York soon, too.

Does this look like Boston?

Or Chicago?

Point before you cross the street?

Look right!

Mini marts and SUVs. Canada has a very distinct culture that would never be confused with the United States. Yeah right.

Trapezoidal windows on busses. I actually get nostalgic for these. They’re similar to the CTA busses Andrew and I grew up with.

beans or nuts(?) drying. This was in front of most likely an Asian person’s home.

From inside the streetcar.

The friendly driver, who politely urged people to board quickly, sounded just like Apu from the Simpsons. Especially when we crossed the Santa Parade and he gleefully explained, “What a crowd!”

It was kind of cool to cross a parade in a streetcar (the road was closed to normal traffic). It was kind of unfortunate that without Thanksgiving, there’s no limit as to how early Christmas shit can start.

Exiting the streetcar. “Thank you come again!”

Edible shrubbery. There was a lot of this. I approve.

Not so beautiful Toronto.

Hmmm, Zora noticed these bike parts hanging on a fence...

…and looking over the fence!

Mind you, it being Canada, the fence wasn’t actually “protecting” the stuff. The fence was just there as a visual barrier. You could actually walk right around it. And steal shit. But that wouldn’t be hockey, now would it?

It’s a bike friendly town. A lot of bikes. It’s pretty far North. But to be honest, not really much further North than Boston or Chicago. There are a fair number of bike paths. And bike racks everywhere! The same kind they use in Cambridge, Mass. Why don’t we have them in NYC?

I love signs that legalize what bikes are going to do anyway. “Bicycles Excepted” is always my favorite street sign, no matter what it’s attached to.

Here’s a typical bike rack.

This style of rack is nice in that they’re easy to lock to, they don’t take up much room when not used, and they’re kind of aesthetically pleasing.

Meanwhile the City of New York is busy cutting off locks and taking bikes that people ride to the subway in Williamsburg. Uh, that’s not bike friendly. Too many bikes, the city says, locked where they shouldn’t be (you, know, by public transportation). And just why are my tax dollars being spent to keep people from biking to public transportation?

Of course, the city could just take three parking spaces from cars and provide bike parking for about 30 bikes. This shit makes me want to move to Portland. Or Canada.

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