Toronto is many things to many people. For me, it is the city where I found my tribe, in that clichéd manner of speaking.
It’s where I moved to strike it out on my own as a young university grad. Back then, employment prospects in the Vancouver area — a region still struggling to rebound from a recession years after the rest of the country had recovered — were slim to non-existent. After a year of working at a dead-end job, I realized I had no chance of a meaningful career if I stayed. I didn’t know what I would find in Toronto, but I knew I wanted my chance to find out.
And so I loaded up my trusty Honda Civic with my belongings and drove across Canada. When I arrived in Toronto, people were shocked I hadn’t arranged for a place to live — the vacancy rate in the city at the time was close to zero. But as I perused the postings at the job centre, I knew I was in the right place. Toronto was booming. And, despite the naysayers, I soon found a place to live — a small post–World War II bungalow near Yonge and Finch that I shared with a college friend and some other people. The neighbourhood was called North York, but I knew it as Willowdale.
Back then, Willowdale was very much a white, suburban neighbourhood — not nearly as diverse as it is today. I had easy access to both the subway and the 401, but I was eager to move closer to downtown. I left Willowdale for Davenport — a neighbourhood on the edge of one of Toronto’s Italian neighbourhoods — and then, a few years later, on to Roncesvalles Village, the centre of Toronto’s Polish community. Another neighbourhood I got to know well was the Danforth, the largest Greektown in North America. Many of my friends lived there — still live there — and it is where I now stay when I visit Toronto.
This is the thing: Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, each one as diverse and different from the others as one person is from another. It’s what makes Toronto feel like a small town, even though it’s so much not.
Once my Civic was unpacked, I signed up with a temp agency to give myself some time to figure out what I wanted to do next, which soon led to a permanent job. Grad school was beckoning, but so was a real job, and within a year, I was launched into the world of publishing, an industry that to this day I find extremely satisfying to work in. For that opportunity, and for the life-long friends I’ve met working in the industry (they would be my tribe), I will always be grateful to Toronto.
So when Toronto is hurting, so am I.
I started writing this post a few months ago, after the van attack in North York that killed ten people. The stretch of Yonge Street where all those people died on a sunny Monday afternoon in late April was the stretch of Yonge Street I drove or walked on an almost daily basis my first two years in Toronto. I wasn’t at all surprised that someone I know knew someone who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the attack. It’s a small world, after all.
Sometimes words fail and I gave up trying to write about what I was feeling at the time. But it has not been a good summer for Toronto. Once again, tragedy has hit close to home. Last Sunday’s shooting on the Danforth began only a block away from where a close friend of mine lives, and she missed being on the wrong street corner at the wrong time by a mere 15 minutes.
I’m still not sure I have the words I need. Hashtags are well meant, but I suspect will soon be forgotten by most of us in today’s world of five-minute news cycles.
Those five-minute news cycles are the result of our constantly changing world. I was reminded of this yesterday in my own neighbourhood. The garbage and recycling bins on Davie Street were taped shut in preparation for last night’s fireworks and city dump trucks were parked at the end of my street to prevent a van attack. Precautions like those are the new normal, but, truthfully, they do not worry me, just as going through security at an airport does not. I walk the streets of my neighbourhood in full confidence that I will return home again.
Sometimes the difference between making it safely home or being in the wrong place at the wrong time is only a matter of minutes. Why someone is spared and another is taken are questions we will never know the answers to.
What I do know is this: I have never felt unsafe on the streets of Toronto, nor do I believe I ever will. And I can’t wait until my next visit, when I will stroll the Danforth with my friend on our way to dinner on a patio.
Because there is nothing better than hanging out on a warm summer evening in one of the liveliest neighbourhoods in the City of Neighbourhoods.
And … I’m back.
Back in Canada, that is.
After 10 days on walkabout in southern Germany and Belgium, I have my feet firmly planted once again on Canadian soil. It’s good to be here.
My week in Toronto is mostly about work, and I have to remind myself I’m still allowed to play tourist in a city I know so well.
Which is why I’m posting this photo. The friend whose home is my home when I’m in Toronto has been telling me about her new favourite place for months now, and she showed it to me last Saturday afternoon. The Don Valley Brick Works is an old quarry and brick factory that provided most of the bricks for Toronto’s oldest and finest buildings for over a hundred years. It ceased production in the 1980s and has been converted into a park and cultural centre since my last visit to Toronto.
I love city parks, and this one’s a gem.
I think it would be terribly irresponsible of me not to acknowledge in my Canada 150 series the city that Canadians love to hate.
And that would be because I gave ten years of my life to that city. They were a great ten years and I have a lot of affection for Canada’s largest city.
To celebrate Toronto, here is a photo of the Gooderham Building, also known as Toronto’s Flatiron Building, which is located in the St. Lawrence area of downtown Toronto. Completed in 1892, it was built for the distiller George Gooderham and served as the headquarters of the Gooderham and Worts distillery until 1952.
World Cup Fever has hit Canada bigtime. The last (and only) time Canada had a team qualify for the FIFA World Cup was way back in 1986. Without a national team to cheer for, Canadians as a rule become hyphenated Canadians during the World Cup tournament and cheer for their country of origin.
It can get a little crazy if you live in Toronto’s Little Italy (and not only because it’s right next door to Little Portugal). I watched the 1994 World Cup final between Brazil and Italy with my Italian-Canadian friends (and 50,000 other hyphenated Canadians) at what was then called the Sky Dome where it was broadcast live on the jumbotron. What we didn’t realize until it was too late to move was that we chose to sit smack in the middle of the Portuguese-Canadians ― all of whom were cheering for the team we were not cheering for.
To celebrate the Netherlands’ glorious 5–1 victory over Spain today ― a rematch of the World Cup 2010 final ― this Dutch-Canadian is posting a photo of FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, where that 2010 final was played. During World Cup 2010, the stadium was called Soccer City.
Next up on my tour of schools I’ve photographed: the University of Toronto. I was a student here myself a long time ago, just for a year, and to this day I consider it the prettiest of all the schools I’ve attended (and there’ve been a few).
When I commented to my sister on the architectural style of the buildings at Johns Hopkins, she asked me what the buildings at U of T looked like.
“They’re neo-Gothic,” I said. Also called Gothic Revival, you see neo-Gothic buildings all over Canada ― our Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are probably the best-known example.
The University of Toronto has been around since 1827, has a dozen colleges on three campuses, and is the largest university in Canada with an enrollment of 75,000 students. I took these photos of the St. George campus when I was in Toronto exactly a year ago this week.
Not all of the buildings on the St. George campus are neo-Gothic. The main building of Victoria University, shown below, is called Richardsonian Romanesque, after its architect, Henry Hobson Richardson.
Trinity College is in the Jacobethan style.
And this monstrosity, Robarts Library, was built in the 1970s in what is known as Brutalist Architecture. Appropriate name for the look, I should think. It’s not-so-affectionately known as “the Turkey” by the students of U of T; I’m sure you can figure out why.
Here’s one last post on food, and then I’ll let you all go back to your New Year’s resolutions. (Which I know you’re following religiously.)
This post is about how I discovered Naples on the Danforth. The Danforth, for those of my readers unfamiliar with Toronto’s Greektown, is Souvlaki Central. A decade ago, there wasn’t much variety in the way of restaurants on the Danforth ― it was all Greek all the time. Every time I went back to Toronto for a visit, I made sure to get my fill of the best souvlaki in the country (in my humble opinion).
But during my most recent visit to the Centre of the Universe, I realized the Danforth is undergoing a transformation. There is still a heavy Greek influence, to be sure, but there’s a whole lot more as well.
My friend insisted while I was in town that we eat at least one night at Pizzeria Libretto, a neighbourhood pizzeria that serves Real Neapolitan Pizza certified by VPN. (Verace Pizza Napoletana is a non-profit association that protects and promotes real Neapolitan pizza around the world.) She promised me I wouldn’t regret it.
Pizzeria Libretto is about the closest I’ve been to Italian pizza outside of Italy. Libretto is Italian for “booklet.” You fold the pizza at Pizzeria Libretto like a booklet ― that’s the only way you’ll get it in your mouth, unless you deign to eat your pizza with a knife and fork. Pizza crust that soft and that thin ― that’s a true Neapolitan pizza. Our pizza Margherita had a super thin, soft crust, the thinnest layer of tomato sauce, the freshest basil, dollops of fresh mozzarella cheese … and it was baked in a wood-fired oven. Heaven on earth, truly, for pizza lovers.
There was no room upstairs when we arrived (we didn’t have a reservation), but lots of room downstairs and the attentive service was excellent. Pizzeria Libretto has a stylish but down-to-earth décor ― I went dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and Birkenstocks. I really liked the water bottles they used, with the name Pizzeria Libretto stamped on the side, and asked to buy one to take home with me. Our server said he was sure it wouldn’t be a problem, but then someone with a higher pay grade vetoed his decision. To help me get over my disappointment (I’m thinking), our server brought us complimentary after-dinner digestifs.
Before my evening at Pizzeria Libretto, I would tell people that the best souvlaki outside of Greece is made on the Danforth. Now I will tell everyone that the Danforth also has the best pizza outside of Italy. It was so good, in fact, I went back the next week with another friend for lunch. I never did get my souvlaki fix.
Update: Acadia closed in December 2013.
My friend was so impressed with our experience at Jean-Georges in New York City last summer that she decided we should check out some fine dining options in Toronto as long as I was in town. We decided on Acadia, which features the “flavors and techniques of Acadian and Lowcountry cuisine” and was rated by enRoute magazine as Canada’s fourth-best new restaurant of 2012. My friend (“C”) spends part of every summer in modern-day Acadia (aka Nova Scotia), she and I had travelled together many years ago to Louisiana, and I once spent a month in South Carolina, so we were both rather curious to see what Acadia had to offer on its menu.
Plus, a friend of C’s (“J”) ― also from Nova Scotia and in town for TIFF ― would be joining us. There was no debate. Acadia was our #1 choice.
(And we pause here momentarily for a brief history and geography lesson: Acadia, as I’m sure you all know, is that part of North America (present-day Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) settled by the French in the early seventeenth century. Its connection to Louisiana is that, when the British deported most of the Acadians between 1755 and 1763, many of them ended up in Louisiana, which at that time was still a colony of New France. Their descendents are known as Cajuns.
Not so well known (OK, yes, I admit it: I looked this up on Wikipedia) is the Lowcountry region. It’s the South Carolinian coast, and food typical to the area is known as Lowcountry cuisine.
That’s it for today’s lesson ― we now return to our regular programming.)
C and I arrived early, so we each ordered a bourbon-based cocktail to start. As we waited for J to arrive, we devoured an order of chicken cracklin’ with hot sauce and blue cheese. The cracklin’ are like thin, smooth potato chips, but they’re made from stretched chicken skin, not potatoes. I know, I know … it sounds disgusting, but trust me ― these are addictive. The blue cheese was foamy and light, and we scooped it up with each cracklin’ like dip.
When J arrived, appropriately famished as well, he ordered a beer and we ordered another round of the chicken cracklin’, as well as the spiced beer nuts, flavoured with brown butter and paprika, and Acadia’s cornbread, which is served with whipped pork butter and mesquite.
After the nibblies and drinks were gone, we were ready for the serious stuff. We each ordered a different starter. C choose Anson Mills grits with Gulf prawn, oyster mushroom, pimento cheese, and ham hock consommé. Anson Mills is located in South Carolina, so these were the authentic southern grits I remember. I came to like grits mixed with scrambled eggs during my month of South Carolinian breakfasts. I like grits with eggs; I like grits for breakfast. But as a starter? With prawns? Never mind — C was happy. She gave me a taste, but I’ll be honest: not my favourite and I found it a curious dish.
J ordered the charred octopus served with crispy pork belly, tomatillo, new potato, spicy collards, and a black vinaigrette. He summed it up as simply the best octopus he’d ever eaten. I’ll admit I had some regrets on not ordering it when I saw his plate.
I had chilled corn soup with andouille, yellow plum, smoked cream, and tarragon. All the texture was in the andouille and plum that lay at the bottom of the bowl because the soup was as smooth as consommé. I soon got over my octopus-regret; my soup was delicious.
Before the arrival of our main courses, our server came by with the most sincerest of warnings. We needed to prepare ourselves. More accurately, I needed to prepare myself, because, in her words, I was about to experience “some serious food envy.”
She wasn’t kidding. C and J had ordered the special of the night: an entire braised veal shank to share. It left all three of us speechless. It was encircled by chanterelle mushrooms and tomatoes of a variety of colours.
I had scallops (miniscule, our server teased me, compared to the veal shank), with shaved foie gras, celery purée, pecan, Concord grape, and scuppernong mustard. Scallop is one of my favourite types of sea food, so I can be quite forgiving, but no need this time. They were excellent. But I also had a few bites of the veal shank, and had to admit that it too was delicious.
It didn’t take long before J and C admitted they were defeated. Truthfully, that hunk of meat was enough for four people. Our server grinned. “Oh, so it’s going to be lunch tomorrow?” she asked.
C piped up that she would appreciate some suggestions on what to do with the veal in the way of leftovers. “I don’t want to ruin it,” she said. We were surprised and delighted to see Acadia’s chef, Patrick Kriss, come to our table after we had been served our desserts, speaking most earnestly, and advising C to braise the leftover meat in chicken stock to retain the moisture. “Don’t put it in the microwave,” he warned. “That will dry the meat out.” We were all impressed by the attention he gave us ― although, if I think about it, it was probably the veal shank he was most concerned about.
For dessert, I had wild blueberry sorbet with peaches, lavender, and ricotta, while J and C shared a dark chocolate cremeaux with milk sorbet, pistachio, and cherries. Espresso to finish, and we were sated. My Toronto readers: if you’re interested in a medley of cuisines and a lesson in geography, check out Acadia. I highly recommend it.
This year being the bicentennial of the War of 1812, we Canadians have been bombarded with what strikes me as an odd media campaign celebrating our nationhood. Odd, because we Canadians don’t typically yell and shout out our patriotism. Odd, because videos like this one
seem to be doing a pretty good job at celebrating our nationhood at the expensive of the other guys. You know, the ones who are suppose to be Canada’s Best Friend. Longest undefended border and all that.
Truth is, I don’t remember ever being taught anything in school about the War of 1812. That might be because I was (mostly) educated in Alberta, and the war took place in Upper Canada (what we now call Ontario), Lower Canada (what we now call Quebec), and the United States. Or maybe it’s because we Canadians don’t really give that war much thought.
What little I know about the War of 1812 is that it had something to do with the British boarding American merchant ships and drafting American sailors into the British Navy. (Britain was busy fighting Napoleon at the time and needed all the sailors it could get its hands on.) The Americans didn’t like that much (who would?) and they declared war on the British.
What little I have read about the War of 1812 says that nobody actually won. It more or less came to a stalemate, and sometime in 1814 the powers that be worked out an agreement called the Treaty of Ghent that more or less left everything pre-war as the status quo. And ― oh yeah ― we burned the White House. That was in retaliation for the Yanks burning our Parliament Buildings in York (what we now call Toronto), which was then the capital of Upper Canada.
(As an aside: burning government houses was considered bad form back then, and trashing non-military targets simply wasn’t done in the age of the Gentlemen’s War. Which is why the Brits got a tad upset and why they turned around and burned the White House. I find it ironic that everybody remembers the Brits burned the White House, but nobody seems to remember that the Americans burned York.)
(And, just one more aside: I found out during my visit to Washington DC last summer that the White House came to be called that because, after said burning, it was painted white to cover up all the soot marks. President Theodore Roosevelt made it official almost a hundred years later by having stationery printed with the words “The White House” at the top.)
Back to the war: a more accurate assessment of the War of 1812 might be that we both won. The Americans call it their “second war of independence,” and after it was over we Canadians began to think of ourselves as a nation, and not just some fur trading post for the British.
And so (finally!), to the main topic of this blog post. On my visits last summer to Baltimore and Toronto, with the War of 1812 being foremost in my mind due to our tax dollars hard at work, I decided to visit Fort McHenry and Fort York.
Fort McHenry, I discovered, is not just a National Historic Monument, but a National Monument and Historic Shrine. That was pretty much evident during the video presentation I watched at the Visitors’ Center. The last image of the video, with the American anthem playing after the voice-over ends, is of the American flag. At the same time, the screen rises so that you are looking outdoors at the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. I tried not to snicker, but it was a bit hokey.
Back to the War of 1812: the British knew they needed to capture Fort McHenry if their campaign against Baltimore was to succeed. They attacked the fort at dawn on September 13, 1814, bombarding the fort for a day and a night, but eventually they gave up and stopped the bombardment. The problem was, the American guns had a range of 1.5 miles, and the British guns had a range of two miles. The British navy parked itself just out of range of Fort McHenry’s guns, but that meant the shells from their guns couldn’t reach Fort McHenry accurately. Only two shells out of over 1500 fired actually hit the fort. Talk about a waste of ammunition.
After the bombardment stopped, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer who was being held by the British on a ship out in the Patapsco River, looked towards the fort and saw the large flag still flying. That told him the Americans were still in control of the fort. That same flag ― which measures an incredible 42 by 30 feet ― is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Francis Scott Key wrote the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” after the British released him and while he was on his way back to Baltimore. The “bombs bursting in air” line in the anthem refers to the British shells that were fired at Fort McHenry.
There isn’t much to see in Fort McHenry itself as it’s fairly small and there aren’t many buildings still standing. But you certainly get a feel for why its location was so important: it sits at the end of a narrow peninsula right at the entrance to Baltimore’s harbour, and is in a perfect position to defend the city. I took a water taxi out to the fort from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and it was a lovely, breezy way to see the harbour.
Fort York, on the other hand, is located in the midst of a bustling, growing city, right beside Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway. This made for some intriguing photos as I looked for interesting angles.
The museum displays at Fort York could use some updating, but it had many more rooms furnished in period pieces than did Fort McHenry, which makes a visit much more interesting. (Click on any of the photos below to open a slide show.)
The Americans attacked Fort York on April 27, 1813. The British were vastly outnumbered (750 British troops, 50 Mississauga and Ojibway warriors, and 12 guns vs. 2550 Americans, 15 naval vessels, and 85 cannon), and lost the battle, but the Americans suffered almost double the casualties of the British when the British blew up their own gunpowder magazine. The battle lasted six hours and cost 157 British lives and 320 American lives, including the American field commander. Afterwards, the Americans burned and looted the city of York, including the Government House and the Parliament Buildings (see above), and occupied the town for six days.
The Battle of York was a clear victory for the Americans, and marked their first invasion of British territory since the start of the war. But the battle itself wasn’t considered crucial to the outcome of the war and the Americans saw taking York merely as a stepping stone to the real prize: the Niagara Peninsula and, eventually, Kingston.
The Battle of Fort McHenry, on the other hand, was considered a turning point in the war, saved Baltimore from British invasion, and contributed to the early mythology of a nation still trying to forge its identity.
As for me, a gap in my Canadian history education has been filled, and my knowledge about the War of 1812 is now more complete. My government would be proud of me.
By happenstance, I was in Toronto this year during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Which led to me taking the above photo.
I was walking up Yonge Street one afternoon on my way to meet a friend. I liked the look of the lights underneath the canopy at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, so I stopped to take a photo. Within seconds, several people stopped to see who I was taking a photo of (and by “who,” I mean which celebrity) and they began pulling out their own cameras and phones. At which point I smirked to myself, put my camera in my pocket, and continued on my way. Only during TIFF would pointing your camera at a movie theatre cause a traffic jam!
That night my friend and I saw a French film set in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a beautiful park in Paris I have yet to see for myself. I tried to get tickets to a few more films, but no luck there ― the ones I wanted to see were selling out as fast as I was trying to buy them online. No matter, though. Two of the films I was able to see a few weeks later at VIFF.
TIFF is a smaller festival than VIFF ― it shows fewer films and is five days shorter ― but it’s an industry event, so to speak, and therefore gets a lot of attention because Hollywood and the world’s media comes to town. I could feel the buzz in the air the entire time I was there, which makes September an exciting time to visit Toronto.
Nothing says “Toronto” to me as much as its iconic red street cars.
For several years, I rode the 504 King car every day on my way to and from work, but when I first moved to Toronto, it took me a while to figure out where and how I was expected to board the street cars. The only street cars I was familiar with were the trams in Amsterdam. In that city, there are raised concrete platforms along the tram tracks where you stand to wait for the tram.
Although some street-car stops in Toronto have platforms similar to those in Amsterdam, most stops are marked with a small sign attached to a light pole. The signs are easy to miss if you don’t know where to look. You wait on the sidewalk beneath the sign, just as you would wait for a bus at a bus stop. The street car pulls up, traffic in the lane between the street car and sidewalk stops, and you step out into the road to board the street car.
Street cars have been operating continuously in Toronto since 1861, and Toronto’s system is the largest in North America in terms of ridership, number of cars, and track length. Its eleven lines, most of which crisscross downtown and all of which connect with the subway, have a daily ridership of over a quarter of a million people.