After three days of cooking for family and friends over Christmas, J and I drove to Toronto. Many parts of the United States are quite beautiful but our 480 mile route from Washington DC was not one of them. To be fair, we couldn’t see much a lot of the way because of the fog, but the towns we passed through ranged from a bit sad to decrepit. Large Victorian and Queen Anne houses in some towns attested to bygone prosperity, but the only attractive town we came across that was thriving, was Ellicottville in western New York state.
New found poverty blankets much of rural America like a shroud, and the grey, damp conditions and the denuded winter landscape merely exposed and amplified it. Nobody seems to know what to do about this wholesale decline, although the larger mystery is why the people who are affected the worst persist in voting against their own self-interest. Only in the yards of the most ramshackle piles are there ‘Trump 2020’ signs. The irony is too awful and many people have written books to try and explain it. In the absence of any unanimity, I’m going with David Hume who, in the 18th century, wrote ‘there are principles in human nature that work towards the defeat of reason’. Around the same time his compatriot Adam Smith, whose ideas were avidly adopted by the new American Republic, acknowledged that his capitalist ideas would not be good for every one.
Some of Toronto’s major assets; it is an eclectic foodie town with some terrific restaurants and cool bars of creative mixologists. It has an incredibly diverse population and on the surface at least, Canadians have been more successful at integration than the US. Admittedly, they are not burdened by the original sin of slavery that has yet to be properly addressed and atoned for in the US, but they have been better about integrating their large Asian population too. It is the norm rather than the exception to see groups of friends of all races strolling along the streets, while mixed race couples and families abound.
Being an integrated place, it should not need to be said that Toronto is also LGBTQ friendly, but I’ll say it anyway. Most of all, everything they say about Canadians is true – they are marvelously kind and friendly people. I never stood for long with my map looking puzzled before someone asked if they could help. Servers, bar staff – everyone was positively amicable. I don’t know why they are so much nicer than Americans, but any American who isn’t an idiot willingly concedes that this is just a fact. And they are so much nicer than the British that even Harry and Meghan are coming to stay…… Lastly, even the local government in Toronto has a sense of humor. Or they hire dyslexics. Check out the photo below.
Another plus about Toronto is its public transport system. Once we got over the difficulty of figuring out how to buy a ticket for the tram – the ticketing system recently changed, but you can still buy a single ride ticket on the street car – we found it easy and reliable, although it is not cheap. But then nothing is in this booming metropolis. Still, it is cheaper than going everywhere by taxi and when we didn’t use the subway or the street trams we usually walked. Greater Toronto is a sprawl, but most of Downtown – a cheerful mix of multi-ethnic enclaves and districts like Little Italy, Koreatown, Riverside, Leslieville, Chinatown, West Queen West and Kensington Market – is walkable. When you need to take a load off, there are hundreds of independent cafes and coffee bars serving delicious coffee. This bounty of coffee was doubly appreciated as a cheery antidote to the frigid air.
The green Mona Lisa at the top of this post is found in Graffiti Alley. There are murals all over Toronto, but the section of Rush Lane between Spadina and Portland has the most. We visited the alley on day one as we walked from the Distillery District via the St. Lawrence Market, (which reminded me a lot of the Reading Terminal market in Philadelphia), to Queen St. West. The Distillery District is 13 acres of 47 buildings, the oldest of which dates to the 1850s, which is apparently the largest collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America.
The cobbled streets that surround the old Gooderham & Worts Distillery comprise cafes and restaurants, art galleries and small shops featuring the work of local artists and artisans. I suspect it is better to visit in warmer weather because it was so cold that we spent most of our time in a cafe. Actually Toronto in general is probably better visited when the weather is warmer and we might be the only two people who have ever visited the city and didn’t actually see the lake…..
We stayed at the Broadview hotel at the corner of Queen St East and Broadview Avenue in an area called Riverside. The “Richardsonian Romanesque” red-brick building, with its distinctive tower and pyramidal roof, was built in 1891 for Alberta oilman, Archibald Dingman. It housed the Canadian Bank of Commerce on the ground floor, while the upper floors were used as office space for lawyers and doctors and as halls for concerts and conferences. In 1907 Dingman sold the building which he had named Dingman Hall, and it later became the first incarnation of the Broadview hotel. By the 70s it was a boarding house with a strip club called Jilly’s on the ground floor. Since 2014, when the building was sold and completely gutted to be re-made into a hipster hotel, the reincarnated Broadview has become known for its brunch and its rooftop terrace. (We like staying in such hotels even though hipster is probably not the word that immediately springs to mind when describing J and me.)
In a nod to its past, some rooms have a small tasteful collage of a pin-up girl on the wall, and all have a turntable with a few vinyls and a library where you can borrow from a large selection. In keeping with its contemporary ‘woke’ vibe, the shampoo, hand cream, conditioner and shower gel are all dispensed from large containers, thus avoiding wasteful plastic landfill, and I particularly liked the tray of goodies where everything is carefully sourced and is free trade, from the Chocosol chocolate to the Nomz energy bars. Other items included a Fenwick candle, shoe-cleaning wipes, phone charger and adapter and a box of red heart-shaped, sequined and tasseled pasties…..