I’m back in Toronto(!)
I’ve been away from Toronto for four years, which is a lifetime ago. In that time I’ve moved from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Warsaw Poland, in which time there was a global pandemic during which I taught in-class, quit, wrote two novels (a third in the pipes) and watched Canada undergo a housing crisis. Also, marijuana became legal in Canada, which has made things a bit weirder. But I like weird.
Toronto is a changed city. A strange city. As I walked through the downtown and onto Queen Street, I noticed the high number of empty storefronts against the backdrop of luxury condos. It was a bizarre contrast; the appearance of luxury living against the foreground of lost businesses and despair. I wondered if there are so many people in those glass towers, how is it that so many shops have closed down? The pandemic, I’m told. The current government catered to large corporations and allowed them to stay open during the pandemic while they allowed smaller businesses to languish and fail, as I was witnessing. It was hard for me to believe that Canada would cater to corporate interests over the interests of the people who live there. Just kidding. It wasn’t hard to believe that at all. There was just never a time in my life that I’ve ever seen evidence of that laid so openly.
The Toronto I left was a city in love with itself. The people who lived there loved to talk about its multiculturalism, food, and all of the stuff you could buy. The Toronto I return to has shades of the old, but its hard to ignore that it’s a completely different place. I’m sure it’s still in love with itself, but what’s changed is that the cracks in the city’s deficiencies have become more pronounced, and the rot that was stuffed behind the facade of wealth has moved to the foreground. Toronto could deny that it was a second-rate sketch town with just the facade of international relevance at one point, but there’s no denying it it now. And I love it. Not because of schadenfreude, but because Toronto was kidding itself for far too long. Now it can’t.
Toronto is becoming more honest about who it really is, but not by choice. Although affluenza still rides the streets and sits between empty units in luxury condos, its true nature has become more exposed, like a piece of drywall that’s ripped out to reveal exposed brick. It has become what it really is; a cracked city where the affluent still hide out in fancy restaurants while its true nature fills the streets like the ubiquitous smell of marijuana.
Toronto is an unaffordable city. It’s long been that way, but it’s become exacerbated by the pandemic, which has been an opportunity for wealth to push further upward. It can no longer hide that it’s not a glamorous city, but a division of people who pride themselves on living in a city where they can buy stuff and those who are increasingly sleeping in parks. As I walked along the thick stream of crowds on the street, I saw all of the symptoms of people who are missing something. People trying to identify with the corporate brands whether it be Blue Jays gear or Prada sunglasses, all the while ignoring that the city and city life has broken. If the new reality is hard to take, that’s okay, any number of dispensaries can help you try to forget. Dank smoke fills the air as couples in carefully selected outfits walk through it on their way to the Opera. I’m not exaggerating. A young Bruce Wayne might as well be among them.
Forget Batman. Toronto now reminds me of Detroit in RoboCop. There is a clear class division between those who think they can afford things and those who can’t. Closed shops, lost history, million dollar tear-downs and luxury condos. Tourists take their picture in front of buildings that are frankly quite ugly.
Toronto has become a more honest freakshow of disparity, and I love it. Not because people are suffering, but because the suffering can no longer be pushed to the fringes. It’s worn on the city walls and in its streets. Crumbling infrastructure is everywhere. A city that once thought itself as posh has a cracked veneer, and from it all of the city’s true nature is crawling out.
This summer, I’m going to go crawl with them.