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Useful Notes / Toronto

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Downtown Toronto (with CN tower and Sky Dome SkyDome.. er, Rogers Centre)

"Toronto has two seasons: winter and construction."
Ontarian jokenote 

Among Canadians of a certain mindset, it's known as the place where the win of Canada and the fail of the States do battle for supremacy.

Originally known as York (or 'Muddy York') and renamed to Toronto in 1834, it was built on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. Nowadays the City of Toronto consists of the old city (Metropolitan or 'Metro' Toronto) plus five surrounding municipalities: York, North York, East York, Scarborough and Etobicoke note . With a combined population of about six million (or roughly one-sixth of the entire country) it is easily the largest city in Canada and the capital of the province of Ontario. It is not, however, the federal capital - that's Ottawa (which is also in Ontario). Non-Canadians don't always remember this. To be fair, Torontonians don't always remember this, either.


As one of the first great urban settlements in British-held Canada, the 'City of Neighborhoods' (140 by current consensus) features a deeply conscientious civic sensibility overlaid with an eager cultural striving towards modernity and diversity. Its one overarching ambition, often mocked but deadly serious at heart, is to be acknowledged as a 'world-class city'. Peter Ustinov famously described it as "New York run by the Swiss", which is... not quite what Torontonians had in mind, but they will take it.

Ironically enough it is likely best-known to Americans as a stand-in city of movie and television fame, as filming in Canada is quite a bit cheaper than in the US and comes with some tempting tax incentives.note  The City with No Name is often Toronto. Within Canada, meanwhile, it's often derisively known as "the centre of the universe", partially because it's the first city anyone outside of Canada thinks of, and because, well, everybody else in Canada hates Toronto with a fierce and often very creative passion. It's about as close as we ever get to true national unity.


This is largely thanks to a perception, true or false, that Torontonians are oblivious to the country outside of their city; very similar to the American concept of Flyover Country, only there's just the one largest and most diverse population centre hogging the national/cultural spotlight. (Although Vancouver, with its likewise vibrant film industry and influx of pan-Asian wealth, and Montreal, with its European cultural sophistication and renowned universities, both make a strong case for the second. Most Torontonians prefer to ignore all this, however.)

One can easily detect outsiders by their painstaking "Tow-Rawn-Tow". Natives of the city and surrounding area typically drop the last T, and sometimes the first O, so it's "Toronno", "Tronna", or even "Ch'ronna" ("ch" as in "chair") note . Nicknames include T.O. or T-dot (an acronym of Toronto, Ontario), Hogtown (for its large meatpacking industry in the 19th century), The Big Smoke (from its general history as Canada's industrial powerhouse), and "Toronto the Good" (referring to the goody-two-shoes Methodists and other Protestants who made the city a center for uptight Victorian morality). Lately "The 6" (sometimes "The Six" or "The 6ix") has been popularized (although not created) by Toronto hip hop artist Drake. note 

Toronto can technically be considered a "mega-city": since at the time of amalgamation in 1998, Metro Toronto and its neighbouring municipalities were all fully-fledged cities in their own right, with no interest in merging. Amalgamation therefore was and is regarded as a serious dick move by the provincial government of the time. A kind of 'separate but equal' standoff has since been established, wherein everyone retains their unique local identities while also retaining the right to complain endlessly about the central government (very Canadian, this). Claiming you live in Toronto or, say, Scarborough on official documents is equally acceptable.

In general the downtown core is known as the 416 and the surrounding areas as the 905, these being the original phone area codes. The 905 tend to think of the 416 as snooty latte-sipping liberal elites who expect the much larger suburbs to help finance services they don't benefit from in proportion (like the subway); the 416 tend to see the 905 as Molson-swilling reactionary yahoos who get to take advantage of the world-class thing without even contributing to it. Also, enablers of the Ford political dynasty... we'll get to that in a moment. The city is further roughly subdivided by the massive Don Valley into west (sleeker, wealthier, most of the landmarks) and east (older, scruffier, most of the cool ethnic neighborhoods) sides.

Not all of Toronto's suburbs officially became part of the mega-city; the communities within nearby York, Durham, Peel and Halton Regionsnote  were determined to remain independent. The whole shebang is thus only vaguely referred to as the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Very few inhabitants therein can agree on just where the boundaries are; they roughly follow the lakeshore, and can plausibly stretch as far as Oshawa to the northeast down to Hamilton at the southwest. The really expansive definitions will take in all of Southern Ontario including the Niagara Peninsula.

The only true consensus is that the farther away one is from Toronto, the larger the city becomes. For example, a citizen of Mississauga at home is not from Toronto, and he will be righteously insulted if you assume such. However that same Mississaugan will claim to be from Toronto while traveling overseas (or more than two provinces away) just to avoid the insane annoyance of having to explain all the above in detail.note 

The city came up relatively peacefully through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like many Great Lakes cities a thriving centre of industry, besides acting as a social and cultural hub for the developing nation. Wealthy Victorian-era Torontonians, following the British model, generally owned both an elegant townhouse downtown and a mansion (often of the local red sandstone) on what were then the rural outskirts; many of these still stand. The middle classes, meanwhile, developed the distinctive 'bay-and-gable' architectural style—a bay window on the ground floor and single gable above—that remains unique to the city.

In The '70s, just as the rest of the Great Lakes region was beginning its long, slow decline, Toronto received a huge boost from the provincial government... of Québec, whose newly passed language laws and rampant talk of separatism led to a flood of formerly Montréal-based Anglophones and businesses leaving for Toronto. This was further increased in the latter half of the decade by changes to the Immigration Act, which led to a rise in immigration that continued well into The '80s and The '90s. It was during this period that Toronto overtook Montréal as both Canada's most populous city and its financial capital, with headquarters on Bay Street, Canada's answer to Wall Street. Much of the architecture that defines the city to this day, notably the soaring glass-and-steel banking towers, the CN Tower and SkyDome, was constructed around this time.

Toronto today is an exceptionally multicultural city: 47% of its population consists of "visible minorities", meaning that soon "white" will be a "visible minority" by census and already is within North York, the largest, second most populous, and most multicultural zone in the megacity. Furthermore, Toronto's multiculturalism is exceptionally non-nominal, as the city has the highest proportion of recent immigrants of any of the world's major cities; Toronto thus harbours many distinct and authentic communities from diverse regions of the globe, making up by last count some 160 language groups. Visitors to Canada take careful note: this sort of thing is unofficially official policy and is always considered a selling point, a source of great civic pride. Also, a lot of frankly awesome restaurants.

There are likewise all sorts of cultural festivals, prominent among which are the Caribbean Carnival (Caribbean music and culture, formerly Caribana) and A Taste of The Danforth (authentic Greek street food). Additionally Toronto is a major LGBTQ-friendly centre, hosting the world's largest Gay Pride Parade (the last of three parades, after the Trans March and Dyke March) which closes off a Toronto Pride Month that is widely attended by both locals and tourists. The city hosted World Pride 2014, the first non-European city to do so, which included human rights conferences with delegates from countries around the world.

Theatre and film are other important ways in which the city reaches out for the world stage. Toronto's Theatre District is home to several new or beautifully restored old venues and is considered an important launching point for international productions, while the annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is a high profile event, considered second only to Cannes, that has become a site for major film premieres (including The King's Speech, Argo, and Silver Linings Playbook). Toronto is also justifiably proud of its vibrant indie music scene, which while not as internationally renowned as Montreal's has produced the likes of Drake, The Weeknd, K'naan, Snow, the Barenaked Ladies and sometime Bowie collaborator Emm Gryner. Residents still mourn the loss of the famous Sam the Record Man shop, which not only served as a landmark (thanks to its' giant neon signs), but served as an incubator for many famous Canadian bands and singers.

Torontonians are much more ambivalent about sports. Certainly they are proud to have a full slate of major league teams, including the National Hockey League's Maple Leafs, Major League Baseball's Blue Jays, the National Basketball Association's Raptors, Major League Soccer's Toronto FC and the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts (Argos); they also host the NFL's Buffalo Bills for frequent preseason exhibitions and have even flirted with the idea of an NFL team of their own. All this is, of course, only right and proper in a world-class city. The thing is, unless they're winning, it's just not all that interesting. Luckily, most of these teams have seen considerable success, but fan support is never really guaranteed...

... Unless you're the one spectacular exception, the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey team so loyally beloved that even though they haven't won The Stanley Cup since 1967, they still always earn the most by far of any team in the NHL, and are one of two teams every young Canadian prospect dreams of starting for (the other being the hated rival Montreal Canadiens). The Leafs franchise is worth nearly double the next most valuable... every game is a sellout and the waiting list for season tickets is tens of thousands long. Many GTA residents are honestly terrified of what might happen if they ever actually start winning anything again.

The joke is that Toronto has only two seasons: winter and construction. Actually, tourists would be well-advised to note that we also have a summer, that often slides into a long lingering autumn. The GTA is much further south than many American states, meaning the climate can best be compared to Chicago, not the North Pole. Come up in May through August dressed for the igloos and you will not be a happy camper.

As for the construction... well, yes, because of potentially heavy snowfall Toronto has to concentrate most building and all its road work in the summer months. Add in the fact that Southern Ontario highways are some of the busiest in the world; the GTA sprawls over many kilometres, and is rapidly outgrowing its aging transportation infrastructure, without any real consensus on what to do about it. The main east-west route, Highway 401, is by most measures the busiest highway in the world, with all eighteen lanes jammed for miles at rush hour. Meanwhile Toronto's north-south crosstown artery, the Don Valley Parkway—initially intended to relieve congestion on the city streets—has long been affectionately dubbed the Don Valley Parking Lot. When construction starts forcing lane closures, things get gnarled very quickly.

On the plus side the GTA also features an extensive transit network, anchored by the red-and-white subways, streetcars and buses of the Toronto Transit Commission (known semi-affectionately as the TTC) and the green-and-white provincial GO commuter rail; if you're downtown, there's even an underground tunnel network called PATH. All told, though, it's a good thing that many families go up north to "cottage country" for vacations note .

The snow thing, incidentally, is a bit of a sore point. Back in 1999, a particularly major storm saw Mayor Mel Lastman calling in the army to help to clear it away. Naturally this became a goldmine of mirth for other Canadian cities, like Montreal, which gets an average of almost twice as much snow as Toronto does, and Vancouver, which always enjoys getting all up in the rest of the country's faces about how they don't even have snow. note 

One feature little-known to outsiders but central to Toronto's identity is its ravine system. The city is transected by several major groups of deep ravines running from hills to the city's north down to Lake Ontario. In fact, one prominent architect has described Toronto as being "San Francisco turned upside down," seeing the ravines as an inverted version of San Francisco's famous hills. The ravines also figure heavily in the works of Toronto's most prominent authors. While the largest of the ravines, the Don Valley, was heavily industrialized, most of the rest remain in something close to their natural state, making them extremely popular among hikers and cyclists, despite some crime concerns. With most of the industries now gone, efforts are being made to restore the Don to a more natural state.

Recently, Toronto caught the world's attention via its crack-smoking, buffoonish mayor: the one and thankfully only Rob Ford, as supported by Ford Nation. That is, large swathes of The 905, who see the Ford family—a wannabe dynasty headed by local businessmen Rob and big brother Doug—as their populist champions. This... did not turn out quite the way they planned. After a series of brutally tacky scenes and quotes, meanwhile emphatically denying having ever used drugs (despite the Toronto Star newspaper discovering video proof of him sharing a crack pipe with local hoods) Ford admitted to doing so during one of his, actual quote, "drunken stupors". He then continued to deny that he was an alcoholic, or a drug addict. Although he rapidly became an international embarrassment, provincial laws prevented city council from removing him from office unless sent to jail for at least 90 days note .

They did however, manage to strip him of most of his powers. In spite of having been reduced to a mayor in name only, he planned on running for re-election before a tumour in his abdomen sidelined him. He switched with his brother Doug, who was running as incumbent for Rob's former position as Councillor of Etobicoke. While his brother lost the mayoral race to the (comparatively) moderate candidate John Tory, Rob won back his seat handily; however, Rob's tumour had since developed into full-blown cancer, and he spent much of his term as Councillor in the hospital, dying on March 16, 2016. He was succeeded as Councillor by his nephew Michael. A proposal to rename a small local stadium in Rob's honour was dutifully made, and swiftly voted down.

However... Doug Ford was elected head of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in 2018, became Premier of Ontario note  later that same year, and promptly unveiled a plan to cut Toronto City Council in half. Stay tuned, world.

Major Landmarks:
  • The Canadian National (CN) Towernote  - At 553 metres (or a little over 1800 feet), the tallest free-standing structure in the world for over thirty years. It lost that title to Dubai's Burj Khalifa in 2007, and was for a time the tallest free-standing tower in the world, until the completion of the Canton Tower in 2010. Still considered the symbol of the city, and unquestionably one of the most distinctive pieces of architecture in the world.
    • Which made it all the more hilarious when they forgot to airbrush it out in the original theatrical release of Resident Evil.
    • Used as a broadcast tower for the Toronto affiliates of all major Canadian networks (including CBC, CTV, Global, and City) and the main station in the provincial public television service TVOntario. You have its regionally-unrivaled height to thank if your antenna in Rochester, Buffalo, or Boston picks up these channels.
  • City Hall - Considered one of the few successful North American examples of the Modernist architectural movement. Composed of two sleek and curving offset towers cradling a central saucer-shaped council chamber—all intended to resemble a human eye from above—it would look right at home in any sci-fi series.
    • And, in fact, did appear as a "futuristic" building on Star Trek: The Next Generation at least once.
    • Also commonly but erroneously believed to have appeared as a "futuristic" building on Star Trek: The Original Series, just a few years after its construction. It did, however, appear in a TOS comic published in 1969, which likely led to the confusion.
    • Also appeared as the Umbrella Corporation's headquarters in the second Resident Evil movie.
  • Royal York Hotel - Swankiest hotel in the city, and was the tallest building in the British Empire when it opened in 1929. Currently operated by Fairmont.
  • Scotiabank Arena (formerly the Air Canada Centre) - Home of the Maple Leafs and the Raptors.
  • Rogers Centre (originally called SkyDome; most locals still refer to it as such) - home to the Blue Jays, and before 2016 the Argonauts. Also the first stadium to have a fully functional retractable roof.note  Has a hotel built right into it—so do remember to close your blinds if you stay there. If you want a room with a view of the baseball game, you have to sign a form stating that you won't do anything lewd in front of the cameras (note that this policy was only hastily instituted after a couple was caught doing something very lewd in front of the cameras).
  • Exhibition Place - a large combination fairground and parkland. Site of many trade shows, conferences, and fairs - most famously the annual Canadian National Exhibition (the CNE, or just the Ex). Also the location of BMO Field, home of the Toronto FC and since 2016 the Argonauts.
  • Casa Loma ('House on the Hill') - an actual Gothic-style castle, except built in the early 20th century by an eccentric millionaire more or less in the middle of the old citynote . Unfortunately he went broke building it, and it was only a private residence for a very short while. The castle is now by order of the owner's will a public museum, complete with tours of the many ornate rooms. And oh yes, it has secret passages.
    • It was used for the interior of the Xavier School in the first X-Men movie.note 
  • The Ontario Science Centre - a cutting-edge science museum that helped kickstart the idea of interactive exhibits, diverting wildly from the usual staid institutions. Also the home of the OMNIMAX theatre, an immersive film experience that takes IMAX to the natural next level.
  • The Royal Ontario Museum ("The ROM") - a much more traditional cross-disciplinary museum and the go-to field trip destination for elementary schools across the province. Famous for its extensive dinosaur and other natural history exhibits, also significant Ancient Greek, Chinese and Egyptian collections. Housed in a magnificent old building that was recently given a very modern overhaul in the form of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal... an architectural monstrosity which due to budget cuts more closely resembles an explosion in a storm-door factory.
    • The interiors of the Crystal were however used for filming the Massive Dynamic HQ scenes in the first episode of Fringe.
  • The Ontario Legislative Building - where the provincial parliament meets, an imposing, really beautiful century-old red sandstone structure situated in the middle of (and routinely referred to as)...
  • Queen's Park - a serene urban greenspace lined with trees. The park, laid out as an old-fashioned oval, is almost completely surrounded by (and is partly leasednote  from)...
  • The University of Toronto - tends to get used as a stand-in for Oxbridge or Ivy League colleges in movies, especially the St-George campus downtown, which combines modern (or occasionally futuristic) architecture with traditionally dignified, ivy-covered buildings. Of particular note is the sinister-looking Robarts Library. note 
    • The neo-gothic Knox College building probably gets the most screen time, since it can stand in as anything from a regular building to a castle.
  • The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO, pronounced as 'ay-go') - which has just completed its own modernization overseen by native son Frank Gehry (much better received than the ROM's). One of the largest art museums in North America, home to extensive Group of Seven and Henry Moore collections.
  • Ontario Place - a large festival and exhibition area on the lakeshore, built on a series of artificial islands as part of a failed plan (one of many) to expand the city into Lake Ontario. Hosts a small water park in the summer.
  • The Prince Edward (more commonly Bloor) Viaduct - the major downtown bridge spanning the Don Valley and thus the city's de facto West/East link. Notable for its splendid views of the Valley, lit-up railings and the fact that it was built with a lower deck for subways about 50 years before Toronto had subways. Formerly also notable as a very popular suicide spot (it's the one mentioned as such in the Barenaked Ladies' "War on Drugs") which explains the current elaborate net-like installations to either side.
  • The Danforth - formally Danforth Avenue, beginning at the eastern end of the Viaduct, hub of the city's east side and home to many kilometres of vibrant, eclectic and sometimes downright eccentric shopping, dining and community services. Greektown is located on its far western end.
    • Referenced by Barenaked Ladies' "The Old Apartment", wherein the singer apparently bought a house there after moving from the old apartment.
  • Eaton Centre - a really big, pretty, tourist-filled shopping mall, built when such malls were still a significant novelty. Formerly anchored by Eaton's, one of Canada's flagship department stores; still incorporates a huge Hudson's Bay department store.
  • Harbourfront Centre - which... uh... well, Toronto's harbourfront is kind of a mixed bag, despite various redevelopment plans over the years. Most recently, massive condo development of formerly industrial areas has largely overwhelmed the tourist aspect. The upscale Queens Quay shopping/dining complex is nice, though.
  • The Toronto Islands - three pleasant little outcrops about a mile from shore. Accessible only by harbour ferry and developed strictly as parkland aside from some small cottages, a tiny airport and an even teenier amusement park. No cars allowed.
  • The Toronto Zoo - built into the wooded Rouge Valley Conservation Area just north of town. One of the world's largest and most well-respected zoos, containing specimens from every major ecosystem; a partner in many conservation/captive breeding efforts.
  • Yonge Street - The major north-south thoroughfare, home to many downtown shopping landmarks including the Eaton Centre and the historic Sam the Record Man music store (which closed in 2007; the trademark neon record signs were refurbished and installed at the top of an office building overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square). All thoroughfares crossing it are bisected into "West" and "East". It was formerly recognised by Guinness as the longest street in the world, but this has been debunked as it was conflated with Ontario Highway 11. Still, a pretty doggone long street.
    • Downtown Yonge Street is the location of the surprisingly-visible-in-the-Hulk-Movie Zanzibar strip club, one of the biggest and brightest strip club signs you'll ever see.
  • Honest Ed's Discount Emporium - Closed as of January 2017, for decades the most famous store in the city... kind of hard to miss by any measure, really. Founded by the late Ed Mirvish, it covered a city block and was marked by enormous, wildly garish flashing signs, flanked by many smaller ones sporting awful puns on how cheap Ed was. After Ed's death the family ended the store's 68-year run by selling to a condo developer, but the fond memories are still seared into the city's eyeballs.
    • Despite all his calculated tackiness 'Honest Ed' was a kind and humble local philanthropist, renowned for his turkey giveaways before Thanksgivingnote  and Christmas.
    • He was also a theatre impresario, and is credited with revitalizing Toronto's theatre scene, starting in the '60s when he bought and restored the Royal Alexandria Theatre and opened restaurants in the area to create a bona-fide Theatre District. He then built the Princess of Wales Theatre (named in tribute to Diana) in 1993. Ed and his son David operated Mirvish Productions, which put on shows like Mamma Mia! and The Lion King.
    • And now there's a plan afoot to reassemble the iconic main sign, in all its flashy glory, on the side of the new Ed Mirvish Theatre. The mind boggles.
  • The ironically (though not inaccurately) named Church Street - one of the most famous gayborhoods in North America. The street name actually comes from three major church buildings all located on or just off the thoroughfare, all dating back to the 19th century and all beautiful examples of neo-Gothic style; in order going north, St. James' Anglican Cathedral, the Metropolitan United Church, and St. Michael's Catholic Cathedral. The epicentre of the "gayborhood" is several blocks further north, centered around the intersection of Church and Wellesley Street East.
    • Outside of Church Street, downtown Toronto has a lot of notable religious architecture, such that it used to be called a "City of Churches" or the "Methodist Rome". Appropriately, the United Church of Canada and Anglican Church of Canada are generally considered the most LGBT-friendly Christian denominations in the country.
  • The Metro Toronto Convention Centre - home to the Fan Convention Fan Expo Canada, basically "San Diego Comic-Con North", which would be of particular interest to many of this site's Canadian users.
  • Union Station - on Front Street opposite the Royal York, opened in 1927 and as imposingly majestic as any other railway palace of the era. Thus often stands in for major railway stations in US cities, including Washington, DC (in Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye) and Chicago, Illinois (in Chicago). It pulled triple duty in Silver Streak, in which it played stations in Los Angeles and Kansas City in addition to the climactic train crash in Chicago.
  • 299 Queen Street West— A former church/printing facility converted in the 1980s by televisual wunderkind Moses Znaimer to serve as the base for the legendary City TV and MuchMusic, both then at their creative zeniths. Though City has since relocated and the building is now owned by CTV (with Znaimer and his unconventional ways banished in favour of corporate homogenization and Network Decay, it's still a major broadcast center. Not to mention, there's one bit left from City they couldn't remove— a newstruck embedded in the wall (though CTV redecoed it to remove the CityPulse deco).

Media Set in Toronto:


Example of: