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Theater, Architecture, Livability : Toronto, City That Works, Basks in Its ‘Golden Age’

Times Staff Writer

A television crew shooting a series supposedly set in a typical American city found that the streets here were too clean, so they spread around some synthetic garbage to lend authenticity to the scene. But then the crew members took a break and returned to find that Toronto’s ever-present street cleaners had swept in and cleaned it all up.

The story reflects one of the most attractive aspects of this city of 3 million people. It is clean--so clean that litterers are often advised by people who catch them that “we don’t do that here.”

Toronto is also very safe. Thirty-seven homicides were committed here last year, in contrast with 887 in Los Angeles--and all but four of them were solved. The general crime rate is among the lowest in the world’s major cities.

Economic Disparities, Too

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Toronto is also rich, so rich as to cause concern that the gap between rich and poor is getting out of hand.

And Toronto is diverse, cosmopolitan, growing, dynamic and, if not beautiful in the sense that Paris is beautiful, nonetheless pleasing to the eye. People live in the city center, and it is as lively at night as at noon. Even the weather is far from fearsome: Omaha is colder in January than Toronto.

All this and more leads Jane Jacobs, a prominent urban expert, to call Toronto “the city that works,” and Mayor Art Eggleton to proclaim the lakeside metropolis “North America’s supercity enjoying its golden age.”

By virtually all accounts, these labels are accurate--for the moment and on the surface. But judging from the clogged traffic, the lack of rental property and the extraordinary cost of housing, Toronto may be in danger of choking on its own success. In the mayor’s assessment, it comes too close to wallowing in smugness and complacency and becoming “a rich man’s town.”

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‘Toronto the Good’

To understand this, one has to look back. Until the early 1970s, Toronto was considered by many to be dull and conservative, a stultifying backwater. It was known as “Hogtown” because of its stockyards, and “Toronto the good” because of laws so restrictive that cocktail lounges were prohibited and public transportation was shut down on Sundays.

Montreal was Canada’s social, fashion and entertainment center, and it far surpassed Toronto as a financial and business hub. Vancouver was livelier and, with its nearby mountains and stunning beaches, was deemed more beautiful.

Then, in the early 1970s, a number of events combined with new political leadership to create a new Toronto--a city far different from what it had been before.

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Montreal, divided by controversy over the effort to create a new, French-speaking country out of Quebec, lost many important businesses and financial institutions and a large part of its English-speaking population. The beneficiary was Toronto.

New Breed of Politician

At the same time, government policy at the federal level and here in the province of Ontario led to the creation of new industries--triggering growth in employment, population, investment and wealth and the emergence of Toronto as the cultural and entertainment center of Canada.

After decades of conservative, even reactionary, local government, a new breed of politician took over, led by then-Mayor David Crombie. The policy was to develop the city center, to create an extensive public transportation system and to encourage diverse and affordable residential neighborhoods.

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The results have been dramatic.

Within walking distance of Bay and King streets, the hub of what might be compared to Los Angeles’ financial district, thousands of people at every economic level live in attractive housing.

Entertainment-Oriented City

The downtown area is also the site of many new and well-designed office towers, including a complex designed by the renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, new and refurbished concert halls, theaters and restaurants. Nearby, construction is under way on a domed stadium for the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the most successful major-league baseball franchises.

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There are enough theaters so that a new play can be seen almost every week of the year. The local version of “Cats” was considered equal to the Los Angeles, New York and London productions. The city boasts a symphony orchestra, a permanent opera troupe and the National Ballet Company.

Torontonians attend more movies, on a per-capita basis, than the people of New York or Los Angeles. Moreover, Toronto is now the world’s No. 3 film and television production center.

There are an estimated 40 distinct ethnic groups among the population of 3 million, providing five separate Chinatowns and large Italian, Portuguese and Greek neighborhoods. And there is little of the racism and violence found in many U.S. cities.

Respect for Authority

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The subways, streetcars and buses run on time, and they are clean, quiet, comfortable and safe. The entire metropolitan area is safe. A woman can walk just about anywhere at night without fear. What little organized crime there is consists, for the most part, of gambling.

Much of the credit for all this can be given to a large (7,000 members) and efficient police force, a tradition of respect for authority, and a national social welfare policy that mitigates poverty and class resentment.

“I attribute this divergence from the American experience to the ghettoization of Harlem in New York in 1904,” said James Lemon, a historian and urban geographer at the University of Toronto. “We in Toronto have never had that type of segregation and racial problem, at least not to the same extent.”

Beyond the relatively low level of crime, mob and otherwise, Toronto has never been burdened by official corruption or even the drawbacks of political patronage.

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Well-Designed City

Instead, according to historian and city archivist Victor L. Russell, “we’ve always had a democratically run city with professional civil servants providing good municipal services.”

Lemon attributes these qualities to tradition built on the attitudes of the somber and sober English and Scottish settlers and on a “sense of restraint that came about, in part, from viewing what was going on” in the United States.

Mayor Crombie and his successors worked to prevent the city center from being abandoned, but they also used the public transportation system to promote downtown-like areas of office buildings, department stores and smaller retail shops throughout the city. The result is a balance that puts most residents within walking distance of nearly everything they want or need, often including their places of work.

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These outlying areas, like nearly all parts of Toronto, are clean. The government spends almost $8.5 million a year on sanitation, more than double the outlay for that purpose in Detroit, the nearest American metropolis.

Crowded but Clean

In addition, tens of millions of dollars are spent on street maintenance. Traffic problems are commonplace in the summer months, but the streets are smooth and clean.

All this is paid for by the people, who according to a recent public opinion poll are overwhelmingly willing to give up even more in taxes to continue and expand those services.

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“There is little doubt,” archivist Russell said, “that our civic government has been spectacular and has always done things for the public. In fact, it has threatened the private sector by taking away business when it didn’t or wouldn’t serve the public interest.”

But now Toronto faces the possibility that its very success is leading to a lessening--if not the destruction--of what makes it what it is.

“We are increasingly being segregated into rich and poor,” City Councilman Jack Layton said. “It is a golden age--if the measure is gold.”

Problem of Homeless

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Last year, he said, “there was a record in the value of building permits, but at the same time more food banks were opened and more people were living in the streets than any time since the Depression (of the 1930s).”

Layton and other city officials estimate that there are 10,000 homeless people in the city, spending their nights on the streets or in shelters for transients.

“Over the last 10 years, we have lost 10,000 housing units,” Layton said, “while at the same time we have vacant office space equal to 10,000 apartments. Of 10,000 housing units authorized for new harbor-front development, only 400 apartments are reserved for lower-income families. Something has gone wrong. . . . The single greatest problem we face is the division of wealth.”

Underlying his point is that in a city where only 40% of the householders own their homes, less than 1% of rental units are available at any given time. This has meant high prices for all types of housing. The few rental units that go on the market are expensive; a one-bedroom apartment commonly rents for $1,000 a month.

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Exorbitant House Prices

Houses are more expensive. The price of the average three-bedroom house is over $200,000, and slightly larger houses often bring well over $500,000.

The situation got so serious last spring that real estate dealers put up houses for auction, fixing the asking price as the minimum bid.

“The real Achilles’ heel for Toronto,” historian Lemon said, “is the cost of real estate. We’ve got to get more housing at a reasonable price, or we are in danger of losing the social mix that has made Toronto a livable city.”

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Another threat to the general atmosphere of prosperity and livability, according to Mayor Eggleton, “is smugness and complacency.”

Both are much in evidence. To read the Toronto newspapers and listen to many influential residents, Toronto has surpassed New York, Los Angeles and London as a cultural center.

Still Lacks Excitement

Although live theater is everywhere, most plays close after short runs and they seldom go elsewhere. The most successful Canadian playwrights work in the United States.

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The symphony performs in an inadequate hall and is, according to critics, far from first-rate; they say it is surpassed by the renowned Montreal Symphony. The opera is considered conservative and old-fashioned.

And if many movies are made on location here, nearly all are made by Americans. American film makers find Toronto attractive because its lack of identifiable character enables them to adapt it to American scripts.

With its insular self-consciousness, Toronto still lacks the excitement and European style of Montreal, and the warmth, beauty and easy informality of Vancouver.

Barry Callagahan, a leading Canadian writer and critic, says that “Toronto is to world-class cities what one critic said about Somerset Maugham--it’s right down in the first row of the second rank.”

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