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My Favorite International Cities #1 - Toronto

My US cities series was so well received that I have been encouraged to write some more, this time about foreign cities. When you are as old as me, it’s not hard to be well traveled. I have been to 46 countries mostly in Europe and South America. Starting in 2000 I began taking my two boys on trips to important European cities, usually capitals, for a series of three to five day trips over about ten years; I was the tour guide – the objective was to expand their experience beyond America. Here are some of our stories.

But we really didn’t have such a trip to Toronto, since their mother was born there.

My first trip to Toronto was ten years before I met Shirley, or even heard of her, in 1969 all the way from California on my way to a summer camp on Otter Lake, ironically only about 30 miles from my current summer home on Lake Joseph (see “Muskoka, the Beautiful Land,” the Morning News, November 20, 2013). I spent two days to explore the City. Even as a 21 year old, I was impressed with its cleanliness, the well dressed people on the streets, and its similarity to Chicago, with politeness.

Modern Toronto is a young major city in a young country. Toronto is now the largest city in Canada with a population of about 3 million and a greater area population of about 7 million. The Confederation of Canada was formed in 1887, but Toronto was founded earlier in 1834; its first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie would go on to later lead the political struggle against Great Britain and eventually be the 10th Prime Minister of all Canada.

But the city goes back of course to the indigenous peoples, the Huron and Iroquois tribes who established sophisticated trading and fishing posts/camps and routes in the area expanding their empire northward to Lake Simcoe. Later, the even earlier Mississauga tribes, finally drove the Iroquois nations back to the area of New York, from which they had migrated.

The older tribes called the area Toronto, so the name is ancient. But the English coming along later in 1763, drove out the earlier French (since 1750) along with the remaining tribes, called it York in 1793, which it remained until 1834 when the name reverted to its original.

Early migration was from the United States as loyalists fled the American Revolutionaries.

Next came US southern slaves escaping along the “railroads.” But the next major wave of immigrants came in from Ireland, mostly Catholic, but also Protestant Scotts-Irish, fleeing the Irish potato famine and the US civil war; such were Shirley’s ancestors, Protestants. Migrants then streamed into Toronto during Word War II particularly from Italy, Spain and Portugal and China. By 1961 the population was up to one million. Then the whole world began to come, building to today’s population. Toronto is now the most racially and ethnically mixed city in all of Canada.

Curiously, its current boundaries were not established until 1998 when its various districts and townships were amalgamated (akin to what New York City did in 1898). Early business was trade, fishing, fur trapping and lumber. Today it is a major economic center with headquarters for five national Canadian banks but also investment companies, insurance companies, telecommunications, fashion, transportation and distribution, liquor and beer, and the multinational high tech electronics companies. Toronto powers much of Canada’s general economy. Huge neighborhoods of distribution/warehouse businesses have sprung up along the major highways with clusters around the International Airport.

Like several other cities we have visited in this column, Toronto was wracked by fire in 1904, destroying over 100 buildings with about 300 millions of dollars in damage (in today’s money). The Great Lakes power blackout of August 2003 shut the city down for about 4 days. Natural disasters in 2013, first a July major flash flood, and then a major winter ice storm shut the city down twice, putting about 500,000 people out of power and transport each incident.

A visit to Toronto must start at the CN (Canadian National Railroad) tower, finished in 1976, rising straight up for 1815 feet; it is a communications tower with a revolving restaurant, the 360 Restaurant, atop. The platform provides great views of the City, but also across Lake Ontario and northward to Lake Simcoe. It is now surpassed by towers in China and the Emirates. In the plaza below are sports arenas, several concert halls, several museums and the Hockey Hall of Fame. Toronto has professional baseball (the MLB Blue Jays), football (the CFL Argonauts) and hockey (the NHL Maple Leafs) teams. The Stanley Cup (see “A Hockey Story,” Morning News, April 12, 2016) and the life stories of many famous hockey players are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Close by are new shopping and restaurant facilities along the shoreline and a theatre district in the opposite direction. Near shore lies Center Island with the Billy Bishop Toronto Airport (called by the locals, the Island Airport); of course, not to be confused with Lester B Pearce International Airport (YYZ for you frequent travelers).

Now gone, Shirley and I used to love meals at Ed’s Warehouse and to shop at Honest Ed’s (the ”Ed” being Ed Mirvish), but after 2016 razed to make room for all the development we are now strolling - an example of warehouse, industrial lakeshore land propelling a modern fortune. Not to be overlooked, beyond the Gardner Expressway lies Ontario Place, a massive site of summer fairs and winter Christmas exhibits.

Canadians love their malls (Sherway Gardens Mall, the Eatons Center, Yorkdale Mall (240 retailers) and the BloorYorkville Mall (like a small, exquisite village) and The Bay (once owned by the Zuckers of Charleston, SC)). One Christmas eve, shopping at Sherway, Mr Burke and I came across Ron Joyce (early owner of Tim Horton’s) and we had lunch together at the food court, Mr. Joyce wearing a fabulous floor length winter fur coat.

Stroll, too, in the district around the University of Toronto, which is full of shops, night clubs and restaurants; and folks from all around the world. One afternoon we overheard conversations in at least seven languages.

With relatives in town, we rarely go out for dinner. But several meals and restaurants stay in mind: the Old Mill Toronto, the first place I met Shirley’s parents, Edulis Spanish restaurant where Shirley and I had our private engagement dinner and the Burke’s country club, St George’s Golf and Country Club. And near where Mr Burke lived in his final days: Snug Harbor Seafoods (a Bob Odenkirk sighting), the Breakwater, Thyme Ristorante, Emerald Chinese and the Keg Steak House.

Walking the Financial District along Bay Street, I love the many Irish Pubs for lunch or breakfast, and nearby the stately old Royal York Hotel of Queen Elizabeth II fame and Burke and Wallace Ltd. silver. And you must go to a Tim Horton’s doughnut shop (see “Don’t Eat too Many Donuts,” November 12, 2014, the Morning News); they are literally everywhere.

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