Living Hip and Broke in the City of Nations

by Nadine Anglin

25 October 2004

Toronto's young people, a gumbo of races and cultures, live crowded into small apartments with roommates, or at home with their parents, because once university bliss ends, they can't find a decent job. They have the privilege of living in one of the richest countries in the world, but they must figure out if they should splurge on a streetcar ride home or leave the $2.25 as the tip for the soup.
Toronto Hipsters
Photo: Nadine Anglin 

Even during the early hours of daybreak the linked cars of Via Rail continue to pull into Toronto’s Union Station without fail. Passengers of varying hues and creeds climb into the trains for destinations like Kingston, Ottawa and Montreal, while others depart and step into the clean building on Front Street in Canada’s most recognized city. Ticket wickets are open and staffed by agents, digital signs display departing times and arrivals, and people hurry outside to find waiting taxis or head over to the subway to catch the first morning train northbound. Built in the early 20th century, an era when railways were still championed as the premier mode of transportation, the building and this bustling daily performance of travel theatrics, give some merit to what British actor Sir Peter Ustinov was once rumoured to have said: “Toronto is like New York run by the Swiss.” However, although Ustinov was a fellow brother of the empire, he couldn’t have made a more boring and generic assessment.

Toronto is a major cosmopolitan centre like New York City, and usually displays a cleanliness and efficiency associated with the Swiss, but it is so much more complex than those comparisons would lead people to believe. With a population of over three million, two thirds of which are immigrants from places like China, India, the West Indies, and the Middle East, Toronto is a multicultural metropolis that is constantly in transition. Instead of something like New York run by the Swiss, the argument could be made that Toronto is the Ukraine of North America.

Loosely translated, the Ukraine means “borderland”, because it shares a border with so many countries like Russia, Hungary and Poland, and therefore so many different types of people have settled there. As the centre of the first Slavic state, Ukraine it has gone through various invasions, uprisings and shifts in power. While Toronto’s history isn’t quite as dramatic (or violent), it too, has gone through a tremendous evolution.

One of the biggest steps in this evolution involved the expansion of the city’s boundaries. In 1997, as a result of provincial legislation that hoped to eliminate overlapped services, the “mega-city” was born when these municipalities were amalgamated: Toronto, York, East York, North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke. With this new, super-sized city came a new pint-sized mayor named Mel Lastman. A short, toupee wearing, loud and crass man, “Mega-city Mel” didn’t begin his career politicking, but by hawking couches, beds and washer/dryers. His chain of discount furniture stores, called Bad Boy (because the prices were so low it was criminal), earned him millions. His television commercials always ended with the slogan: “Nobody does it better than Bad Boy, Nooobody!” His “everyman” persona won him fans and voters as mayor of North York from 1972 to 1997.

But as mayor of the newly amalgamated Toronto his outspokenness and salesman gimmickry often got him in trouble. Before embarking on a trip to Kenya to promote Toronto’s 2001 Olympic bid, Lastman remarked that he could picture himself in a big pot of boiling water as natives danced around him. In 1999, when Toronto was hit by a severe snowstorm, Lastman called in the army to the ridicule of the rest of the nation. This is Canada after all, the other provinces reasoned, is Toronto blindsided by a simple Canuck winter? Despite his shortcomings, Lastman was re-elected three years later.

Finally in 2003 David Miller became the 70th mayor of the city and was brushed into office by his left-winged politics and social activist image. Having sat on city council for years, he already had first-hand experience with the new workings of amalgamated Toronto. He led the charge into a public inquiry after a shady city computer leasing scandal. He adamantly opposed the idea to build a bridge to the island airport, instead hoping that Toronto can revivie its waterfront into a cultural success like other major North American cities, most notably Chicago. Perhaps in Miller, Torontonians hoped to find a mayor that was logical, responsible and kept the best interests of the citizens in mind. They’re hoping Miller is the man of change he claims to be.

Today, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) consists of further outlying vicinities, essentially developing suburbs of the suburbs. Places like Mississauga, just east of Toronto and named after a native Canadian group that once inhabited the area. In 1788 the British purchased the land from the Mississauga Indians that ran from the Scarborough Bluffs to Etobicoke Creek. This is known as the Toronto purchase, which has now developed into places like Markham, just north of Toronto and home to the Pacific Mall, the largest indoor Chinese shopping mall in North America. The mall houses 400 stores that sell a variety of retail goods, herbs, prepared Chinese food and entertainment.

Because of Canada’s French history we take French classes until grade nine, although few Torontonians can speak more than the occasional bonjour and merci beaucoup. For that you have to venture into Quebec, which is right next to Ontario. On long weekends, college students drive the four and a half hours to Montreal to go partying en francais. But Cantonese is quickly becoming the real second language in this town; in fact we have two Chinatowns, not to mention several other ethnic enclaves and even they are changing. Witness Danforth Avenue or “The Danforth”, an area populated by Greeks as well as their first and second-generation children. The area is still very Hellenic, with street signs written in both English and Greek hieroglyphics. Danforth Avenue is filled with retailers, restaurants with small European-style patios out front, a large National Bank of Greece and, of course, a Starbucks. But, during the annual “Taste of the Danforth” festival, you can now pick up tandoori chicken along with your souvlaki.

In the eastern suburb of Scarborough, slick downtown living is left behind. One minute there are lush ravines and untouched vegetation, then next minute its drab grey industrial buildings and sky-stabbing electrical poles. For a few kilometres you’re in quaint neighbourhoods with tree-lined streets, community schools and ubiquitous SUVs. Make a right turn and its strip mall central. Scarborough is the home of comedian Mike Myers and the inspiration for his Wayne and Garth skits on Saturday Night Live, the two loveable suburban rock geeks hanging out in a panelled basement lusting after female celebrities.

Today in the suburbs, young people barely out of adolescence hold underground hip-hop jams that are self-promoted for self-produced artists. They’re not all black; but they’re not all white, either. But they are all well versed in the Tao of Diddy and their rhymes are rife with mainstream clichés. Really who could blame them? They’re all chasing the dream. Money, power, respect: those keys to happiness. The girls wear caked on mascara and slicked back hair in severe ponytails, tight jeans paired with the latest sneakers; tongues out, laces loose. The guys strut down highway-sized streets with sour expressions smeared across their faces and ghetto fabulous dreams in their hearts.

Downtown on Church Street you’re welcomed by a very tongue-in-cheek mural of two cowboys painted on Woody’s bar, which is featured on the television series Queer as Folk. The gay village is clean and friendly with large rainbow flags hanging from storefronts. You can pick up a copy of FAB magazine, a lifestyle and culture publication, to read all about the beautiful people making it in the scene. Every summer the gay pride parade takes place along Yonge Street, when Enza the Supermodel (a female impersonator who once ran for mayor) and about a million others party it up along the parade route. With the issue of gay marriage still in limbo, groups like Focus on the Family battle it out with Canadians for Equal Marriage, each trying to push their agenda. But for now, some are still content with the old standby of a ceremony at Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, where the first legal same-sex marriage in Canada was performed in 2001.

Further south on Queen Street, it’s a major shopping bonanza where sophisticated black, white, and beige clothing stores like Bedo share foot traffic with the teen favourite, Costa Blanca, a purveyor of cheap clubwear and all things rainbow hued. It is home to CityTv, a local broadcast news station with multicultural anchors and reporters and the nation’s music station, Much Music. Pedestrians crowd around the huge glass windows of the studio and peer in, hoping to catch a glimpse of the latest pop tart or the alt-rock ensemble of the moment. A parade of eateries and cafes with names like “Tequila Bookworm” and “Letteri” also line the street. Twenty-somethings carrying backpacks and wearing $150 Paper Denim jeans strut down Queen to the house music blasting through their iPods. The hipsters — recent graduates, struggling artists and musicians — congregate at funky, small, and dark Asian restaurants like Tigerlily Noodle House, where they dip into big steaming bowls of spicy soup and contemplate the meaning of their lives.

Some are living in tiny holes in the wall with obnoxious roommates because they can’t afford a place of their own. They have former Ontario premier Mike Harris and his “Common Sense Revolution” to thank for that. Under Harris’ government, the province suffered deep cuts to education, welfare, and the health care system. Also, Harris trashed rent control so that once upon a time a one-bedroom apartment would rent for $650, but today it’s closer to a grand. That’s why so many young people are crowded into small apartments with roommates, or still living at home with their parents, because once university bliss ended, they couldn’t find a decent job. They’re too inexperienced at corporate life to get high paying nine-to-fives at big business. They’re too inexperienced at manual labour to get low paying shift work at factories. They have the privilege of living in one of the richest countries in the world, but they must figure out if they should splurge on a streetcar ride home or leave the $2.25 as the tip for the soup.

Along the waterfront of Lake Ontario sits the monstrous Docks Entertainment Complex containing several clubs, lounges, dining rooms, and corporate meeting spaces. On Saturday, night throngs of young people dressed to kill in Gucci knock offs, show up to scope their prey, or act as prey. To their families, the girls on the prowl at the Docks are “Despo”, but at the club it’s just “Debbie”, please. At home the boys may be called “Vajinder”, but at the club it’s just “VJ” if you don’t mind. Rum and coke, Smirnoff Ice, a couple of beers for the friends; at the Docks, everyone’s nice and liquored up and ready to score. Dance music trembles through the floor and laser light shows turn everyone shades of red and blue. In the dark, a Romanian boy will do a dancehall whine with a Korean girl. By the bar a Sikh and Catholic couple will do tequila shots. In the bathroom a clique of brown girls will spritz, polish, and preen to pulsating techno.

Generations to come more cities across the world will look to Toronto as the great social experiment; forgoing the melting pot of our neighbours to the south in favour of a gumbo of races and cultures. But, “Toronto the Good” as it once was known in the 1940s and ‘50s because of it’s “Victorian morality,” is no modern-day utopia. Homeless people still spend cold winter nights sleeping on subway grates as high-priced condo developments crowd into downtown. It is the financial and media epicentre of Canada, but Toronto is regarded by other Canadians as egotistical, indifferent, and uninformed about the rest of the country. Xenophobia is still prevalent as older Anglo residents feel Toronto would be better off as it was before the huge immigration wave in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the city was still predominantly white.

Despite its faults, the city continues to grow and evolve, which is why so many different types of people flock here. Sometimes it seems as though the subway is the great, temporary equalizer. It is here, below ground, that two men of different races who don’t know each other will discuss the Maple Leafs hockey game on their way uptown; a Jew and a Muslim will sit quietly beside each other while thoroughly engrossed in their commuter newspapers. Drop a token and take the Yonge-University line downtown and listen to the whole world in your subway car: different races, religions and ethnicities all laughing and loving, bitching and hating. It’s a beautiful thing.

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