TORONTO - CULTURAL CAPITAL OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY?
Toronto was born out of a clash of French, Aboriginal and WASP culture. But for approximately 150 years the WASPS commandeered the city, making their own buildings and constructing their own anguished response to the globalization which they had helped to engineer. But what they ultimately did, perhaps as a response to the more dynamic claims of Quebec to being the cultural heart of Canada, was to redefine WASP-domination and bring to the city, in a space of 30 years, representatives of most countries in the world so that by 1997 Toronto is one of the few genuinely multi-cultural cities in the world. This new multi-culturalism is less the product of imperialism or conquest but rather of cultural seduction: people came from such regions as Italy, the Caribbean, Africa, China, India, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, Latin America as well as other parts of Canada because the life-conditions seemed attractive and the political style less abrasive than that of the USA. The governments of the early 1970s (federal, municipal and provincial) not only encouraged multi-culturalism, but also helped to subsidize the arts so that a wide range of cultural centres, organizations and publications were established or existing ones enlarged. The large number of existing venues and productive centres for cultural activity are testimony to these two important influences from the 1970s. But so too are two other important driving forces. The growth of the city as a cultural centre persuaded business interests to capitalize on the city as a multi-national cultural metropolis. The establishment of the Sky-Dome, the introduction of mega-buck musicals to old and new theatres, the creation of Toronto as Hollywood North where major American films could be located for attractive tax credits, provided the scene for tapping into the United States and wider commercial markets. But, in the city of McLuhan's "Global Village," Toronto also became rapidly the most electronically-connected city in the world, by the 1990s receiving over 70 TV channels (of which 20 originated in the metropolitan area), 75 recording studios, 60 film and TV studios, 200,000 people connected to the Internet, and the selection of the city by Business Week as the best space to have conferences. In addition to all this, Toronto has the third-largest definable Gay community in North America, a major feminist movement, and a civil democracy movement that might be the envy of any city west of Belgrade.
Thus, by 1997, Toronto has positioned itself to be considered the cultural capital of the 21st Century. In a short space of time, it has pressed every button that might make it (or anyone else) think of it as a world-class city. There is only one test of all these claims, these achievements, these failures. You, as ASA visitors to this alien world, must be the judges. As your guide, I will lead you through routes where I point out what I think is important, but, because your eye might be different to mine, I leave clues along the road so that you might take a detour.
In exploring this city, you might want to start with the palaces of High Culture. Every wannabe city has them: Galleries, Museums, Theatres, Opera Houses, Concert Halls, the Book review sections of the city's World-Class newspaper. Toronto has all of these, in sequence: the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Royal Alexandria and the Pantages and the Elgin and the Saint Lawrence theatres, the Hummingbird/O'Keefe (well, not quite an Opera House: the Press Lord, Conrad Black, has not provided enough money yet to celebrate his Toronto wife's desire), the Roy Thompson and Massey Halls, Saturday's Globe and Mail. There are even extensions outside the downtown core which certainly qualify: the suburban Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, the Stratford and Shaw festival theatres in the southwest and Niagara peninsula parts of the province, respectively, the McMichael Gallery to the north of the city (King City), and the McLaughlin to the east (Oshawa). Between them they provide some kind of definition of what Toronto High Culture in the Visual and Performing Arts wants the business class and school children to see it as being: an odd mixture of art brought in from anywhere as long as everyone knows from where and under what auspices it was brought in, theatre that the audiences want everyone to know they have been to (because the others haven't but ought to), and everything that seems to be indigenously Canadian as long as it has been approved by the School Boards, the Canada Council, and every Commercial operation which is likely to sponsor the show/performance. So High Culture is External culture, as long as it costs a lot, Our culture is ours as long as it has the requisite seal of approval, and Commercial Musical Culture is valid as long as Toronto's cultural impressarios Garth Drabinsky and Ed Mirvish put it on and everybody says that this is the real culture of the 21st Century. Add to this Toronto's gift to American sports, Three European tenors, and the Rock recording industry, the giant igloo with a retractable roof, constructed under principles derived from Bentham's Panopticon and Speer's Nuernberg, commonly known as the Sky Dome, a monument to the ersatz Spectacle.
Fortunately, not all of Toronto's culture is like that and any claims to cultural pre-eminence must lie elsewhere. Toronto has more than 150 clubs which provide live music across all the genres, approximately 120 alternative and commercial galleries, 50 live theatres, an uncountable number of cinemas that show first-run movies, 10 that show second-run movies, at least 10 video clubs that specialize in foreign and art films, six dance theatres, an opera company, two regular comedy clubs, and several more irregular ones, two pubs that have regular weekly poetry readings, five cyber cafes, a chain of newspaper cafes, over 150 book stores, over 90 magazines and tabloids published in the city, 30 book publishers, and a range of web sites for which I have seen no figures. Along-side these visible signs, there is a thriving pub and coffee house culture, and a wide range of restaurants representing most world ethnicities, but notably Italian, Chinese, French, Thai, Indian and various kinds of Mediterranean. Throughout the year, various festivals provide occasions where the different kinds of culture meet each other. Some of these (like Caravan in mid-summer) are blatantly contrived, others (like Carabana, in late August, the International Film Festival in Early September, or Word On the Street in late September) are highly organized commercial events which have taken on a continuity and presence of their own. But there are others (Mardi-Gras in February, the Kensington Market or Cabbagetown festivals in the Fall) where community spirit and organization is evident. For the last two weeks of August the 100-year old Canadian National Exhibition (complete with Ferris wheels and bumper-cars) takes place at the Exhibition grounds on Lakeshore Boulevard. What takes place at any of these spaces will, of course, vary from week to week, and any visitor's best bet is to pick up a (free) copy of the weekly Now, which has all the listings, and read it beside the Saturday Globe and Mail or that month's Toronto Life. But the trick will be to try to distinguish between that which is frankly commercial and that which displays Toronto culture at its confusing best.
One approach would be to escape from the immediate Hotel region by either walking along Queen Street West (that is, west of University Avenue). Here you will experience several aspects of the culture of the city: the television studios of City TV, Much Music, and Bravo! -- the burgeoning empire of Moses Znaimer. You will also note, as you walk west, dance clubs (on Peter and John Streets which branch south off Queen), antique stores (as you cross Spadina), pubs, bookstores, computer stores, restaurants, boutiques, open air sales-people, wall murals. If you kept walking for about two miles you would come to Parkdale where old industrial buildings are being converted into studios and residential lofts (also happening in the King-Spadina area).
If you want to see the commercially driven culture in all its glory, walk south to King Street, turning and continuing west. Here you will behold on your left the Roy Thompson Hall, and on your right the Royal Alexandria Theatre, the Princess of Wales Theatre and, turning south on John Street to Front Street, finally the new CBC building with all of its studios. Along Front Street you will note the Metro Convention Centre, the CN Tower and the Sky Dome. Between them these buildings have the highest concentration of studio space in the city, and buildings that are consummately wired-up for any electronic eventuality that may usher in the 21st century.
Having done this you will find two apparently diametrically-opposed definitions of culture which merge at discrete intervals: creative Toronto and predatorial Toronto. Who is bought and who is the buyer is certainly one of the issues. The marketplace of culture includes the stalls of poets, script-writers, novelists, and many kinds of visual artist. Their talents draw on international experiences, and other cultural palavers. The Big Men with Big Money who cruise by the stalls are interested less in making the stall-holders rich but in manufacturing an imperial spectacle with the stall-holders as extras. The Film industry is one example of this phenomenon. But the other issues of time, space, commitment and the negotiation of culture through their apparent appropriation by others are certainly important ways of examining the culture of the city. But in exploring these issues, you will have to be much more adventurous. The electronic hermit Glenn Gould, who used to play the organ at St James' s Cathedral, just half a mile to the east from your hotel (King and Church), decided toward his life's early end to avoid audiences and record only in studios. His television documentary on "Glenn Gould's Toronto" was anti-social, at the end Gould driving into the Brasilia-like suburbs of North York declaring "you can think better out here," to the bare concrete studios in the northern part of the city near York University. ("My Toronto," he argued, "is one without people, who are generally nasty and stupid. They blow their noses or cough while I'm playing.") Ask a taxi to take you there: it will be a barren journey unless you have Gould playing Bach's Well-tempered Clavier to accompany you. But if you are in search of people, you might go to Little Italy (on College), the Greek strip on Danforth Avenue, little India (on Gerrard Street East), Chinatown (on Spadina), the Jewish segment of Bathurst, the British Leaside or the Beaches, or....somewhere in between all of this, you might find Marshall McLuhan's house in Wychwood Park, that opulent segment of little England which is, let us say, a globe to itself. And then, there are those three Academic enclaves of the city: There is the almost hidden Ryerson Polytechnic University, blending in with the other office buildings on Yonge, which produces media people and architectural technologists, the University of Toronto wrapped in Gothic and Baroque splendour, dedicated as much to recognition by corporate ideologues as it ever was to theological hair-splitting--beside it the Annex where the intelligentsia live congregating round Dooney's coffee house, The Idler, and the Madison (we won't tell you in which of these Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje or Timothy Findlay eat and drink)--and York University, marooned in Glenn Gould's suburban world, industrial wastes, concrete nothingness, acoustic reverberations, congregating round unionization, trying, against manifest commercial agendas, to innovate eclectic, arcane, creative, socially relevant knowledge.
Beyond all these, other sites of culture intersect the city. You will not be able to visit these easily in person. As in every other ‘World Class' city, there is a large concentration of well-educated, creative people who sit before their home computers, writing boring stuff for multinational corporations or local banks, but meanwhile negotiating their art, music and fiction/poetry for themselves, or alternatively dumping their talent on the Net in a cry of despair as the Owl of Minerva flits away. The information/domestic highway promises another (heavenly) city which may be less grounded in space and more aggressive in its use of time.
Meanwhile, the streets of this city are filmed as if they were Washington, D.C. (names changed, of course, but Washington was never very good at filming itself), and Starbucks takes over the coffee-shops without any respect for the spaces it has inhabited. And the real streets are filled with people who want to insist on democracy for home-made culture. If Toronto is to be the Capital of the 21st Century, it is because it has led the way in defining itself against an imperial appropriation.
So, can you hear the cries in the street or see the Web's graffiti? Those cries are the cries of the 21st Century.
Published in Footnotes, newsletter of the American Sociological Association, April 1997, Vol 25, No 4, pp 1 and 8
Send comments to: Ioan Davies