Friday, November 27, 2009

Toronto. Gray, dismal, and packed with hidden treasures.

I headed out to Toronto on the early early 7am flight out of Vancouver. I slept a bit, watched Taking Woodstock (sadly terrible), and landed in the afternoon in Toronto. I suppose I've gotten used to living in a city that is tucked up against a mountain range on one side and the ocean on the other because I found the flatness of the land unsettling. It made the high gray clouds and clinging low fog feel as if it expanded on forever. The airport is quite a long drive from the city itself and along the way, you skirt the edge of Lake Ontario on one side and occasional row houses on the other. Eventually this gives way to isolated gray apartment towers, clustered in groups of three or four, some with boarded up shops at the bottom. The closer you get to the city, the more towers appear in each cluster and the newer they look. The glass becomes clean, Jamba Juices and Starbucks begin to pepper their street levels and finally you reach the city, which as it turns out is just a massive cluster of these tall gray buildings. And this was my overarching impression of Toronto - gray. Granted it's November and was lightly or heavily raining the whole time, but still, the buildings, the artwork, the parks, all seem gray.

Here is a good example - Toronto City Hall. I suppose it looks a bit like a bird, with two wings curved around a central body. But why oh why, would the entire back of the building be concrete with no windows?? The interior curves are all windows facing towards the center pavilion, but the outside curve, facing the city and the expanse of the lake beyond is a striated face of solid concrete.

Below is another example from out front of City Hall. It's an ice skating rink with - you guessed it - gray concrete pillars and decorations.
My room was on the 23rd floor of the Metropolitan Hotel, which if you do happen to end up in Toronto, I highly recommend. I found a great deal on Expedia. Anyway, from the 23rd floor I was right under the cloud layer and could see quite a bit of the expanse of the city as it rolled out towards the massive lake. It was in the elevator of the hotel that I first started to get a glimpse of the other side of Toronto. There were five elevators, each of which was decorated with intricate Chinese woodblock prints. The paintings covered the walls from floor to ceiling and were covered in glass to protect the beautiful details.

Each elevator has a unique scene, each as remarkable as the last. (I must have been impressed as I promptly forgot my computer bag in the elevator and had to ride up and down many times trying to locate it)                                                                                                  The next morning, I headed out into the rain to walk the 5 or 6 blocks to my meeting at St. Micheal's Hospital. Apparently when it rains in Toronto, it really rains. I made it only a few blocks before I sought refuge in one of the malls that line the downtown area around Queens Street. As you can see from the picture, I was not a dry, or happy, camper at that point.

After I dried off as best I could in the entryway, (there's nothing like showing up to a meeting soaking wet) I walked into the main thoroughfare of the mall. Those of you that know me well know I am not a mall goer. I once got trapped in an IKEA at Christmas time and couldn't find the exit and that was it for me. Holiday shopping consists of me, the internet, and a bracing drink. But this mall, I have to say was remarkable.

The arched windows over the top cast a remarkable amount of light into the open atriums and wide corridors. The model geese hanging from the ceiling by what looks like thick fishing line give a sense of motion to the space, and being able to see up and down to all of the cheerily lit spaces creates an open, inviting feel. If you look closely you can see the windows rising four or five levels above the shops. I was shocked to see that those are apartments, some of which have balconies overlooking the mall. On one of them, I saw an older couple enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee and reading the paper. Being a bit of a sci-fi enthusiast, it reminded me of some of the descriptions from Blue Mars, part of the Mars Trilogy written by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I managed to walk nearly the rest of the way to the hospital through this mall, which connects underground to the buildings on all sides of it and as it turns out, right back to the building next to my hotel. And this was my realization about Toronto - it's a city whose gray exterior matches the Midwestern clouds and expansive skyline, but as devoid of color as the exterior is, the underground is as far to the opposite side of the color scale as possible. The city has dug down into the ground and created a spiderweb of interconnected tunnels, bright colors, and atmosphere that take a rainstorm to discover.


  1. What an interesting account! I feel like I was there too. Lemons into lemonade!

  2. Such a great post! I lived in Toronto for six months and I found all the greyness difficult to deal with to (I'm spoiled for greenery here!) But the colourful subterrean Toronto was one of my fave parts, it's so unexpected!

  3. Hi there!
    Glad you could emphasize with the bit of Toronto I got to see. Where are you now?