& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Among the Cities

Howard Karel is a rare kind of advertising professional – he’s well read, articulate and a thinking person. There’s not an iota of vacuity in him that generally proliferates in a normal advertising professional. He’s a board member at The Village Terraces, the condominium where I worked as security officer. 

Sometime ago, I was talking to him about my assignment on multiculturalism in Canada and he gave me Jan Morris’s book Among the Cities (Viking 1985, Penguin 1986). “Read the chapter on Toronto,” he said, “It’ll explain many issues you’ve been grappling with.”

Jan Morris is a legendary British (Welsh) writer who is unfortunately better known not for her writing but for her sex reassignment from a male to female.  Morris’s piece on Toronto in Among the Cities is titled Second Prize. She wrote the piece in 1984 when Toronto celebrated its 150th year (its celebrating its 175th year in 2009).

The piece was originally published in Saturday Night and it was titled Canadians are nothing if not fair… 

Morris describes Toronto in many different and varied ways, touching upon issues of multiculturalism, ethnic enclaves, people, places, habits, behaviour and all that is characteristically Torontonian (I’d say to an extent that applies to Canada, too, but I don’t know Canada well enough to make that claim).

I hope you enjoy reading the selection as much as I did compiling it.

  • “… (Toronto) is the emblematic immigrant destination of late 20th century…which is nevertheless one of the most highly disciplined and tightly organized cities in the Western world.”
  • “Toronto has come late in life to cosmopolitanism…and as a haven of opportunity it is unassertive. No glorious dowager raises her torch over Lake Ontario, summoning those masses yearning to breathe free…”
  • “The promise of Toronto was promise of a more diffuse, tentative, not to say bewildering kind. On a modest building near the harbor-front I happened to notice the names of those entitled to parking space outside: D. Iannuzzi, P. Iannuzzi, H. McDonald, R. Metcalfe and F. Muhammad. ‘What is this place?’ I inquired of people passing by. ‘Multicultural TV,’ they said, backing away nervously. ‘Multi-what TV?’ I said, but they had escaped by then – I had yet to learn that nothing ends a Toronto conversation more quickly than a supplementary question.”
  • “Multiculturalism! I had never heard the word before, but I was certainly to hear it again, for it turned out to be the key word, so to speak, to contemporary Toronto. As ooh-la-la is to Paris, and ciao to Rome, and nyet to Moscow, and hey you’re looking great to Manhattan, so multiculturalism is to Toronto. Far more than any other migratory cities, Toronto is all things to all ethnicities. The melting-pot conception never was popular here, and sometimes I came to feel that Canadian nationality itself was no more than a minor social perquisite, like a driving licence or spare pair of glasses. Repeatedly I was invited to try the Malaysian vermicelli at Rasa Sayang, the seafood pierogi at the Ukrainian Caravan, or something Vietnamese in Yorkville, but when I ventured to suggest one day that we might eat Canadian, a kindly anxiety crossed my host’s brow. ‘That might be more difficult,’ he said.
  • “…multiculturalism, I discovered, did not mean that Toronto was all brotherly love and folklore. On the contrary, wherever I went I heard talk of internecine rivalries, cross-ethnical vendetta…there turned out to be darkly conspiratorial side to multiculturalism.”
  • “…this is not the sort of fulfillment I myself wanted of Toronto. I am not very multicultural, and what I chiefly yearned for in this metropolis was the old grandeur of the North, its size and scale and power, its sense of wasteland majesty…now and then I found it…names such as Etobicoke, Neepawa Avenue, Air Atonabee or the terrifically evocative Department of North.”
  • “…the pursuit of happiness is not written into the Canadian constitution…”
  • “Toronto seems to me, in time as in emotion, a limbo-city…It looks forward to no millennium, back to no golden age. It is what it is, and the people in its streets, walking with that steady, tireless, infantry-like pace that is particular to this city, seem on the whole resigned, without either bitterness or exhilaration, to being just what they are…”
  • “Among the principal cities of the lost British Empire, Toronto has been one of the most casual (rather than the most ruthless) in discarding the physical remnants of its colonial past…Nobody could possibly mistake this for a British city now…one the other hand there is no mistaking this for a city of the United States, either…Torontonians constantly snipe at all things American…(but) it is not a free-and-easy, damn-Yankee sort of city – anything  but…even its accents are oddly muted, made for undertones and surmises rather than certainties and swank.”
  • “Toronto is the capital of the unabsolute. Nothing Is utter here, except the winters I suppose, and the marvelous expanse of the lake. Nor much of it crystal clear. To every Toronto generalization there is an exception, a contradiction, or an obfuscation.”
  • “Toronto preoccupations can be loftily local…”
  • “In many ways Toronto appears…even now…almost preposterously provincial…yet it is not really provincial at all. It is a huge, rich and splendid city, metropolitan in power… (and) why not? Toronto is Toronto and that is enough…it has all the prerequisites of your modern major city…yet by and large it has escaped the plastic blight of contemporary urbanism, and the squalid dangers, too.”
  • “If ‘multiculturalism’ does not key you in to Toronto, try ‘traditionalism’…the real achievement of Toronto is to have remained itself…”
  • “…if fate really were to make me an immigrant here I might be profoundly unhappy. Not because Toronto would be unkind to me. It would be far kinder than New York, say, or Sidney down under. It would not leave me to starve in the street, or bankrupt me with medical bills, or refuse me admittance to discos because I was black. No, it would be subtler oppression than that – the oppression of reticence. Toronto is the most undemonstrative city I know, and the least inquisitive.”
  • “Sometimes I think it is the flatness of the landscape that causes this flattening of the spirit…sometimes I think it must be the climate…could it be the permanent compromise of Toronto, neither quite this or altogether that, capitalist but compassionate, American but royalist, multicultural but traditionalist.”
  • “This is a city conducive to self-doubt and introspection. It is hard to feel that Torontonians…share in any grand satisfaction of spirit. I asked immigrants of many nationalities if they liked Toronto, and though at first, out of diplomacy or good manners they nearly all said yes, a few minutes of probing generally found them less than enthusiastic…never because the citizenry has been unkind or because the city is unpleasant: only because, in the course of its 150 years of careful progress, so calculated, so civilized, somewhere along the way Toronto lost, or failed to find, the gift of contact or of merriment.”

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