Best of 2009: What Seattle should learn from Toronto

The Canadian city, enjoying a renaissance, is pedestrian-paced and happy in its diversity. Seattle has urban islands, but in Toronto one fascinating ethnic quilt flows right into the next.
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Downtown Toronto, mixing cultures old and new

The Canadian city, enjoying a renaissance, is pedestrian-paced and happy in its diversity. Seattle has urban islands, but in Toronto one fascinating ethnic quilt flows right into the next.

Editor's note: This is another of our year-end Best Crosscuts of 2009 series. The story originally was posted on June 1, 2009.

I recently returned home to Seattle after a year in Toronto. I'm happy to be home, but I did enjoy Toronto and think there are few lessons Seattle might learn from the city whose name means 'ꀜThe Meeting Place.'ꀝ

In Seattle I live near the southeast Seattle neighborhood of Columbia City. In Toronto I lived blocks from the neighborhood of Kensington Market, not far from the huge University of Toronto. An imagined walk to both may be a way of introducing this tale of two cities.

Walking to Columbia City involves ups and downs because Seattle is a hilly place, which contributes interest and beauty. Also there are some busy streets to cross, streets where cars travel up to 50 mph. One such busy street, Rainier Avenue, bisects Columbia City. When I get to Columbia City, I find a colorful mix of small businesses, restaurants, residences, and shops. It's great, especially on Wednesdays when the local Farmers Market is in progress, or on the first Friday evening of the month when Columbia City has 'ꀜBeatwalk,'ꀝ and musicians play in different locales throughout the neighborhood.

Because Toronto is mostly flat, a walk to Kensington Market is less demanding. I cross one major street, but traffic in Toronto tends to move slower. And it isn't limited to cars and trucks. There are streetcars, bikes, and many pedestrians. People even travel via skate-board and on roller blades. Once in the Kensington Market (think Pike Place market spread out over actual city blocks), there are dozens of stores and shops, creating many nooks and crannies. Kensington Market, for example, manages to support several quality cheese shops along with a handful of spice stores.

There are throngs of pedestrians in Kensington, which means slow going for cars. In contrast to Columbia City where traffic along Rainier Avenue moves fast and sitting at a table outside for a glass of wine is possible but not real inviting, outside seating venues in Kensington Market are common and pleasant. Buskers work the streets of Kensington providing a musical backdrop to this nonstop urban carnival.

A couple blocks west of Kensington Market and you're into Toronto's Little Italy. A couple blocks east and it's the city's sprawling Chinatown. Columbia City, by contrast, while a very pleasant bit of urban life, is more-or-less an island. Toronto's Kensington Market is part of a patchwork quilt of urban life, with one quilt section merging into the next.

In some measure, comparisons are unfair because Toronto has a much larger population, four times that of Seattle, and it is the cultural, media, and financial center of Canada, much as New York City is for America. That changes the game. Granting that crucial difference, here are Ten Good Things about Toronto (and three bad ones) to which we in Seattle might pay attention.

Toronto's Ten Good Things:

1. Public transportation really works, with an interwoven system of street cars, buses, and subways. You seldom have more than a 2-3 minute wait.

2. Toronto, at least in the downtown area, is pedestrian friendly. Traffic moves slower and streets are more multi-use (cars, bikes, street cars). The fact that there are more pedestrians helps too.

3. The huge number of small, owner- or family-owned small businesses in Toronto is a real plus. Shopkeepers thrive there, making shopping a more humane and interesting experience than the drive to the big-box shopping center or mall.

4. In Toronto they plow the snow early and often. Being flat helps too. But generally things keep on moving in the winter.

5. There are lots of live music venues in Toronto that are small, cheap, and funky. You can hear great and not-so-great live music every night of the week for the price of a beer.

6. Theater is also big in Toronto. In contrast to Seattle where most of our theaters are clumped at Seattle Center, Toronto's theaters are spread around more, and often in urban neighborhoods; that makes going seem less of a production.

7. Outstanding small restaurants are everywhere in Toronto, many right in your neighborhood. In the States it seems that if you have something good you try to make it bigger and then it's often less good. In Toronto, lots of things seemed happy to stay small (and good). All the rich ethnic communities in Toronto (and in Canada) help create authentic eateries.

8. Older housing stock has been preserved in Toronto. There's been less of the lot-scraping, tear-down thing, and that also contributes to the health of urban ecology.

9. There are lots of outside places to eat, drink, and sit. Generally people in Toronto seemed happier to relax and enjoy the conversation and views — a little more of a European feel. Or maybe they don't drink as much coffee as we do and aren't so jumpy?

10. Canadians seem more comfortable with being a multi-cultural society than we are. It's just the way it is.

And Three Things Toronto Can Keep to Itself:

1. Trash. I'd heard that Toronto was a clean city. Maybe it used to be: not so much today. The trash is a drag.

2. People smoke more in Toronto. Maybe it's the European thing or Asian culture. Whatever, walking on the street is walking in someone's fumes.

3. Huge quantities of salt are used to deal with the ice and snow. With all that salt, I can't imagine much is still alive in Lake Ontario and the ground itself looks depleted.

Despite being mostly quite different, Toronto and Seattle have one thing in common. Both have a bit of an inferiority complex, and tend to look over their shoulders toward some imagined 'ꀜreal city.'ꀝ New York or culturally advanced Montreal in Toronto's case; San Francisco or Vancouver in Seattle's. This means that people talk a lot in both burgs about being 'ꀜworld-class cities.'ꀝ Both would be better off to forget the 'ꀜworld-class'ꀝ thing and enjoy being who and what they are.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.