Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tonight I found myself living out the canonical neon sign sequence as I walked along College and Carlton Streets from roughly McCaul to Church in search of a late-night home. Even my last-ditch resort of Tim Hortons was not a possibility as the store at College Park closes at midnight. In the event, I ended up across the street from Maple Leaf Gardens at the Golden Griddle. The Golden Griddle, like the now-closed Harvey's down the street, is cavernous, so much so that its sheer size will one day be a curiosity when we forget about the importance of Maple Leaf Gardens. Hopefully, despite our fading memories, we will not allow it to become a giant Loblaws, or worse yet, owned by CHUM to house some travesty of mass culture.

Carlton Street easily plays an uninspiring second fiddle to its older, stately sister in College Street. Long kitty cornered, their union in 1931 was the product of the newly-minted Maple Leaf Gardens, when they were joined in the awkward jog you see today. As is often the case in Toronto, the streets with the proud, Anglo-Saxon names and a sense of heritage found themselves neglected, in disarray and often foreboding alleys to be avoided. Consider, for example, Wellesley, Parliament, Jarvis, the lesser-known Berkeley and the best-known example of Regent Park. Carlton too, had such a beginning: a street that begins at Yonge and concludes as majestic brick at the top of Riverdale Park was named for the brother-in-law of one of the McGills. College, by contrast, has its origins in urban planning and strategy like University Avenue and Yonge Street respectively. If standing at College and University seems like a bit of an odd thing to do, consider that they were, ostensibly anyway, both known as College Avenue in their infancy.

Returning to the twist of fate that we see today, Carlton Street is surely forlorn with the closure of Maple Leaf Gardens, the stretch between Yonge and Church surely being its best offering. Traveling east of Church, Carlton alternates between an uneasy grittiness and beautiful antiquity, coming to an end as a major street at Parliament. The intersection with Parliament, where the absentee 506 streetcar makes a 90-degree turn, is bright and cheerful, but with the uneasiness of a dollar store, of which there are at least a few in the area.

College Street, on the other hand, began as a passage to Yonge Street as well as to connect the city with the relocated university at King's College Circle (originally at the site of Queen's Park, hence the twin names). Today, it transitions seamlessly from Yonge Street commerce to semi-public institutions near Bay and Elizabeth to the university, lasting until Spadina. The imposing presence of the former Clark Institute of Psychiatry is a blight, but insofar as it is hidden, it meshes well with Kensington Market, hidden behind a single block of storefronts on College and Spadina. From there, we enter prosperous Iberian enclaves that terminate unceremoniously by merging into Dundas near High Park.

Carlton clearly doesn't have anywhere near the drawing power, even though it stretches all the way to the Don. It may not have been meant to compete with College, but its stagnance clearly rings true for other east-west thoroughfares in the downtown area: no one really wants to travel east of Yonge on Queen or Dundas either. The only merit that east-end downtown has a powerful historical connection. All the heritage of Toronto lies east of Yonge: after all, the first town boundaries squeezed what was then known as York between what are now Parliament, Jarvis, Front and Adelaide Streets. You don't want to spend much time there today.

It seems that eastern downtown never quite recovered from the shift of the city's centre to the west that took place, for a variety of reasons, over a century ago. After all, whether you define the centre today as being at Yonge and Bloor, Yonge and Dundas, Bay and King, Bay and Front or elsewhere, it is undeniable that all but the geographical centre (somewhere near Mount Pleasant cemetery) is either on or west of Yonge. The original town of 1793 is ugly, remote and barren, and few venture there for any reason.

All this leads us to the question of what is it that makes a street or neighbourhood good or bad? Once we distil concerns of safety and the like from the question, it becomes simply one of what makes a good urban environment. The answer will invariably come back to some consumerist virtue having to do with the goods and services, even if they are cultural as opposed to thoroughly material, that can be obtained. This is why Queen West and Yorkville are popular; obviously, you can buy things, be they Ugg boots or eighteen shots of whatever the hell it is shots are of. Or, the good maybe a second-order imposition on consumerist virtue, usually observational or voyeuristic: it is fun to walk around window-shopping on Queen Street, or to enjoy the hustle and bustle of Kensington Market. We can also refer to this as the potency of a city: it is good because of all the things that we can buy, or all the services of which we can avail ourselves.

However, is the good street, neighbourhood or city simply a place that lets you buy what you want? It is intuitive that the urban experience that is so highly valued by suburban transplants, so much so that they were always from Toronto, is in fact both immaterial and belonging to the first-order, and not its spin-off voyeurism. I agree with the intuition as well, what is enjoyable about life in Toronto, and any other city by extension, is not shopping, nor is it simple meandering, but actually, in every sense of the word, living my life. This is, clearly, the stuff of another entry.

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