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Theater, Architecture, Livability : Toronto, City That Works, Basks in Its 'Golden Age'

July 13, 1987|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — A television crew shooting a series supposedly set in a typical American city found that the streets here were too clean, so they spread around some synthetic garbage to lend authenticity to the scene. But then the crew members took a break and returned to find that Toronto's ever-present street cleaners had swept in and cleaned it all up.

The story reflects one of the most attractive aspects of this city of 3 million people. It is clean--so clean that litterers are often advised by people who catch them that "we don't do that here."

Toronto is also very safe. Thirty-seven homicides were committed here last year, in contrast with 887 in Los Angeles--and all but four of them were solved. The general crime rate is among the lowest in the world's major cities.

Economic Disparities, Too

Toronto is also rich, so rich as to cause concern that the gap between rich and poor is getting out of hand.

And Toronto is diverse, cosmopolitan, growing, dynamic and, if not beautiful in the sense that Paris is beautiful, nonetheless pleasing to the eye. People live in the city center, and it is as lively at night as at noon. Even the weather is far from fearsome: Omaha is colder in January than Toronto.

All this and more leads Jane Jacobs, a prominent urban expert, to call Toronto "the city that works," and Mayor Art Eggleton to proclaim the lakeside metropolis "North America's supercity enjoying its golden age."

By virtually all accounts, these labels are accurate--for the moment and on the surface. But judging from the clogged traffic, the lack of rental property and the extraordinary cost of housing, Toronto may be in danger of choking on its own success. In the mayor's assessment, it comes too close to wallowing in smugness and complacency and becoming "a rich man's town."

'Toronto the Good'

To understand this, one has to look back. Until the early 1970s, Toronto was considered by many to be dull and conservative, a stultifying backwater. It was known as "Hogtown" because of its stockyards, and "Toronto the good" because of laws so restrictive that cocktail lounges were prohibited and public transportation was shut down on Sundays.

Montreal was Canada's social, fashion and entertainment center, and it far surpassed Toronto as a financial and business hub. Vancouver was livelier and, with its nearby mountains and stunning beaches, was deemed more beautiful.

Then, in the early 1970s, a number of events combined with new political leadership to create a new Toronto--a city far different from what it had been before.

Montreal, divided by controversy over the effort to create a new, French-speaking country out of Quebec, lost many important businesses and financial institutions and a large part of its English-speaking population. The beneficiary was Toronto.

New Breed of Politician

At the same time, government policy at the federal level and here in the province of Ontario led to the creation of new industries--triggering growth in employment, population, investment and wealth and the emergence of Toronto as the cultural and entertainment center of Canada.

After decades of conservative, even reactionary, local government, a new breed of politician took over, led by then-Mayor David Crombie. The policy was to develop the city center, to create an extensive public transportation system and to encourage diverse and affordable residential neighborhoods.

The results have been dramatic.

Within walking distance of Bay and King streets, the hub of what might be compared to Los Angeles' financial district, thousands of people at every economic level live in attractive housing.

Entertainment-Oriented City

The downtown area is also the site of many new and well-designed office towers, including a complex designed by the renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, new and refurbished concert halls, theaters and restaurants. Nearby, construction is under way on a domed stadium for the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the most successful major-league baseball franchises.

There are enough theaters so that a new play can be seen almost every week of the year. The local version of "Cats" was considered equal to the Los Angeles, New York and London productions. The city boasts a symphony orchestra, a permanent opera troupe and the National Ballet Company.

Torontonians attend more movies, on a per-capita basis, than the people of New York or Los Angeles. Moreover, Toronto is now the world's No. 3 film and television production center.

There are an estimated 40 distinct ethnic groups among the population of 3 million, providing five separate Chinatowns and large Italian, Portuguese and Greek neighborhoods. And there is little of the racism and violence found in many U.S. cities.

Respect for Authority

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