Michelle Dean: I ♥ N.Y. (Not T.O.)
Dear Toronto: I’d like to say that it’s me, not you, but I’d be lying. It is you. You have no passion, no ambition. You elected Rob Ford! I’m leaving you for another city
About a year ago, in what felt like defeat, I moved to Toronto. I was looking to overhaul (some might say “ditch”) my career. I’d spent five years in New York as a corporate attorney, warring with myself from the get-go over whether I could stay in a city that I loved on employment terms I despised. When I was finally laid off and I decided to leave practice altogether, Toronto was the obvious choice for a crash landing. Though I’d never lived there, I had a lot of friends in the city, there were cultural events aplenty, and rents seemed shockingly cheap after Brooklyn and Manhattan. Maybe, I thought, I’d been crazy to stay away.
Still, by the time you read this I’ll have left to go back to New York. And of course it’s unfair to hold a rebound relationship up to the glow of the love affair that preceded it. And of course I have reasons for leaving that have very little to do with Toronto qua Toronto. I’d be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t, in some sense, actively and consciously rejecting the city itself.
Certain Toronto friends have been defensive about that, asking me if I really thought things were so bad here. “You expected too much of Toronto,” said one, with a bitterness that surprised me. I’ve come to think she was right, though not in the way she meant. What I expected of Toronto was for it to expect something of itself. But this isn’t that kind of town.
I want to get something out of the way first: it was never about the money. So often, these city versus city essays gauge quality by material assets. But as we are not children comparing marble collections, I’m not here to tell you that the difference is that New York has a MoMA and Toronto only has an AGO, or that New York has Balthazar and Babbo and Momofuku and you don’t. For one thing, I hear you’re getting a Momofuku. For another, not once in my 11 months here have I thought: you know, what this place needs is better access to overpriced ramen.
No, my issue is anti-material in nature, so much so that you’ll probably think me a New Age crank. I’ll put it this way: Toronto is not a city for the world’s starry-eyed dreamers. It’s one resigned to the demands of practicality. Maybe it’s just a concentrated version of Canada itself, which is, on the whole, an unromantic, sober sort of country. Our collective nationality is best symbolized by universal health care, a prosaic sacred cow if ever there was one. But it’s more than that: Toronto has always been at greater pains to capture national and international hearts than Montreal or even Vancouver. And my sense is that Toronto doesn’t particularly mind being known for its lack of passion—which to me is just as bad as its historic inability to inspire it.
Yes, it’s true that around the time David Miller was elected, a wave of unabashed Toronto Cool began to build, revolving around The Drake and The Gladstone and Trampoline Hall and the mainstream success of any number of Arts and Crafts musicians. But that tide has receded now, which perhaps just goes to show that these things can’t be accomplished by fiat.
And even that renaissance had its infuriating elements, revealing a palpable and off-putting self-doubt. Leaf through the anthology uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto, which sought to capture the civic pride of the day in a series of essays, and you’ll discover that the most soaring aspiration its authors could muster was to make Toronto “livable.” Imagine your reaction if your lover called you that.
Livability does have a pleasant social science ring to it, emerging as it does from those silly city rankings put out by The Economist and innumerable consulting firms as a publicity exercise. And far be it from me to suggest that a “nice place to live” is always the wrong goal to have. But good God in heaven, why is it the only visible element of Toronto’s soul?
New York has never much concerned itself with the livability question, and yet it’s had no end of good press. It regularly tops those best-cities-in-the-world lists. In her 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion described arriving in New York in the mid-1950s. Even at the airport, Didion wrote, “some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard and all the books I had ever read about New York, informed me that [my life] would never be quite the same again.” Didion wrote of feeling that she’d “come out of the West and reached the mirage,” which gave life in New York a surreal quality. “To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane. One does not ‘live’ at Xanadu.”
Now, just imagine someone unironically referring to Toronto as Xanadu. I put out that dare because this city’s storytellers are the obvious scapegoats for its lack of romanticism. When I began writing this essay, I expected to blame them. Where, I thought, is Toronto’s Edith Wharton or Woody Allen? But good novels set in Toronto do exist, and they aren’t by obscure writers, either. The most cited example is Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. There’s also Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, Timothy Findley’s Headhunter, some Robertson Davies and significant chunks of Atwood. And those are just the classics.
Toronto is not a city for the world’s starry-eyed dreamers. It’s one resigned to the demands of practicality
Then there are the visual storytellers. It’s not as though we are permitted to ignore the Toronto Film when it arrives in theatres. Every time a movie is set here, the local press swoons, every review whipping out the hoary cliché about Toronto always being a stand-in for someplace else in other films—but not this one, not this one! Of late, several major, expensive, well-promoted Toronto movies have appeared. Last year we had Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the year before Atom Egoyan’s Chloe. This year we have Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz.
So the problem is not one of supply. No one calls any of these the Great Toronto Novel (or Movie), simply because no one here wants to do the cultural legwork of anointing one. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Toronto was the kind of place that was eager to produce its own iteration of Manhattan, or The House of Mirth, or even The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In creating a mythos, it’s not enough for a piece of work to be good, or even to draw a big audience. Rather, it needs to possess a heartfelt, and consequently infectious, love of place. It demands the belief that others are missing out on something. It takes, to put it bluntly, no small amount of bragging, the ability to straight-facedly use the word Xanadu. And maybe, ultimately, Toronto just doesn’t have the stomach for that. Claiming to be Great, shouting it from the rooftops, is too forward, too egotistical. We’ll just run with Toronto the Good, thanks very much.
Some might say my desire for more romanticism from the city I live in is about immaturity, reckless indifference to the demands of adult life. Didion circa 1967 would have agreed. The thing I didn’t tell you about “Goodbye to All That” is that Didion got tired of Xanadu. At the essay’s close, she had moved on to Los Angeles, self-diagnosed as having grown up. But here’s the postscript: in 1988, Didion moved back to New York, and she’s lived there ever since. So much for the real world, I guess.
And I’m following her example. Now, I realize that individually I’m no great loss to this city. But I do not think I am particularly unique in my desire to be elsewhere. And another thing we don’t talk about in Toronto, a thing we should talk about, is how this city’s devotion to the comfortable middlebrow costs something. Specifically: the ambition to be better.
The more this becomes a city of comfort-driven homebodies, the less reason there is to go out at night to watch a struggling one-woman show, to notice the disrepair of the streetcar, to vote in the mayoral election. There is no need to change anything that matters, because we have central air, we have Netflix and J. Crew. Why rock the boat?
Paradoxically, if you ask around, people will always tell you it’s “not so bad” in Toronto. But while many downtowners were at home admiring their mid-century buffets and thrifted Eames chairs, people like Rob Ford crept into office. Oh, and Harper got his Conservative majority. And the TTC barely functions, the traffic is frankly unreal, and then there was that whole unfortunate G20 episode. In fact, for the last year or so, things have indeed been quite bad in Toronto. Things that might only be corrected with deep, structural change.
But the people with the big dreams, whose minds are anything but narrow, who might have had the gumption and the stamina to make those big fixes? Well, Toronto says to them: this isn’t the place for you. At least, that’s what someone like David Miller heard, as he’s now off to NYU.
Of course, that is the city’s prerogative. I just think you can’t blame people, then, for leaving for somewhere like New York, where the struggle is all there is, but the horizon is wider. Because at least New York still bothers to hold the promise, if only a bare and illusory one, of one day reaching the mirage.