Reasons to Love Toronto 2013: Our fifth annual mash note to the city

Reasons to Love Toronto 2013: Our fifth annual mash note to the city

Reasons to Love Toronto 2013 (Photo: Yiu Yu Hoi)

When the news came that Toronto had breezed past Chicago in population count, adding another 38,000 people in a single year and becoming the fourth-largest city in North America, we weren’t surprised—the evidence was all around. The time when Toronto was solely distinguished by its citizens’ polite reserve and, paradoxically, the show-offy height of its telecommunications tower, is ancient history. We still have the CN Tower, but now it’s the pinnacle of a busy metropolis that’s given birth to a Toronto sound, a Toronto look, a Toronto cuisine, a Toronto brand of erotic literature and a Toronto team with a real shot at the World Series. Our fifth annual love letter to Toronto, are ample proof of a city ascendant.

No. 01 | Because the home team is dropping dollars like it’s the early ’90s

No. 01 | Because the home team is dropping dollars like it’s the early ’90s (Photos: Getty Images)

Money alone can’t buy championships, but it doesn’t hurt. In 1993, the second and last time the Jays won a Series, the team had the highest-paid players in baseball. Now, after 20 long, dry years, with the blessing of the brass at Rogers, the boom times are finally back. GM Alex Anthopoulos’s off-season spending spree added a whopping $125 million in player salaries and elevated the payroll by more than  50 per cent. The new, big-money Jays  are real stars, inspiring a city-wide obsession with knuckleballs, power hitters and royal blue. Now they just need to earn their keep.

No. 02 | Because the skyline is looking up

No. 02 | Because the skyline is looking up 1. King West skyscraper condos designed by Frank Gehry. 2. A Will Alsop condo near Yonge and Lawrence. 3. A Daniel Libeskind condo at Yonge and Front. (Photos: King West Condos Courtesy of Mirvish; Yonge and Lawrence condo Courtesy of Alsop Architects; Yonge and Front condo Courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind)

When David Mirvish and Frank Gehry announced their plans for three 80- to 85-storey condos in the Entertainment District last fall, reaction was divided. There were those who criticized the massive redevelopment, decrying the height of the towers, the loss of the “storied” Princess of Wales Theatre (though it’s only 20 years old) and the sheer garishness of Gehry’s designs. But there were others—let’s say a completely unscientific majority—who were excited about what these buildings represented, even in their nascent cardboard model stages. The mere mention of condos, the Entertainment District and the avant-garde in the same press release was proof of a higher standard for new development. The proposed towers are curving, sculptural masterpieces, the kind of design-first thinking that’s rarely evident in our sea of underwhelming condo boxes. Toronto is losing a theatre, but the Princess of Wales is rarely full. In its place, as part of the condo complex, the city will gain a 25,000-square-foot arts space run by OCAD, which will include studios, an event room and an art gallery dedicated to the Mirvishes’ private collection of late-20th-century masterpieces by artists like Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland and Hans Hofman. More than anything, the project is evidence of the city’s architectural momentum. Daniel Libeskind’s L Tower, with its knife-blade silhouette, is nearing completion above the Sony Centre. Will Alsop, the architect behind OCAD’s famous floating tabletop, is designing a mid-rise condo building near Yonge and Lawrence (not typically a hotbed of architectural ingenuity) that almost defies description, with a stout, cage-like latticed body and a glass rec­tangle perching on top. It’s sure to be as controversial as his OCAD piece—and that’s what’s so great about it. Toronto isn’t just building skyward, it’s building a city with personality.

No. 03 | Because Kathleen Wynne is one of us

No. 03 | Because Kathleen Wynne is one of us (Photo: Nigel Dickson)

Kathleen Wynne would have made a world champion schoolmarm. The high cheekbones, the horn-rimmed glasses, the short hair that looks like it spent the night in curlers. Wipe the smile off her face, dangle a chain from the specs and she’d be the picture of prudishness, self-censure and repression.

She might have even turned out that way. In the late ’80s she was a homemaker and mother of three, living in a nice big house near Yonge and Lawrence. But her marriage to Phil Cowperthwaite, a successful chartered accountant, was falling apart. They were staying together for the sake of the kids.

Then, in 1990, she fell in love with Jane Rounthwaite, her former Queen’s University dorm-mate and a friend of 18 years, and popped the rivets off her cookie-cutter life. Rounthwaite moved into the master bedroom and Cowperthwaite relocated into the guest suite in the basement, where he stayed for two years. Neighbours were scandalized, believing he’d been kicked down there by the harridans upstairs. But the plan was for Cowperthwaite to occupy an adjacent property once one became available, so they could split the responsibility of raising the kids, which is how it eventually worked out.

The upheaval was especially hard for the kids: their youngest daughter was only six years old, their eldest son entering his teens. The fights around the kitchen table were loud, emotional free-for-alls between the six of them—the kids always had a voice in family affairs—but Wynne was determined to find a way to make a new kind of nuclear family work. “Kathleen decided that we would make this change in our lives, and that every relationship in the family would still be whole when it was done,” recalls Rounthwaite, now a management consultant. “People were not that tolerant of what we were trying to do. But Kathleen had a vision, and she would not let it go.”

You could say that, in her determination, Wynne helped rip open a fissure in the space-time continuum and dragged the entire city through it with her, transporting Toronto the Inhibited into the free-thinking, non-judgmental alternate universe it now inhabits. At last January’s Liberal convention, in the speech that eventually won her the party’s leadership, she asked the question aloud: would Ontario voters reject a gay woman as their premier? “I do not believe they hold that prejudice in their hearts,” she answered, and she should know. She has done much to rid us of it.

Wynne got her start in politics during the Mike Harris years, as a common-sense counter-revolutionary. In 1996, she was a co-founder of the anti-amalgamation group Citizens for Local Democracy, helping organize a fight against the Harris government’s plans to merge Toronto into a megacity. Though they lost, Wynne’s living room became a meeting hall for that campaign and many others. City councillor Shelley Carroll, a long-time friend, says Wynne often played the role of central broker: mediating differences, smoothing over egos and keeping everyone focused.

That style has become Wynne’s signature: everyone feels they’ve been heard, everyone feels purposeful, and no one loses sight of the endgame. It’s a political MO that doesn’t demand loyalty by twisting arms or exchanging favours, but cultivates allegiances that grow with time. Says Carroll: “No one who works with Kathleen comes away saying, ‘I’ll never work with that person again.’ ”

It’s a surprising reaction for people to have, given that Wynne’s other hallmark is her iron will. Following a stint on the school board, she was elected to Queen’s Park in 2003, part of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal sweep of the GTA. Relegated to the back benches, she and London MPP Deb Matthews established the Liberal women’s caucus and proceeded to drive many of the government’s social justice initiatives. “They were the dissidents in caucus,” recalls the former MP Gerard Kennedy, who first met Wynne during the Harris battles. “They were seen by some of the old boys as women who couldn’t be controlled.”

Matthews takes it as a compliment. “We ran for office to get things done,” she says. She and Wynne objected to sharia tribunals because of their treatment of women, and convinced the premier to put an end to faith-based arbitration in the province. They led the drive to create the Ontario Child Benefit, which provides monthly payments to moderate-income families with kids. Both women were elevated to cabinet for their work. Today Matthews is Wynne’s deputy premier, the two forming a power alliance in the Chrétien-Martin mould, before it went sour.

What most sets Wynne apart from her wooden predecessor, and from the other party leaders at Queen’s Park, is the ease with which she practises her craft. In an era of manufactured authenticity, she seems genuine, with a disarming smile and a graciousness that can’t be faked.

Her lack of guile was the magnet that earned her the delegate support she needed to win the Liberal leadership in January, besting the cantankerous Sandra Pupatello on the final ballot. At the outset of the leadership campaign, Wynne was considered too “downtown Toronto” to be party leader—code for too gay, yes, but also too left-wing, self-righteous, elitist, arrogant, educated and smug. She won people over in the way she always has: one conversation at a time.

No. 04 | Because we prefer to walk to work

No. 04 | Because we prefer to walk to work (Photo: Daniel Neuhaus)

Peter Menkes was on to something in 2005 when he bought a swath of deserted land south of Union Station with the kooky idea of developing office space. As early blueprints were being drafted, Telus signed on to be his anchor tenant. The telecommunications giant had been looking to consolidate its 15 GTA locations, preferably somewhere cool, and pushed for an edgy and eco-forward design. By 2009, Menkes’ 30-storey Telus House had surfaced and spurred a wave of office tower projects now rising from waterfront brownlands. Count them: PwC’s glass-encased building on York, the nearby Bremner Tower under construction, and, south of the Gardiner, RBC’s WaterPark Place III and another Menkes office building on lower York Street that will stretch the boundaries of the Financial District. This south-end awakening is but one facet of Toronto’s larger office building spree. When you include the traditional downtown core and its east-west fringes, the tally is nine prime office towers currently under construction, adding 5.6 million square feet over the next three to four years.

It’s a level of activity not seen since the booming 1980s, back when Scotia Plaza rose up. Then the recession hit, employers took to the outer suburbs for cheaper rents and lower taxes, and downtown office construction pretty much came to a stop. Today’s soaring, glassy developments with their modern angles and eco-amenities give a much-needed lift to our aging stock of Class A office buildings, whose outdated systems are huffing and puffing to keep up with near-full occupancy. Now that employers are flocking downtown again, it’s a landlord’s market in which tenants are negotiating hefty lease prices within one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country.

For all this activity, we can thank the so-called echo boomers, those educated, childless 20- and 30-somethings who have chosen to live downtown next to their workplaces, rather than put up with interminable commutes. The condo boom attracted retailers, jobs and even more echo boomers, who are now luring upmarket employers seeking upmarket spaces. Those corporate employers vacating their suburban office-parks to chase a skilled workforce want buildings with rooftop gardens and recycled grey water—the badge of being a modern progressive company that attracts young talent. Coca-Cola recently moved its Canadian headquarters into a newly glass-topped building at 333 King Street East, while last fall Google’s sales and marketing team blinged up 58,000 square feet in the updated Richmond Adelaide Centre. Apple and Cisco are planning a move south of the tracks.

High demand for downtown workspace happens to align nicely with friendly financial conditions. Real estate investors are taking advantage of ultra-low borrowing rates to capitalize on juicy commercial property developments. (Recall the record-setting sale of Scotia Plaza last spring for $1.27 billion to the real estate investment trusts Dundee and H&R.) Meanwhile, big developers are keen to boost their port­folios with flashy high-profile projects, like Brookfield’s 44-storey east tower in the Bay Adelaide Centre or Oxford Properties’ 100 Adelaide West, a lofty, multi-faceted building that will incorporate the original 1928 art deco structure and its mosaics.

The surge in office real estate cements the broader health and vigour south of Bloor. Since the echo boomers began decamping for downtown seven years ago, the residential population grew by 16 per cent, while jobs have increased by 14 per cent—almost double the growth in the wider GTA. We’ve also recently supplanted Chicago as the fourth-biggest city in North America,  a notable notch up in the city’s cred. And now we have the downtown to prove it.

No. 05 | Because we line up for crudo in the middle of the night

No. 05 | Because we line up for crudo in the middle of the night (Photo: Gabriel Li)

Last summer, on one of the stickiest nights of the year, 1,200 people paid $50 each to enter the alleyway behind Honest Ed’s for an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink fundraiser hosted by the virtuous locavores at the Stop Community Food Centre. Night markets have been a staple in Toronto’s Asian communities for years, and have lately spread throughout the city, turning humble parking lots into tasting nirvanas. At the Stop’s market, 27 chefs from restaurants like Yours Truly, Woodlot and the County General handed out street-friendly samples of their wares: duck yolk­–topped beef crudo and gooey pork burgers, and, at the sweeter end of things, barbecued strawberry s’mores and doughnuts made with sugar and garam masala. The chefs manned one-of-a-kind booths created by Ryerson grads and Toronto designers. (The biggest hits were Brockton General’s 12-foot-tall cardboard Pegasus, which looked like a prop from Clash of the Titans, and Cowbell’s all-ice booth, which served white sangria and Ontario rumtopf berry snow cones.) The night went off so well, raising $57,000, that the Stop is doing it again this month for two consecutive nights, with more than double the number of participating chefs (including Top Chef Canada contender Jonathan Goodyear, who’ll be collaborating with Splendido’s Victor Barry). Like the annual art-athon Nuit Blanche, night markets turn the city into a nocturnal playground for adults—one with artisanal burgers and craft beer instead of freezies and water fountains.

No. 06 | Because BlackBerry narrowly avoided getting crushed

No. 06 | Because BlackBerry narrowly avoided getting crushed (Photo: Getty Images)

RIM’s downfall was not only a blow to our national ego, it posed a serious challenge for all those dedicated BlackBerry users who felt the device that had been their communication lifeline—the one they felt proud enough to hang on their belts—was quickly becoming a symbol of shame (if not outright obsolescence). This led to the two-phone phenomenon, in which Bay Streeters lugged around a BlackBerry for its keyboard and secure network and an iPhone for fun. Finally, after some serious downsizing and restructuring by new, even-keeled CEO Thorsten Heins, the rebranded company (now simply BlackBerry) revealed its long-awaited updated platform, the Z10, on January 30. Analysts were skeptical. So was the media. But when the devices hit shelves in early February, BlackBerry Nation came out in droves. The company reported a sales record in its first week. In late March, it released its first results since the Z10 launch and—surprise, surprise—the company had posted a profit, defying analyst’s predictions. Though BlackBerry has a deep hole to climb out from, loyalists have reason to be optimistic: March’s fourth-quarter results didn’t include the U.S. launch, where the Z10 had only recently debuted, nor did they reflect sales of the Q10 model with the much-loved QWERTY keyboard, which had yet to roll out. The resuscitated BlackBerry, with its leaner, meaner operation, more tech-centric board of directors and $2.9-billion cash reserve, isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, it might be time to start proudly displaying your device again. Just not on the belt, please.

No. 07 | Because we’ll always have the Stones

No. 07 | Because we’ll always have the Stones 1. The Rolling Stones performing at the El Mocambo in 1977. 2. Keith Richards arriving at the University Avenue courthouse for his heroin possession trial. 3. Mick Jagger backstage at the Yonge Street Masonic Temple. (Photos: Stones 1977 by Ken Regan / Camera 5; Richards by Getstock; Jagger by George Pimentel)

If you grew up in a small suburban Ontario town in the early ’80s, as I did, with parents who loved the Stones so much they named your brother Keith, you probably lost count of the number of times you were forced to listen to Love You Live, the band’s double album partially recorded at the El Mocambo. The El Mo tracks, on which Mick wails, in his best Muddy Waters imitation, “Ooooh yeah, oooh yeah-yeah,” formed my earliest ideas about Toronto—a place with sweaty honky-tonk bars, a place where Keith gets busted for heroin possession one week and parties with Margaret Trudeau the next. Toronto, at least when the Stones visited, held a kind of glamour. In 1989, when the band played the SkyDome during a comeback tour master­ minded by the Toronto promoter Michael Cohl, my parents took me along. I’d never seen them surrounded by so many of their fellow boomers, all of them on their feet at the first three chords of “Start Me Up.” The echoing stadium wasn’t anything like the El Mo, but when Mick, a tiny gyrating figure just visible between pyrotechnics and twirling lights, bantered about how great it was to be back in Tor-aaaaahn-tow, and Keith nodded his agreement, the crowd let out a joyous whoop. Over the following two decades, the band regularly stopped in Toronto, leasing the auditorium at Crescent School and the Masonic Temple for rehearsals, bunking in Rosedale, and headlining SARStock. This spring, the Stones, never big believers in age restrictions on leather pants, are on tour with two nights at the ACC. Toronto’s Glimmer Twins fan base will consider the VIP floor seats a bargain at $2,000 each.

No. 08 | Because we run in solidarity

No. 08 | Because we run in solidarity (Photo: Getstock)

Long-distance running is the loneliest sport, which may explain why marathoners share such a strong bond. Only a fellow runner understands the pain, perseverance and elation that comes with logging hundreds of kilometres training by yourself. That bond was on full display six days after the Boston marathon bombing, when 7,000 runners took to the start line for the Yonge Street 10K. The mood was simultaneously electric and somber. Some participants turned out in yellow and blue—the official colours of the Boston marathon—and many wore special bibs marked with blue ribbons and the words “Runners United in Support.” Along the route, spectators held up homemade “Run for Boston” signs. The race director, Alan Brookes, who had been in Boston the day of the bombing, said, “The spirit of the entire marathon world is udiminished,” before calling for 30 seconds of silence. Here, in Toronto, we proved him right.

No. 09 | Because Chris Hadfield is a celestial rock star

No. 09 | Because Chris Hadfield is a celestial rock star (Photo: Courtesy of Twitter)

Wearing a magnum P.I. moustache and an infectious twinkle, Commander Chris Hadfield, 387 kilometres above the earth in the International Space Station, tweeted to his 700,000 followers via NASA satellites and scheduled weekly video link-ups with school kids. His broadcasts covered such burning questions as how to make a peanut butter sandwich in space (tortillas, not bread—space crumbs are bad), how to cry when tears hang from the eye like an ever-inflating beach ball (use a hankie), how to exercise (bungee yourself to the treadmill and watch the Leafs game), and, the most common question by far, how to go number two in zero gravity (seatbelt and suction). Asked about the possibility of a mutiny, he assured his followers that such uprisings among his crew are “kept to a minimum,” and he told kids that playing hide-and-seek in a space station is the absolute best, then floated into a storage hatch above his head. Quarters may be cramped, but he managed to pack a green bow tie to wear on St. Patrick’s Day. From Mia Farrow to Leafs goalie Ben Scrivens, everyone adores the guy. “Are you tweeting from space?” asked an incredulous William Shatner. “Yes,” Hadfield replied. “Standard orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface.” The poetic descriptions that accompanied his daily photos of Earth are not those usually associated with dweeby scientists: he displayed the “pillowy farms of eastern Europe, tidily etched in snow” or the path of a river that “hiccups like a zipper on an old coat.” His five-month journey ended last month and we already miss his humour and his sage advice. What’s the best way to prepare to be an astronaut? “Eat your greens and do your homework.”

No. 10 | Because chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate

No. 10 | Because chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate (Photo: Ryan Szulc)

In the past year, Torontonians have come to expect our sashimi flown in that day from Japan, our heritage meats sous-vided into luscious tenderness, our Brunellos from cellars that chronicle $750,000 worth of wine. The ultimate indulgences, however, are found at the Trump tower restaurant Stock, where pastry chef David Chow runs a chocolate laboratory with a mix of scientific exactitude and Wonkanian whimsy. Chow, who has a background in computer engineering, fills his climate-controlled workshop with high-tech gadgets. A tempering machine controls the chocolate’s crystallization with quick blasts of heat (the batch can be ruined if it’s even 0.1 degree off). A refractometer—bought at a pool supply store—uses light beams to calculate the sugar content and consistency of fruit jellies. And a conveyer belt straight out of I Love Lucy moulds and adorns the treats before they’re shipped off to diners’ dessert plates. Chow’s recipes are as lavish as they are precise: haute pecan-bourbon and PB&J chocolate bars, truffles infused with hibiscus blossom extract, and bonbons in flavours like blackberry-merlot and apricot-wasabi. His olive oil bonbon might be the most obscenely decadent chocolate Torontonians have ever tasted. Chow smokes a rich Spanish arbequina olive oil in-house, emulsifies it with a dash of Maldon salt and Valhrona white chocolate ganache, then encases the musky morsel in a rich 70 per cent dark chocolate shell that’s been painted to resemble a cocoa pod. The candy blends studious innovation with outlandish excess, capturing the splendour of Toronto’s dining scene in one sweet, savoury, seductively smoky bite.

No. 11 | Because a pool changed a neighbourhood

No. 11 | Because a pool changed a neighbourhood (Photo: Daniel Neuhaus)

Eight years into the experimental transformation of Regent Park from one of the city’s most troubled housing projects into a thriving mixed-income neighbourhood, there’s a palpable sense of optimism. One unqualified success is a new, $14.7-million, three-pool aquatic centre at Dundas and Parliament. It’s beautiful, with artsy, asymmetrical lines on the outside and 20-foot, cedar-clad ceilings within. It’s techy, the only city pool with filters to help lessen the air’s chlorine tang. It’s also well-used. The Toronto Triathlon Club practises here, as does Regent Park’s first swim team, the Rangers, who perfect their dives by jumping off Olympic-style blocks. Parents from all over Toronto book the space for children’s birthday parties (a twisty slide and Tarzan rope are huge draws), relaxing into the splash pad’s massage jets while the kids go wild. The space is a busy rec centre, but also a destination, one step in showing the rest of the city the potential in Regent Park. All the time and money is worth it, and the proof is in every splash.

No. 12 | Because we’re exporting cute

No. 12 | Because we’re exporting cute (Photos: Courtesy of Tanya Taylor)

Five years ago, Toronto-born Tanya Taylor was buried in textbooks, studying finance at McGill. One day, on a whim, she bought a $49 sewing machine at Canadian Tire and entered a school fashion show. She found her calling, and, after enrolling at the Parsons school of design in New York, she trained at the Olsen twins’ label and, last year, launched her own line. For her New York Fashion Week debut, she took over a tiny gallery in Hell’s Kitchen and dressed her models in a whimsical procession of seashell-hued satin pajama pants, woodpecker-printed blouses and boxy grey-and-orange-striped shorts. For such a small show, it generated phenomenal buzz: Rashida Jones and Katharine McPhee were soon spotted in Taylor’s clothes, and the imperious Anna Wintour praised the line. Her quirky-queenly fashions are already a fixture in upmarket designer boutiques in New York, L.A. and Tokyo, and will be sold at Holt Renfrew later this year. The timing couldn’t be better. Taylor’s designs are just the kind of thing we’ve been seeing on style-savvy women from Rosedale to Parkdale: clothes that break down the barriers between hipster and haute, twee and urbane.

No. 13 | Because George Brown is the new cool school

No. 13 | Because George Brown is the new cool school (Photo: Courtesy of George Brown)

Not so long ago, George Brown had a reputation for being the school of last resort. But in the last few years, it’s had an extreme makeover—of its facilities, its program offerings and its image. Much of the credit goes to Anne Sado, a former senior VP at Bell who took over as GBC president in 2004. In her first two years, she helped raise $10 million to expand and renovate all three campuses. In January 2006, she joined with Soulpepper to open the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District, which houses the college’s theatre program. Her biggest coup to date is the new $175-million health sciences school—an elegant waterfront building designed by KPMB and Stantec Archiecture with sweeping glass walls and sculptural staircases—which will turn out 1,600 nurses and other medical workers a year. The college’s expansion isn’t stopping any time soon. Sado is busily raising funds for a second building at the same site, and after the Pan-Am Games in 2015, she’s converting the athlete housing in the West Donlands into George Brown’s first-ever residences. Not a moment too soon: the student body has hit an all-time high of 64,000.

No. 14 | Because the tech industry just hit another high score

No. 14 | Because the tech industry just hit another high score (Photo: iStock)

In the video game world, there are huge companies like Ubisoft and Nintendo that build franchises, sell millions of games, and make billions of dollars. Then there are companies like Toronto-based Capybara Games, which was founded in 2005 by five 20-something friends with nothing but a cool idea: a retro-style adventure app that starts simple and grows into a dreamy world inspired by Carl Jung, David Lynch, Eckhart Tolle and Conan the Barbarian. They called it Sword and Sworcery and, $200,000 in development costs later, released it in 2011. To date, their game has sold a whopping one million units, earning them approximately $2.5 million, and racked up kudos and rave reviews, beating Nintendo’s Super Mario 3D juggernaut at the Game Developers Choice Awards. One reviewer called it a “digital act of bravery” and added, “I want to hug everyone who had anything to do with this game.” All the buzz attracted attention from Microsoft, arguably one of the biggest names in game play, which is planning to release Capybara’s follow-up, a time-travelling adventure called Super Time Force, on its Xbox Live Arcade platform this summer.

No. 15 | Because a Sunday at the Flea is hipster bliss

No. 15 | Because a Sunday at the Flea is hipster bliss (Illustration: Vidhya Nagarajan)

Every second Sunday of the month, from May to October, the Junction Flea takes over a chain-linked corner lot at Dundas and Keele. The 70-odd vendors share an obsession with everything artisanal, gourmet and old-timey, selling a Technicolor carnival of vintage clothes, hand-made jewellery, analog-era oddities and snacks. If you visit around noon, you’ll see an Instagram shot of bristly dads with babies in backpacks, young couples dragging home steamer trunks destined to be coffee tables, and self-proclaimed nerds rifling through vinyl. Here, our picks for a total immersion in hipster Toronto.

No. 16 | Because we finally got a guy who can score as effortlessly as you-know-who

No. 16 | Because we finally got a guy who can score as effortlessly as you-know-who (Photo: Courtesy of MLSE)

The Indiana Pacers were Rudy Gay’s first victims. In his fourth game as a Raptor, with the score tied and 1.7 seconds on the clock, he faked left, drove right and stepped back—creating a sliver of light between him and his defender—then rose into the air, his long fingers releasing the ball just centimetres above his hapless opponent’s hand. Game over; Raps win. Four nights later, the Denver Nuggets were his prey. Same scenario, same drive, same result. Raptors play-by-play announcer Matt Devlin summarized the thoughts of Raptors Nation rather tidily: “Give the ball to Rudy and get out of the way.” Sounds good to us. In the eight-plus years since Vince Carter left in a huff for New Jersey, the Raptors have had good scorers (Chris Bosh), decent scorers (DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani) and very bad scorers (pretty much everyone else). So when Gay checked into the game wearing Raptors red, 17,000 fans at the ACC erupted with the kind of primal roar that suggested as much catharsis as euphoria. After an endless string of under­performing players, finally, a star. Gay wasted little time helping Raptor fans forget the past. Over his first three games, he tallied 74 points—a franchise record—with such ease that it seemed accidental. At six feet and eight inches, Gay is tall for his position, and his astonishing seven-foot-three wingspan makes match-ups almost unfair. He releases the ball from almost directly over his head, so unless you’re a seven-footer with a stepladder, you’re not blocking his shot. Gay is so good at launching the ball that he’ll hoist it up from just about anywhere—beyond the three-point line with a hand in his face; under the basket amid a dense thicket of seven-footers; deep in the corner with opposing fans barking in his ear. In the pre-Gay era, the Raptors’ storyline had become predictable: scratch and claw through three quarters, keeping the score close, and then, in the pressure-cooker fourth, as the lead slips away, look around for someone to stanch the bleeding. Rudy Gay is that guy.

No. 17 | Because Terry Im has a magic mouth

No. 17 | Because Terry Im has a magic mouth (Photo: Getty Images)

Terry Im started making music with his mouth in Grade 7. At first, it was just a habit: whenever he wasn’t practising the drums, he would beatbox—a style of music especially popular in hip hop that basically turns the performer into a human percussion kit. Im is 24 now, performs as KRNFX (he’s Korean-Canadian), and is one of the best beatboxers in the world. He has twice won the title of Canadian Beatbox Champion, and was a World Championship finalist in 2009 and 2012. This year, he performed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and starred in a commercial for Microsoft. In March, he embarked on a European tour with the Burlington band Walk off the Earth (who collaborated on a catchier-than-the-original cover of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”). When he performs, he emits a range of stunning sounds—deep rumbles of bass, syncopated snares, industrial twangs and thwacks—in patterns so complicated they’d wow John Cage. He could be mistaken for a talented android, if it weren’t clear he was having so much fun.

No. 18 | Because we went ape over the IKEA monkey

No. 18 | Because we went ape over the IKEA monkey (Photos: clockwise from top left, Courtesy of Matt Elliott/twitter; Matt Elliott/twitter;; and Diamond Headphones/tumblr)

There was just something about that faux-shearling coat. Had Darwin—the Japanese macaque spotted in the IKEA parking lot last December—been naked, he would have turned a few heads (exotic pets being both unusual and illegal in Toronto). But because of that cute little coat, the escaped animal became the subject of full-tilt monkey-mania: first a national treasure, then an international phenomenon—the adorable, fashionable embodiment of a Christmas miracle. The mainstream media covered the story as if Darwin were a visiting dignitary, and the social media channels went ape. Over 7,500 people followed @IKEAmonkey on Twitter. Darwin became the most popular meme subject to emerge from these parts since Ryan Gosling. In fact, in one online remastering, he was Ryan Gosling. Darwin also subbed in for baby Simba in a Lion King spoof, Paul Simon on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album cover, and Rob Ford’s football. He popped up on the CN Tower EdgeWalk and the Starship Enterprise, and won a “Who wore it best?” battle with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian. If it’s true what they say—that you’re nobody until you go viral—Darwin was a pandemic. For those weeks in December, when he was at the top of the trending charts, one pint-size primate gave us all a quick hit of comfort and joy—swaddled in shearling.

No. 19 | Because the aliens, vampires and robot cops came back

No. 19 | Because the aliens, vampires and robot cops came back (Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Canada)

When the alien-invasion fantasy Pacific Rim—by blockbuster director Guillermo del Toro—wrapped at Pinewood Studios in the Port Lands last September, it left a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, with cherry trees and Japanese cop cars strewn across monster-mangled, Roppongi-like streets. The film, which opens in July, cost $150 million and was the largest production in Toronto history—employing a crew of nearly 1,000 local carpenters, camera people and extras. It was also proof that the industry has finally perked up after a long dry spell. The total take in 2012 was $1.2 billion, up from 2008’s $600 million. The rebound can be partially explained by a 2009 provincial tax incentive, which effectively doubles the amount filmmakers can write off, as well as major upgrades in our movie-making infrastructure. When Pinewood opened four years ago, at the height of the recession, industry analysts thought the 250,000-square-foot facility would languish. But then came the Total Recall reboot—lured by Pinewood’s soundstage, the largest in North America—which pumped over $75 million into the local economy. It was followed by Cosmopolis and remakes of Carrie and Robocop. Recently, Pinewood announced an ambitious $40-million expansion to add 100,000 square feet of office space and another three soundstages. The city’s other major studio space, Cinespace (where Lily Collins’ upcoming vampire movie, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, was made) also expanded with a new 30-acre site in the west end. Paul Anderson’s $80-million Pompeii, about the destruction of the ancient Roman city, is set to shoot there this summer. After wrapping Pacific Rim and the horror flick Mama, del Toro, calling Toronto his favourite place to work, announced plans for another big-screen feature, Crimson Peak, and a television series, The Strain, a vampire thriller. The boom doesn’t look like it will bust any time soon.

No. 20 | Because our picklers are food celebs

No. 20 | Because our picklers are food celebs (Photo: Anya Chibis)

A decade after “locavore” and “foodie” entered the lexicon, Toronto has reached a fever pitch of $10 jams infused with Prince Edward County lavender, blood orange ales brewed on Ossington and heritage capons slow-smoked over Muskoka cherry wood. “Small,” “slow” and “by hand” are now the ultimate points of pride. Along with your quaintly packaged $9 chutney, you’re also buying the good karma associated with supporting local craftspeople and fostering the dream of simpler times.

The epicentre of it all is Kensington Market, where for decades the only hand-crafted goods have been Bob Marley beanies and bongs. In the span of a year, the area has returned to its roots, becoming a village of food artisans. Sanagan’s Meat Locker, the ethical butcher, became so popular that its owner, Peter Sanagan, moved a few doors down the street into a 5,000-square-foot storefront that’s a microcosm of modern carnivore culture. The walls are lined with barn board, and the young staff wear Ts printed with cleavers and offer samples of water buffalo yogurt or house-made mint-and-beef-tongue terrine. Lineups form at the sandwich bar for slow-roasted bo ssäm buns.

In the space Sanagan left behind, there’s now Hooked, Kensington Market’s first sustainable fishmonger, staffed by beautifully be-toqued 20-somethings who can eyeball the perfect halibut cheek portion for a six-person taco night. Just around the corner, Pawel Grezlikowski, a bristly-faced Polish expat with a deep side part, has opened Hogtown Charcuterie, where he sells handmade kielbasa and pungent aged sauerkraut, along with chocolate-dipped bacon and bourbon-jalapeño sausages.

In Kensington’s urban fantasy of independent butchers and bakers, no store radiates contemporary quaintness quite like Thomas Lavers Cannery and Delicatessen. A pig-tailed young staffer, posed in the front window like a culinary mannequin, seals roasted beet and blue cheese ravioli with her thumbs. Inside, the small shop is a reverential imitation of a New York Prohibition-era deli, complete with subway tiles and a decorative vintage meat scale. The owners, two restaurant industry veterans named Bryan Lavers and Tye Thomas, are mascots for the artisanal movement with their beards, tattooed arms and striped aprons. They pour keg-conditioned root beer into environmentally friendly cornstarch cups, or slice their house-smoked vegan pastrami for Reuben sandwiches. One wall is devoted to preserves made in the back kitchen, and arranged like a Pantone spectrum of wild blueberry jams and rhubarb-raisin relishes.

When the pair talk pickling and preser­ving, it’s about reviving a dying art. But, judging by the proliferation of similar food shops, competition is a more imminent threat than extinction. Wandering the market or any of the city’s many foodie strips, it’s hard to believe made-in-Toronto food once meant Maple Leaf bologna and Weston’s sliced bread. We’re a city spoiled with fresh, healthy, delicious food, and the creative people who make it—by hand.

No. 21 | Because Katie Stelmanis gives us the chis

No. 21 | Because Katie Stelmanis gives us the chis (Photo: Norman Wong, for the smaller individual images see below)

As the lead singer for the electro-pop outfit Austra, Katie Stelmanis wails and trills like a gothic fairy. Her beats pulse with so much power that you feel them as much as hear them. And onstage, she sings as if in a trance, drawing the audience into her reverie. Critics often liken Stelmanis to Kate Bush, but a more apt comparison would be Mozart’s Queen of the Night: she sang with the COC’s children choir, and infuses every note and harmony with melodrama. When Austra released their first album, 2011’s Feel It Break, Toronto had never heard anything like it—the sound was as sharp and shimmering as an icicle. It earned nominations for both the Polaris Music Prize and a Juno, and made Stelmanis an instant star. The follow-up, Olympia, out this month, is more upbeat and ambitious, a dizzying mash-up of genres and influences. We asked Stelmanis to describe where she found her inspiration.

Philip Glass and Uakti’s Aguas da Amazonia
“For this album, Glass collaborated with Uakti, a Brazilian band that makes all their own instruments. The first time I heard it, I thought, this is the music I’ve been waiting to hear my whole life.” (Photo: Courtesy of Their distributors)

Claude Debussy’s  La Cathédrale Engloutie
“Debussy was one of the first composers to emulate sounds from real life in his music. The title means ‘The Sunken Cathedral.’ It’s based on an ancient Breton myth where a cathedral is submerged underwater, and it rises up from the sea on clear mornings when the water is transparent. They say when the cathedral rises, different sounds can be heard—priests chanting, bells, organs.” (Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Aphex Twin’s Drukqs
“A friend of mine gave me this album. I love the simplicity and restraint of his slower songs.”

Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life
“This book about electronic music made me realize that, for the past 50 years, rhythm and bass have been totally sidelined in pop music in favour of melody and lyrics.” (Photo: Courtesy of Their distributors)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes
“I watched this movie in the van during our European tour last year, and fell in love with the famous 15-minute fantasy ballet scene.” (Photo: Courtesy of Their distributors)

Portishead’s Third
“This is essentially an electronic album performed acoustically, and it sounds almost sloppy. It was so refreshing for a major label to release something that’s so imperfect.” (Photo: Courtesy of Their distributors)

Nina Simone
“An old piano teacher of mine once told me that if the audience is bored, it’s my fault, and that it’s my job to keep them entertained. Nina Simone was the ultimate entertainer—her musicality and her singing voice are unreal.” (Photo: Getty Images)

Puccini’s  La Bohème
“In high school, I’d spend all my time listening to Puccini’s arias on my Discman. He was an influence almost to a fault—I became so obsessed with creating melodrama that I lost track of everything else.” (Photo: Courtesy of Their distributors)

No. 22 | Because the shark tank is open

No. 22 | Because the shark tank is open (Photo: Courtesy of Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada)

For decades, parents trying to edu-tain their tots have had to choose between the same old standbys: the AGO, the ROM, the Science Centre. This summer, though, there will be a new option—Ripley’s Aquarium, a 135,000-square-foot, $130-million fish tank at the foot of the CN Tower. Over 15,000 species from all over the world will be on display. Budding Cousteaus will be drawn to the extensive education programs (including overnight aquarium camps that teach about biodiversity, conservation and the difference between kelp forests and coral reefs). People who just want to see something really cool—which, presumably, will be most of the two million anticipated annual visitors—will head for the Shark Lagoon. In a giant, 2.84-million-litre tank, a dozen sand tiger sharks (each about as long as a Mini Cooper) will swim among sea turtles, manta rays and sawfish (which look like a splice between a stingray and a chainsaw). The best part will be the view. Rather than top down or from the side—the way you might look in at, say, Marineland—visitors will feel fully immersed as they glide along a 96-metre, acrylic-domed moving sidewalk, looking up and around at menacing fins and rows of teeth as the sharks float past.

No. 23 | Because our country stars are real farm girls

No. 23 | Because our country stars are real farm girls (Photo: Amanda Wagner)

Last May, the Internet exploded into paroxysms of delight after discovering eight-year-old Maisy Stella and her 12-year-old sister Lennon, the Whitby girls whose video cover of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” set to the percussive plaints of empty margarine tubs, became a viral sensation. The Internet gods couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect pair of YouTube stars. They’re both impossibly cute (Lennon sports oversized tortoiseshell glasses; Maisy is a cherub with huge eyes and flaxen hair) and utterly guileless (the little Luddites grew up on a 170-acre farm with no phone, TV or Internet). They’re also legitimately talented, with sweet, flutey yodels, husky harmonies and serious musical chops—when they’re not whaling on plastic containers, Lennon plays guitar and Maisy strums a ukulele. Most YouTube phenoms go viral on BuzzFeed, do a stint on Ellen, then disappear, but the Stella sisters have catapulted from Internet-famous to legit-famous. Their rendition of “Call Your Girlfriend” is now the definitive version (it’s racked up 15 million views to Robyn’s eight million), and they’ve acquired a fan base that includes Amy Poehler, OK Go and Imogen Heap. Their most ardent admirers are the producers of the country-western soap Nashville, who cast the Stellas in the roles of Connie Britton’s daughters—they don cowboy boots and prairie florals, sing honky-tonk tunes and tour to places like the Grand Ole Opry. We can only think of one other person who’s parlayed four minutes of YouTube fame into a bona fide career—another precocious mophead from southern Ontario who wears a lot of purple. If his longevity is any indication, the Stella sisters are here to stay.

No. 24 | Because  the condo boom is giving three theatre companies awesome new stages

No. 24 | Because  the condo boom is giving three theatre companies awesome new stages (Photos: from top, Courtesy of Native Earth Performing Arts; Crow’s Theatre; and Theatre Centre)

Native Earth Performing Arts
Claim to fame: Launched the career of the playwright Tomson Highway.
The new home: The Aki Studio Theatre in the Daniels Spectrum, an arts and cultural centre in Regent Park built with a $4-million donation from the Daniels Corporation and the Daniels family foundation.
Opening night: October 19, 2012.

Crow’s Theatre
Claim to fame: Produced the hits Eternal Hydra and  I, Claudia.
The new home: An $8-million, 200-seat theatre, café and rehearsal space at the base of a condo built by Streetcar Developments at Dundas and Carlaw.
Opening night: 2015.

Theatre Centre
Claim to fame: Nurtured such performers as Chris Leavins and Susanna Hood.
The new home: A $6-million overhaul, partially funded by Urbancorp, of the historic Carnegie Library at Queen and Lisgar. It will include a 200-seat theatre and a café.
Opening night: Fall 2013.

No. 25 | Because the High Park castle rose again

No. 25 | Because the High Park castle rose again (Photo: Courtesy of HGTV)

When the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground opened in 1999 it was unlike any other playground in the city—a kid-sized kingdom of interconnected bridges, pyramidal pine spires and decorative panels painted by neighbourhood children. It seemed to belong more to Middle Earth than the middle of High Park. Then, one March night in 2012, a 19-year-old reprobate set it on fire, burning most of the castle to the ground. (He was charged with arson and is still awaiting a court appearance.) Outraged residents decided to rebuild the playground. Various corporations, including Canadian Tire and TD, ponied up cash, and TV handyman Mike Holmes and landscape architect Janet Rosenberg volunteered their services. Who cares if they were partly in it for the PR: the resulting rebuild is cooler than ever. The castle was made bigger and new slides installed, and, in a gesture to gladden every King Arthur–loving kid’s heart, Holmes added a 10-tonne rock in which a giant steel sword is imbedded. The castle reopened last July, and this summer it will be packed again with toddlers and tykes, slaying imaginary dragons and rescuing pretend damsels-in-distress. Plus, a few parents brave enough to go down the big slide.

No. 26 | Because these giant underwater balloons could save the planet

No. 26 | Because these giant underwater balloons could save the planet (Illustration: Joel Kimmel)

The problem with green electricity sources, like wind turbines and solar cells, is that they don’t produce continuous juice: some days you get more than you need, other days zilch. Hydrostor, a tech outfit with roots at MaRS, the innovation hotbed on College Street, has a solution. This summer, a small group of industrial balloons anchored deep in Lake Ontario, five kilometres from shore, will be filled with air that’s been pressurized by a compressor driven by surplus power. When energy demands are high, the process is reversed: the balloons release the air to drive an electricity-generating turbine. The scheme has the capacity to harness one megawatt of energy at a time, enough to power 1,000 homes for four hours. But the concept is almost infinitely expandable, and the project is already attracting investors. It’s the first green initiative to make reliable coal-free power a reality.

No. 27 | Because this coach knows how to win

No. 27 | Because this coach knows how to win (Photo: Graig Abel)

That the Leafs have made the playoffs for the first time in nine years has everything to do with Randy Carlyle, one of former GM Brian Burke’s most important hires. His back-to-basics approach with the team has included gruelling workouts and repetitive drills that have whipped the players into shape. He established a good old-fashioned meritocracy: it doesn’t matter how much money you make or how long you’ve been with the team, if you aren’t performing, you don’t play. And he is quick to credit his team when things are going right and to take the blame when they’re not. Most importantly, he’s made a perennially hopeless franchise believe in itself again. Whatever happens with the Leafs this post-season, Carlyle already achieved the impossible: he changed Leafs culture, both on and off the ice.

No. 28 | Because Beyoncé blinks mink

No. 28 | Because Beyoncé blinks mink (Photo: Getty Images)

Between bump-gate and inauguration-gate, it’s hard to tell what’s real about Beyoncé. But we know the truth about the regal gaze she casts on her subjects post–mike drop: her long, luscious mink-fur lashes come from a Toronto company called Velour. Mabel Lee and Angela Tran, a trader and a business analyst who met at high school in Markham, started the company in 2011. Their false lashes—handmade with fur shed by mink on a free-range farm—are shiny, feathery and as flexible as Beyoncé herself. Last December, her makeup artist told reporters that she buys Velour’s “Are Those Real?” lashes “by the ton,” and the product soon sold out. They’re fake, but they’re the gold standard of fake—kind of like Beyoncé.

No. 29 | Because we’re 50 shades of naughty

No. 29 | Because we’re 50 shades of naughty (Collage: Bradley Reinhardt)

For most of its existence, Toronto was a stronghold of Victorian propriety.  In the past few years, however, the city has undergone a sexual revolution; now it’s a libertine’s paradise, where couples tryst in public and frequent kinky sex clubs. The city’s naughty reputation swelled with Gabriel’s Inferno, a Toronto-set erotic novel published in 2011 by an author calling him- or herself Sylvain Reynard. The book became a sensation, climbing the New York Times bestseller list, but Reynard refused to disclose his or her identity, prompting a city-wide guessing game as to which Toronto writer was behind the overheated prose—notable suspects have included Mark Kingwell and Margaret Atwood. Reynard wrote a sequel, Gabriel’s Rapture, and signed a seven-figure deal with Penguin for a planned series. The books are sexed-up romance novels in the tenor of 50 Shades, following the studly U of T professor Gabriel Emerson as he seduces his virginal student, Julia Mitchell, in various hot spots around the city, including Holt’s, Robarts Library, Harbour Sixty and Gabriel’s condo in the Manulife Centre. Once, it was impossible to imagine a sensible Toronto couple going to third base in the ROM’s Renaissance gallery. In Reynard’s libidinous literary landscape, it’s a matter of course.

No. 30 | Because we’re curing disease in style

No. 30 | Because we’re curing disease in style (Photo: Courtesy of Sickkids)

If you’ve occasionally wondered where the money raised by SickKids’ infamous sidewalk canvassers was going, here’s your answer. This summer, the hospital opens the doors of its new Centre for Research and Learning, a gleaming, $400-million, 21-storey, Diamond and Schmitt–designed tower. The centre is organized around a half-dozen vertically integrated “neighbourhoods” that will concentrate on everything from asthma management to cutting-edge genetic testing. For the first time, the hospital’s 2,000-odd researchers and clinicians (previously scattered across six separate sites in the city) will be united under one rainwater-harvesting roof. The design of the building is intended to help accelerate the hospital’s medical breakthroughs, which include a recent study that shows normal gut bacteria might help treat diabetes, and the development of a unique backpack that can deliver intravenous medication to pediatric chemo outpatients. It might take a village to raise a child, but it takes a city to heal a sick one.