26 October 2012

Toronto – New York Run By The Swiss

I recently returned from a research trip to New York and Toronto. Being the first time in Canada’s largest metropolis my expectations were high. I was not disappointed. Nevertheless the image I had had of Toronto was altered a lot. The first days it represented itself as what many would call a highly livable city, everyone’s  friendly, there is a lot of green space, people move around on bikes or in streetcars, small little restaurants, clean and safe, many of the big chain retailers are hidden well in shopping malls, to make way for more small scale retail infrastructures also in the bigger shopping streets. Moreover it definitely has a European touch und it is certainly understandable why it has been ranking top in various ‘most livable cities’ indexes.
However, soon I ‘discovered’ the suburbs. Standing at the viewing platform of CN Tower revealed the vast suburban landscape which is part of Toronto and its metropolitan area.  
As I learned, these are also the places where most of the Newly Arrived settle down due to lower living costs. Remarkably, more than half of Torontonians are born outside of Canada which renders the city one of the most multicultural environments in Northern America; specifically as the places of origin are not confined to a few but you find people coming from all over the world speaking all different kinds of languages and bringing all different kinds of cultures to the city. Nevertheless, within researching diasporic practices enacted in public space such as informal street vending or informal markets it proved difficult to find such places in Toronto. Speculatively, this is due to the already arrived fall season but probably also due to the car dependency of people in the vastly suburban city, a fact which obviously results in declining uses of public space. Besides, I am speculating that one of the most influencing factors why Toronto is lacking publicly visible ethnocultural public space activities is due to the strictly regulated public environment. Before my trip I was convinced that these activities are probably rarer in New York than in Toronto, especially after the restrictive public space regulations for NYC following 9/11. In fact, the opposite is the case. Compared to New York, public parks for example seem much more regulated and restrictive to “non-appropriate” uses in Toronto. For me, just because of that, the often-heard nickname of Toronto as “New York run by the Swiss” makes sense. Nevertheless through researching the origins of this label I learned that the intention was just opposite: The phrase was used by actor and writer Peter Ustinov in an interview in 1987 and was meant as a compliment for the city of being much cleaner and more efficient than its US counterpart.  Probably it is just this ambiguous meaning, which makes the quote still relevant after 25 years.