(This is the English and slightly longer version of my article from this morning’s La Presse)
Believe it or not, Toronto is friendlier than Montreal and the food is better, but the city is filthy, its infrastructure is falling apart and crime is a serious problem
Two years ago when I moved from Montreal to Toronto, I was surprised by how friendly everyone was. When I took the dog for a walk, random passersby would greet me in the way that people do in small towns – wishing me good morning and commenting on the weather.
Downtown in the financial district, women would stop me mid-stride to proclaim their love for my shoes or inquire where I had bought my winter coat. If I lingered with my e-book reader at a sidewalk café – yes, Toronto has lots of those too – waiters and fellow patrons alike would solicit my opinion on whether they should get one.
Although Montreal prides itself on being the “warm” city awash in joie de vivre, Montrealers look decidedly unfriendly next to Torontonians who, according to stereotype are supposed to be cold, efficient, uptight workaholics who spend every free moment discussing real estate.
Okay, that last one is still true. People here do talk constantly about the exorbitant house prices and where to find a reliable contractor, but beyond that, pretty much everything else Montrealers think they know about Toronto is dead wrong.
First off, Toronto the good is now Toronto the messy, with litter strewn all over town. Used coffee cups decorate downtown bus shelters, garbage containers are often packed so full nothing else can be deposited, and, on a recent Saturday morning in the upscale Yonge and Eglinton district, a small park was carpeted with trash. It reminded me of how during last summer’s garbage strike, which the mayor inexplicably allowed to drag on for weeks, a handwritten sign appeared in the park near my house thanking the managers who cleaned up the grounds for doing a better job than the striking workers they replaced.
Toronto’s once efficient public transit system is now a wreck. There are delays on the subways almost every morning and water leaks in most stations. After a strong overnight rain, it’s not unusual for the Union Station stop to be flooded, leaving workers with brooms sweeping futilely at 10-cm deep pools of water during morning rush hour.
Crucial streetcar lines operate on reduced schedules and face inconvenient detours as major urban arteries are shut down for months – sometimes years – for construction while the streetcars that remain in service are packed to the gills or stalled in traffic.
Meanwhile, almost every day brings a spectacular new crime story. This summer’s include the 17-year-old who was killed by a shot to the back of the head while eating in a Chinese restaurant and the young man injured by stray bullet fire while he was attending, of all things, a violence prevention barbecue.
The situation has changed drastically since the last time I lived here in the early nineties when the city actually worked. Part of the reason I returned is because I genuinely like Toronto and have never been one of those Montrealers who snobbishly poke fun at it, but I am finding it increasingly hard to defend this city and the good things about it.
More and more the crime and dirt reminds me of pre-Giuliani New York while the powerful unions bring to mind Quebec before it brought in essential services legislation.
Yes, there goes another myth, supposedly lefty Quebec has tougher anti-strike legislation when it comes to services designated essential than Ontario, which is why Toronto can lose its garbage collection in the middle of summer and no one in the country’s fat cat business capital does a thing.
Nor is it clear that the new mayor, who will be elected this autumn replacing the ineffectual incumbent of the past eight years, is going to change much. One of the two front runners for the job, George Smitherman, was provincial health minister while its eHealth electronic records agency was wasting $1 billion in taxpayer money. Given that record, how is he going to able to fix city hall?
Thank goodness Toronto has surpassed Montreal in the food department with fantastic places to eat and drink all over town. We need our original restaurants and tasty Niagara wines to drown our sorrows as we discuss Ontario’s new harmonized sales tax and why prices and taxes keep going up in a city that’s in rapid decline.
In case any of you Montrealers, eating your staid old steak frites and drinking your boring French wines, feel the need to roll your eyes heavenwards over Toronto’s plight, I suggest you might also want to check in that direction for falling concrete. At least we don’t have that in Toronto – yet.
You can read more of my newspaper work in the New York Times archives.