I read this interview in The Guardian with Rufus Wainwright a few days in which he, among other things, answers the “fill in the blank” question I’ll never go back to… with:
Toronto. I can’t stand it – the place drives me mad. I’m allowed to say this because I’m Canadian. I have friends there, I work there, but I find it really hard to like. I will have to go back there, but I wish I didn’t have to. It’s trying to be the New York of the Midwest. I much prefer Montreal.
Immediately I agreed, as I have always tended to over the past few years. I brag to Torontonians that I live in Montreal, and I wear a big chip on my shoulder doing it. But maybe I’m being unreasonable. And annoying.
For any urban Canadian, this kind of mentality is probably very familiar. They even made a documentary about it, Let’s All Hate Toronto, by Albert Nerenberg and Rob Spence, that made the festival rounds last year.
I’m currently in Toronto for a week, and have for the most part spent the last two years dividing my time between it and Montreal (I’d say 80% Montreal, 20% Toronto, to be more precise). I’ve witnessed many people switch cities, and have comparative conversations about the two cities many a time. So I feel I am well suited to give an opinion.
For any young, English-speaking Canadian, especially those in cultural industries, there is likely an overwhelming force drawing them to Toronto. Vancouver is the next viable option, but certainly much less so, and for those on the Eastern side of the country, its very far away. I moved to Toronto in 2002, and spent the next 4 years there doing my undergrad at the University of Toronto. When I finished, I’ll admit one of the main reasons I applied to grad school was so that I had a reason to leave. Otherwise, why, and how, could I? The jobs were right there, and I didn’t exactly have money saved to move anywhere for no practical reason. So I went to Montreal. For an anglo-Canadian, I’d imagine 80% of people move to Montreal for school. Another 15% to be an indie rock star. And the other 5% for various other reasons.
Nobody ever wants to leave. Nobody I’ve met. But if you don’t speak French, and even if you do, Montreal is a tough occupational world to navigate. But it also makes life seem so easy. Cheap rent. Cheap transit. Cheap beer. A ridiculous abundance of dirty fun everywhere you look. So, feasibly, Montreal is an option even when there are not much jobs around. Eventually, though, for an unlucky majority, the realization that Montreal is a fantasy world of stunted young adulthood for any Anglo comes creeping up. This isn’t always the case. But it is, as I countdown my last months of living there, for me.
So Toronto you go. Unless you have a lot of money, or a drastic sense of irresponsible adventure, its inevitable. Not that there’s not other options: smaller communities (there are many great ones), other cities, other countries if you’ve got hook-ups… But the major opportunities are in Toronto. And here’s the catch: Toronto is no Montreal. I have to admit I do understand Wainwright’s claim. And will expand on it by suggesting that Toronto is a bizarre city in that it really has no real identity. I think of it as one of those people who just copies everyone else, buys music they think is cool but don’t even like, wears clothes they see someone else wearing. And sometimes those traits are evident in much of its population as well. And in most of its festivals (TIFF aside), which compared to their more organic, more easy-going Montreal counterparts seem forced, sterile and corporate. And, briefly, some other negative characteristics: Bars close at 2am, the waterfront is a tragic mess, the rent is often ridiculously expensive, the transit system will make you want to gauge your eyes out and much of the newer architecture is very ugly.
Very few people I know who live in Toronto are happy that they do. However, some are. And they are usually people I regard as the most optimistic in life, and I also fear those people are going to hate me for saying all this. I don’t mean to undermine their home, or the reasons they love it (and there are reasons, despite what I’ve suggested thus far). But in my defense, I will fully admit that this is just my opinion based on my observations, and the relationships we have with our cities are so personal and so imbedded in the experiences we have there. A city means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I was 18 when I moved here, and unfortunately had to do a lot of growing up in the process, much of which involved making many a mistake. As a result, there’s lots of people in Toronto I have complicated, or even completely destroyed, relationships with. I associate bars and streets and neighbourhoods with things, good or bad, I don’t care to return to.
But I’ll have to return. Just like Rufus. I have so many lovely friends here. But unlike Rufus, it doesn’t make me that angry. As time goes on, and I spend years partially away from it, I actually really enjoy coming here as a short-term resident. 2 weeks in Toronto? Works for me. 2 years? That, I could not handle. Yet.
I think the real reason a lot of young Canadians hate Toronto – though I’ve made some valid specific points as well – is that if Montreal represents a fun fantasy, Toronto is a drab reality. But if you want to be successful in a certain sense of the word, and you aren’t extremely privileged financially: You have to work hard. You have to spend a lot of money you don’t want to spend. You need to network. You need to be home by 3. And as I grow closer to coming to terms with the fact that I do eventually need to behave like an adult, Toronto becomes a cold comfort farm for this kind of acceptance.
Besides, as I mentioned, there are good parts: Their weeklies (NOW and Eye) kick Montreal’s weeklies ass. So do their movie theatres and subsequent film selection. The Toronto Islands are an amazing and close by escape in the summer. Some neighbourhoods (personally, I adore the Annex, even though fear of ex-boyfriends usually makes me avoid it) are great, great places to live or play. So its really not all that bad, and maybe I don’t actually HATE Toronto, as I have definitely suggested time and time again. Or am I just convincing myself this to pad my own eventual fall?