The Rocket Bus outside Pearson International saved Melanie and I from the sting of a Canadian winter in full force. From there, we were sent underground for two subway connections, each one sprinting briefly above ground — apartment highrises nearing completion dotted the rails heading into downtown Toronto.
Our final stop came at Queen Street, where we climbed the subway stairs up to a city in full swing. It was refreshing to see a winter city refusing to hibernate. Torontonians, bundled up from head-to-toe of course, easily outnumbered the cars circling around Queen and Yonge. The sounds stick out, too. Not just the screech of the streetcar rails or traffic, but the languages. English, French, German, Spanish; and was that Thai? Lord knows I have a strong ear for Thai.
With little time to spare, we kept moving. This was, after all, just a 20-hour layover en route to Costa Rica.
Modern. Dense. Energetic. These were some initial impressions. Toronto is a city, built in most respects to human scale — the way any urban core should be. History too could be found around any corner. For us, it was Old City Hall on Queen just down the street from our hotel at the Sheraton. This gem of Romanesque Rival architecture housed city council from 1899 to 1966, its clock tower offering a bit of a Big Ben impersonation.
Skinny streetcars snaked along Toronto thoroughfares like blood through the veins of the city. Coincidentally, Toronto once considered eliminating their streetcar network in favor of buses like the majority of North America. A plan was put on the table in 1966 to remove the rails by 1980. Thankfully for Torontonians and travelers alike, the plan was killed thanks to a group of city residents working under the banner of “Streetcars For Toronto.” Now American cities look in envy to Toronto, a city that seems to have maintained its ability to be livable without a car. Ironically, American cities like Kansas City, Cincinnati and my very own Cleveland helped make that possible by foolishly selling their streetcars to Toronto as they removed their networks in the 1950s.
Today, it’s easy to see who made the right decision. Toronto’s population in 1950 was about 1.2 million, Cleveland 1 million. In the next census, Toronto gained about 700,000 residents while Cleveland lost 30,000. Fast forward, Toronto has approximately 2.6 million residents while Cleveland recently dropped to under 400,000. Cleveland’s downtown, while vastly improved in the past decade, is still littered with parking garages, parking craters, and highways gutting the core. Downtown Toronto offered a contrarian image.
Obviously the streetcar decision was hardly the only factor in determining the future for Toronto and Cleveland. But it does show what happens when you develop for people and not for cars. While 20 hours in Toronto is nowhere near enough time to fully understand the city and its development, anecdotal evidence says that urban Toronto is thriving. This much was clear strolling around Yonge Street with no shortage of shops and restaurants lining the sidewalks and side streets. We eventually decided to turn the jaunt into a loop after stumbling across sidewalk art noting that Yonge Street happens to be the longest street in the world at 1,896 kilometers. Apparently this was a Guinness Book of Records mistake, confusing Ontario’s Highway 11 with the continuation of Yonge. Still, it’s at least 56 kilometers long — a bit much for a winter stroll.
Dipping in and out of stores, we took a warmup break at Dineen Coffee Co. on Yonge and Temperance. There must be something to this joint with a bit of flair for the past. Every seat was taken and others seemed perfectly content standing. There’s definitely an indescribable charm to Dineen’s. I could see myself coming here, armed with my laptop, and settling in for hours of people watching after several failed attempts at writing something that makes me happy.
Nearing the dinner hour, we headed back toward the Sheraton for a quick change, stopping at Nathan Phillips Square to take in the city Christmas tree and ice skating rink. The hockey-sized sheet of ice was covered with winter revellers, some showing off and others having their first clumsy skate with dad. The aforementioned Old City Hall served as the perfect background.
After ridding ourselves of our travelers stench, all signs, advice and reviews, pointed to Steam Whistle Brewing. Unfortunately it just closed for the day, but it was great excuse to see Olympic Park with some mementos to rail history out on display.
Our facial muscles slowly numbing, making for some interesting annunciation issues, we decided to cut through alongside Toronto’s famous CN Tower, still sparkling in Christmas red and green. King Street was our goal, which proved worthy when we found the glowing red neon sign of Hey Lucy Café at 295 King St, drawing us in for food and wine.
Hey Lucy proved to be an excellent find. The exposed brick interior and narrow layout emitted a charming, cozy ambiance that mixed perfectly with a bottle of wine and pasta primavera. Usually I’m one to rush out of a restaurant after eating, but I could stay here for hours — so long as the vino kept flowing.
Of course, no trip to Canada could truly be called a success without a stop at Timmy Ho’s — Tim Horton’s to the layperson. This, I can proudly write, was accomplished the following morning. The perfect cap to what started as an annoying 20-hour layover and ended in a confusing mixture of satisfaction and envy. Satisfied that I had finally seen Toronto, even if it was only a glimpse. Though envious of Torontonians that I had to leave and they got to stay.