A patchwork of neighborhoods, Toronto is remarkable for its vibrant downtown core where Torontonians eat, play, sleep, and work. If you're coming in from Pearson International Airport, the city might seem sprawling -- and the Greater Toronto Area including its former boroughs, is big at 7,124 square km (2,750 sq miles) -- but once you're grounded downtown, everything is here: shoulder-to-shoulder condo towers, office buildings, theaters, parks, schools, restaurants and cafes, bars and nightclubs, taverns, and places of worship.
The city draws on its vast international pedigree to give it shape and definition: The polyglot Toronto is the Toronto story. And lately, it's changing at a rapid pace. For the most part, that's welcome news for citizens and visitors alike. The city, which held onto its reputation as "Toronto the Good" with faded nostalgia, has finally awakened to the realization that it might be Toronto the Rude, Toronto the Tough, Toronto the Cool, or, as one recent immigrant has named it, Toronto the Great.
In late 2010, the people voted in a new mayor, a return to the right for the first time this century. Mayor Rob Ford promises cutbacks, lower taxes, and smaller government; the city is deeply in debt. Ford, often lampooned for his substantial girth, is out to "clean up" this town, and the consensus is his legacy will likely entail reduced government services. Then again, he keeps surprising his constituents: The anti-cyclist is planning new bike lanes, just one of a string of unexpected developments.
The signs of growth are all around. The skyline downtown is a forest of cranes, as condo towers stretch upwards to 75 stories. There are marvelous new parks, new heights to property values (topped by a $28-million penthouse sold at the Four Seasons tower), electric cars and other green initiatives, a widespread alternative foods movement, and better waterfront playgrounds.
Meanwhile, the city by the lake is taking strides to reclaim its final frontier along the waterfront. After years of political dithering while developers erected a concrete curtain of condos that deprived downtown of lake views and cooling on-shore breezes, some visible progress is taking shape to replace the city's derelict shipping and industrial past at the water's edge. The impetus that finally spurred development was the city's winning the hosting bid for the Pan Am Games in 2015. This Olympics-lite requires scads of housing for athletes, which is rising around the mouth of the Don River just to the east of downtown.
New developments underway include a revitalization of Union Station, the city's main train station, that will brighten the historic building with a glass-canopy roof and expand services; the elimination of three lanes of traffic at Queen's Quay in front of Harbourfront to make room for bike and pedestrian lanes, as well as some new landscaping; the whimsical retreat called Sugar Beach opposite the Redpath Sugar refinery at the water's edge; Sherbourne Common, another new waterfront park; and last but not least, saving the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens, an historic hockey shrine, from demolition and developing it into a new athletic facility for nearby Ryerson University (as well as a major supermarket: from pucks to plums?) set to open in the winter of 2012.
There are shuttered storefronts, too, as the retail world continues to lurch in fits and starts. Traffic is congested at best -- chaotic at worst -- in the city's core, especially on weekdays. There are parts of town, some of them downtown, where guns and gangs rule. The city's reputation was dealt a serious blow with the now-notorious G20 riots and police brutality of 2010; it's still a contentious topic for Torontonians.
So, for better or for worse, Toronto is not simply "good" anymore. A local reporter has compared it to a teenager (it's a young city, turning 178 in 2012). The comparison is apt: Toronto is out for fun, exuberant, a bit rambunctious, and sometimes a challenge to manage. The reward is that it's more interesting than merely nice.
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