From a Toronto timeline of the last ten years, you might cherry-pick three events, fortunate and unfortunate, to help explain how a friendly, but not exactly thrilling, provincial capital became the go-to city it is today. First, in 1997, city leaders baldly asked voters, "Are you in favor of eliminating the city of Toronto and all other existing municipalities in metropolitan Toronto and amalgamating them into a megacity?" The answer, even from the suburbs, was a big, loud No, underlining the already emphatic attachment Torontonians felt to their communities. Then, two years later—as if to suggest that some people, at least, knew the difference between megacity and city—the Ontario Provincial Government established Ontario SuperBuild to coordinate infrastructure investment, public and private. Money had started to water some interesting seedling projects just when the third event came to pass: the SARS outbreak of 2003. The ensuing fear and fleeing crippled Toronto’s hotel and restaurant industries, cost the Canadian economy about $2 billion, and, after sensible jaws snapped shut again, jump-started a massive campaign to bring the city, and its visitors, back.
Now, on a breezy afternoon, I’m sitting outside at a popular downtown power-lunch spot, enjoying a salad of perfectly grilled octopus and calamari with a glass of crisp Riesling. At the next table, a well-groomed banker in towering heels, with a Gucci handbag hanging on the back of her chair, chats over caipirinhas with her pinstriped beau about an upcoming trip to Italy. This could be lunchtime in midtown Manhattan or the Chicago Loop, except that here, the sporty BMW that just sped by had a shiny canoe strapped to its roof, and there’s an orderly queue of taxis outside—not honking. This is Toronto, whose intimate, tree-filled neighborhoods make the city feel more like a string of villages. Here, somehow, in a sprawling metropolis of 2.5 million, where the first language is English, the second Italian, the third Chinese, and so on through Polish, Tagalog, and Gujarati, a notion of community still thrives—and everyone is learning the meaning of cosmopolitan.
The latest innovative restaurants and world-class hotels are filling up again and are booked solid throughout September’s Toronto International Film Festival. New buildings by global architects are dramatically changing the landscape. Toronto as movie set—think Cinderella Man, Chicago, X-Men, to name a few—is becoming a Hollywood franchise. You can feel the loosening-up of creative energy, the quickening of the civic pulse.
"Culturally, Toronto is in its adolescence," says local entrepreneur Jeff Stober. "The arts—music, film, design—are driving the city and starting to get recognition. We’re not there yet, but I think our confidence is growing." We’re talking over cappuccinos at the Drake Hotel, a former flophouse on a grungy stretch of Queen Street West, that Stober turned into a hub of art, design, music, and hospitality. Thanks to the Drake, which opened in February 2004, locals confusingly now call this stretch "West Queen West" to distinguish it from the stuck-in-time section closer to downtown, still lined with the same music stores and punk shops I remember from my first visit, in 1989.
In many ways, the Drake embodies the spirit percolating in Toronto, even if it’s so totally now it feels art-directed, like a reality-TV show. (The hotel even has its own in-house curator). Almost as soon as it opened, the Drake became a magnet for bohemian types and cool-hunters from all over town. "It’s oxymoronic: building a hotel for the neighborhood that would attract global travelers," Stober tells me. "I wanted them to benefit from what’s happening here in Toronto, but it’s also about giving back to the community."