It has now come to pass that Toronto can lay claim to being the fourth largest city in North America, passing Chicago, with its city proper population now ringing in at an estimated 2,791,140. This is a significant climb in population for Toronto, rising about one-quarter of a million people in a decade.
Both for Canada’s largest city and most hated city, the statistical milestone is nothing more than that. And as a datapoint on its own, it really is nothing more than that.
I’ve been lucky enough in my life to have lived outside of Canada, and been lucky enough to have stamps in my passport from almost every continent in the world. And truth be told, there’s a lot of places I’ve been which I wouldn’t mind spending a great deal more time in.
That said, Toronto is “special” in the world today. It’s perhaps, in the developed world, the city most defined by immigration. A fact lamented by conservatives and embraced by liberals. In the year 2013, a majority of the people living in the City of Toronto, North America’s fourth largest city, were not even born on this continent. I think the liberals are on the right side of history, here.
Cities like New York and Chicago could once claim a similar statistic, in their heydays as destinations for masses of immigrants from Europe. But America has fallen out of love with the idea of immigration being a good thing. While immigrants still contribute to America in a big way, culturally America has grown distrustful of immigration and a majority of Americans would like to see the gates into America churning ever more slowly — and more discerningly.
Toronto stands out in the world, because its a place where hints of xenophobia are noticeably rare. And people do notice.
A colleague of mine on a trip from Germany was sitting in Jack Astor’s restaurant on John Street in downtown Toronto a couple of years ago sipping beers and having a quick bite to eat when he suddenly changed the topic from work to an observation of the restaurant; looking around the restaurant he observed that at almost every table, sat persons of mixed ethnicities. Almost no all-white tables. No all-black tables. No all-Asian tables.
This stuck out to me. And I think back to that moment a lot when I’m abroad, or even in the United States. My German colleague’s observation really contrasts Toronto quite starkly when you pay attention.
It really begs the question: is Toronto the least racist city in the world? And if it is, why?
The standard conservative refrain in Canada, and even from within Toronto is that multiculturalism has failed. It has led to ethnic ghettos and inter-racial tension. But in Canada’s showcase metropolis, with a city dominated by a non-white, multi-ethnic majority, these supposed racial tensions are noticeably absent. They’re not gone. Toronto is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a city free of the repugnance that is racism. But is it the city which has come closest to extinguishing it? Perhaps.
Against this backdrop of Toronto’s rapidly shifting demographics, is also the very real sense that the city is growing. For Toronto, the city is faced not with what so many other North American cities are faced with — attracting people and businesses — but is faced with the challenges of figuring out with how to cope with the city’s attractiveness and the attendant population inflows.
It’s a problem a lot of cities would like to have.
Ironically, Toronto is despised for its growth by many. Growth is seen as an inconvenience. An unpleasant change.
Toronto’s condo market may be a bubble, riding on cheap money and over-extended credit. But one must also take heed of the fact that people are, in droves, eschewing suburban living and moving downtown.
The city has been called “boring” by many of its detractors for lacking the majesty of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, a music venue with the prestige of New York’s Radio City Music Hall, or a waterfront as beautiful as Chicago’s.
But Toronto is a young city. It does not have the history, and thus, venues and places with the history of Empire State Building, or Chicago’s Board of Trade Building. Lacking these sorts of tick boxes in a tourist guide does not make Toronto boring. It actually, when put in perspective, makes Toronto all the more fascinating.
Half a century ago, Toronto was nothing more than a small provincial town. At that time, Chicago was the second biggest city in North America. Today, a half century later, Toronto is larger than Chicago. It has more skyscrapers under construction than any city outside of China. It has more office space under construction than Chicago, New York City and San Francisco combined.
No, Toronto is not a city of historical depth like Chicago or New York City. It’s a city where significant history is being written, by perhaps the most cosmopolitan population the world has ever seen — and that makes Toronto today, anything but boring.