In high school, I was told by an English teacher that James Joyce walked the streets to clear his mind, to imagine, to write. He lived in Paris, Trieste, Rome, Zürich-scenic, glamorous cities, yet it was the narrow cobblestone streets, lanes and parks of dreary Dublin that remained in his consciousness and inspired his most famous novels, even though Joyce complained “How sick, sick, sick I am of Dublin! It is the city of failure, of rancor and of unhappiness. I long to be out of it.”
After reading uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto, I had a renewed appreciation for the city. It became easier to imagine an urban genius like Joyce meandering throughout Toronto on “layers upon layers of brick, concrete and pavement peeling away from each other.” This imaginary intellectual would observe Toronto’s utilitarian strip plazas, trees, parks and ravines, glass skyscrapers, mock Victoriana and “the ugliest building in the world or merely the weirdest . . . OCAD.”
Maybe this urban wanderer would get sick, sick, sick of Toronto, but in the process memorialize the city’s images, people and quirks, making an uncelebrated city significant. That’s what these contributors have attempted to do through a collection of essays, conversations and interviews that recognize Toronto’s beauty, ugliness, modernity, history and most importantly, potential. The writing of each contributor is so passionate, spirited and convincing, that Toronto stops being lowly Hogtown and really does become uTOpia.
This book explores eras of Toronto’s architecture, politics and people, from brutalism to bohemian, yet like the Romantics, who challenged the position of the aristocracy, uTOpia contributors seethe at the greedy loft contractors and franchises that are driving working class artists and businesses out of the Queen St. W. area. Nature, another Romantic ideal, constantly appears throughout the text. Many of the contributors crave an environmentally friendly, greener metropolis, on the Toronto Islands or on private properties with experimental architecture.
uTOpia contains one of the most beautiful passages (and best comebacks) about Toronto I have ever read-Erik Rutherford describes the city as a young man, just out of university, writing: “When you praise him, he doesn’t believe you; when you criticize him, his pride is wounded.” Well, uTOpia is worthy of all of these compliments, and although my last intention is to deflate its ego, I was surprised to see a book that boasts political and social ideology spell the name of Liberal and former Ontario Premier David Peterson’s name incorrectly. But as Rutherford wrote, “He’s still a little inexperienced,” so we’ll excuse the mistake. (Erin Kobayashi)
edited by Jason McBride and Alana Wilcox, $24.95, 287 pgs + two maps, Coach House Books, 401 Huron St. (rear) on bpNicol Lane, Toronto, ON, M5S 2G5, chbooks.com