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2006 12 16
Culture And Tourism In The Modern City: Part 3
imageReading Toronto is interested in the decisions our politicians make concerning the city's cultural realm. So, when we came across this chapter in former city politician, Tony O'Donohue's, book, " Tale of a City," we wanted to share it with our readers. The chapter is written by journalist Cy Jamison and will run in four parts.

-By Cy Jamison

Art Gallery of Ontario
The new Ontario art college building is just behind and across the park from the staid old Art Gallery of Ontario, where one of the leading architects of the day, the Toronto-born Frank Gehry, released plans for a post-modern titanium and glass façade with a rebuilt interior. Gehry’s plans for the $195 million rebuild were greeted by a flurry of protest, in part because it seemed that the titanium façade was planned around a mere squiggle, an elongated sketch of how the old rectangular limestone front of the building would be covered up and attenuated horizontally along Dundas Street.

Those who liked the plan could see the sense of bringing a glass front-piece to the building, opening up some exhibition space to pale northern light. But Toronto’s more conservative burgers saw it as mere exhibitionism. In the end, Gehry reworked his plans, changing parts of the façade from titanium to wood and backing away from gutting parts of the interior. He could easily have walked away from the whole project, but it was just around the corner from the street where he was born.

Ironically, the gallery could have opted for an entirely new building on donated waterfront land, which might have allowed Gehry to work his magic with a titanium and glass structure facing south towards the lake. But the AGO trustees insisted on staying put. Gehry said coolly that he had been given neither the money nor the space to do a Bilbao in Toronto, so he had to work with what he had.

His experience in his native city contrasts sharply with what he did for Chicago’s new Millennium Park, a $700 million waterfront extravaganza which opened in 2004 on a 10-hectare site. The two cities had the shared reality of grey Great Lakes’ waterfronts, but while Chicagoans built themselves a showcase for great architecture, Toronto merely drew up plans for empty parks and found a way not to carry them through.

Gehry’s particular contribution to the Chicago park is an outdoor concert hall capable of seating 13,000. Its enormous stage, trimmed with steel and aluminium, will be capable of showcasing everything from rock acts to the city’s symphony, one of the world’s greatest orchestras.

How did Toronto move so far from its ‘world-class’ pretensions? In 1967, with the Centennial year and the Montreal Expo, Canada had a young population, a baby boom in the making. It had its highest intake of immigrants; the dollar was high and the natural resources of the hinterland unlimited. Toronto had a hippy village in Yorkville, bright new cafes facing the street, new community colleges to educate hundreds of thousands of students, and a flush of civic pride that flowed in part from Viljo Revell’s stunning City Hall, whose half clam-shell wings seemed to clasp the municipal space below in a warm embrace.

It also was getting a superbly cool modernist masterpiece, the stark black towers of Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Bank Centre. And soon, the CN Tower would reach as high as ‘corn in Oklahoma’, a visible calling card for a city on the up-and-up.

But then came hubris, highlighted most tastelessly when Mayor Mel Lastman shot down what was left of the city’s Olympian dreams by saying that he feared going to Africa because he might be boiled in a pot. It was a frightening fall from grace for the former North York mayor, who had so blithely backed his suburban values into a newly amalgamated metropolis.

And so, nearly 40 years after the mid-1960s flush of energy, Toronto found itself in decline. Its immigration, like the dollar, was slumping, Yorkville was a lifeless condo-ville, the waterfront was still a blight, and the tourist image was shattered. Even the new ferry that would carry much-needed American tourists across the lake from Rochester did not have a Toronto terminal to call its own, and the plan was soon scuppered. Hogtown had fallen far.

The culture of change
When Lastman exited the civic scene and more radical mayor David Miller took over in 2003, the city was ready for change. Miller had fought his election in part on blocking plans for a bridge to an underused Toronto Island airport. The new mayor and his constituents on the city’s west side did not care to face the prospect of dozens of flights a day, and possibly some business jets, over ‘their’ airspace. Miller clashed on the issue with the Toronto Port Authority, the federal agency which controlled the commercial side of the port as well as some the port lands.

Toronto was, once again, caught in an old dilemma: how could it redevelop the waterfront and enhance its cultural heritage without full support from the provincial and federal governments and their agencies? That battle played itself out with a new federal prime minister, Paul Martin, the Toronto-educated Liberal lawyer whose party had swept all 48 Greater Toronto ridings in the 2000 election, but who in the 2004 election faced a growing tide of dissent across Canada’s largest metropolis.

There was hope that the city and its new mayor could salvage something from the wreckage left by Lastman and his predecessors. City council’s own publicity machine proudly announced that there were 125 museums and public archives in the Greater Toronto area, more than 50 ballet and dance companies, six opera companies, two symphonies and one of the broadest ranges of theatre experiences in the English-speaking world. The library system, however starved it was for funds to buy books, had a superb Reference Library, the work of Canadian-born Raymond Moriyama; and the libraries were the most widely-used in North America – Los Angeles was twice as large, but Toronto had more book borrowers.

Then there was ‘Hollywood North’, which was hit hard by SARS and even harder by a provincial government decision to cut back on tax breaks for film-makers. Still, Toronto was the third-ranked city in North America for TV and film production, and second as an exporter of TV programming. What the PR story did not mention was that film-makers were hampered for many years by the lack of the large sound-stage needed for Hollywood blockbusters, which had to go to Montreal or Vancouver. Detailed plans to build a new 10-hectare film ‘city’ were finally unveiled in early 2004, but faded as the year ended.
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 12/16 at 02:08 PM

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