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2006 12 17
Culture And Tourism In The Modern City: Part 4
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

On the waterfront
The waterfront has been enhanced by the Distillery district, saved because 44 old buildings near the run-down Parliament and King St area were so dismally located that they were not deemed worthy of knocking down for redevelopment. The Distillery Building, built 140 years ago with limestone blocks shipped to its own dock from Kingston, is one of the city’s older structures – most of those built in wood were burned down in major fires.

The Distillery district has cobbled streets paved with old bricks, art galleries, restaurants and stores. It needed more of a sense of habitation and of connectedness to the lakefront, but at least it had survived. Its owners, Cityscape, stressed the need to make it into an art district, like Chelsea in Manhattan, but they clashed with their principal investor about the direction of the project. Until artists could actually live and mingle there, it seemed unlikely to become the success it might otherwise have been, or indeed to be fully integrated into the city and its waterfront.

Other critics of waterfront development had made the point over the years that the only way to revitalize the city’s southern littoral was to build low-rise residences and small commercial properties to create an ‘urban streetscape’ that connected directly with the lakefront. Most plans called for parks, which unfortunately were doomed to be empty in winter; and for condos, whose owners had virtually nowhere to go if they stepped out from their front door. But the port lands area could serve another basic purpose – a modern industrial park to provide jobs, exports and research for a diverse population.

And so artists stayed away from the bleak and unfriendly waterfront. In fact, it was the impoverished Parkdale area in the west end that saw an artistic revival driven by low rents. Galleries and antique stores clustered along Queen St West, and a ‘retro’ boutique hotel, the Drake, became one of the city’s trendiest destinations. Painters and poets moved into old Victorian homes that had once been the abodes of wealthy suburbanites drawn to the coolness of the lakefront village. Many of its better villas had been demolished, especially along Jameson Ave, to make way for ugly apartment blocks, but enough Victoriana survived to give the area a reasonably authentic nineteenth-century feeling.

The opera house
All great cities need an opera house – even Manaus, the Brazilian city in the Amazon River jungle has a famous one, from the forgotten days of the rubber barons. Berlin has several, Milan has La Scala, London has Covent Garden, New York has the Met. Paris has the stunning new Paris Opera, built in the 1990s by a Toronto-trained architect, Carlos Ott. The nouveau riche Hollywood honchos in Los Angeles also had the flamboyant Walt Disney concert hall, built with a curving titanium façade for $275 million (U.S.) by none other than Gehry.

Unfortunately, Toronto did not hand Gehry the contract for its new opera house, but at least it did manage to scrounge some land from a reluctant provincial government, and it got enough money together to create a complex topped off with a residential tower at the busy corner of Queen St and University Avenue. It might not be a thing of great beauty, but opera buffs would be happy enough if the acoustics were not as awful as they had been in Arthur Erickson’s nearby Roy Thomson concert hall, home for the Toronto Symphony.

That hall had been so acoustically dead – at least until a 2003 restoration brought resonant wood surfaces into its concrete interior – that the Irish flautist James Galway vowed he would never play there again. Erickson fought hard against the acoustic changes, but in the end music was deemed more important than the cold concrete surfaces of the circular building.

Other cultural buildings were being reconstructed to suit post-modern tastes. The Distillery district got a new theatre school and performing space for George Brown College’s drama students, who would work closely with a professional theatre company. And young ballet dancers, for years one of the city’s greatest artistic triumphs, would learn their skills in a rebuilt National Ballet School.

Much was happening in the downtown core, and if enough of Gehry’s vision could survive at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the new Hogtown might at last have an art space that would house not only the billionaire Thomson’s $300 million art collection, but a new culture and tourism boom in the modern city.

- By Cy Jamison
- Extracted from a contribution by a Toronto journalist and author to the book Tale of a City (Dundurn House), written by a civil engineer and former mayoral candidate, Tony O’Donohue
[email this story] Posted by Cy Jamison on 12/17 at 02:16 PM

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