Exploring multicultural Toronto

Harriet O'Brien explores multicultural Toronto and finds a city of many flavours, sights and sounds

Journey through a patch of old Ireland, walk into Greece and then saunter along to streets of pure India. Or perhaps take a streetcar further west and browse through the bustling stalls of Chinatown, reaching the aroma of rich coffee as you move on to the café culture of Italy. Welcome to the conglomeration of cultures that is Toronto.

The Philippines, Turkey, Jamaica, Poland, Portugal: Canada’s largest city is an extraordinary mosaic of neighbourhoods. About 10 per cent of the population is of Chinese origin, and one in 50 locals is Korean. The multicultural patchwork provides a sensory profusion – in parts almost an overload – of sights, smells, colours, foods. Near St Patrick subway station you pass rows of Cantonese shop windows displaying roasted ducks. A few streets away you’ll find neat Eastern European groceries with strings of sausages and shelves groaning with jars of pickles. Locals say that the tacit delineations between cultural groups help to diffuse many of the ethnic tensions that brood in other big cities across the world. And they will tell you proudly that their city is a “collaboration” of more than 100 different cultures.

Yet look at a map and Toronto’s great diversity seems almost at odds with many of its streetnames: Dundas, Yonge, Dalhousie, Dundonald,Temperance even. The city was largely established in the 1800s by Scottish Presbyterians. And they were, frankly, a dour lot. It was only in the mid Seventies that the sombre mood really began to lift.This was when Canada’s strict immigration policies started to ease up – and waves of foreigners were welcomed. In the face of their flamboyant mix of lifestyles, their spectrum of music, cuisines, art and more, Toronto had little option but to learn how to relax, and enjoy the results.

Gradually the city was rejuvenated, too. Many of Toronto’s oldest neighbourhoods were re-stored, much to the benefit of property values. Cabbagetown, for example, where Irish potato-famine immigrants had settled in the late 1840s, is now a rags to riches place of cottages with charming front gardens, while some of its longer streets are lined with lean and pretty row houses. The Annex further north near the University of Toronto was an elite development dating from the 1880s, and with its quiet tree-lined avenues of Victorian and Edwardian houses it is once again one of the city’s most affluent quarters.

The mood of change continues. Brockton Village to the west has now become a Brazilian as well as Portuguese area, while near the high-rise financial district downtown, the Bohemian neighbourhood around Church and Wellesley Streets is now proudly known as the Gay District.

More recently still the city has been the subject of an astonishing number of bold new makeovers, and the resulting sense of dynamism is almost palpable. Down in the south-east corner of central Toronto a once near-derelict area has been transformed into what is effectively an entirely new neighbourhood. The Distillery District opened in 2003 and is widely considered a triumph of reinvention. In the 1830s the Gooderham and Worts distillery was founded here. Less than 50 years later it had become the largest such operation in the world, producing about two million gallons of whiskey a year, both for export and for home consumption –and later falling on hard times during the Prohibition era. Today its 45 or so industrial redbrick buildings and old stone warehouses have been beautifully redevised as an arts and entertainment venue, with galleries, boutiques, brasseries and cafés also in situ. There’s a residential culture in creation, too, with locals currently moving into striking new condo buildings, and with more apartment blocks being developed on the eastern and southern parts of the site.

The performing arts are thriving in Toronto. After two vexed decades of slashed budgets and rehashed planning, last year saw the unveiling of the city’s new opera house on Queen West, just north of the main entertainment district. It has been much applauded. Its huge, glass-encased lobby looks literally the height of glamour but perhaps more importantly, the acoustics have been painstakingly engineered. A few streets away, just off Chinatown, the Art Gallery of Ontario on Dundas West is in the throes of being restructured by Frank Gehry, the Toronto-bred architect who moved to California in his late teens. The new building will have a great curving glass and wood façade and a glass-roofed walkway bringing light right into the core of the gallery.

Most of all, however, it is the Yorkville neighbourhood, slightly further north, that has been in the throes of dramatic changes and additions. Aflower-power hippy locale in the Sixties (where Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and more hung out), the area was spruced up in the Eighties and over the next decade became the Knightsbridge of Toronto, complete with galleries, upscale boutiques and Canada’s classiest department store, Holt Renfrew. Last month saw a luxury boutique hotel opened on the corner of Hazelton and Yorkville Avenues. The Hazelton offers the very latest inchic sophistication, its 77 generously sized roomsdecked in sleek browns and creams while bathroomsare lined with granite.

Yorkville is also home to two of the city’s mosthighly regarded museums, both of which saw the completion this year of significant extensions. Theimpressive new wing of the Royal Ontario Museumthat opened on 3 June. Designed by DanielLibeskind (who devised the Imperial War MuseumNorth in Manchester), it is a radical, crystalshapedstructure bolted on to a huge Victorianbuilding whose acres of galleries contain exhibitsthat reflect the astonishing ethnic diversity of thecity – and of Canada. Opposite is the Gardiner Museumof Ceramic Art which reopened this summerafter a major expansion. This elegant building contains a real gem of a collection, its 3,000 worksof art ranging from Mayan bowls to works by PostModernists such as Ruth Duckworth.

With Yorkville’s architectural additions havecome two major new food venues. Toronto, in anyevent, presents a staggering choice of places to eat, with more than 7,000 restaurants ranging fromEgyptian and Ethiopian to modern French and, ofcourse, contemporary Canadian. Among those dominating the city’s foodie scene are celebrity chefsJamie Kennedy and Mark McEwan. The HazeltonHotel houses McEwan’s latest venture, ONE restaurant, while the Gardiner Museum’s third flooris home to a fabulous new Jamie Kennedy café servingthe likes of Ontario corn chowder and smokedsockeye salmon with fennel salad.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

WHERE TO STAY: Hazelton Hotel, 118 Yorkville Avenue (001 416 963 6300; www.thehazeltonhotel.com ; doubles from C$405/£190 excluding breakfast)

WHAT TO SEE: Art gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West ( www.ago.net) - open Wed-Fri, noon-9pm; weekends 10am-5.30pm; adults C$15 (£7). Due to refurbishment only a small part of the gallery is currently open, and the4 building will close completely from 8 October until mid 2008.

The Distillery District, 55 Mill Street, offers 60-minute walking tours Tues-Sun at 11.15am and 3.15pm; adults C$15(£7) ( www.thedistillerydistrict.com)

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (Toronto's new ballet and opera house), 145 Queen Street West ( www.fourseasonscentre.ca). Walking tours (C$7/£3.30), take place on Saturdays at 11.45am and noon.

Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, 111 Queen's Park, open daily, Mon-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri 10am-9pm, weekends 10am-5pm; adults C$12/£5.60 ( www.gardinermuseum.on.ca)

Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen's Park (open daily 10am-6pm, and until 9.30pm on Thurs and Fri until 2 Sept; C$20/£9.50) ( www.rom.on.ca)

WHERE TO EAT: Mark McEwan's restaurants: North 44, 2537 Yonge St (001 416 487 4897; www.north44restaurant.com); Bymark, 66 Wellington St West (001 416 777 1144; www.bymark.ca); and ONE at the Hazleton Hotel (see above)

Jamie Kennedy's outlets: Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, 9 Church Street, open daily for lunches and dinners; Jamie Kennedy Restaurant also at 9 Church Street, dinners only (closed Mondays); and Jamie Kennedy Gardiner at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (see above), open for lunches daily and dinners on Friday (001 416 362 1957; www.jkkitchens.com)

MORE INFORMATION: Tourism Toronto, 207 Queen's Quay West (001 416 203 2600; www.tourismtoronto.com)

CLICK HERE to explore Canada further.

CLICK HERE for Simon Calder's Canada podcast.

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