Monday, November 9, 2015

Toronto: Skyline

Toronto, looking north from the Art Gallery of Ontario, Oct.2015

I WILL NEVER KNOW ANOTHER CITY AS WELL AS I KNOW TORONTO. That I wasn't born here is a mere technicality; I was raised by native Torontonians and have lived here all my life. I may have dreamed of living in other places and will continue to do so, but even in the (probably unlikely) chance that I make another city my home, Toronto will remain the landscape of my dreams.

Having said that, I have lived long enough to see my hometown change, and the city in my mind less and less resembles the one I travel through every day. This fact makes me uneasy. I suppose it's a story that most old Torontonians can tell, but I have photos as evidence.

Toronto, looking northeast from the foot of Bathurst Street, Nov. 2015

Toronto, a once-dreary, Presbyterian town known as the "Belfast of Canada," has been booming for at least two decades, with construction cranes sprouting everywhere along the main roads and up and down the lake shore. I maintain that this hasn't diminished the city's essentially provincial character - and please don't interpret that as a criticism - but the dusty, lonely feel at the outskirts of the old downtown has been banished, along with the sight lines I can still see in my mind.

Nearly twenty-five years ago I tagged along with friend and fellow struggling photographer Michael Ventruscolo as he drove around the city on a dry winter day taking shots for an assignment. I brought my camera along as well, and the roll of negs I took have sat unprinted until today. My photos aren't any kind of lost masterpiece, but I'm drawn to them mostly because they're snapshots of a city that no longer exists.

Lake Shore Boulevard near Bathurst looking northeast, Winter 1991
Lake Shore Boulevard at Dan Leckie Way looking northeast, November 2015

The Gardiner Expressway traces the edge of the city's shore line with Lake Ontario, and where it marches on concrete stilts by the southern edge of the downtown it once traveled through the empty remnants of our moribund docklands. Nearly thirty years later the roadway is being bracketed by condos and office towers and once unobstructed views of the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre (aka the "Skydome") are disappearing.

The Royal York Hotel was opened just before the Great Depression, and older locals will pedantically tell you that it was once (briefly) the tallest building in the British Commonwealth. By the turn of the '90s a crowd of office towers huddled behind the hotel, but it still had a clear view over the Gardiner down to the lake, and proudly remained a landmark on the skyline.

Toronto, Winter 1991
Toronto, November 2015

The spot where I took my 1992 photo no longer exists; I had a hard time finding a place underneath the Gardiner where I could catch a sliver of the Royal York and at least one of the towers in the original shot. This was the best I could do, and it's obvious that even this fractured perspective won't last long, as the old hotel is walled off from the lake and our skyline transforms utterly.

I'm not complaining. I'd rather live in a city whose problems come from prosperity instead of decline, but the pace - incremental as it is - can be disorienting, especially when you have this catalogue of obsolete views crowding your memory. The thing is, though, that Toronto was never a pretty town, and I have no reason to imagine that all of this boom and prosperity is going to make it any prettier.

Toronto, underneath the Gardiner Expressway near Harbourfront, Nov.2015

And once again, I'm not complaining. I know there are prettier towns. New York is more dramatic, London richer with history, Paris more perfectly realized and almost any city in Europe built on Roman walls is picturesque in ways that Toronto couldn't imagine. I can travel there with my camera and take lovely pictures, secure in the knowledge that someone took very nearly the same lovely picture a week, a year, or a century earlier, and that someone will again, a day or a century from now.

But in Toronto, my unlovely hometown, I'm never tempted by the merely picturesque and, given our history, it's unlikely that some miracle of planning and architectural inspiration will spoil generations of photographers here with a perfect vista, and make our shutter fingers twitch in anticipation.

This week another photographer friend passed through town, and over dinner Chris Buck and I compared notes about shooting cities. We talked about Los Angeles, a city where he keeps an apartment, and how an almost total lack of coherent planning. unique vernacular architecture, drifting pockets of urban decay, a worship of kitsch and an amnesiac sense of history have made it one of the most rewarding places to shoot urban landscapes.

I don't understand Los Angeles; it's an alien landscape, constantly tempting me to capture something both bleak and beautiful underneath that nearly constant noontime sun. Toronto, on the other hand, couldn't be more familiar to me, but they're both cities without vanity, and perhaps that's why they're so inspiring.

And despite their size and importance, they're both provincial places (again - not a criticism) that are too busy pursuing their destinies - real or imagined - to take pride in mere aesthetics or history. They both revel in their indifference, challenging you to take their portrait while they go about their business: "Go ahead," they say. "Discover something beautiful here. Whatever you find will be all yours, and I won't make it easy for you."


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