Run-Down Hogtown

Toronto: "Shabby" or "Vibrant"?

It's that time of the year again! The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the roads are crumbling, the fastfood wrappers are flapping about! Can you smell Spring in the air? I do, and it smells like someone just stepped into a big dog pile that has been carefully preserved through the winter by the almost-but-not-quite-record 194 centimeters of snow. Welcome to Toronto the Beautiful!

Sarcasm aside, spring is the time of year when Toronto hardly looks its best. The snow has already melted to reveal the underlying layer of filth, and the green leaves and colourful flowers that turn drab into cheerful have not yet appeared. This is probably one of the reasons why many Torontonians become especially aware of the ugly stains and tears in our urban fabric, and some go as far as to proclaim Toronto ultimately shabby.

And even if you love Toronto with all your heart as I do, you have to admit they have some pretty strong arguments to back up their use of that strong term. From garbage-strewn streets to ad-plastered transformer poles, from a mismatched hodgepodge of street furniture to tiny dried-out trees in big concrete boxes, from leaky subway station roofs to abandoned storefronts to cracked sidewalks to never-ending construction to our poor neglected waterfront... The truth is plainly obvious: we are seedier than Singapore, meaner than Munich, and maybe even scruffier than New York, since New York has really been cleaning up its act lately. Perhaps in not-so-distant future people will start referring to it as "Toronto run by the Swiss".

Yet there is a point of view that "shabby" might not be so bad. Few people would argue that broken, filthy, run-down urban spaces are good in and of themselves, but maybe the chaos and cacophony of urban space is necessary for a city's vitality? Maybe the vibrant indie spirit of Toronto would be stifled in a sterile gentrified a.k.a. non-shabby environment? Maybe you can't have true urbanity without a certain amount of urban grit?

Granted, the city is a living organism, and the only way it could be perfect is if it's hollowed out, mummified, and put up on display for naive tourists. Some shabbiness is probably a necessary evil, and some would even argue it's not shabbiness so much as "character". But would Toronto's creative energies suddenly wane if abandoned storefronts turned into thriving businesses, if our sidewalks weren't made obstacle courses by dusty newspaper boxes, if we had more green space downtown? At what point does making Toronto more beautiful turn into evil "gentrification" that's so despised by every hippie out there?

I know, more questions than answers. So what do you think? Are we "shabby"? Or are we "vibrant"? Both? Neither?

Photo: Untitled by Jason Tavares

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