Peter C. Newman

Toronto Through the Eyes of Peter C. Newman

Even as a scrawny Upper Canada College student, Peter C. Newman was never far from the action. Arriving in Toronto as a Jewish refugee fleeing the Holocaust, Newman isn't shy about his love for the country and the city he's called home for most of his life.

But he says he'll always be an outsider. He's also a gifted storyteller who believes not just in singing, but bellowing, for his supper, characteristics that let him play confidant to the likes of Conrad Black and Brian Mulroney before spilling their confessions in naked, and bestselling, biographies.

The dedicated journalist has certainly shaped our city - as editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star, author of nearly two dozen books on Canadian politics, business and history and the man behind Maclean's shift to a weekly newsmagazine.

As you can imagine, Newman isn't all flowers and light for his beloved Toronto, but he is convinced the 21st Century will belong to Hogtown. Now in his 80th year, Newman is busy tracking his latest biographical subject - Michael Ignatieff.

What was it like growing up in Toronto?

I was born in Vienna and when we came here as immigrants I couldn't speak English, I didn't know a single soul. My father didn't have the money but he sent me to Upper Canada College. And the reason was very simple. He realized that I would never lose my accent, never learn English, unless I was immersed. So I became a boarder at Upper Canada College on a wartime scholarship.

It was very, very strict in those days, I got whipped at least once a month for just doing things that kids do. My first impression of Toronto was going to the Casino Theatre to watch the strippers on Saturday afternoon.

Tell me about where you live now.

We live in Richmond Hill because we couldn't afford the kind of house we wanted in Toronto. We got a nice Georgian mansion here for about ten percent of the price of Rosedale.

When you think of Toronto, what three words come to mind?

Let me answer that at some length because I feel quite strongly about Toronto. The 20th Century was the century of nation-states and I believe the 21st Century is going to be the century of city-states. There are certain cities in the world which have a critical mass, which can govern themselves and produce creative enterprises and Toronto is one of them. It's really the only one in Canada. The main element is the quality of its higher educational institutions: Toronto, Ryerson and York. I'm very excited about the future of the whole Toronto area.

What's your favourite building in the city?

The Clarendon apartments off Avenue Road where we lived until we moved out here. It was built 100 years ago, the ceiling of the entry hall was decorated by the Group of Seven. What I don't like are all these condos which seem to be built out of plastic. They are the slums of tomorrow.

If you could tell City Hall to do one thing right now, what would it be?

To try and save part of the waterfront. They did exactly the wrong thing, they put all the tall buildings right along the waterfront so you can't see the water.

Second, too few people take advantage of the cultural facilities here. You can do anything in Toronto - world class. Of course I exclude the obscenity of what they did with the Royal Ontario Museum with those glass cubes. I spent most of my time when I was going to U of T in that building, studying paleontology and they've just completely destroyed it.

Where do you go to consume culture in Toronto?

Mostly jazz joints.

Where's your favourite place to eat?

Bistro 990 on Bay Street. I like the people, I like the food. It's my hang out.

How do you get around the city?

I usually drive down to Lawrence and Yonge, there's a cheap city parking lot there. Leave the car there, get on the subway - it saves time and money.

If you were describing Toronto to someone who's never been here, what would you say?

The words "world class" are much over-used and not usually true, but it's true of Toronto. When Nathan Phillips was mayor he transformed the city with the City Hall, the City Square. Before we had that old building, which was beautiful but not accessible, but now we have a City Square, which most European cities have. That was the moment. Phil Givens when he was mayor, and Nathan Phillips - they transformed the city.

What's your favourite spot outside the city centre?

Oakville. It's a totally preserved small Ontario town. Too many communities including Richmond Hill have been gutted. Yes there's a main street, but it's not a place you can buy a lot, or spend a lot of time. We don't have a cafe; we don't have just a place to hang out. Oakville is still a town with its own shops, its own atmosphere.

You talked about shopping, what's your favourite store?

Indigo. I really appreciate what Heather Reisman has done with it. She's saved the Canadian publishing industry.

Where do you go in the city if you want to be inspired?

Oh that's easy. On my sailboat. Just go through the canals, it's like Venice you know. You go through those canals of Centre Island, most people have never done that, I take them out on my sailboat and they're just awestruck that this exists in Toronto.

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