The Toronto Superlatives

Come one, come all to the city of the never-ending skyscraper, and from the greatest lake of Ontario, at the foot of our “longest street in the world,” set forth on the cleanest and safest public transportation system to experience what the United Nations is thought to have called the “world’s most multicultural city.”

Recently retired Mayor David Miller, following the example of past mayors Mel Lastman and Barbara Hall, has referred to the city as the most diverse in the world.

Tourist web-sites, Toronto media and conversations on the TTC abound with the most superlative description. Visible from every corner of the city, the CN Tower is referred to as the “tallest building in the world” by TO Live with Culture, Toronto Tourism, and Toronto Ontario .ca websites. Toronto may also possess the oldest flatiron building, the largest underground shopping complex, the largest collection of original 1812 buildings and, at 153.314 m, the longest spaghetti noodle ever cooked, measured, and eaten at the Corso Italia Toronto Festival July 14, 2003.

While the Historic Distillery District has “the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian Industrial Architecture in North America,” according to its website, the official City of Toronto home page greets visitors with this effusive headline: “Highest – best – longest – greenest – get the facts!”

I interviewed Torontonians of various stripe to find out which civic claims they believe and sought evidence of their validity and truthfulness:

Poised and casual in her Avenue Road and St. Clair West apartment, a young financier sips Pinot Grigio.” Thoughts on multiculturalism dominate. The Toronto Maple Leafs are losing another game on Hockey Night in Canada in the background.

“I think the United Nations said Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world on the radio one morning,” says Ally O’Keefe. “I believe it is. If you ever tried to ride the subway, you would know that… Greeks, Mexicans, Italians, and the Chinese…the Portuguese, Japanese, Swedish, and the Irish seem to like to come here for some reason. Everybody comes to Toronto,” she says.

The multiculturalism of Toronto is unmistakable —  just count the number of languages you hear on an extended trip on the TTC. But many other cities in the world, particularly in North America, can lay claim to a significant foreign-born population.

“In Miami, you have a high population of Cubans,” says O’Keefe.  “In Los Angeles, you have a high population of Mexicans, whereas, in a place like Toronto, you have a little bit of it all.”

But, does evidence support Toronto’s conception of most multicultural city in the world?

Canadian Press article “Toronto claim to fame turns out to be myth” Nov. 14, 1995, undermined the notion that the UN declared the city most multicultural in the world, stating that no evidence could be found to prove the claim. Then Mayor Barbara Hall put a stop, for a time, to misleading information in all future City of Toronto communications.

Toronto Star article “A city of unmatched diversity” Dec. 7, 2007, gave Torontonians reason to believe in the supreme diversity of their population:

“Half the people in the City of Toronto are now foreign-born, according to 2006 Canadian census figures released yesterday, making it more diverse than Miami, Los Angeles, or New York City, ” it reads.

Strangely, the corresponding information of the other cities does not appear in the article. It is unclear how the total percentage of all foreigners residing in a city equates to the amount of diversity.

A list of “top 10 cities by share of foreign-born population” that the UN Development Program complied in 2004 showed Miami (59 per cent) leading the way, followed by Toronto (44 per cent), Los Angeles (41 per cent), Vancouver (37 per cent) and New York City (36 per cent).

For starters, a more complete gauge of diversity might consider the variety of ethnicities per city, the quantity of each ethnicity as a percentage of the population, as well as measure the extent of immigrant inclusion and involvement in civil society.

One would think that measuring the longest street in the world would prove to be a simpler task, but Torontoist article “James Bow Busts Yonge Street Myth” July 6, 2006, states that said author and trained urban planner concluded, quite literally, that Yonge St. ends before it becomes Highway 11, just 56 kilometres from its Lake Ontario beginning, and is, therefore, not the longest street in the world.

Streets differ from highways. Highways aren’t livable, unlike the far more populated streets that converge into them. The website of “transit nut,” James Bow, details his adventure along Yonge St. long after it loses its name. The Guinness Book of World Records removed its Yonge St. entry years ago, now listing only the Pan-American Highway as the “longest motorable road.”

Another source that refutes the Yonge St. claim to fame works on the fourth floor of the Toronto Reference Library, located, fittingly, at 789 Yonge St.

“I’ve heard that before, and I don’t give it any credence,” says historical librarian, Alan Walker. It’s something that came about in the ‘50s or ‘60s. There were a couple of books that came out and it’s just one of those urban myths. I don’t see how anyone could call it one street… I think it’s one of these things that are just illogical. It’s taken on a life of its own.”

One would think that measuring the tallest building in the world would prove a straight up matter. CN Tower brochures affix three superlatives to the giant needle, including “world’s highest public observation level,” “world’s highest wine cellar” and let us not forget “world’s highest glass floor panelled elevator.”

Though the CN Tower had held the title of world’s tallest free-standing structure at 553 m since 1975, the Burj Dubai of the United Arab Emirates inched past our national tower on September 12, 2007. Any of a plethora of sources confirms this new reality.

This clear fact had somehow eluded some working in the Toronto tourist industry, who not only don’t recognize that the CN Tower is not the tallest free-standing structure, but refer to it as the “world’s tallest building,” a claim it has never earned. Reputable organizations in the practice of awarding such distinctions, such as the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, disqualify the CN Tower because they define a building as a structure where 50 per cent of the floors up to its highest point are liveable.

“It’s tall enough and it’s fun,” says JoAnn Roberts, who doesn’t think the distinction matters, of guest services at the Harbourfront Arts Centre. “People do the run up there too…and it’s a great view of the city and the United States across the lake.”

Fair, but why have TO Live with Culture, Toronto Tourism, and Toronto Ontario .ca, called it the “world’s tallest building”? Perhaps it is niche marketing on over-drive, as Roberts suggests, geared toward visitors, who liken experiencing such superlative attractions to achievements to be collected like trophies.

Perhaps it is for the same reason that many Torontonians consider Yonge St. the longest street in the world and Toronto the most multicultural city in the world.

“That could just be reports of a fake story,” says Roberts, who is not originally from Toronto. “We certainly talk about Toronto as a multicultural city. We talk about Toronto’s culinary neighbourhoods…We celebrate our neighbourhoods. In tourism, it’s advertised that way, but I know it’s just a big place with a big airport and a big immigrant population.”

But, where did the notion of Toronto as the most multicultural city in the world according to the UN originate?

“I heard it a lot on CBC radio,” says Polish-born George Brown College student Ania Poradzisz. “I think it became a good thing to say.”

The UN’s declaration has been used as a main example of a “factoid,” something believable, a near or partial truth. To varying degrees, then, Torontonians perpetuate at least three factoids or myths.

“I heard that Yonge was the longest street for years, usually by word of mouth,” says sound and video editor Steven Budd. “Then my brother had a look at the research and apparently it’s not and never was. It’s one of these rumours that have persisted for so long that people commonly recite it as fact. Sort of like how Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world.”

When we truly want to believe something, facts sometimes become secondary. So, what is wrong with believing in a few civic fairy tales? Nothing necessarily. But, the tendency to exaggerate its attributes and over self-promote make Toronto vulnerable to negative perceptions within Canada. We might ask whether the Canadian feels endeared to the American when he says his is the greatest country in the world.

“I’m getting tired of hearing this city touting how it’s world class,” says Alan Walker. “I think world class cities don’t go about saying that about themselves.  I think we’re certainly a major, large, international city. The international quality of the city is significant and bodes well for the future…We’re a young city…we don’t have a long history, and we’re ever evolving.”

Despite its ability to change and grow, Toronto has long taken flack from the rest of Canada. In the CBC documentary Everybody Hates Toronto, directed by Montreal-native Albert Nerenberg, the reasons are broken down into an irreverent top ten list.

Highlights include: “Toronto is the bullshit capital” (6), which refers to a Toronto-centric national media and the city’s high concentration of marketing firms, “They think they’re New York” (2), due to proximity to the American border and possibly because the city became wrapped up in the American ethos of great cities when hiring a New York marketing firm to brand its city “Toronto Unlimited;” and the number one reason people hate Toronto, according to the film, is that “Toronto is number one,” or so often thinks it is.

“People from elsewhere might have to move here for employment,” says Chinatown-based Dr. Andrew Lustig. “Toronto is over-represented in national news coverage, so people might tire of hearing about us.”

Type “Torontonian” into to feel the love and hate. Also note the very first use of the word: “Torontotastic.”

“I think that Torontonians feel superior to the rest of the province, definitely the rest of the country and possibly the greater part of North America,” says Toronto-native O’Keefe. “I think everybody here walks around thinking we’re the greatest thing in the world when really we’re not.”

There have been at least two books of humour written about hating Toronto: Let’s All Hate Toronto by Scottish-born advertising executive Jack McLaren (1956) and Why Everybody Hates Toronto: Startling Suggestions of a Pseudo-Scientific Study by Hamilton-native and Toronto Star writer Michael B. Davie (2004). Unfortunately, the latter is rife with spelling errors, but, perhaps they are placed there intentionally for the most sophisticated Torontonians to correct. Canada’s largest city is a lightning rod for many things, including sarcasm.

As Toronto lifer Steven Budd asserts, “Some people are very Toronto-centric, but I think it’s necessary to have that attitude in order to compete on the world stage… When you think of politics, money, investment, and entertainment in terms of other countries, you would probably think of only one city: London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, and Moscow. A country needs a capital, be it economic or cultural, and it need not be the official capital.”

As a native Torontonian, living away in Halifax, and with family in Oshawa, Montreal, and Vancouver, I can attest to an undercurrent of Toronto resentment. But living in The Big Smoke, Hogtown, T.O, the T dot, and Toronto the Good…..there is no reason to brag, or hang your head, and there is always a never-ending needle in the sky to consider.

Most Impressive Photos By: Tory Zimmerman, others by: Chris LePan

10 great Toronto places here

About Chris LePan

Writer/ Editor
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