"The Invention of Toronto: A city defined by its artists"
by Robert Fulford

(William Kilbourn Lecture, Toronto Historical Board, June 12, 1996)

It's a great privilege, and at the same time a melancholy task, to give the first William Kilbourn Memorial Lecture. Like many people who are here tonight, I miss Bill Kilbourn. I miss the pleasure of his company and I miss his acute perceptions of the life around us. Last spring, finishing a book about the remaking of Toronto, I felt his absence keenly. I wanted his wise advice on a dozen issues. More than that, I wanted him to read my book. He was the perfect audience for anything written about his city and ours.

So it seems natural to begin this talk in his memory by quoting from a book he would certainly have admired but didn't live to read, a novel published this year: Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels. He would have loved the rich, image-laden style of Fugitive Pieces, and the author's engagement with modern history through metaphor. I think Bill agreed with another celebrated Upper Canada College graduate, Dunstan Ramsay, who says near the beginning of Fifth Business: "I liked metaphor better than reason." Bill would have especially quickened to the way Anne Michaels and her characters burrow into the city of Toronto and take possession of it. She describes the city through specific, dramatic detail--about Hurricane Hazel, for instance--and also by compressing a mood, a spirit and a history into a few sentences, such as these--

"Almost everyone has come from elsewhere ...bringing with them their different ways of dying and marrying, their kitchens and songs. A city of forsaken worlds; language a kind of farewell.

"It's a city of ravines .... Through these great sunken gardens you can traverse the city beneath the streets, look up to the floating neighbourhoods, houses built in the treetops.

"It's a city of valleys spanned by bridges. .... A city of hidden lanes ... of wooden fences sagging where children have made shortcuts. .... Forgotten rivers, abandoned quarries.... a city built in the bowl of a prehistoric lake."

In another passage Anne Michaels speaks of Grace Street as "a summer tunnel of long shadows" and the ravine bottoms as "rooms of green sunlight."

Perhaps she didn't set out to write a book about Toronto, but that's what it turns out to be, among many other things. Fugitive Pieces is the most recent contribution to the never-ending project that is my subject tonight, the invention of Toronto. Like city-building itself, the creation of the imagined city, the dream city we might call it, is a process that moves forward in largely unplanned and unpredictable phases. Just as the physical frame of the city adjusts to changing circumstances, so the culture of a city responds to history as it unfolds. Tonight I want to talk about just a few of the many artists who have made Toronto their subject, and try to suggest how they have seen the city and embodied it in their work.

Anne Michaels shares with the best writers on Toronto--among them Morley Callaghan, Robertson Davies, and Margaret Atwood--the ability to isolate certain aspects of the city that Torontonians know but aren't always capable of seeing and understanding. She has a way of capturing the essence of a place that most of us know only in a vague and half-formed way. She absorbs these corners of our communal life and then delivers them back to us, encapsulated. The other day, walking the bottom of a ravine near St. Clair Avenue, I realized I was not only in the Vale of Avoca but also in Michaels's novel, in one of her "rooms of green sunlight."

Her book describes two Europeans coming to grips with Toronto. She doesn't tell us what they knew about it before they got here, but we can guess that their ideas about it were vague. Observed from a distance, Toronto takes a multitude of forms, not always recognizable to those who live here. From various parts of Canada and the world we see ourselves reflected back in splintered, fragmented form. In my lifetime Toronto has been seen at various times by non-Torontonians as desperately dull and scandalously successful, as flatly homogeneous and wonderfully varied, as miserably greedy and remarkably welcoming. I think that at certain times all of these opinions have been true; perhaps they are all true at the same time. In any case, we do well to listen to what others say about our city, not necessarily because an outsider's judgement is closer to the truth but because there's a chance it will open up a side of our shared life that we may not otherwise notice. To the world of avant-garde art, for instance, Toronto is known for the Ydessa Hendeles Foundation and its unique museum on King Street West, a place that doesn't exist for most Torontonians. Among those who study mass communications, Toronto is the place where Marshall McLuhan did his work. In sports we have been known in the 1990s as the unlikely winner of two World Series championships in a row. To those who know Bach, Toronto is Glenn Gould's city, to jazz fans it is first of all the home of Oscar Peterson. There are those for whom Toronto matters most because of its place in the biographies of Joni Mitchell or Neil Young. To some readers of fiction our streets are notable because they are peopled, on certain days, by the characters of Davies or Atwood or Ondaatje, and there are moviegoers who consider those same streets significant because one can find on them, perhaps, the platoons of obsessives who populate the movies of Atom Egoyan. To others Toronto matters because this is the place where Northrop Frye sat quietly in a Methodist college and rewrote the history of literary criticism.

One of my favorites of all the foreign mirrors of Toronto I've noticed over the years was a piece that appeared in The New Yorker in 1989. It was James Kaplan's profile of David Letterman's bandleader, Paul Shaffer (January 16, 1989). In Kaplan's view, Toronto of a generation ago was an enchanted kingdom of comedy, where the streets were lined with jokes. This is how he sees a certain moment in Toronto history:

"Toronto in 1972 resembled one of those artistic nexuses that crop up now and then, like Paris in the twenties, Los Angeles in the thirties, London just before the First World War. Often an influx of expatriates is involved. In 1972, in Toronto, the influx came from Chicago and from elsewhere in Canada. .... Paul Shaffer's life [merged] with the lives of some two dozen other creative people; the resultant agglomeration would go forth and change television."

That year, as Kaplan says, the production of Godspell brought together Shaffer, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, most of them about 22 years old. Dan Aykroyd also showed up about then. Out of all this came Saturday Night Live & SCTV, and much more. Of course Kaplan has created his own myth of Toronto, and one that is not at all disagreeable.

We construct cities in two ways: with concrete and with imagination.

The physical Toronto is the work of architects, builders, developers, planners--and of course those legions of workers who are now so exuberantly celebrated in the noblest monument recently made in Toronto, the wall sculpture by Margaret Priest in the Bay-Adelaide Park.

That's the material city. And then there is the city we carry in our minds, the city that guides us, teaches us, forms us. Glenn Gould once said, in a TV show, "I think that the only Toronto I really know well is the one I carry about with me in memory." I believe that in a sense that's true of all of us. No one can grasp the city in all its details. Even those of us who make it a kind of specialty will still find ourselves, again and again, coming upon corners of Toronto that are clearly cherished by others but are all but unkown to us; or, more likely, were once known to us and now are transformed by their latest residents.

The classic case, for me, is Danforth Avenue. In my youth I knew it well, in fact better than I wanted to know it, as a featureless, monocultural cityscape, a place that could shrivel the soul. Its only distinguishing characteristic was its name, always given for some mysterious reason not as "Danforth Avenue" but as "the Danforth," as in the sentence, "We lived over a store, out the Danforth." Of course in middle age I discovered that it had been transformed into an attractive colony of Greece; and since then it's changed in many more ways.

To some extent, we are always ignorant of the change and growth around us. But in place of knowing all that, we carry, each of us, our own Toronto.

This imagined city, this memory-city, is the work of everyone, but first of all the work of artists. They must invent the city before we can inhabit it. Their work is a great collective creation, a thing of many layers: we can picture it as a geological slice of rock, an irregular object of infinite surprises. One of the surprises for me, when I first encountered him some forty years ago, was Raymond Souster. He was, and he is, first among Toronto poets, the author of poems on everything from High Park to the old Colonial Tavern. He's brought forth, since the 1950s, a long stream of poems in which the city is a major subject. I've always been grateful for his existence. Here he is, typically, in the mid-1970s, in an excerpt from a poem called "As Far As the Square," rediscovering Nathan Phillips Square in the morning sunshine:

Men sleep on grass, mouths open to the sky,
sucking hard at air, newspaper pillows
underneath their heads, all the time their faces
slowly reddening. Lawyers arrive
at the Court House much too early
for judges, who'll appear
at a more judicious hour.

Nearby, Moore's Archer
does an awkward double-take,
one half pirouette,
the other simple, flat-footed standing.
But the shape's already timeless
like Old City Hall, like its clock-tower
booming out solemn quarters now
three minutes too soon by your watch-face.

You give Revell's castle one quick, wide-sweeping look
and turn away pleased, as you always are.

Many of the layers of literature that form a crust over Toronto are recent, though of course there have been novels, poems and paintings based here for more than a century. Most of the novels and stories of the young Morley Callaghan, to take the most significant example, are set in an unnamed city that is clearly Toronto. They provide an accurate and quite startling record of our city in his day. One of his novels, It's Never Over, places us firmly within the Toronto of the first half of this century. It appeared in 1930, two years before I was born, but I can attest to its truth. The young lovers at the core of It's Never Over inhabit a Toronto so different from the city we know today that it might well be on another planet. Their neighbourhood, for instance, limits their lives and actions in a way neighbourhoods haven't for decades now. East-central Toronto, around Riverdale Park, where most of the characters live, is a reassuringly familiar place, but it's also a kind of prison for them. They have no cars, so they can't move freely across the city, or feel they can't, as young men and women do now. They know fewer people but they know them better. They know each other's parents and siblings, and they tend to remain close to the streets where they grew up. This charges all of their relationships with a special intensity. Their surroundings appear solid and predictable. They believe they will live all their lives among the same people and on the same streets. This gives sex, for instance, enormous power. A love affair overtly entered can't easily be abandoned--the chances are that the other person in the affair will continue to live in the next street, or maybe his parents will. So a sexual encounter becomes an event of towering significance. Callaghan's characters live lives of stability, within an intricate network of restrictions, and the city he depicts is precisely what people mean when they say that Toronto was once a village. Reading It's Never Over in the 1990s can produce either nostalgia or a heightened sense of what it is that we value in big cities today.

Callaghan was a unique figure in several ways, and his close attention to the texture of the city was one of them. Since then, of course, it's become commonplace for Toronto to be used by serious writers. This fact seems to me one of the most surprising and satisfying changes in the life of the city in the second half of the 20th century.

Early in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of the Lion, we are asked to understand what a change of this sort means to a city. Ondaatje sounds the theme. "Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting," he writes. In the Skin of the Lion is one of the books that does this essential, civilizing work, installing the Bloor Street viaduct and the Harris water filtration plant in imagination, linking them to the accomplishments of antiquity, building myth into the life around us.

I spent my first twenty-four years within a few blocks of the Harris filtration plant, but I can truly say that it did not exist for me, in any but the most literal sense, until Ondaatje wrote about it and a group of artists briefly used it as a site for their work in the 1980s. And then, gratefully, I discovered that it was permanently lodged in my internal cityscape. As Dennis Duffy pointed out in an essay about Ondaatje, In the Skin of the Lion depicts "a people within a city yearning to annex to itself the amplitude of myth."

The amplitude of myth: this is a gift artists give us. Cities live and die by their mythology. I've argued, in fact, that going mythological is to a city what going platinum is to a record: suddenly, everything connected with it becomes desirable. San Francisco rested on its myth for generations, without a great deal else to distinguish it. Now it feels, at least from this distance, far less interesting than Seattle, where the myth is still fresh and new, a rich epic saga of grunge bands and millionaire computer geeks, both of them somehow miraculously emerging from garages.

The creation of these sagas is unequally shared among the various arts. I don't know who first said it, and I've been unable to find out, but for forty years I've believed the following generality to be more true than not: painters invent the landscape, writers invent the city.

The painters can give us no account of urban life that combines breadth of view and detail in a way that could be compared with the Paris of Balzac, the London of Dickens, or the Dublin of Joyce. There are exceptions, of course, brilliant city painters, from Turner to Hopper, but usually the most powerful art connected with city life is not visual but literary. And if that's generally true of cities in Europe and North America, it's especially true of Toronto. After all, the most famous painters we produced, the Group of Seven, largely ignored Toronto and went north to Georgian Bay and elsewhere to find their inspiration and make their historic movement. Among them only Lawren Harris found within the city limits a subject that engaged him. He left us those strangely charming views of what were, in effect, the slums of the Edwardian age. Then he, too, or perhaps he most of all, went off to find himself in the northern skies and in the rocks of the Pre-Cambrian Shield. More recently, in the 1960s and 1970s, painters turned to look at the city around them, and two in particular made paintings that impressed themselves on our collective imagination.

One was William Kurelek, whose view of his adopted city of Toronto was dominated by his passionate Christianity: his pictures showed good and evil flamboyantly battling for our souls at the corner of Bay and Queen.

The other painter was a man with a less didactic purpose, Albert Jacques Franck, who died in 1973 after a long career as the chronicler of downtown Toronto. He's not much exhibited now, but he's not forgotten. Just the other day I picked up the new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries magazine and found David Helwig, while memorializing the poets Robert Finch and Edward Lacey, saying that one of them lived in, quote, "Toronto as you see it in the brilliant moody paintings of Albert Franck...." Helwig goes on to say that when he thinks of Finch and Lacey, both solitary men,

"I imagine one of those Albert Franck paintings of Toronto streets--that old Toronto of brick and wooden porches, those poignant windows in the secret houses. Winter and silence. Someone has just vanished around a corner or through a door...."

Winter and silence: Helwig precisely catches Albert Jacques Franck's mood in that phrase. It's always winter in his paintings; something of the city's bleakness is always there. He painted in winter because the trees were bare and the view was clear, but there was another reason: he was determined to see these streets at their loneliest, and see the poetry that was in them even then. He lived in the 1940s in the old Gerrard Street Village, near Bay Street, in the days when that was a kind of artists' quarter; later he moved to Hazleton Avenue, and in his last 20 years, most of them lived before the revival of Yorkville, he worked on all the broken-down old streets of that area, Berryman and Belmont and Scollard, noting details like the one Anne Michaels singles out, the "wooden fences sagging where children have made shortcuts."

Years before Torontonians made "save the neighbourhoods" into their civic mantra, Franck conducted a personal save-the-neighbourhoods campaign with his pictures. He made himself downtown Toronto's own private artist, its visual poet, its finest appreciator. Of course, he had to be an immigrant, he was born in the Netherlands. I doubt if anyone brought up here could have undertaken this particular task with the passion he brought to it; he played the traditional role of the immigrant who discovers the true values of his new country and then makes them clear for the first time to the natives. And in the matter of learning how cities live, he taught us one simple and yet demanding rule: pay attention. This is the rule that produced the world-shaking ideas of Jane Jacobs and it is the practice that produces most of what we know about cities to this moment. I think it's also illustrated, in entirely different ways, by two current artists, Brian Kipping and Stan Repar. Kipping's very subject, in a sense, is attentiveness: he helps us look freshly at our surroundings by building little dramas out of unremarkable places, focusing on corners of the city that are otherwise ignored. Repar, on the other hand, is a surrealist who injects fantasy into carefully detailed Toronto scenes. In his painting of the rococo 1885 Bank of Montreal at Yonge & Front, for instance, the sidewalks crack open and we see another world inside, under the pavement. Or he makes the CBC building into a giant aquarium, with elephantine tropical fish swimming in the huge glass windows on John Street.

These are local myth-makers, and when they succeed they affect both how we think about a city and how we live in it. In a way, a city's story shapes the people inside it. Once the story is properly invented, the people find themselves trying to live it, trying to play the parts assigned to them, at least until another story is invented.

But what is our story, as the artists have tried to tell it? To answer that question is to grope for the purpose of a modern city like Toronto. The functions of cities are obvious: they are places where we exchange goods and ideas, where we educate each other, where we enjoy ourselves. But most of us seek, rightly, a larger purpose in life, and we imagine that this purpose will be reflected in the city. Often, throughout history, that's been the case. In the medieval cities of Europe, and in places like the temple cities of Japan, faith and contemplation provided meaning and focus. As the architectural historians instruct us, faith provided visual symbolism and even sometimes the layout of the city. We can see another kind of purpose behind the Paris that Louis Napoleon and Baron Haussman redesigned in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. They, as heirs to the Enlightenment, created a stately, ordered Paris, designed as both a monument to Western civilization and the most powerful embodiment of that civilization. Colonial cities, like the first version of Toronto laid out by Governor Simcoe's engineers, also have a clear purpose--they are outposts, and they reflect the values of those back home who called them into being.

But of course our society has become mainly secular and our culture shows no signs of placing an Enlightenment idea of order at its centre. Reason and its chief product, science, govern our lives far more than they governed the 19th-century French, but we see no cause to erect temples to rationalism. And it is a long time since we wanted to be considered an outpost of anything.

Our replacement for the city of faith, the city of reason, and the outpost city is an ideal we have fastened on partly from necessity and partly from a yearning for transcendence. Our ideal is the pluralistic city, the city of many cultures that somehow rise together and converge into a civilization.

This city, as we dream it in our happiest moments, is the opposite of a tribe. Many of us come from tribes, narrow and enclosed communities, and the pluralistic city is relatively new to us. We recognize that the exclusivity, the closeness, and the rigidity of tribalism are all alien to the secular city. The modern city sets aside those qualities, and in their place provides freedom, choice, opportunity. Instead of a single tribal value system, the city offers us a chance to move from one group to another and to belong to several groups at the same time, or to none. But while the secular city offers us these riches, it also places on our shoulders a heavy burden of choice. In making our choices we make our lives, and in describing the choices we make, novelists make their art.

It took some of us a while to realize it, but the writer who most clearly set forth a comprehensive view of choices in the new Toronto was Robertson Davies. Because of his personal style, and his family background, he could be seen, superficially, as the novelist of the old British Protestant ascendancy. But his books, from Fifth Business onward, reflected a new sensibility, an openness to a wide and sometimes wild variety of influences and characters. He was a realist, in a way: he caught perfectly the tone of a Rosedale romance or a University of Toronto common room, but he was also a fantasist whose characters lived with ecstasy and dread in a landscape shared with saints, shamans, angels, and trolls. His accomplishment, during his last quarter of a century, was to wrap the modern world, and notably Toronto, inside a series of brilliant fairy tales that married the instincts of Rabelais with the insights of C. G. Jung. Boy Staunton, the rich businessman of Fifth Business, found dead at the bottom of Toronto harbor, sitting in his Cadillac, his mouth filled with a large chunk of pink granite, was the first of a series of spectacular Davies characters, 20th-century humans struggling with inner monsters to (as one of his characters put it) secure their souls. Davies asked us to accompany them as they made, in his phrase, "the descent into the depths of the spirit." His self-chosen assignment was to mythologize Canada, turning gossip about the private lives of leading citizens into grand fables, placing them within an expansive cultural history. By the end he had produced a saga of enormous power, thick with local detail but universal in meaning.

His final book, The Cunning Man, published in 1994, the year before he died, was a farewell tour of the obsessions and settings his readers by then knew well, but it was also explicitly a Toronto novel, a summation of Toronto's progress after the Second World War, the move from provincialism to sophistication. Some of us, reading it before it went out into the world, feared for its future--after all, it was so Toronto-ish, so stuffed with our local university, our local religious conflicts, so rich in its references to Vincent Massey and Glenn Gould and the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. How, we briefly wondered, could the rest of the world see in it what we saw? And then of course, as we might have guessed but didn't, it received wonderful reviews across the United States and I think sold better in the American market than any earlier book of his.

This process I've described, this imagining of our world by the artists among us, carries political and social as well as cultural implications. The uncomfortable fact is that we are living through a period when, once again, city life is on the defensive. The ideal of urbanism is once more called into question. The industrialized world seems intent on building those wasteful, scattered, low-density, exurban developments that consume rural land but never quite turn it into communities. That's an old issue that won't go away, but there are more recent developments that also imply hostility to city life. One is the gated community, the protected suburb, a social form imported from Arizona and California, where people live in careful rows of what are called "neo-traditional" bungalows. There the residents are protected by gates, security guards, and the absolute certainty that their neighbours hold views identical to their own. This is a form of anti-city, a denial of the urban virtues of variety and surprise, a refusal to acknowledge that improvisation is crucial to the life of human settlements. The urban idea that we fulfill ourselves through our relationships with those who are not quite the same as ourselves--this idea has become unpopular among some people, whose impulse is simply to walk away from the city and its problems and seek a more comfortable and less challenging environment.

A lively urbanism has to assert itself against this new form of deadness, and in that enterprise it will find the artists, above all the writers, to be essential allies.

I want to end more or less where I began, in the ravines, what we might call the topographical signature of Toronto. There are those who find a furtive quality to Toronto, a certain habit of evasion, a weakness for codes; and if any of that is true, then surely our writers are wise to express it by turning to the half-hidden, little-known, green underside of the city.

As the architect Larry Richards once pointed out, Toronto, topographically, is San Francisco turned upside down, or maybe inside out. Toronto is a city of hills, most of them buried.

Since the ravines are a form of wilderness, and are clearly landscape of a sort, we might assume that they are a subject painters would handle best. In fact, though, the painters have rarely shown us anything memorable about the Toronto ravines. If we consider it for a moment, the reason is clear--the ravines aren't all that notable in themselves. Their trees, wild flowers, hills, streams, and animal life are not by any means spectacular when seen in isolation. It's the context that matters, the sudden and shocking contrast of ordered street life and disordered nature. A few photographers have caught this incongruity, notably Steven Evans in the photos of the ravines that made up his recent exhibition. But painters have not, for the most part, found it interesting.

On the other hand, the ravines have become inescapable in the literature of Toronto. They appeared often in Morley Callaghan, of course, and they are present in the work of Hugh Hood. In Margaret Atwood's wonderful novel of childhood, Cat's Eye, they provide a powerful stage set. I mentioned Anne Michaels earlier.

And then there is Catherine Bush's 1993 novel, Minus Time, which, aside from being a notable accomplishment in many ways, is perhaps the most blatantly Toronto-centric novel of the 1990s, even more closely tied to this city than The Cunning Man.

Its big public events take place at the CN Tower or Nathan Phillips Square, under the arches of the reflecting pool. And the ravines are of course crucial to the story. A central character, a young man named Foster, at one point tells us something about his past:

"When I was thirteen, I ran away from home and lived in the ravines by myself for over a week....I caused kind of a stir. I was called the Ravine Boy in the news, I had my picture in the paper, and afterward the police were kind of freaked out that they hadn't been able to find me. I started out in Wilket Creek Park and made my way down, south of the Science Centre. Down toward the Don valley Parkway...."

Eventually he gets tired of it, he surfaces in a parking lot, and he asks someone to phone his parents. His story surely describes one of the greatest advantages of Toronto: it's a city where a teenager can escape into total wilderness without ever being more than a mile or two from home.

Later he and the heroine, as adults, are on the run, and around Gerrard street:

"They headed across the footbridge over the wide Don Valley, over the parkway lit by its rows of orange sodium lights ... over the dark and sluggish river, the viaduct rising in ghostly arches north of them. ...Foster turned ... hugging the shadows of the cement overpass. ...the road ... stretched ahead of them, running south between the backs of warehouses and a weedy, abandoned railway track...

"Beside them the river shone, quiet and viscous ... between its cement banks, seeping toward the lake, toward the thick, tall pillars that held up the Gardiner Expressway as it ran beside the lake. They dashed across the road beneath the highway, under the leached stains and the rusted pipes protruding from the pillars, this crumbling stretch of concrete sky."

I'll leave them there, but I have to add that I've thought of them every time in the last two years that I've walked under that remarkable crumbling sky, the Gardiner Expressway. That film noir sequence in Minus Time is one of many passages in which Catherine Bush makes the city of Toronto come to life as a principal character. It leaves us indebted to her, as we are to so many other artists, for creating a Toronto of dreams, a city that, whatever its faults, is a home for the imagination.

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