All world-class cities are defined by a distinct culture. Paris is the home of romance and haute couture. New York City dazzles the world with money and opportunities. Hong Kong is the center of Western capitalism embedded within an Asian-British culture. Tokyo leads the world with robotic precision and of course real robots. San Francisco is the hotbed of technological innovation. London is part and parcel with Buckingham Palace and the British monarchy. Montreal is Paris outside of Paris with a Quebecois inflection.
Culture is the raison d’etre of a city. It is a culmination of the likes and dislikes, beliefs and customs of a group of people living in close proximity to one another. In other words, a culture is really what a city stands for in the eyes of the world. What values do you bring to the table? Many global cities such as London, Paris, and New York will not have trouble with this question. When it comes to Toronto, however, the city has never been closely associated with a specific culture the way Montreal is linked to its French heritage or New York City to money and Wall Street.
Year after year, various indexes have placed Toronto very high in quality of life and other metrics right up there with Auckland, New Zealand and Vienna, Austria, but Toronto has never ranked too high as a must-see spot for tourists or as a particularly attractive metropolis for the young and creative who are seeking entrepreneurial opportunities. Sure Toronto receives countless American tourists, but it is more out of convenience than anything else that Toronto stands for since the city is by the US-Canada border. Anthony Bourdain,a renowned chef and food journalist with CNN, also happily bypassed Toronto when he chose to do a Canadian episode for his show “Parts Unknown” in 2012. Regardless of its being Canada’s largest city and the first landing destination for immigrants and refugees, the city of Toronto still piques curiosity and does not register on anyone’s consciousness as more than another cold Canadian city. When Justin Trudeau welcomed the first plane load of Syrian refugees in December 2015 at Toronto’s airport, he was also there to deliver winter coats!
Toronto has never stood out as a city seeking outsiders’ validation. Like any other city, it has a unique story. It is a beautiful and clean city. But the city has never exuded a sense or arrogance and vanity by way of glistening office towers (like Hong Kong or Tokyo) or high speed trains. There are no international fashion brands here or a palace that rivals Buckingham Palace. Toronto is a cosmopolitan city that absorbs people of all ethnicities, religions and creeds. For some reason, these differences have not resulted in the types of conflicts that have paralyzed some US cities and many European cities (unfortunately, Paris has suffered way too much recently). We do not have a romantic culture like Paris or a highly innovative culture like San Francisco. In fact, our culture is mediocre on these two fronts. However, we do have an empathetic and understanding culture that accepts the whole world for all its differences. Toronto is proof that there is no need for external validation for a culture to be attractive. It is comfortable in its own skin. There is no glamour in being a culture without innovation or a penchant for robots, but in a world of Brexit and Trumpism, an empathetic culture is just the right antidote to hatred, suspicion and xenophobia. I would be just as happy to play second fiddle to a more glamorous cousin.