Downtown Toronto’s concrete cityscape is no deterrent to strolling its vibrant neighbourhoods packed with their own eccentricities, sounds and smells.
We are staying on King St. and John St. intersection in the dynamic Entertainment area with defunct industrial and distillery units masquerading as newly constructed condo towers, hotels and pubs and art galleries.
The Entertainment District and King West Village is Toronto’s fastest developing neighbourhoods, compared with New York’s Soho area, and popular with young professionals and even their elders for the entertainment and eating options.
On a cool afternoon we set out towards King St. W and Spadina Avenue intersection past constructions (another on going feature of this city) and bypass the omnipresent CN Tower, the tallest telecommunications and tourism hub till pipped by Burj Khalifa (Dubai) in 1976. I still have to venture up, not actually acrophobic, but watching the lifts slide up and down makes me change my mind every time I find myself looking skywards.
It is easy to get sidetracked with the distinctive suburban flavour of antiquity and stop at Princess of Wales Theater, inaugurated by Princess Diana in 1993, to admire the 929 sq. m mural created by Frank Stella. Across the street is another Downtown landmark, Tiff Bell Lightbox, the official venue of the ongoing Tiff40 screenings and red carpet appearances. I had joined star-struck teenagers for a glimpse of an expected actor vip, but gave up after forty minutes. Prefer watching them on-screen.
From here (King St. W) it was past cafes, pizza places, lounges and stores, including Bulk Barn, a must visit for variety of nuts, chocolates etc., till we reach King/Spadina intersection. Though distance is walkable, the Streetcar station was the rescue I needed for my lagging legs. The Street Car and the slow motion ride, as it trundled along Spadina Avenue towards Spadina station, reminded me of Hong Kong trams.
The ride is through a cornucopia of migrant lifestyles showcased in eateries, gift shops, boutiques and cinema. The Kensington Market area and Spadina Avenue was mainly Jewish centric (1930s) and hub of textile industry. The shop clusters, delis, tailoring units, bookstores along the Avenue still bear their stamp. By the 1950s and 60s, the Chinese nudged out the Jews to North Bathurst Street and established their unique cluster in what is referred to China town. Soon it was their turn to move out towards Dundas and Spadina, a few remained, when the New City Hall and Nathan Philips Square were constructed. We had a glimpse of Spadina Crescent, previously known as Knox College, an academic building of the University of Toronto situated in the centre of a roundabout of Spadina Avenue and north of College Street.
The station exit is on Spadina and Bloor and as we walk towards Bloor St. the mid-19th century bay-and-gable structures of Old Toronto turns our amble into medieval England caper. Toronto still lingers onto its British-ness and if it were not for the glass and steel modern architecture and the continuing influx of tourists and immigrants bringing in freshness it would be a time-wraped city.
Spadina Avenue is a long distance runner passing through shifting demographics from working, middle and upper class neighborhoods. North of Bloor Street it transforms into Spadina Road passing through the upper middle class neighborhood, The Annex, and morphing into different avatars, the Davenport Hill, the Baldwin Steps and a walkway in Spadina Park. From here it spins off towards Toronto’s castle, Casa Loma, a rich man’s mansion designed like a castle, and continues north towards the wealthy neighborhood of Forest Hill.
Our walking journey from Spadina station had terminated at The Annex, along the high energy Bloor Street that at intervals branches into tree-lined residential reminders of British sensibilities of tall narrow houses. The Annex is a vibrant hotspot of history, culture, fashion, food and personal aggrandizement as well as a reflection of the diversity and complexity of Toronto, a city painted in migrant brushstrokes. If someone asks me ‘what is Canadian’, apart from the national symbols of maple syrup etc., I would have to search for an appropriate answer. We walk past a slurping selection of eateries and restaurants, shops and outlets offering multi layered fashion, books, music, giftware, arts and craft activities along with commercial, legal, medical, financial, travel, internet services. The quaintness is alluring and by late evening the area transforms into a revelry hub, reverberating to the music and chatter from its many pubs, clubs and restaurants.
The best way to map the high energy Bloor Street is by bike, available on rent, as it is one of the friendliest Toronto migrant neighbourhoods. We came across a few homeless, one did ask for money, otherwise it was a hassle free walk. In Vancouver, I am forgetting name of street, I was threatened ‘you could be killed’ when I refused to give money. South of Bloor are the Latino and Portuguese neighbourhoods but we stopped opposite the colorfully blatant and intimidating Honest Ed’s, a gigantic discount department store at corner of Bloor and Bathurst. It covers an entire block in length and at night turns into a theatre marquee using 23,000 light bulbs.
We left KoreaTown, on Bloor and Bathurst St., along with the Bata Shoe Museum (327 Bloor St W) said to resemble an opening shoe box; Casa Loma on 1 Austin Terrace between Spadina and Walmer; The Spadina House museum on 285 Spadina Road for authentic Canada history; Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queens Park at Bloor) and the centenarian Bloor Street Cinema for another day.
From Honest Eds, did not step inside, turned towards Bathurst subway station for a ride back to our starting point, to CN Tower.
A day well walked. Did not clock the distance.