Imagining Toronto

Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010) is the first full exploration of the city’s literature to appear in print. Imagining Toronto was shortlisted for the 2010 Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism and won 2011 Heritage Toronto Award.

From the Introduction

In the iconic Toronto novel In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje writes, “Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting.” With vivid language Ondaatje shows us how the city is conjured into being by acts of imagination that flesh out and give form to its physical and cultural terrain. As we navigate the city in restless pursuit of accommodation, commerce and community, we give the city meaning through narrative, through stories that help us chart a course between the concrete, lived city and the city as we understand, fear, remember and dream it. Ondaatje’s observation echoes the words of essayist Jonathan Raban, who wrote in Soft City that “[t]he city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.” Ondaatje and Raban remind us that the cities we live in are made not merely of brick and mortar, or bureaucracy and money, but are equally the invention of our memories and imaginations. We realize that our cities unfold not only in the building but in the telling of them.

Toronto is a city of stories that accumulate in fragments between the aggressive thrust of its downtown towers and the primordial dream of its ravines. In these fragments we find narratives of unfinished journeys and incomplete arrivals, chronicles of all the violence, poverty, ambition and hope that give shape to this city and those who live in it. In Thirsty, Toronto poet Dionne Brand calls these narratives “the biographies of streets,” and adds, “at these crossroads, transient selves flare / in the individual drama, in the faith of translation.” It is here at these interstices that the city’s stories gain their deepest resonance, in the liminal spaces between the pavements and the shadows of the passersby who leave their imprint upon them.

In his story “The Inner Inner City,” science-fiction writer Robert Charles Wilson describes a “paracartographic map” of Toronto in which the visible city is only a mirror of the imagined city, an unchartable labyrinth of hidden avenues laid deep within its core. “There’s a city inside the city,” he writes, “the city at the center of the map.” This book, too, is a pilgrimage into the city within the city. Beginning with the familiar terrain—the ravines, downtown towers, neighbourhoods and inhabitants who give shape to Toronto—it ventures deep into the imagined city, dowsing for meaning in literary representations of Toronto as its inhabitants experience and narrate it. It explores how we arrive and who we become in this city; how we live, love and make the city home, and how the city changes us even as we shape its contours. In doing so, the book seeks to craft a literary genealogy of Toronto, tracing for the first time the long and interwoven heritage of writers and works engaging imaginatively with this city. At the same time, it seeks to do more than simply inventory Toronto’s literary history: it is also motivated by a conviction that literature, given its unique capacity to confront the most pressing contemporary urban concerns—bigotry, poverty and violence, as well as tolerance, asylum, desire and ambition—can help Torontonians transcend difference in this most culturally diverse of cities. This book is predicated on a belief that rather than comparing Toronto to the world’s other great literary cities and finding it wanting, we should instead realize that Toronto’s literature reflects an entirely new kind of city, a city where identity emerges not from shared tradition or a long history but rather is forged out of a commitment to the virtues of diversity, tolerance and cultural understanding.

Table of Contents

1 The Imagined City

13 The City Within the City
14 A Cure for Cultural Amnesia
22 Tracing Toronto’s Literary Genealogies
31 The City at the Centre of the Map

2 The City as Text

35 Archaeologies of Memory
38 Ravine City
52 Toronto the Wild
57 The Liminal City
74 Literary Intersections
86 What Moves Us
93 Fast Cars, Slow Lane
96 Urban Architexts
98 Union Station
102 Scenes from a Library
104 Up Against City Hall
108 Toronto’s Tower of Babel

3 The City of Neighbourhoods

119 The Poetics of Walking
122 The City of Neighbourhoods
126 A Requiem for the Annex
135 Kings of Cabbagetown
143 Cultural Tourism on College Street
149 Textures of Kensington Market
160 Parkdale, Scummy Parkdale
167 The Masseys and the Masses: Social and Spatial Ascendancy in Rosedale and Forest Hill
178 Yorkville

4 The Myth of the Multicultural City

189 Music from Elsewhere
190 The Myth of the Multicultural City
205 The Place of Our Meeting with the Other

5 Desire Lines

215 Cartographies of Desire
218 A Gay Old Town
224 Working for It
230 Desire’s Dark Side
235 The Word Made Flesh

6 Class Fictions

243 This Ain’t No Healing Town
244 Possibilities of Dwelling
252 Class Fictions

7 City Limits

271 Suburban Gothic
272 The Geography of Nowhere
278 The Myth of the Monocultural Suburb
285 The New Torontonians

8 Imagining Toronto

295 Imagining Toronto

303 Acknowledgments
304 Sources
324 Author Index

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