HBDC Road Trip: Toronto

Posted on May 31, 2009

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I went half-way around the world, and all I got myself was this stupid badge.

I went half-way around the world, and all I got myself was this stupid badge.

The bloggers at HBDC (Humor Blog Dot Com) recently decided to go on a virtual road trip in order to learn more about each other and broaden our knowledge of the world — without having to stand in line at an airport carrying our shoes and shampoo bottles.

Our route will take us from Toronto down the eastern seaboard, through the Midwest up to Oregon, east across Canada to Quebec, and finally across the ocean to good old London town. It’s not a particularly sensible route, but then we’re not particularly sensible people.

So let me welcome you to Toronto. My hometown. The city which has taken my youth and hopes and dreams, chewed them up, and spit them out saying, “Needs more salt.”

A brief history

The tall object in the middle is the CN Tower and the rounded object to the left is the Domed Stadium -- an arrangement that isn't at all phallic.

The first European to set foot on the land which, in the fullness of time, would one day become the city of Toronto, was Etienne Brule. Brule was one of the many courier de bois, early French explorers who learned about the New World by living with the Indians, speaking their language, and becoming absorbed into their culture — although in Brule’s instance, the “absorption” part was perhaps taken too far when his hosts killed and ate him.

In the years since Brule’s appearance as the main course at a tribal feast, important historical events have occurred and a great many buildings been erected. The result is the Toronto we know today: a mighty city in which hardly anyone is both killed and eaten anymore.

Transportation

To explore the city, we’ll take public transit, or as we call it, the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission). The TTC is an impressive network of buses, subways, streetcars, and something called “light transit” (a subway built to HO scale).

PCC Streecar - in operation from 1930s to the 1970s. The original Red Rocket.

PCC Streecar - in operation from 1930s to the 1970s. The original "Red Rocket."

When I first moved to Toronto in 1971, the TTC was using the popular Presidents’ Conference Committee streetcars, more commonly known as PCC or, during rush hour, “road blocks.” They were designed in the ’30s by a committee formed by the presidents of various American electric rail companies. During the ’70s, the PCC car became better known as the Red Rocket, a term now applied to TTC vehicles in general.

A CLRV lies in wait as two unsuspecting victims climb aboard.

A CLRV lies in wait as two unsuspecting victims climb aboard.

In the late ’70s, the TTC replaced its fleet of streetcars with the CLRV, or Canadian Light Rail Vehicle, designed right here in Canada. When filled to capacity, one CLRV can carry 70 passengers: a number deemed illegal in a room of similar size, but apparently completely safe in a swaying piece of tin that doesn’t have a steering wheel.

Although the subways are wisely shut down before last call in the pubs, thereby encouraging drinkers to use their cars to get home and save wear and tear on the transit system’s poorly-maintained fleet, many of the major routes have 24-hour bus and streetcar service. In keeping with the outer space imagery suggested by the “rocket” terminology, these vehicles are referred to as Vomit Comets.

The reason is left as an exercise for the class.

Of course, while we enjoy complaining about the service, and despite the fact that it is one of the most under-funded transit systems in North America, it must be admitted that the TTC provides a convenient and affordable way for all Torontonians to be late for everything.

Landmarks

Casa Loma: If you build it, he will come

Canada is part of the British Commonwealth, and while we’re still proud of that fact, it doesn’t mean as much now as it did in the early part of the 20th century. Streets were named after kings, queens, princes and princesses, cornerstones bore the initials of whichever monarch was in power at the time, and a visit by members of the royal family was regarded as only slightly less important than the Second Coming. And while it was not customary for visiting royalty to stay at private residences, in 1911 a financier named Henry Pellatt came up with what he considered to be an infallible scheme to change that.

To this end, he commissioned the famous architect, E. J. Lennox to build Casa Loma, Canada’s only functioning castle.

Casa Loma - Canadas only castle, located behind the college where I teach.

Casa Loma - Canada's only castle, located behind the college where I teach.

Well, mostly functioning.

Work began in 1911 and continued for three years with over 300 workers. Unfortunately, the onset of WWI put a halt to construction, meaning that much of the interior work was never finished. Nevertheless, with 98 rooms, well-equipped horse stables, and an oven large enough to cook an ox, it was still an impressive achievement. Sadly, Pellatt himself only lived in the castle for ten years before he was forced into bankruptcy. The building rattled around for a while like a faded dowager trying to recapture her glory days — serving as a hotel for a few years and later as a popular night spot — but in the end the Depression forced it to close down completely and in 1933 the city took it over for the back taxes. In 1937, however, it was leased to the Kiwanis Club on the provision that they would restore it to its original condition. Since then, Casa Loma has been one of Toronto’s most popular tourist attractions.

Royal Ontario Museum

Lor luv a duck! thatDebby Laboos a beautiful building . Know what I mean?

"Lor' luv a duck! that'Debby Laboos a beautiful building . Know what I mean?"

Opened in 1914, the Royal Ontario Museum is Canada’s largest museum, and continues to bring knowledge and education to those rich enough to pay the exorbitant entry fees. The building itself is as much loved as the exhibits it holds, so that while the peasants may not be able to actually go in, the neo-Romanesque facade can still make them feel proud as they pass by on their way to working in the fields.

While the original building is still there, it’s undergone a number of expansions, the first in 1933 when, to employ as many people as possible during the Depression, much of the digging was done by hand. The new addition was so skillfully blended with the old that to the untrained eye there is no difference.

In 1984 another expansion took place, this time adding glass terraces to the north side of the building. The original outside walls remained intact and because they were now inside, visitors could view them up-close all the way to the top.

Look out, Data -- the Crystalline Entity is after you!

Look out, Data -- the Crystalline Entity is after you!

The most recent expansion is now essentially complete. The new addition was designed architect Daniel Libeskind and Bregman + Hamann Architects, all of whom were apparently rather badly frightened by large pieces of quartz as children. The result is a cross between classical architecture and steroidal rock candy. According to Libeskind, he “designed the museum on the back of a napkin during a wedding,” which has led one critic to point out that “the building looks a bit like a starched napkin that’s been set aside while the diner goes to the bathroom.” On the other hand, Ryan McGreal notes that due to its materials, it should “age and weather like a heroin addict.”

The rest of Toronto

There’s much, much more to see in Toronto, and definitely much more to do. Our annual Caribana parade and Gay Pride March are attended by millions of people from all over the world. Of course, with this many people you get the occasional spot of violence. Most years see one or two people shot or knifed during Caribana, while the Gay Pride activities invariably result in a dozen or more bitch-slappings and sometimes hundreds of hissy-fits.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time or space to go into it all. From sitting in a streetcar watching traffic inch by to dodging bullets as the steel-drum bands play, there is no excuse for being bored in this great city.

On June 2, visit Unfinished Rambler who will guide us through Pennsyltucky

On June 3, visit Unfinished Rambler who will guide us through Pennsyltucky

Continue the HBDC Virtual Road Trip on June 3 by visiting Unfinished Rambler’s blog where he’ll take us through Pennsyltucky.

Please post your comments, share your own Toronto stories, or just say hi.

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