Mixed blessings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2010, 12:00am

Walking home after a dinner with friends in inner city Toronto, I pass a busy movie set. There are technicians, large and small vans with electrical cabling criss-crossing the street, a hum of generators and the glare of floodlights.

The film stars Nicholas Cage, and this evening two scenes are being shot - one inside a bar and another of a street chase. Toronto is the setting for many Hollywood movies, chiefly because it offers lower production costs, has experienced film production teams and - perhaps unflatteringly - it's great for doubling as a generic US city.

The truth is Toronto's anything but generic. Wrapped comfortably around the northwestern shores of Lake Ontario, it is Canada's largest city and its main financial centre. As the provincial capital of Ontario, Toronto is also an important political and cultural base with a cosmopolitan population of more than five million.

While the city attracted negative attention last week as the host of the G20 conference, with about 900 people arrested for rioting, Toronto is usually known for being laid-back.

The city has changed a lot since I lived there 20 years ago. Its skyline now has innovative examples of world-class architecture. Among buildings of note is the new Royal Ontario Museum, designed by Studio Daniel Libeskind of Berlin. With its jagged facade and narrow non-linear windows, it contrasts sharply with the rectilinear forms of nearby buildings.

Another eye-catching structure is the Sharp Centre for Design, at the Ontario College of Art & Design, by architect Will Alsop. The building, raised on angular steel columns high above the campus, appears as a black and white checked block. It's a playful and abstract building within the context of its more traditional surrounds, and it exudes a notion of whimsy.

Toronto architect Frank Gehry's overhaul of the Art Gallery of Ontario is also worth a look. With an entrance facade of sweeping ribbed-glass, and a rear wing clad in titanium and glass, the structure satisfies the city's love of striking and innovative architecture.

But the city has retained its old character.

A good place to start exploring is Kensington Street's markets on a Saturday afternoon. This great Caribbean-flavoured marketplace, even on a grey overcast day, retains the casual and colourful ambience it had years ago.

A dreadlocked West Indian man plays guitar and sings reggae on the pavement opposite Patty King - a West Indian patty shop that's been around for years. The area's shops and houses have resisted gentrification and retain their character.

Staying with an old friend, local architect Breck McFarlane, I had a contemporary connection to the city. 'The great thing about Toronto is that it is so cosmopolitan,' he says. 'Much more so than Vancouver. I love riding through the Annex, visiting friends in the different neighbourhoods to meet for a drink or dinner.'

The Annex is a neighbourhood in the inner city. It's a leafy residential district with two-storey free-standing brick and sandstone houses. I always enjoyed cycling through these streets, admiring the front porches and roof details of turrets and domes, which add to the richness of the streetscape.

In many ways, Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods and this diversity gives it one of its greatest charms. It's a fantastic testimony to the benefits of multiculturalism. There's Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy, Little India, the Caribbean area, the Portuguese Azores and Gaytown.

In the week I spent roaming Toronto, I criss-crossed the neighbourhoods by foot, became familiar with the subway system and enjoyed the views offered by riding the streetcars that rattle along the streets.

One evening I go with Breck for a drink at a couple of bohemian bars. Once a quiet part of town, this district has recently sprung to life with lively and unusual bars, cafes, restaurants and art galleries.

We visit the intriguingly named The Communist's Daughter. With an interior closer in style to an old '50s diner than anything communist, the bar attracts a crowd of students and artists who engage in animated conversation at the long counter-like bar or around old laminated tables, struggling to be heard above the jukebox.

For a different perspective and to escape the inner city din, it's good to head out to Toronto Island on a Sunday afternoon. Only a 15-minute ferry ride out into Lake Ontario, it's easily accessible and a relaxing getaway.

The trip reveals a panoramic view of the downtown skyline - a reminder to those on board that they are leaving the city for a few hours. With extensive areas of quiet parkland, canals and beaches, it's a preferred destination for families and individuals to take a picnic, read a book on the beach or ride a bike. There's a yacht club and an arts centre that conducts theatre performances through the summer months and fine-art workshops.

Late afternoon, boarding the return ferry, the wind has picked up and the lake has a silvery grey swell. I'll be joining Breck at a restaurant in Little Italy later, en route enjoying a streetcar ride through the city's lights at night.