We agreed, last time, to meet at the corner of Yonge & Bloor – Toronto's busiest subway stop.
Presumably you'll arrive by subway. There are two main lines: one east-west along Bloor-Danforth, from Kipling Ave. in Etobicoke to Scarborough Town Centre. The intersecting north-south line is actually double. One branch runs almost the entire length of Yonge St., from Finch to Union Station. From there it doubles back, heading north again under University Ave and Avenue Road, finally ending near Downsview Airport. They intersect at three stations, all along Bloor Street: Bloor & Spadina, Bloor & Avenue Road (St. George), and Bloor & Yonge. The latter is where you want to get off.
The Toronto subway is clean, quiet, convenient and runs on time. It is also very slow; I doubt top speed is much over 30 mph. You can get most places you need to go, but you won't get there quickly.
Another way to get close to Yonge & Bloor is by street car. Actually, the best you'll do is Yonge and College, and then you've got a few blocks to walk. Tourists and Americans love the street cars – they are fun. For the commuter they are a pain. Mostly they share right-of-way with cars. This slows down the street car, and worse, slows vehicle traffic to the same pace (they're almost impossible to pass). The result: traffic down Queen St. rolls by at a solid 15 mph. This is not an efficient mass transit method, but tourists love it.
Metro Toronto consists of six boroughs: Toronto, Scarborough, North York, Etobicoke, York, and East York. The latter two are very small - I have never actually "been" to either; I've just driven through. I've stayed over night in all of the others. Metro Toronto resulted from city-county consolidation of York County in 1954. (Toronto was originally founded as York, but changed the name shortly after, presumably to avoid confusion with New York.)
Skipping the two little ones (directly adjacent to Toronto proper), Toronto City is the original city. It is bounded by the lake to the south and very roughly Eglinton Ave. in the north, the Don Valley to the east, and the Humber River in the West. Scarborough is east of the Don Valley, Etobicoke is west of the Humber, and North York is north of Eglinton.
So here we are at Yonge and Bloor Streets. Let's go east. Bloor ends within a mile at Parliament St. and then becomes Danforth. Danforth crosses over the Don Valley in a most dramatic way. Given that Toronto cannot effectively use its lakefront, the most prominent natural landmark in the city is the Don Valley. This is a deep gorge cut by the Don River, which flows south to Lake Ontario, east of the city centre. The gorge is a park traversed by the Don Valley Parkway - an expressway that runs along the bottom of the gorge from the Gardiner Expwy to the northern city limit. The Don Valley also marks the approximate boundary between Toronto City and Scarborough (the actual boundary lies to the east at Victoria Park Ave.).
Crossing the Don Valley, especially near the southern end where the gorge is deepest, requires a significant bridge. And this is what happens on Danforth - probably the most spectacular view in the whole city. It's even nice on the subway, which crosses the same bridge on a lower level. Across the bridge (not yet in Scarborough) is Toronto's vibrant Greek community. Once in Scarborough, Danforth veers northeast so as to parallel the lake. It will eventually take you to Scarborough Town Centre.
My first impression of Scarborough was British. The place is full of typical Toronto bungalows that look very much like typical suburban London bungalows (think Keeping Up Appearances). But in the meantime appearances don't mean much: Scarborough has become one gigantic Chinatown. The predominant language at the corner of Midland and Finch (where I have spent a lot of time) is Chinese. The primary commercial street, Kingston Road (the continuation of the Gardiner Expwy along the lake) is mostly Chinese. Now Chinese are likely a bigger share of commercial life than population, but without a doubt, Scarborough has a large Chinese community. It's very vibrant, and it makes for good food.
The main street of North York, on the other hand, is the 401 expressway. This is the longest expressway in Canada, going from Windsor to Montreal. In Toronto it runs from Pearson Airport in the west through Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and points east, roughly along Lawrence Ave. On my most recent visits, North York struck me as at best lower middle class – it is definitely the poorest of the six boroughs (at least the bigger ones). Immigrants are from all over: Russia, India, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean. It is not as lively as Scarborough, but it still has very good food.
I haven't been to Etobicoke since the early eighties. Then it was mostly Italian and solidly middle class. The eastern boundary of the borough is the Humber River, a much less dramatic counterpoint to the Don Valley.
Starting at Bloor and heading north on Yonge, one comes first to St. Clair - about a mile away. Yonge & St. Clair is called Midtown, and is an elegant residential neighborhood. A mile north of St. Clair brings you to Eglinton, which (apart from the expressways) is the major E-W traffic thoroughfare. It is the first street north of Danforth to cross the Don Valley; it spans the entire city from Pearson Airport to eastern Scarborough.
Continuing north puts one in North York - Wilson (which doesn't go through), the 401, Lawrence (a shopping street in North York), Sheppard, Finch and Steeles (the northern city limit). The latter three cross the Don Valley, which is much smaller that far north. All of these are about a mile apart.
Recall the history of Toronto: founded as the cultural capital of British North America, dedicated to British rule, Good Government & Good Order. When I first visited Toronto in the 1970s it lived up to that ideal. Since then the city has become one of immigrants, lots of good food, but not very British. What does that mean for British North America? Is Good Government & Good Order a sufficiently stirring rallying cry to create a civic life from all the ethnic groups? Where is the unum amidst all that pluribus? Canada is betting its future on multiculturalism. They really have no other choice, but will the city maintain its original soul throughout these changes?
Daniel Jelski is Dean of Science & Engineering State University of New York at New Paltz.