Welcome Back To Toronto

Three years after the SARS scare, this Canadian city is re-emerging as a fun and quirky destination


TORONTO -- The narrow streets of Kensington Market beat to the rhythm of many a different drum, from reggae to Filipino folk music to Andean pan pipes. A jumble of food and vintage clothing stores spills out onto the sidewalks, giving the impression that many of them were set up on a whim. Clothing racks and cardboard signs fill front yards and line alleyways. The atmosphere is Third-World bazaar, the air pungent with spice and fish and ripe fruit, but the experience is uniquely Toronto.

If you knew this city in the 1980s, you would hardly recognize it today, except that the CN Tower, still the world's tallest when it turned 30 this summer, now dominates a much busier skyline. With a population of 5 million and a cheek-by-jowl gumbo of cultural cross-pollination, Toronto is all grown up. The city still bears some scars from a health crisis that kept tourists away in droves, but today Toronto shows a maturity that allows for bigger dreams.

Rewind to the summer of 2003 and a medical threat called SARS. Several cases of the respiratory illness were diagnosed in Toronto, leading the World Health Organization to issue a travel advisory.

Few city dwellers pay much attention to tourists in their midst and probably wouldn't notice them in any real sense unless they're not there.

That's exactly what happened in Toronto. It was a spooky feeling.

Despite offers of deep discounts on hotels and theaters, tourists heeded the advisory and avoided Canada's largest city, causing a virtual collapse of the service industry.

Some would argue that it's taken Toronto three years to get over the crisis. If proof were needed that SARS is now well in the past, it might found in a musical spoofing the episode, complete with a do-whop singing virus and actors who toss surgical masks into the audience, opened this spring.

In the post-SARS era, the focus turned to examining what makes the city a worthwhile place to visit. It's a continuing conversation that ultimately should make Toronto a better place for residents and visitors.

Indeed, the exercise is already bearing fruit with urban revitalization, a commitment from the mayor to make a city already known for its cleanliness even cleaner, and a slew of heavyweight cultural initiatives that, by coincidence, are all coming to fruition during the next couple of years.

Take a stroll along Queen Street West, long the hub of hip hangouts and whose center keeps moving westward: The new frontier begins beyond Trinity Bellwoods Park. You'll find the kind of independent spirit that inspires fashion designers to open boutiques and innovative galleries to champion local artists, as well as an array of bars and restaurants that keep the streets bustling on warm summer nights.

The clang and rumble of Toronto's beloved streetcars help set the mood and the undeniable feeling is of a city getting its groove back. A few years ago this stretch was lined with used appliance stores and grubby diners. Now it's anchored by two of the city's funkiest boutique hotels, The Drake and The Gladstone.

Perennial blockbuster attractions such as next month's Toronto International Film Festival also add a shot of glamour as Hollywood's A-list puts the city in the spotlight.

"Toronto has an air right now of re-emerging and in a strange way SARS contributed to that perception as people see us coming out from under that cloud," said Andrew Weir, a spokesman for Tourism Toronto, adding that the number of visitors from the United States has been in decline for the past five years for reasons as diverse as Sept. 11, SARS, a strengthening Canadian dollar and the price of gas.

Civic pride

A forest of shiny condo towers is the most visible new symbol in a city where living downtown has always been an attractive option to the leafy hinterland. Progress, though, comes with a price. In this case, Toronto is plowing under not only its Victorian-era roots but also many fine examples of mid-century modernism. For a city that wears one of the most multicultural faces on the planet, it risks being dressed in a 21st-century suit of architectural sameness.

"Toronto for awhile was a city that didn't have any civic pride and destroyed things because nobody seemed to care. That is changing," said Toronto-based author Margaret Atwood.

A good example of that new spirit lies across town from the Queen West scene: a Dickensian preserve of cobbled streets and gas lamps rescued from the wrecking ball before developers could lay to waste North America's largest intact industrial zone from the 1850s. The Distillery District, until recently, was an atmospheric shooting location for films as diverse as Chicago and X-Men.

Now it proudly flaunts its heritage as an old-time booze factory amid galleries, restaurants and performance spaces.

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