Toronto’s Tasty, Gay Temptations
You’ve just got to love a city that erects a bronze statue of a local gay magistrate accused of too closely examining the nether regions of three male suspects. On a bronze frieze, at the base of the Alexander Wood statue on the corner of Church and Alexander in Toronto, the deliciously scandalous scene from the dawn of the nineteenth century is recreated for your delectation.
Such attention to personal detail took a heavy toll on Wood, one of Toronto’s founding fathers, with the resultant sodomy charges branding him with the epithet "Molly" and sending "Molly" Wood back to Scotland.
And yet, arguably, Wood prevailed - for it was his fifty acres of land that became known as "Molly Wood’s Bush," and that "bush" is now Church Wellesley, known the world over as Toronto’s Gay Village. Apart from the statue, erected in 2005, acknowledging Alexander Wood as a forefather of Toronto’s gay community, there is both an Alexander and a Wood Street in the Village.
Not long after our viewing of Alexander Wood in all his majestically caped glory, we met an ebullient FTM Toronto transsexual who spoke to us about returning to his small town in Scotland. He was there for a family reunion, with more than a hundred extended family members gathered around him - and yet, as he shared with us, it was in returning to Toronto that he felt most at home, surrounded by those he regarded as his unconditionally loving family.
"Colorful at Every Corner"
There’s something in both of these anecdotes that captures the spirit of Toronto: something about the city’s inclusiveness and its colorful characters. With over 200 ethnic groups represented in its population, Toronto (which is the fifth most populous city in North America) has a citizenry that speaks more than 130 languages and dialects, a fact that becomes understandable when you consider that more than fifty percent of Toronto’s populace was born outside Canada. In all the world’s cities, only Miami, Florida has a higher percentage of foreign-born citizens.
Arguably, some of Toronto’s early inclusiveness can be traced to slavery, which was banned in Upper Canada in 1834 - and which enabled escaped African-Americans to settle in the city then known as York. The city’s spirit of inclusion took somewhat longer to reach its LGBT population: for years, police and homophobes targeted gay men. Similar to Stonewall in New York, there came a point when enough was enough - and in 1981, after the mass arrest of more than 300 gay men, Toronto’s LGBT movement achieved momentum, thereafter evolving into Toronto’s Gay Pride Week, which has become one of the largest pride celebrations in the world.
Today, Church Wellesley, the Gay Village, is anchored by the 519 Church Street Community Center in a beautifully-refurbished building that once housed the Granite Club, one of Toronto’s more prominent and private gentlemen’s clubs. How fitting and appropriate that a bastion of Waspy privilege now belongs to the LGBT community - for there, in the history of one building, is the evolution of Toronto’s character.
Right behind the 519 (which is how the locals refer to their community center) is Cawthra Park, home to the AIDS Memorial. Over on Gloucester Street is the nightclub Fly, familiar to those who watched Queer As Folk (where Toronto stood in for Pittsburgh), while up and down Church are the LGBT bars, restaurants, and shops that have made Church Wellesley one of the more well-known gay villages in the world.
Beyond the Gay Village is a city of neighborhoods, each of them distinct and loaded with character - or as one city motto has it, "Colorful at every corner." Neighborhoods with names as adorable as Monopoly properties: Cabbagetown, Little India, Riverdale, Corktown, Greektown, Baldwin Village, and Queen West. You can be walking through canyons of highly-reflective skyscrapers - and then, six blocks later, you’re ambling along a tree-lined street with Beaux-Arts mansions, or a two-block Victorian village redolent of the alternative spirit of the Sixties.
With such a diverse population, it’s no wonder that Toronto supports more than 7,000 restaurants - and that fact, as much as anything else, is the overriding metaphor for this urban smorgasbord. Toronto: it’s all there, waiting for you to lap it up.
Finally, consider this fact: one of every four Canadians lives in Toronto. Why not come to Toronto and see why.
From the Gay Village to the Distillery District
Church Wellesley: There’s something metaphoric about the fact that Church Wellesley is located in the heart of Toronto. Something apt and right, given the Gay Village’s reputation for inclusiveness and openness. Ever since the 1981 bathhouse raids, which served as a wake-up call for Toronto’s LGBT population, Church Wellesley has been an ever-evolving neighborhood, increasingly filled with bars, shops, boutiques, theatres, and restaurants.
One of the best ways to discover the roots behind this vibrant community is to take a tour with someone like Liz Devine. A long-term resident of Church Wellesley, Devine’s love for her neighborhood is matched by her commitment to LGBT equality. To walk Church Wellesley with someone so well known is to witness firsthand the intense connection that Torontonians have to their city and their gay village - and to hear Devine speak about the neighborhood’s evolution is a lesson in gay history. We didn’t just arrive here, kids: there were pioneers who fought for us.
LINK: Church Wellesley
CN Tower: Though it’s not listed on the lighting schedule, we could swear that we saw the most iconic structure on Toronto’s skyline glowing lavender at night. Perhaps it was the reflected light of so many LGBT people in town, but regardless of what it was, after seeing that lavender light, how could we not shoot to the top in a glass-bottomed elevator (introduced in 2008) that traverses the tower’s 112 stories in a mere 58 seconds?
Opened in 1976, the CN Tower is still the Western Hemisphere’s tallest "tower," which is Guinness’ Book of World Records’ way of fudging the impact of other skyscrapers the world over. More than 2 million visitors take the 15 mph elevator to the top annually. Check your vertigo at the elevator exit - and step out onto the glass floor. There, below you, is terra firma - and you’re high atop the needle feeling like Philip Petit or Jack on the Beanstalk (or else you’re hysterical and cowering near the wall. It happens.)
If you need something to calm your nerves, have a cocktail at 360 Restaurant - and watch as the world turns at your feet, a complete revolution every 72 minutes. On second thought, make it a double - and double your fun on the elevator back to earth.
LINK: CN Tower
The Distillery District: A National Historic site, the Distillery District contains some of the best examples of Victorian Industrial architecture on the continent - now converted into a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood not unlike SoHo or the Meatpacking District in New York, where the nineteenth century is evidenced in stone and brick buildings, repurposed timber and planks, all utilized in a creative fusion of 21st-century design with 19th-century materials. The Distillery District opened in 2003 and has subsequently become an anchor of Toronto’s booming art scene, with a plethora of galleries, shops, studios, and boutiques. For chocoholics, Soma Chocolate is mandatory - and specifically, their well-loved Mayan Hot Chocolate spiced with chili. In a word: heaven.
LINK: The Distillery District
The Gayest Show on the Planet
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: In case you have yet to hear, this is the gayest show on the planet. If you thought the 1994 film was queer heaven, then you’ll be in paradise with this 320-costume extravaganza that’s an amalgam of Busby Berkeley and every bar mitzvah and circuit party you’ve ever attended, along with a healthy dose of San Francisco’s long-running, big-hat spectacular Beach Blanket Babylon. With a high-energy, high-kicking cast, headed by the multi-talented heartthrob Nick Adams (Tony award, we’re betting on it...), Priscilla is a confetti-shooting cavalcade of disco’s greatest hits, performed with heart and humor (and just a spoonful of sugar), wrapped in a sweetly empowering tale of following your fabulous dreams to the end of the rainbow. Warning: resistance is futile; Priscilla will dismantle your disdain - and send you home a disco queen. Now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (named for Lady Di - and don’t you know she would be dancing in the aisles...) through December 2010. Tip: take a trip to Toronto and see this indefatigable show before it conquers Broadway and becomes a New York City sensation.
LINK: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Art Gallery of Toronto (AGO): Local boy Frank Gehry’s reimagining of one of Toronto’s premier museums has turned the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) into an architectural wonder whose primary joys are actually on the interior (not always the case with architectural statements). The three-year Gehry transformation expanded the AGO (founded in 1900) by more than 75,000 feet - and the resultant citywide vistas from numerous viewing platforms are a valentine to Toronto.
Currently occupying the entire fifth floor, Julian Schnabel: Art and Film runs through 2 January 2011 - and this galvanizing retrospective alone is worth a flight to Toronto. If you remember Schnabel from the Eighties and you thought you knew him, pigeonholing him to his pottery paintings, then this exhibition will be epiphanic as you reconsider the breadth and depth of Schnabel’s passion as a painter as conveyed through his love for film. An award-winning filmmaker, Schnabel proves himself a titan of both mediums.
LINK: Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)
(Continued on next page: Where to Stay, What to Eat...)