Cities of the Imagination

The Wrigley Building, Chicago is
The Union Stockyard, Chicago is
One town that won’t let you down
It’s my kind of town

I love Paris every moment,
every moment of the year.
I love Paris, why, oh why do I love Paris?
Because my love is near.

If I can make it there
I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York

All of these well-known song lyrics have something in common, and no, it’s not just that Frank Sinatra has sung them all. They all sum up the idea of the cities they describe: a hard-working town that “won’t let you down”; a city of love; a place requiring gumption but well worth the effort. They are the lyrical equivalent of the montages that open every episode of the CSI series. They are but a few of the millions of references – words, images, or feelings – that make up the way we imagine cities. And they are powerful enough to dictate how we feel about places we’ve never been, and channel the experiences we expect once we get there.

One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read recently was uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto. A collection of short essays, it looked at Toronto’s past, present, and future in a way that was intriguing, thoughtful and – perhaps most importantly – hopeful. Covering everything from proposed dedicated bike highways to greenroofs to the necessity of public washrooms (I could take or leave that one), it made me realize the possibilities that exist for this city. (If anyone is interested, it’s sold by Coach House Books, available at major monopolistic Canadian bookstores which shall remain nameless, and many libraries, I’m sure.)

Perhaps my favourite essay was by Bert Archer, entitled “Making a Toronto of the imagination.” (I’d actually recommend that you buy the book for these 10 pages alone, they’re that good.) In it, he discusses why Toronto has no real “global city” status whereas, say, Montreal does (because of its comparative difference from the rest of North America and its low tuition fees making an international alumni diaspora); the kinds of “layers” and networks in which we get to know our cities (the work area and the home area and a few others thrown in); and how cities become vested in our minds. He talks about how authors, directors, or other artists pluck areas – like, say, the Prince Edward Viaduct from In the Skin of a Lion – to use in their works, which then serve as reference points in a constantly reinforcing cycle. We feel more attached to the places and spaces we love because we know other people love them too, and then more people want to sing or write about them, and so on. This is how cities become stories.

The idea of imagined cities is one that has been percolating in my brain since long before I started the posthistorical blog, but a film review by Liam Lacey in the Globe & Mail today pushed it right back to the top of my mind. In it, Lacey reviews Chloe, a new ‘erotic thriller’ by Canadian director Atom Egoyan – but his review is more about Toronto than the film. This is Toronto’s chance to finally stop being the city that has “a distinct iconography that audiences in other cities feel they recognize but can’t quite identify, because they’ve seen it in the movies,” he says. But he notes that this is a glossy, unrealistic Toronto, with none of the “suburbs, strip malls or ethnic neighbourhoods” locals love.

The trouble is, art can’t portray cities as they really are, in all their complexity and contradiction. It sells a simplified version of what people think they are. And it is a self-reinforcing cycle. Chicago is a great example of this, the wild and dangerous “second city” of the United States, where uncouth lawlessness (i.e. wanton murder, licentiousness, and trains!) was, and maybe still is, the order of the day. Live in a safe neighbourhood with no trouble in Hinsdale? Doesn’t matter: audiences want to see the six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail. Paris? Come prepared to fall in love, or fall in love again. In this light, even the rude waitstaff seem charming. And New York is an example of simplicity from diversity, as it has been portrayed as a kind of microcosm of all the hardship and potential of America. Only within this uniting vision is it allowed its complexities: extreme poverty next to extreme wealth, immigrant families and established American dynasties, joy and sorrow, the past and the future, all side by side.

Toronto doesn’t have a unifying vision yet. In part this is because of the country in which it is located. Nobody quite knows how to characterize Canada either (sitting inside or outside of it). Not quite the US, not quite Britain, Canada doesn’t really have a clear and coherent image that it stands for yet, and even if it did at one point, it’s constantly in flux. In part, I suspect that this is because Canada, and Toronto even more so, is a place people go to, a hope, a destination. It is by definition about many different things, what one great blog post I read recently called “multiculturalism – a legal reality.”

Will Toronto ever have the status of a city of the imagination, shared amongst a global audience? Perhaps it will follow from Canadians’ growing sense of national pride, the idea that yes, we do have something to celebrate, an identity, a pride of place. The first step is surely to achieve some form of unity from diversity. I did a little research into what’s out there in the popular imagination, and stumbled upon the Toronto Unlimited website, which seeks to brand Toronto for purposes of travel and tourism. According to this project, Toronto is, “in short … a city built with and for the limitless imaginations of the people that come here. And it is these people that make Toronto the city of imagination.” Interesting. [Ironic, too, as I just looked this up toward the end of writing my post.]

The font of the brand is also intended to convey this limitlessness, it seems, by being sans serif in the extreme. Yikes. (Look out for it on t-shirts near you. But not on me.)

Now, I think it’s difficult to “brand” a city outright – if anything, a city brand should be iterative, evolving from many years and countless stories that are told about it – but in the age of the commoditization of all things, perhaps this is the way to start the process. What I do like about the project is that the slogan/phrase Toronto Unlimited was created to “celebrate the unlimited potential of the people and the endless opportunities they offer the city” – not a bad message to get behind, considering that it is the people who make the city before the city can make the people, really. Now all we need is a schmaltzy Broadway number, and we’re set.

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2 Responses to Cities of the Imagination

  1. James says:

    I think a city’s status in the imagination is directly correlated with the number of films, books, TV shows, and even schmaltzy Broadway numbers that feature said city. There may be a cause and effect issue here, what with it being kind of circular — i.e., New York is the setting for a lot of pop culture, and so it is often used — but regardless, I’m sure that if more movies were unabashedly Torontonian, it would put the city more firmly into imaginative status, and save filmmakers the trouble of replacing mailboxes.

  2. […] words adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty  and represent what I have spoken of before, being a city of the imagination. These cities are the subject of books, films, Broadway musicals, and countless daydreams, and have […]

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