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Toronto: Biography of a City

by Allan Levine

The subtitle of Allan Levine’s ambitious history of Toronto may seem as stolid as the city’s British founding families, but it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize how carefully chosen it is. Levine, who won high praise for his 2011 biography of Mackenzie King, treats the city as he would any biographical subject: as a constantly changing personality rooted to the historical moment by a set of defining passions, idiosyncrasies, blind spots, and complex relations with family members.

Toronto (Allan Levine)This approach was popularized by Peter Ackroyd’s personalized history of his home city, London: The Biography, and it serves Levine well. He announces his intentions in a very witty introduction, which he informs readers will “decidedly not begin with me peering down at the vast metropolis from a perch high atop the CN Tower’s observation deck. There will be no romantic descriptions of the Don and Humber Rivers and the Scarborough Bluffs; no astute or cute observations about ravines and raccoons.”

Levine is acknowledging that any non-fiction treatment of Toronto has to anticipate and answer to the myriad popular perceptions and misconceptions about Canada’s most hated and talked-about city. The legion of Toronto haters may be loath to admit it, but the city, which creates about 20 per cent of the country’s total economic output, is, in Levine’s words, “Canada’s only emerging city-state in a world dominated by such city-states as London, New York, Hong Kong, and Paris.” As the old adage says, “As goes Toronto, so goes Canada.”

Levine is hardly a booster. His biography captures the city’s cycles of self-
regard and insecurity, provincialism and progressiveness, development frenzy and sober – but rarely visionary – urban planning. These cycles have characterized the city since it officially passed from French to English hands at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.

The Humber River, as Levine demonstrates, is the key to understanding Toronto’s history. It was a significant stop on a centuries-old portage route used by the Huron and other native peoples. The French set up several lucrative fur-trading posts at the mouth of the river before building Fort Rouillé in 1751, which they burned to the ground when it became clear that England was winning the war for North America.

Recognizing the commercial opportunities afforded by the fur trade and the strategic value of what is now Toronto Harbour, the industrious British military began surveying the site of a new town and acquiring, through stealthy means, a huge tract of nearby land from the Mississauga Indians. The fledgling community of York expanded with the influx of United Empire Loyalists fleeing the newly formed United States of America. Devoutly Anglican, anti-republican, anti-Catholic, and fiercely loyal to the British Crown, these prosperous settlers defined the public face of York.

The town’s guiding spirit then and now was, in spite of high-sounding rhetoric to the contrary, primarily mercantile. There was money to be made in the rough-and-tumble colony of Upper Canada, and adventurers from England and elsewhere flocked to York to grab their share.

Levine defines the next two centuries, very broadly, as a war between the Protestant elites who controlled Toronto (as it was named when the city was incorporated in 1834) and the succeeding waves of immigrants from the U.K., then Europe and the rest of the world, who came to remake their lives there. He writes with energy and insight about the immigrant experience of Toronto’s Irish, Chinese, Jewish, and Italian communities (among others), and explores the rich and often ignored history of organized resistance to the city’s business, social, and religious elites.

The book includes an excellent selection of archival images and photographs that highlight key themes and personalities in the city’s development (civic boosters would say “evolution”), from disease-infested colonial backwater to today’s sprawling, multicultural metropolis.

The text is also enlivened by dozens of highly quotable observations, appreciations, and put-downs from the last 200 years. The insults are especially good. Ernest Hemingway, who worked for The Toronto Daily Star (now the Toronto Star) in the early 1920s, referred to Toronto as “the city of churches,” while Polish physicist Leopold Infeld quipped, “It must be good to die in Toronto. The transition between life and death would be continuous.”

The concluding chapters too breezily summarize the systemic issues facing Toronto: the growing gap between rich and poor, the gridlock on the roads, highways, and at City Hall, and the new ethnic divisions entrenched by both lingering racism and official multiculturalism. Love it or hate it, Toronto is a slippery city to pin down. Levine’s excellent biography goes a long way to explaining why.