Jun 18, 2007

Olympics... and what it can do for a city.

In a rather informative discussion with my cousins, I recently got to chat about the failed Olympics bid of what would have been next year, and what it would have meant for Toronto.

To remind you all, Toronto was up against Beijing, Paris, Istanbul and Osaka for the Summer 2008 Olympics back in 2001. Beijing won both rounds, in what was rumoured to be a very controversial decision, as Human Rights issues and Pollution were significant concerns. A rumour spread saying that Beijing spray-painted their grass to be green during the visit from the IOC panel. According to gamesbids.com, "The one-sidedness of the final vote did not fairly represent the relative quality of the bids, raising further suspicion on the IOC".

It of course didn't help that while in Kenya, Toronto's mayor-at-the-time (furniture-salesman Mel Lastman) made the comment "I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me". (USAToday)

Oh, Mel. As the ambassador for such a multicultural, tolerant city... well, it's over now. But do you wonder what our city would have looked like if the Olympics did come to town?

While it's well known that a poorly planned Olympics can bankrupt and indebt a city for years, a well-organized one can jumpstart its infrastructure. Toronto planned on (finally) redesigning the Waterfront Promenade, an environmental clean-up of the city, and having a highly-advanced telecommunications network to broadcast it. Toronto had highest scores by the IOC in Sports Infrastructure, and better results than Beijing in Transportation Infrastructure and General Infrastructure.

But Beijing was chosen. Perhaps Toronto was seen as not needing the facelift like the Chinese capital was. Perhaps Toronto really did ruin its chances with a mouthy mayor. Or perhaps it is an entirely political decision that pretty much dooms the overlooked megacity of Canada for the next 30 or so years. Seeing as how Vancouver copped the 2010 Winter Games... the IOC won't be considering Canada for a while yet.

I'm going to do something I love reading about but would never admit to doing: compare Canada with the United States. I get a little 'middle child attention syndrome' when I think about how often we're overlooked for them. Here's what I mean.

1902 Summer
St. Louis, Missouri

1932 Summer
Los Angeles, California

1932 Winter
Lake Placid, New York

1960 Winter
Squaw Valley, California

1976 Summer
Montreal, Quebec

1984 Summer
Los Angeles, California

1988 Winter
Calgary, Alberta

1996 Summer
Atlanta, Georgia

2002 Winter
Salt Lake City, Utah

2010 - Winter
Vancouver, British Columbia

By all accounts, the States will have another games before Toronto gets another shot at the Olympics. And it's a shame, really, because with a slow-moving municipal government like ours... well, an Olympics might actually talk it into doing something.

So after examining our record - at least 12 years between games, at most 22... - I'd predict that Toronto will be hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics.

We might even have a Waterfront before then... but don't hold your breath.

May 24, 2007

Happy 40th, GO Transit!

They're officially over the hill. And you know they're old now, because GO Transit was created the year that the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. 1967. GO transit is 40 years old.

And they celebrated yesterday in Union Station's Great Hall, cutting cake, handing out brownies and pins, and welcoming wrinkled faces who remember that the first GO ride from Oakville to Toronto was free.

Wouldn't that be nice, eh?

In 1965, the Commuter Rail Service launched its mission - to see if they could convince automobile commuters to hop a train instead. Two years of both support and critique later, GO was born. And has been tirelessly shuffling commuters back and forth every day.

I know that it's easy to look at GO now and continue being the critic - the size of parking lots, the traffic and what seems like inefficient scheduling... but forty years is a long time to be steadily growing. And I don't see today being any different from yesterday. The demand is still growing; there are new lines planned, new platforms. GO only leases Union Station, but its presence is everywhere. The amount of traffic through the downstairs concourse alone is enough to make your head spin.

So a billion passengers and forty years later... GO is still doing just what it set out to do. Give people an alternative to driving. Happy Birthday, GO! May there be many more.

From an early GO ad:

Every morning Mr. J.W. Dillworth likes to relax in a comfortable chair, enjoy a good cigar, read the market quotes, and still get to work on time. He does. Because J.W. is on the GO.

(can you believe the logo's exactly the same? ...yeah, me too.)

May 10, 2007

Union Station

I had a very strange encounter today.

I work at Union Station, and as receptionist I deal with a lot of interesting questions. Today, I had a middle-aged Mexican woman come up to my desk with a letter.

The letter was hand-written, neat and she wished to address it to the 'big boss'. I gave her our Director's name, and she proceeded to tell me (in difficult English) how she had been in Toronto since before I was born and had great respect for the city.

The letter, which I read as I made a copy for her on our machine, was written in a poetic English that was hard to follow. It is clear that she was trying to make her emotions as strong as possible in a language not her own. She wrote that she cleaned up a bench which someone had spilled food and drink over, and that she was humbly asking for... I'm not sure. Respect? Acknowledgement? Support? It was so unclear, so erroneous. But through the message and through speaking with her, I had the impression that she was humbly asking for a "You're welcome." She obviously loves the building, and she travels through it on the GO train often. As she left, she mentioned that she was going to eat lunch at Mimico, because to her it felt like the 'border of Toronto'. Like Tijuana, she said.

It's hard for me to listen to someone whose English isn't great. Hard because I know they wish to be clearer, but cannot. And hard because I cannot help them express themselves but only thank them for trying.

There's a lot more to this city than I could have imagined.

May 3, 2007


One of the reasons I love Toronto is the multitude of different cuisines. I'm not a food snob - more like a food explorer. I like trying new things - in fact, I say I'll try anything twice. I used to hate lettuce (don't get me started...) but since I discovered the simplistic shaved carrots and iceberg salads of sushi restaurants - or more importantly, the tasty dressing - I was brave enough to try eating lettuce again. And now I'll eat it on burgers, sandwiches, even the occasional mixed green salad.

So I owe lots to sushi. When I started University in 2001, I was having some major dietary allergies and was forbidden to eat wheat/gluten. Sushi became my friend. Since then, I have become a diehard fanatic and make it quite regularly in the comfort of my own home. But it's still nice going out.

For those of you who have never had sushi, you might feel intimidated. I haven't been in a sushi place yet that doesn't have at least ONE menu item in Japanese. So in order to help you on your very own raw fish discoveries, below is a list of classic sushi and Japanese cooking terminology to help you know what you're getting:

  • sushi - sort of a broad term, but on menus it normally refers to nigiri sushi. See next word.
  • nigiri - a slab of raw fish, roe, crab, egg, sea urchin... on a little log of rice. You can pretty much put a little slab of anything on a little log of rice and call it nigiri.
  • sashimi - raw fish. Alone. No rice in sight. It is simply large slabs of fish or shellfish, etc. A common sashimi dish is chirashi, which literally means 'scattered sushi'. It consists of a variety of sashimis served on a bed of rice.
  • maki - literally 'roll' in Japanese. It is made by putting rice on a piece of seaweed paper (nori), and rolling it around a combination of fillings. For example, a cucumber roll (translation: kappa maki) has only cucumber in it. Maki can come with the seaweed on the outside of the roll, or the rice on the outside of the roll. More complex maki can have cucumber or salmon instead of rice - which is beautiful when presented, but can get a bit awkward to stuff in your mouth in one go.
  • temaki - literally 'hand roll' in Japanese. It is made from a piece of nori (see below) with a small bit of rice and filling rolled into a cone-shape. It is eaten with your hands, usually, and looks a little like a waffle cone - only green.
  • nori - the seaweed paper used to make maki, temaki, and commonly used on nigiri with some kinds of topping. Roe, urchin, and egg usually have bands of nori keeping them on the rice log.
  • California Roll - not Japanese, but possibly the most popular maki out there, a California Roll in sushi restaurants usually refers to a roll with (cooked, and usually fake) crab, avocado, cucumber and flyfish roe. It can also refer to a maki that has the rice on the outside, but this is less common in restaurants.
  • futomaki - A strange term that literally means 'fat cut roll'. It is usually a vegetarian roll, usually with egg and sometimes with mushrooms, pickled radishes (daikon) and other vegetables.
  • daikon - pickled radish. It comes in many different colours that are outrageous, like fuschia and bright yellow - similar to pickled ginger, only not normally shaved.
  • edamame - boiled soy beans in the pod. They are usually salted, and are most common as an appetizer. They look more like green beans than anything, but taste nuttier.
  • bonito - crunchy, prepared tuna flakes. They don't taste a thing like tuna, but are great to add a crunch. The tuna is smoked, dried, fermented and flaked to create bonito - to the point you wouldn't know it was fish at all. Sometimes it comes in the shape of large paper-like flakes that dance with the heat coming off a dish - a beautiful sight.
  • udon - a big fat thick rice noodle. Very al dente texture - like tapioca or rice. Normally the dishes are soups in restaurant, but some will offer both soup and only noodles.
  • soba - a thin noodle made of at least 30% buckwheat. It is stiffer than the udon noodles, due to its high fiber content, but not crunchy. Like udon, they usually come in soups, but can be offered both ways.
  • miso - speaking of soups, this one defines sushi. Miso is made of fermented soybean, and is very smooth and salty in taste. Miso soup is traditionally served before the main course. While recipes differ from place to place, miso soup usually comes with tofu, wakabe seaweed (different taste than the nori), sometimes even mushrooms or green onion. It is a very light soup - mostly broth - and is served in bowls without spoons. Soup in Japan is to be drunk from the cup/bowl, not spooned out.
  • anything 'don' - Beef don, Chicken don, unagi don... Don simply means "on a bed of rice". The only exception is chirashi (see 'sashimi' above).
  • gyoza - a rather tasty dumpling usually made with pork and veggies, then pan-fried.
  • wasabi - the rather famous 'green stuff'. It's a horseradish-based paste that has a wicked burn. Because you can control the spiciness of wasabi by processing it, a lot of restaurants don't serve it at full strength. Mixing it with soy sauce is the most common way of having it with sushi... except for nigiri. Be careful: nigiri is sometimes attached to the rice log with a daub of wasabi. Which can be an unexpected and unpleasant surprise for those with low pain tolerance.
  • teppanyaki - almost a Japanese cooking presentation, where your meat, veggies and seafood are cooked on a hotplate in front of you. Sometimes by yourself, though this is less common.
  • teriyaki - almost everyone's heard this, but not everyone knows it's Japanese. It's the most familiar of Japanese sauces and one of the mildest as well. It's a sweet, soy sauce-based marinade. Sushi restaurants usually have chicken, beef, and salmon available. So if you're feeling shy, start with a chicken teriyaki dinner and order a side of edamame. You can work up to sashimi and dancing bonito flakes later.

Toronto, like I said, is inundated with international cuisine, and sushi is no exception. My favourite link to finding sushi nearby is The Toronto Area Sushi Society which includes both reviews and maps to a number of different restaurants across the GTA.

So, dozo! Have fun with your own sushi experiences!

(I may do one on making your own sushi in the future... but for now, I will not bore you with the details. If you're curious, tell your server you'd like to be seated at the bar. These seats usually have a great view of the knife action behind glass.)

Apr 2, 2007

The New Season: Construction

The next time you're somewhere downtown, just look around you. Chances are you'll see construction. It's as if the sun came out, and cranes and pylons burst out of the concrete like tulips and crocuses (croci?).

But with the trying atmosphere of constructions, things do EVENTUALLY come of it. Look at the Front Street area alone:

Union Station
While the whole City revamp deal fell through, they're not abandoning the building completely. The skylight in the West Hall has been undergoing a long-awaited reno for many months now, and it's due to be finished in the next month or so. The plaza outside the Front Street entrances is also due for a rehash. And, just like construction, while the finished product will be appreciated, the tying up in the day's traffic will not be. I dare to think how many smokers will be stuck in the moat between the TTC and GO Concourse instead of just outside the Great Hall's doors.

The Telus Building
Just south of the station, a big dirty work site will soon transform into a 30-storey tower that has a commanding view of the Toronto skyline. It will sit right beside the ACC on York street, and be connected to the Station underground. While the estimated 'best by' date is January 2009, I expect it to be closer to the summer. These things never finish right on.

And speaking of York - anyone crossing the York/Front intersection (or unluckily trying to drive through it) will be well aware of the extremely obtrusive construction there. It's actually the work of TTC, who is moving a sewer line. Why would they do this? Because FINALLY they are building a second platform for the Union stop. Their new plans are designed to handle the incredible amounts of commuter traffic that flow through the station daily. The platform will be on the south side of the Yonge/Finch line.

So while the robins are interrupted by jackhammers, fear not! Have a little faith in the uprooting - they will grow into beautiful things.

Mar 13, 2007

Just call it the CN Tower of Babel

While on the way to lunch with a friend, I realized one of the things about Toronto that makes me smile.

Sitting on the subway, I'm aware of all the conversations around me. It makes me smile when I realize that I'm listening to at least two different languages. Today it was either Japanese or Korean, and an Eastern European language. And with my opened eyes and ears, I made sure to note this rare Toronto moment. Sitting on a subway in Paris or Barcelona - you rarely hear anything more than French or Spanish. Whether sitting on a subway or walking down a street in Toronto, you think nothing of hearing three different languages in passing.

I started thinking about my day, and how my breakfast at Croissant Tree was ordered after a man speaking Mandarin. Being in Union Station on a regular basis, I heard the VIA employees rambling on in French as they passed by. And my workplace is full of Italians and Portuguese who will chatter and natter on without thinking anything of it. And I love it.

Mar 6, 2007

GO Transit and the Wrath of the Commuters

For thousands, the GO is how commuters get where they're going. But for the last year, they've been riddled with complications and delays. Is it really worth it to take the train instead of drive?

On January 29th GO's switches were acting up, causing a myriad of delays across the Lakeshore line. The Toronto Star heard many a complaint. Are they valid issues? Or are they simply impatient people who like to read their own name in print?

I -am- a commuter, as I have said before. I stand on the platform on a day like today, in -22 degree weather (don't even try adding windchill) and listen to an announcement saying my train is running 10 minutes late. Beautiful. Ten more minutes huddled in a glass box, trying desperately to keep my nosehairs from freezing.

But I must say this: for me (and of course, this is personal opinion) it is far more worth my time to catch a train that might be 10 minutes late than to get up earlier, get home later, stress myself out with driving, and spend outrageous amounts on gas. Seeing as how gas prices are hovering around the dollar mark right now. Yes, ten minutes is a huge amount of time, obviously. My world would self-destruct in ten minutes or less. Let's be serious. If my train was more than ten minutes late, I'd consider it a delay. But people who complain about being 5-10 minutes late for work must remind themselves - THIS IS PUBLIC TRANSPORT. If you were taking a streetcar, or a subway, wouldn't you give yourself extra time in case it WAS late?

The answer is probably not. The majority of the people taking the GO Transit every morning are people who do NOT live in the city. And the lifeblood of the suburbs is driving your own car, at your own speed, at your own freedom. There is a group of commuters out there that don't mind a ten minute delay every once in a while, because it reminds them they could be sitting in a car somewhere, cursing the ice falling off the CN Tower.

That said, I will fully admit to an increase in delays, switch problems and bad organization. When GO moved their operations base to Mimico, they replaced/updated all the switches. It turns out that these switches are actually causing more problems than the old ones ever did. While I can hardly blame GO for trying to update their equipment, I am getting a little sick of hearing "we're waiting for the go ahead here at Mimico" over the speakers.

What bothers me most is the organization. For one thing, the parking situations at Oakville are outrageous. It has come to the point that people need 10 minutes to walk from their parking spot to the platform. They have to commute to the commuter train. Secondly, there needs to be some serious study as to when they need more trains, and where.

Here's a personal example:

I am a creature of habit. My sister and I commonly ride on the 7:38 at Bronte, express from Oakville to Union. This train is usually quite full, and we have now got into the habit of getting off at Oakville if we can't get seats. Because at 7:58, there is a train from Oakville express to Union. As in, no other stops but Oakville. And the train is at most half full. True, its arrival time is written down as thirteen minutes after the 7:38 train - but there's hardly a ten minute difference at the end of it. After a packed GO train pulls into the station, it takes at least 10 minutes to get off the train and out of the station. Getting off the 7:58 probably takes half the time, because there's no traffic jam at the top of the platform stairs.

My question is - why Oakville? Why is Oakville such a bloody hub? With all the West Oak Trails and Lakeshore Woods developments in the west of Oakville, the numbers at Bronte station (originally called Oakville West, and still non-operational on weekends) are climbing and climbing. Why not take that 7:58 train, run it to Bronte, and have it only stop at Bronte and Oakville? What is the point in filling one train to capacity plus, and another ten minutes later being half empty?

The preference to Oakville is a traditional thing. As it is the final stop for weekend GO trains going west and home to VIA Rail's Oakville station, it has developed itself around more than just the commuter. But GO buses do not run from Bronte to Oakville on the weekend. Bronte travellers are being pushed to use Oakville. Which brings me to money.

Because of this Oakville/Bronte situation, I find myself buying not Monthly Passes, but 10-ride POP tickets. I am almost as frequently getting on or off at Oakville as I am at Bronte. Why would I buy a pass that charges me more than I need to pay for? Instead, I find myself shelling out $55-60 each week. And I'm actually saving money.

Or so I thought. But now, the Government has come out with a tax cut for transit passes. Passes. That means MONTHLY Passes. 10 Ride POP tickets are not eligible. Even though I ride the GO consistently, 5 days a week, I do not qualify for any help from the Government. If they think giving commuters a tax break is the only way they can contribute to public transportation, I must admit I'm a little disappointed. A good city depends on its transportation system - a good country supports cities WITH transportation systems. While the government gives us a tax break, the one-way price rises. This is not a feasible, long-term plan.

Suggestions: Why not rezone your fares? Make Oakville and Bronte one fare. Make Burlington, Appleby and Aldershot all one fare. They are in the same city, after all, and depend on their own public transportation between each. Why not work out new schedules? If being late on a regular basis is because of traffic and not technical issues, something needs to be reworked. Make sure all your trains are full, but not overfull. Run more stops, if necessary. Run a Burlington-stops (above three) express. Run an Oakville-stops (above two) express. Cater to your COMMUTERS. They are who pay incredible amounts of money to avoid driving.

And they aren't very impressed right now.