When I step out of an empty.
When I step out of an empty cocktail bar on Queen East, the sound of my Italian-made brogues clicking on the pavement sends an echo down the deserted street. It’s barely 9 pm.
I look around to bum a light from a local tumbleweed, but even they don’t hang out on this side of town. My saviour is an approaching westbound streetcar.
On board, I think I must be in the middle of some kind of zombie walk, but soon realize that’s just what people on the east side look like.
Once we cross the border back into the West, the streetcar comes alive: the driver throws on a pair of sunglasses, cranks up the disco tracks and the party begins. Out of nowhere, a magnum of Moët appears, and I’m wasted by the time we reach McCaul.
The east side of Toronto is at best a pleasant retirement community. At its worst it can be like a stroll through Maoist China circa 1970.
Usually, though, the East is a mere bedroom community. Millions live there, but the majority cross into the West to work or get a decent bagel (not to be found in the East) or eat nachos at Sneaky Dee’s (431 College). If you had to pay a toll to cross Yonge, only the east-enders would be affected. Would anyone else even notice?
The west plainly has more of everything. More cafés and laundromats, style and substance.
But the East-versus-West debate is not just a numbers game. West of Yonge is also the seat of our identity.
The history of our city – see George Brown’s home on McCaul, Old City Hall and the amazing Sunnyside Pavilion, to name just a few – rests in the west.
All our cultural institutions, all the city’s major museums and galleries, playhouses, sports arenas and landmarks, are here.
Decisions are made at City Hall and Queen’s Park. Ideas spring from the great minds at University of Toronto (and hardly ever at the Scarborough campus).
Essentially, whenever anyone mentions Toronto, it’s the west side they’re referring to.
Look no further than travel guides. Mentions of the theatre district or the ROM outnumber references to Greenwood or Victoria Park.
All the hotels are here for a reason. Have a drink on the rooftop of the Park Hyatt (4 Avenue Road), where you can see the vibrant neighbourhoods along Bloor, from Yorkville to the Annex to Bloor West Village, stretch into Etobicoke.
Or sit down at the back picnic table for a brew at the Global Village Backpackers Hostel (460 King West), frequently recognized as the best in North America.
When people visit Toronto, they head west. You’d be certifiably insane to tell a tourist to explore East York over the Corso Italia or to watch whoever plays baseball in Riverdale Park over the Maple Leafs at Christie Pits.
Compare my harrowing trip to Queen East to an any of these daytime scenarios in the West:
• Begin with the famed doughnuts at the Hoof Café (923 Dundas West), where restaurant trends are set. Then walk south for a flavourful yerba maté at El Almacen (1078 Queen West). Then hang in Trinity Bellwoods Park, ground zero for Toronto’s hipster population, where you’re likely to see the young and fashionable playing badminton in bikinis. Follow that with a crisp pint at Squirly’s (807 Queen West) and a casual browse through the vinyl collection at Cosmos (663 Queen West).
• Take it up north a little to the Annex. Slip into the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor West) with a flask of sangria to catch a forgotten classic, followed by tasty Salvadoran fare at Tacos El Asador (690 Bloor West). Swing back by the Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick), the idiosyncratic venue that hosts Australians and left-of-centre music.
• Up on the burgeoning stretch of Dupont between Spadina and Davenport it’s a whole new adventure. Grab a chunk of La Sauvagine at Nancy’s Cheese (260 Dupont) en route to the impressive city views at Casa Loma (1 Austin Terrace) and the Spadina Museum (285 Spadina Road). Afterwards, go for a nosh at amazing nighttime wine bar Ezra’s Pound (238 Dupont).
Walking along Dupont, you’ll note an orphaned sign for what must have been a terrific bar, Nightcaps by the Castle. It’s more proof that the West has always been cool.
Obviously, that strong nightlife flavour lives on. The infamous strip on Ossington between Dundas and Queen, and Queen by the Drake Hotel, Gladstone and Wrongbar is a bustling marketplace for late-night carousing, impressive live music and, in general, attractive drunk flesh.
There are millions of these kinds of escapades to be had in the West, which is filled with vibrant, mixed-use neighbourhoods and awe-inspiring architecture.
But the most fundamental factor is that the West is inviting.
Above and beyond tourism, it has almost single-handedly welcomed Toronto’s numerous waves of immigration over the years. Kensington Market is a national beacon of multiculturalism, from Italian to Caribbean to Chinese to eastern European. The west end will always be a destination for new arrivals.
This, along with the influx of new students every September, allows the West to renew itself regularly.
Neighbourhoods reinvent themselves here. West Queen West, for instance, might now be more of a gay village than the officially anointed gay village on Church. In five years, it might be a hangout for Russian Jews or followers of the Aga Khan.
It’s a wonderfully breakneck pace.
The East lacks that ability to reinvent itself. It is staid, which ultimately spells boring. Greektown along the Danforth is a prime example it hasn’t changed in nearly 40 years, and probably never will.
That’s probably why the planners made sure the ROM, Yorkville, BMO Field and all the other points of interest in between stayed west.
That’s why they T-boned the East with the DVP, while sparing the West by stopping the Allen at Eglinton.
And that’s why whenever I go anywhere, it’s within the boundaries of my beloved West.