I spend a lot of time going to places in this city where I don't belong. Like the mezzanine of the Royal York Hotel. Or a yardie nightclub out by Wilson. Or a Korean restaurant on Bloor. I get looks.
In a Korean restaurant it's a look of surprise when I, in all my blackness, order something like duk mandukuk and manage to get even close to the right pronunciation. There's always a little nervous laugh. Like when you fart at a fancy party.
One day I'm eating my lunch in a Korean restaurant, and someone else enters who gets looks. He's an older white man. As the waiter seats him in the booth next to mine, I'm expecting some embarrassing WASP morsels to tumble out of his mouth. But he begins to bellow into his cellphone. In Spanish.
It's the sort of episode we collect in the city as evidence of our complexity.
But most of us don't go places where we don't belong. Not often. I've still never been inside a Vietnamese karaoke café. Or a synagogue.
Northrop Frye once called Toronto "a good place to mind your own business."
That much hasn't changed. We're guarded. We're private. Even when -- or especially when -- we're in public.
Public privacy is built right into our landscape. Most of our architecture, old and new, presents an imposing face -- a blank mask -- to the street. It's rare to find a decorated building in Toronto. So it's no surprise that the wrought iron and plaster that Italian and Portuguese immigrants have used to transform their Victorian homes so often offends our bourgeoisie.
We tear down historical buildings to build new, nondescript ones of glass and concrete. Or we leave up a part of its old face. Facadism, I call it. You see it outside the old Toronto Stock Exchange. At the Air Canada Centre. And in the current project at Yonge and Queen.
The facade preserves the mask of the old building, as if the building is its mask.
Robert Fulford has pointed out that for most of its history Toronto has been a private city. It had next to no public life on the street. Shops closed early. Loitering was illegal. When people weren't working, they preferred to be at home.
That's echoed today in our private recreation spaces as well, where the big-screen TV room and the PlayStation basement dominate.
Nathan Phillips Square, our best example of truly public space, constituted revolutionary architecture in Toronto. Until it was built, there was no large, open gathering place in this city.
The model was an Italian piazza. Italian piazzas were designed not just to allow people to congregate, but also to provide long sightlines to see the surrounding Renaissance architecture from the proper perspective. And to place yourself in relation to it.
In Italy a piazza might front a museum or a cathedral. In Toronto, Nathan Phillips Square allows people to look at the new City Hall. Just like Queen's Park allows you to look at the legislature. We square off with government. And each other.
Still, Nathan Phillips Square was the beginning of a new kind of public visibility. From that point on, it was OK to look.
So now we have public, flaneurial spaces all over town: Sunday brunchland in the Beach, that stretch of Church Street in Boystown, the liming sidewalks up on Heglinton, the fleshpots of Clubland, the dog-and-baby parade in Riverdale, and after school at the arcadian Eaton Centre.
There's also been a push for a more open, more visible public common space in this city. It came from immigrants.
When I moved into an old Edwardian house in Parkdale, I decided to put up a 7-foot-tall wood fence to replace the low chain-link fence that ran between my yard and that of my Polish neighbour. She didn't like the idea. My fence meant she could no longer see beyond her yard, into and across mine. Which, of course, was the idea.
In Portuguese neighbourhoods, the Azoreans battle the mangia-cakes. If a tree grows to block their view of the neighbourhood, they cut it down. So they can see better. It's as if they've read the same Jane Jacobs that the bicycle-basket environmentalists have, only taken a different lesson.
Visibility, though, is not the same as openness. Watching each other does not necessarily make us a part of each other. To remind us of that, we have the CN Tower. Our civic emblem. Designed for listening and watching. The height of it, the revolving structure and the cameras mounted there -- most famously by Citytv -- turn it into the hub of an enormous panopticon.
As the French philosopher Michel Foucault so famously noted, the power built into a panopticon flows in all directions. It controls both the observed and the observers. And its mechanisms soon evolve beyond physical structures to make each person "his own overseer." As in "Citytv. Everywhere."
When W.E.B. DuBois defined double consciousness, he was thinking of African Americans: how they moved through public space hyper-aware of themselves. Every visible minority knows what that feels like.
Last month I took my bicycle into a shop along College Street for a tune-up. I'd been there a few times before. When I came back to pick it up, decidedly dressed down in baseball cap and sunglasses, the bike shop guy didn't recognize me.
I took off the sunglasses. Still nothing. He looked a little nervous. Suddenly he threw his arms up in the air. "Don't take my money, man!" Then he let out an awkward laugh. Like the waiter in the Korean restaurant, but harsher. Like somebody really farted.
The worst part isn't that this guy is afraid of me and other black men. It's that somewhere inside of me I already know he's afraid of me before I even step through his door. Or out of mine.
Migration has expanded the range of our public life but hasn't fundamentally changed it. As migrants, we've found our place within Toronto's old regime of public privacy. We use visibility to enforce order. We clutch at smaller and smaller circles of private space. We map our own tight networks onto the the web of competing resentments that once knit this city together. We simply have not been promiscuous enough.
Is this the "ghettoization" that opponents of multiculturalism predicted? Not really. It might just be tolerance.
A dean at Yale noticed recently that students on college campuses are still keen to hear other points of view, but not to engage them, not to challenge or be challenged. Arguments, he opined, always end now at the same place: with "I guess I just disagree."
Are we there yet? I wonder. We accept difference, but do we engage it? Or do we prefer to eat lunch with people we already understand?
Could it be that the vaunted laissez-faire openness of the new Toronto also encourages each one of us to retreat into our own certainty? Could it be a part of what keeps our privacy, out in public?
In this city, we all go home to different suburbs. Kingston. Bangalore. Mogadishu. My feet are at home on the streets of Barbados. The looks I get there -- and give -- are warmer. Of course, my diaspora can be your nightmare.
I recently met an Italian-Torontonian woman in a bar. Her parents have two houses in Italy. She goes there nearly every year. I ask if she's ever been to Asia. She says, "I'd be afraid. Would I need to get shots?"
A short time later I got an e-mail from a travel site. They had my particulars. They knew where I live. They invited me to discover the "multi-faceted metropolis" called Toronto. I'm thinking, "A nice place to visit."