How typical is it to go north for Christmas vacation unless you are a skier or snowmobiler? Not very. Nevertheless, my husband and I recently went to Toronto for the holidays and were quite surprised by the quality of life in this metropolitan area of 4.4 million people.
As we walked the neighborhoods and streets, tried out ethnic restaurants and talked to local residents at an evening pot luck dinner, we discovered a whole new world free of distractions and the usual sightseeing repertoire and instead learned something about life in this popular Canadian city that is very appealing.
The most significant impression I had of Toronto is that its people are so civilized. Imagine that people in the fifth-most populated city in North America actually praise themselves for their tolerance of ethnic and racial differences, which are evident everywhere you go.
Imagine a place where over 100 languages are spoken and neighborhood utility poles don signs advertising language classes in Spanish -- as well as Persian, Urdu and Turkish. Street posters also declare that "Literacy is a right."
Tolerance for differences is exhibited in other ways. In the St. Lawrence Market you see Asian women making French crepes. Stores and shops are largely staffed by young immigrants. The bank ATMs include directions in Chinese characters. We ate a lovely meal in a Thai restaurant to the tunes of the Supremes' hit "Baby Love" and the "Dirty Dancing'" theme song, "Time of My Life."
While it's not unusual to hear other languages spoken in a major urban area, it is a delight as well as a shock to walk clean and litter-free streets.
Imagine seeing a man on a subway escalator accidentally drop a small wad of paper from his pocket and then pick it up.
Incidentally, trash baskets in public areas are separated into litter, recycled newspapers and recycled bottles and cans. And when the trash overflows, you see empty coffee cups neatly placed on the top of the container.
Recycling bins are everywhere, even next to people's front porches should their home not have a backyard.
Environmental and public health concerns abound in Toronto. Imagine a small fish market with a sign that not only recognizes an endangered species (in this case Chilean sea bass) but informs customers that it will not sell that fish.
Imagine holiday TV commercials with information about the World Wildlife Fund, improving your water IQ, joining Alcoholics Anonymous or considering police your best friends on New Year's Eve.
Smoking is not allowed in public buildings or in restaurants and bars. So those who do smoke do it as they walk or as they stand outside a building. I saw one woman in the celebrated Annex Neighborhood where we stayed sitting on her front porch at 10 p.m. without fear of thieves, murderers or terrorists! Instead, she watched other people walking down the street at night as she took her cigarette.
Actually, she wasn't the only one out at night as it appears to be a Toronto custom to sit on the patio during the winter (at home and at some pubs and grills) sipping drinks and talking to friends. Even the residents of a neighborhood senior citizens complex did it. (And that building was right in the middle of the neighborhood, not separated from the rest of the city.)
Imagine that 40 percent of the downtown population walks to work or that a clean, safe and efficient streetcar, bus and subway system moves 1.4 million passengers each work day. (Curious that there were not many obese people walking the streets either!)
Imagine a night-time window shopping excursion where people crowd the well-lit holiday-clad streets inspecting beautiful outdoor displays of fruits and vegetables, CDs, DVDs, clothes and housewares. Restaurants are jammed with people and storefronts advertise yoga classes, palm reading, massage work and herbal medicine consulting.
Although I am describing Chinatown on Spadina Street, there are plenty of people out at night on the quirky Yonge Street strip, the Bloor Street upper-end commercial district and the eclectic Queen Street West area. Torontonians recognize that street life is free entertainment as well as an essential part of vibrant urban life.
And imagine all this activity going on and it being relatively quiet. No boom boxes. No high fidelity-sound cars. No wild teenagers hanging out of cars jeering at passers-by. Just people walking outside, being a part of the scene, even if they are alone.
Imagine living in a city where there were only 59 homicides in 2010, 56 in 2009, 67 in 2008, 84 in 2007. So far, 2011 has only 41.
Toronto does have its downsides: the metro system breaks down all too frequently (it happened one time to us); the cost of living is high; the streets are a little dirtier than they should be; the downtown grates host several street people.
On the other hand, every resident, even the homeless, has access to health care.
The people of Toronto have obviously invested in their city, especially in their neighborhoods, and they are willing to pay the price for the services through taxes or special assessments. For example, some neighborhoods ensure their safety through the protection of private police. The sidewalks and streets of every neighborhood were all shoveled, free of snow to accommodate walking and bicycling.
Old houses are beautifully decorated and well-maintained, an indicator of the citizens' pride in themselves, their neighborhoods and their past. Downtown buildings sport this same sentiment, as the old Victorian brick edifices sit comfortably next to modern office and condo skyscrapers.
Toronto serves as both a model and an inspiration for American cities because it illustrates that what it takes to "make a village" is for the people who live there to summon the political will -- and tax dollars -- to make urban life what it can and should be.