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Clippings: Finding culture, north of the border

We like to give Canada a hard time. The excessive politeness. The accent. The fact that if all the moose in the country formed a city, it would be the fourth most populous in all of Canada. Things like that.
I’ve been to Canada a half-dozen times, and recently spent four days in Toronto — my girlfriend was going to an international studies conference, and I tagged along for fun.
Of course, what we perceive Canada to be like doesn’t hold much truth. As much as we like to imagine our northern neighbor as a cultureless arctic tundra populated by hockey-loving fur traders, Toronto is a remarkably diverse city. Half its citizens are foreign born, higher than any other North American city except Miami. Just half identify as white.
The city is a patchwork of ethnic enclaves, vibrant Chinese, Latin, Russian, Middle Easter and Jewish communities that stretch from the shores of Lake Ontario inland.
While my girlfriend was at the conference, I ventured to a neighborhood called Kensington Market, which I’d heard was hip. It was a further walk than I had calculated (the whole kilometer thing is a curveball).
The city of 2.5 million is the largest in Canada, and the fourth largest in North America. Yet walking the streets of the city, it is eerily quiet. In contrast with New York, where you can never escape the cacophony of car horns, Torontonians seem to disavow honking (they also refuse to jaywalk, even when the street is clear). In a further departure from America’s largest cities, Toronto’s public transit — a combination of buses, streetcars and an underground subway — is both clean and easy to navigate.
Finally, I arrive at Dundas Street and Kensington Avenue, the border of the neighborhood. The first thing I was struck by was the graffiti. It’s everywhere — in the alleys, on the storefronts. And it’s good— it’s no case of high schoolers tagging their initials on dumpsters, but intricate street art. There’s a reproduction of “Starry Night” across the entire front of a house, the “Mona Lisa” on another.
The second thing I noticed was the lingering smell of marijuana that didn’t seem to intensify nor dissipate as I walked the streets of the neighborhood. That is, until I passed a man smoking a joint on a street corner. A few paces later I saw three bicycle cops (that’s a thing here) heading up the street, and figured it was curtains for Cheech.
But he just nodded at them. They nodded back, and kept riding. With a disregard for roaming charges that I would later regret, I took my phone out and looked up the marijuana laws in Ontario. Yep, it’s illegal. But as far as I can tell, no one cares.
It was still early and many of the shops and cafés were still dormant. At the market on the corner, an Asian woman placed apples in neat rows onto a fruit stand on the sidewalk. I stopped into an espresso bar across the street, appropriately called Kensington’s.
I ordered a coffee and struck up a conversation with the barista, an old man in a checkered flat cap. He introduced himself as Henry, and said he immigrated to Toronto in 1965 after living in France and Israel. I asked him about the history of the neighborhood, and he said it was originally settled by Jews fleeing persecution in Europe in the 1930s.
“Kensington Market was the first stage for them,” Henry said. “They started opening up bakeries and butcher shops, and ended up building synagogues.”
Henry moved to the neighborhood as it diversified, again becoming a haven for immigrants — including Americans evading the draft during the Vietnam War.
“It started to transform from the Jewish Market to Portuguese, Italians, Spanish, French, Arabs … all sorts of people,” Henry said. “What’s good about the market is it could be used as a pilot to the world — we can live so long as we integrate into a peaceful society.”
I thanked Henry and headed back onto the street. There were more people out then; it doesn’t take much for the narrow thoroughfares to feel crowded.
Over the next few days, I’d hear similar stories from the residents we encountered — everyone seems to have a tale of how they got here.
Despite being just a few hours’ drive from Buffalo, N.Y., Toronto has a distinctly international feel. The city’s commercial center, the financial district, lacks architectural cohesion, and there is a dearth of traditional tourist attractions — but traveling away from the steel-and-glass graveyard, the city comes alive in each of its communities, punctuated by different cultures, language and cuisine.
During our time in Toronto, we barely got more than a sample of these neighborhoods, which represent more diversity in 10 city blocks than Vermont’s 251 towns can. Yet it was a memorable experience, a taste of cultures foreign to us, so close to home.
And, for just a while, we can lay off Canada.

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