Sunday, June 13, 2010

Single Issue Voter

If I was able to vote in the Toronto mayoral election (which alas I am not, as a non-citizen resident), one issue would top my list of concerns: the abysmal state of the street food situation in Toronto. I've opined about this before (, but my recent trip to Portland, Oregon, named as the top street food city in the WORLD by Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine has left me positively steaming.

Let's run the numbers, shall we?

* Population - 582,130
* Demographics - 78.6% white
* The Portland public school system has over 1,800 students who come from homes where over 60 different languages are spoken.

* Population - 2.5 million
* Demographics - 53% white
* Half of Toronto's population was born outside of Canada
* No single nationality or culture dominates Toronto's immigrant population, placing it among the most diverse cities in the world
* 47% of the population has a mother tongue other than English or French
* The city's 911 emergency services are equipped to respond in over 150 languages
* The Toronto District School Board is the most multilingual and multicultural school board in the world. More than 50% of 270,000 students speak a language other than English at home

Where would you expect to find better quantity and quality of street food?

Well, you're wrong.

Number of street food carts in Portland: 500 (e.g, Southern pulled pork buns, Mexican burritos, Korean bulgogi, Thai-style Hainan chicken...) - $25 propane permit and a couple of hundred bucks for a health inspection.

Number of street food carts in Toronto: 310 at designated spots with annual permits costing $5,000 or more. Street vendors are prohibited from selling any meat that isn't pre-cooked, and hot dogs are pretty much the only thing they can legally sell. Also banned are any toppings or sauces that require refrigeration, hence no mayo or cheese. (and no espresso carts with milk, either...)

According to a glowing article in the June 11, 2010 issue of the Vancouver Sun, "Here in Portland, we have a couple of agencies who offer micro-lending to carts who wouldn’t normally qualify for standard business loans...Allow the carts to sell a quality, safe product without the owners having to hurdle red tape with multiple agencies.”

And in Toronto? It's basically socialized street food. A pathetic food cart "pilot" competitively selected 15 street food vendors, the final stage of which involved review by a small panel of food experts who judged the proposed food items from the standpoint of diversity, quality and culinary excellence. Only 8 vendors decided to proceed. The verdict? A recent Toronto Star article cuts to the chase: "ethnic street food offerings bland."

Visit my "Portland or Toronto?" photo album at

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Destination: Train Station

When the latest issue of Architectural Record arrived in the mail, I paged through it fully prepared to find the usual array of stunning buildings and public spaces in locations I would be unlikely to ever visit. But after seeing the photos of the new Santiago Calatrava-designed Liège-Guillemins TGV Railway Station in Liège, Belgium and googling to find it was only an hour from Brussels where I was going the following week.. and bingo, I hit the jackpot!

And so on March 10 I boarded a train for my first trip planned entirely around seeing a building (I've made my share of pilgrimages for Frank Lloyd Wright, Gaudi and Hundertwasser to be sure, but they weren't the impetus for the trip). The building was as spectacular in person as in the magazine photos, and even more impressive when you see it in the context of the small brick buildings of the surrounding city. On the outside, it looks like a giant spaceship ready to take off, perhaps more what you'd expect for an airport. The inside evokes a soaring cathedral.

With a few hours to spare before my return train, I hopped in a cab to visit the Grand Curtius, which re-opened about a year ago after a 50 million euro redevelopment. The building is an imposing red brick and stone structure overlooking the Meuse River, built in the early 1600s as a private mansion for Jean Curtius, industrialist and munitions supplier to the Spanish army. I was delighted to find beautifully designed gallery spaces with interesting archeology, weaponry, decorative art and religious art collections, most with informative descriptions in English.

On the ride back to the station, we passed a beautiful sculpture of a diver soaring over the river.

Definitely a worthwhile day trip!