Detroit

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Across the border

Written by Chaz on 15 June 2012

My friend Max, whom I met studying abroad in Sweden and who showed up a couple times on my abroad blog and again on this blog, moved to Detroit after we graduated to do Teach For America. Max is passionate about education, but that decision seemed to me to encompass a couple of pretty big sacrifices, not least of which was living in Detroit. I always enjoy visiting friends because I feel like I leave with a much better sense of what their life is actually like, and I was especially curious to find out what life in Detroit is like. My visit to Detroit coincided with a visit from Jeff, Max’s best friend from Wesleyan who now lives in San Francisco.

With few exceptions, Detroit was about as desolate as I was expecting. I quite frankly did not know there were places like it in the United States. The number of abandoned buildings is out of control — not just homes and offices, but even public buildings like an enormous former Amtrak station that was sold and then abandoned. There are some hints of life among the empty hulks, but the reality is that there’s no real path to recovery once you have so many unnecessary buildings. Detroit is a city of 700,000 that once held 1.8 million, and it shows.

So on Friday afternoon, we made a spur of the moment decision to ditch the Motor City and drive four hours northeast to Toronto. I was able to get hotel rooms on points at a moment’s notice, and about 90 minutes after conceiving the plan, Jeff, Max, Max’s girlfriend Amelia and I had hit the open road. We stayed outside the city on Friday night in Missisauga, a thriving suburb, before driving into the heart of the city on Saturday morning — stopping, of course, at Tim Horton’s for breakfast on the way. When in Canada, eat breakfast with the Canadians.

Toronto was booming — the opposite of Detroit’s bleakness. As we were driving in, Max commented incredulously, “What’s with all the construction?” Someone’s been spending too much time in Detroit.

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After checking into our hotel, we took a long walk down to the waterfront of Lake Ontario and returned to the city center past the CN Tower. Our hotel was right across the street from City Hall, a hulk of a concrete building that is fronted by an equally unattractive plaza containing a skating rink — full of skaters on this Saturday morning.

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We also stopped in a few boutique shops along Queen Street and began to get a sense of Toronto.

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In the afternoon, we got a free walking tour that took us to some of the sights near City Hall and our hotel, ending in Eaton Centre, an enormous shopping mall that several parts of the city underground.

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Thoroughly chilled, we retreated to our hotel for a drink in the hotel lounge. From the 43rd floor, City Hall didn’t look quite so bad.

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We walked to dinner at Campagnolo, which got great reviews online but was in sort of a random part of town and was too new a restaurant to even show on Google Street View (it showed instead a Coffee Time, apparently a Canadian coffee chain). Little did we know what laid in store for us. We ended up having one of the best, and most fun, dinners I have ever had.

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After laughing our way across Toronto all day, we were all in a celebratory mood, and we started with a few great cocktails before proceeding to our food, which was equally terrific. Our waiter was super fun and spent a good deal of the evening joking with us about the difference between the U.S. and Canada. We had long since detected a strong hipster vibe in Toronto, and our waiter could not have confirmed it more perfectly when he told us he was very curious about living in Portland, Oregon. We enjoyed a smorgasbord of delicious items from the very creative menu to share, none of which photographed well in the dim restaurant.

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The trendy area in which to go out has apparently migrated progressively westward in Toronto, from West Queen Street to an area that became known as “West Queen West,” then even further west onto Ossington Avenue, where we moved from hipster bar to hipster bar, more than confirming Toronto’s extensive hipsterdom, before calling it a night.

On Sunday morning, we took another long walk before stopping for brunch, at which we shamelessly and ignorantly quizzed our waitress about the Caesar, a Canadian cocktail that’s like a spicier bloody Mary.

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In the early afternoon, we returned to our car and set off back for Detroit. Though I have visited Montreal a couple times, it was my first time in Toronto, and I was very impressed. A Canadian couple had told me at a street wine stand in Chiang Mai that Montreal is Canada’s cultural capital while Toronto is its more soulless business hub. I definitely agree, but much like my hometown of Philadelphia, Toronto struck me as a city that is likely fantastic to live in, even if you can cover all its tourist sites in a short weekend visit. And more importantly, I had a fantastic time with Max, Amelia and Jeff, and Toronto was a great backdrop for it.