Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Where Tourist Guidebooks Fear To Tread

It's just as ugly on the inside.
Every second Saturday for the last few months I've been dropping by the Downsview Merchant's Market for lunch. Located in the northeast quadrant of Toronto, the market is a big ugly barn of a building that's filled with dozens and dozens of stalls selling all kinds of, well, crap. But more about that later. I go there for the food court. This isn't your average mall food court; there's no Harvey's, Manchu Wok, Tim Horton's or any of the other usual fast food suspects. The stalls in this food court all seem to have been bodged together with plywood, Bristol board, and kitchen equipment acquired from yard sales. The appeal of this food court is some of the best ethnic food you can get anywhere in Toronto. Name a region of the globe and there's a food stall here doing a superb job of representing its cuisine. Over the months I've enjoyed outstanding empanadas, jerk chicken, burritos, tarte tatin, a strange Hungarian pastry called a kurtos, and grilled Serbian cevapcici sausages the smell of which would make a statue salivate.

I was thinking about the market recently after seeing the new TV commercial for USA tourism. Much has been made of the fact that the spot shows a more ethnically-diverse America. What this means is that the creative brains behind the ad have finally started using one of the most common tropes in tourism promotion: multiculturalism. This time of year lots of TV and print ads appear pitching different cities, provinces, states and countries, and many of these ads will highlight their destination's ethnic diversity. The message seems to be, visit us and enjoy seeing people unlike yourself.

Toronto has been pitching its multiculturalism to tourists for a very long time now. Nothing wrong with that; we are, in fact, one of the most multicultural cities around. But what's interesting about ad campaigns like this is the disconnect between what could be called Tourist Multiculturalism and Actual Multiculturalism. The tourism version of multiculturalism in Toronto tends to be built around genteel, gentrified areas of the city that are, shall we say, multiculturally-flavoured. Tourists coming to Toronto are still being told to go to places like Kensington Market and Chinatown, both on Spadina Ave, Greektown on the Danforth, and Little Italy on College St. All these areas lost most of their ethnic character some time ago, but they're all agreeably designed environments for urban professionals and tourists. This is the face of Tourist Multiculturalism.

Actual Multiculturalism is found in places like the Downsview market. The vendors and customers are almost all immigrants, and the products in the stalls reflect the desire of the vendors to get one foot on the economic ladder. They're selling luggage, tube socks, jewellery, cheap clothing, DVDs, and lots and lots of SIM cards for cell phones. This stuff is all available other places that are more pleasant to visit and probably have better prices. But for people who've just arrived in Canada and have a desire to be their own boss, the market is step one on the road to being an entrepeneur. And their customers can feel comfortable speaking to a shop owner who shares their language.

The real multicultural face of Toronto is found in drab, scrappy strip malls and bunker-like flea markets in the least leafy and most pedestrian-unfriendly parts of the city. If you go out to Markham Rd. in Scarborough you'll find all kinds of Indo-Pakistani stores and restaurants, none of them catering to the tourist trade. Similarly, Yonge St. north of Finch is awash in Korean and Middle Eastern businesses that never turn up in any travel articles. The multiculturalism that turns up in tourism ad campaigns and guidebooks tends to be the pasteurized version of Toronto's heady mix of cultures. So if you find yourself in Toronto this summer, remember that the parts of the city that look the least appetizing are probably, as it were, the most appetizing.

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