Kramer: What’s today?
Newman: It’s Thursday.
Kramer: Really? Feels like Tuesday.
Newman: Tuesday has no feel. Monday has a feel, Friday has a feel, Sunday has a feel….
Kramer: I feel Tuesday and Wednesday…
Jerry: All right, shut up the both of you!

What makes New York City feel like New York City? Why do some cities feel laid-back and others competitive? Why are people living in some cities friendly, while in others you’d be hard-pressed to get a mere “hello”? How can Seattle and Vancouver, a mere 220 im (137 mi) apart, feel so different? The natural setting of the place helps set the scene, whether it is Calgary’s view of the Rocky Mountains, Ottawa’s strategic place on the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers, or Charlottetown’s charmed seaside position on the sheltered side of Prince Edward Island. But this can’t be the whole story, or all seaside cities would feel the same.

A city’s history undoubtedly plays a major part in its personality. Paris’ glory days of bohemian art, poetry, and strolls on the Champs d’Elysees shaped the city as much as Baron Haussman’s reorganization. Chicago’s Great Fire forced architects to rebuild; it became the Gateway to the Midwest as rail and shipping lines began to converge on the city. Toronto’s reputation as a financial and banking capital was established by the turn of the century, creating an established upper class. Winnipeg’s strategic position among various Aboriginal communities gave it an early multicultural start. Montreal’s establishment in 1642 as a trading, shipping and immigration port lends it a European air. Small towns often provide great examples of history shaping our perceptions; often their names indicate their main historical claim to fame (Petrolia, Ontario; Medicine Hat, Alberta). When cities become known as centers of culture, business, or government, it forever shapes the unique “feel” of the place. 

The urban design and layout of city contribute a large part to its social and spatial geography. The famous triplexes, cobblestone streets, granite curbs and irregular street patterns create old-world charm in Montreal. Not only are the triplexes architecturally interesting, they provide the city with a wealth of rental housing; Montreal still has by far the highest rental rate in Canada. Toronto and New York City are often compared; films set in NYC are often filmed in Toronto. It can’t be denied that the two cities share a superficial similarity: both are grid cities trying to reclaim their formerly industrial waterfronts. Both have massive modern skyscrapers in their cores, often shading the streets below for all but one mere hour of the day. Yet the two cities could not be more different. There is a grittiness in NYC that simply does not exist in Toronto, of the type that completely justifies Sinatra’s lyrics. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” really doesn’t apply to Toronto…while the rents are high, they’re nothing like Manhattan’s. 

Architectural styles help create a social atmosphere and establish a city’s uniqueness: the colourful clapboard houses in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia could not be found anywhere else. Their bright colours are the perfect foil for the omnipresent fog, and they are indisputably maritime. Chicago is known for its beautiful historic skyscrapers, an effort to re-establish the city as one of culture and influence. Toronto’s Cabbagetown, Chinatown, Rosedale and Danforth may not be nearly as well-known as Manhattan’s Tribeca, Upper West Side and Greenwich Village, which have been explored extensively in film, art, and literature. But they help define Toronto as a “city of neighbourhoods,” and highlight the various architectural styles: Victorian in Cabbagetown; aging Victorian, modern, and postmodern on the Danforth. With these styles come the social archetypes: yuppies (former hippies) in Cabbagetown; the Jewish elite in Rosedale; new immigrants and artists in Chinatown. 

Economic circumstances shape a city as well. While Vancouver was becoming established as a natural resource economy, with little pretensions to urbanism, Toronto’s economy was solidly financial and insurance-based. This created a very dense, high-rise financial core in the city decades earlier than Vancouver, which is still reeling from the high-rises established in the 1990s. Vancouverites will likely never have the tolerance for density that Torontonians have; people who grew up within sight of the sea and the mountains cannot stand to be in the city at all. Vancouver has seen only one recession in the past few decades (1981-82), while Toronto has gone through three (1973-75, 1981-82, and 1989-97). Do economic upheavals create a particular social atmosphere? They well might, since competition increases as companies downsize and jobs become scarce. Detroit is now plagued with all the social problems associated with a once-thriving industry gone bust. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore shows the desolation of Flint, Michigan following the decline of the manufacturing sector. Resource cities and towns have a distinctly different feel than manufacturing, financial, or cultural centers; those vulnerable to recessions have a distinctly depressive atmosphere.

Transportation likely plays a part in setting an urban scene. Chicago’s Loop District is shaped by the L-train, while the city itself grew, finger-like, along its rail lines throughout the 1920s and 1930s. This gives it a unique nodal development pattern compared to cities that grew after the advent of the automobile; its old rail suburbs each have their own unique feel. New York wouldn’t be New York without the subway; its boroughs wouldn’t be so well-established without its rail lines. Many New York stories center around the colourful differences between residents of the boroughs; of the different accents and ethnicities in the city. The character of the commuter was first created in New York. San Francisco’s cable cars and the Market streetcar line are indisputably a major part of the urban fabric; the cable car technology was is linked to the city’s steep topography and the lines divided the city into distinct neighbourhoods. Vancouver’s main streets, including Granville, 4th Avenue and Broadway, still show the legacy of streetcar-stop retail development even though they’ve been converted to electric bus routes. Los Angeles, while it has constructed many new miles of LRT, will probably always be best known as a city of highways. Cities with rapid transit inevitably have a busier, more urban feel than those that rely on buses because their capacities are so much larger and they travel so much faster. That distinct gruff New Yorker is possibly a product of over a hundred years of mass transit, mass crowds and mass competition.

Many would say that it’s people that create a unique social “feel”. But don’t these other factors play a major role in attracting and retaining certain types of people?  Each year, artists, fashion designers and writers are drawn to the hip, cultural meccas of New York and Toronto. People averse to risk are unlikely to settle in a city with constant economic upheavals, which may be ideal for those in business or real estate. Those who crave outdoor recreation move to Vancouver, Seattle and Denver; winter sports fans end up in Montreal, Calgary and Aspen.  Families are drawn to mid-sized cities with leafy urban neighbourhoods and affordable housing; urban professionals and students may be drawn to areas with older, period housing. Larger cities are more tolerant to members of ethnocultural groups, singles, couples without kids, and gays/lesbians. And let’s not forget those who choose to live urban lifestyles and take public transit, who tend towards Toronto, Montreal, New York and Chicago.

But none of this explains the unique place Toronto has in the heart of Canadians. As the largest city in the largest province in Canada, Toronto is often mocked by the many Calgarians and Haligonians who complain that “Toronto thinks it’s the center of the universe.” Will Ferguson joked in Why I Hate Canadians that Canadians went through stages of hating Toronto, moving to Toronto, wanting to move to Vancouver, and deciding to stay in Toronto. History? Architecture? Economy? Culture? Whatever the reason, Toronto is not Calgary or Halifax; it is most certainly not New York. And that’s probably a good thing.

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