Outside the Blue Jays' SkyDome: an ethnically diverse, big-league city Beyond the ballpark

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Toronto -- Along Dundas Street in Chinatown, small groceries offer ginseng root for $50 to $90 a half-pound and durian fruit for $3.99 a pound.

In adjacent Kensington, a two-story-high painting of the Mona Lisa holding a banana looks down on sidewalk strollers browsing through racks of used jeans and drums of West Indian spices.

White stucco restaurants and cafes mark Danforth Avenue as the home of Greeks, while Italians pause for cappuccino and gelato at shops on St. Clair in the Corso Italia and Koreans patronize acupuncture centers and herb stores on Bloor West.

These are some of the neighborhoods of Toronto.

While attention has been riveted recently on the SkyDome during this year's World Series, there are many other sides to Toronto, which was designated in 1989 by the United Nations as the world's most ethnically diverse city. Just as New York City was the Americas' melting pot earlier in this century, Toronto's people caldron today blends an amazing 80 different ethnic groups.

More people of Chinese descent live in Toronto than in any other North American city save San Francisco. The Italian community is 400,000 strong. More than 100,000 Greeks call Toronto home, and so do almost that many Poles. Five of every six grocery and variety stores in Toronto are owned or operated by Koreans.

Now Toronto, the city of immigrants, is commemorating its 200th birthday, and even if one culture doesn't understand another, they'll all join in, because that's Toronto's way. Racial harmony is a given here.

All this diversity works well with tourism, too.

In a couple of hours one morning, I walked from the sleek skyscrapers of downtown's financial district into the exotic world of Chinatown, the Portuguese quarter and four or five other distinct districts, some of them ethnic, some delineated more by usage.

Chinatown is like most Chinatowns, a colorful enclave with dim sum restaurants, tea shops, herb shops and groceries with unusual (to non-Chinese) foods.

Kensington is more intriguing. Originally Toronto's Jewish quarter, it's a center for used clothing and a food market catering to several ethnic groups.

Many shops are run by Portuguese, Indians and West Indians, the latter now numbering 300,000 in Toronto. Some Caribbean groceries display mangoes, litchi nuts and avocados; the Portuguese have mounted racks of dried cod. One new shop offers woven goods from Central America. Courage My Love, the first used-clothing store to set up shop in Kensington, is still the best known.

Close by is Queen West, a once-depressed district that now pulses with life. Old storefronts now house funky shops like the Bakka Science Fiction Shoppe and Club Monocle, Chateau and Bedo, which displays eclectic clothing. Queen West really comes into its own at night, though; nightspots like Rivoli, Bamboo and Horseshoe stay busy until the wee hours catering to, as one Torontonian put it, "kids who dress in black."

Then there's Yorkville, the 1960s hippie haven that turned trendy in the 1970s and is still going strong. With its outdoor cafes and sleek shops, upscale Yorkville is a major tourist destination. One center of attention is the Hazelton Lane Mall, whose courtyard becomes an ice rink in wintertime. Visitors hungry for a trendy breakfast head for the Studio Cafe on Avenue Road, which serves such goodies as lemon ricotta pancakes.

Victorian "bay and gable" houses populate Cabbagetown, sometimes described as the world's biggest yuppie slum because in recent years it has been discovered by young couples attracted by low rents and the challenge of restoration. In the St. Lawrence Market district, the farmers' market sits on the site of Toronto's city hall.

Nearby is the Financial District, Toronto's skyscraper land. Here, the newer glass and marble monoliths contrast with older structures such as the art deco-ish Bank of Nova Scotia, making intriguing designs against the sky. The Royal Bank Plaza's glass facade, sprinkled with 2,000 ounces of gold dust, sparkles in sunlight. A lacy white Galleria bisects the huge BCE Place, while Mies van der Rohe's black buildings delineate the Toronto Dominion Centre.

Equally as fascinating as the buildings that reach for the sky is the city underground. The "town down under," as some call it, runs from Union Station all the way to the Atrium on Bay and is Canada's largest underground complex. Connecting the major office and bank buildings, department stores and hotels, this warren of 1,100 restaurants and shops is especially popular in winter. A new passage was recently completed through Eaton Centre, the enormous downtown shopping mall that houses more than 300 stores.

But visiting Toronto isn't just a matter of noshing in the neighborhoods. "A lot of Americans come for the theater and the shopping," says Richard Chassie of the Metropolitan Toronto Convention and Visitors Association. "And a good many come to see the Blue Jays."

Torontonians are proud of their baseball team, the Blue Jays, who play in the new SkyDome. The retractable-roofed stadium, the city's newest landmark, is worth a visit even if the Jays aren't playing. Next door is the 1,815-foot CN Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in the world. It has observation decks, a restaurant and night club on the 1,100-foot level.

Theater is big in Toronto, so it's hardly surprising that the new 2,200-seat Princess of Wales Theater was built especially to accommodate the hit play "Miss Saigon," which requires a stage twice as deep as most productions. Frank Stella designed murals and other works for the interior.

Another major new theater, the North York Center for the Performing Arts, is expected to open this month. "Show Boat," starring Robert Morse and Elaine Stritch, will inaugurate the $50.6 million facility, which has three halls.

Two other facilities -- strikingly different -- are new this year.

Hockey is next to heaven in the eyes of Canadians, and the brand-new $25-million Hockey Hall of Fame not only honors the game's 198 best players, but also provides an overview of the sport and even has a skatable plastic ice rink. On view is the actual Stanley Cup.

It's not totally new, but a just-completed, huge expansion has made the Art Gallery of Ontario the seventh largest gallery in North America. Of particular interest is the largest public collection of works by Henry Moore.

With so much lakefront, visitors may not want to stay indoors for too long in nice weather. Many head for Harbourfront and its 92 acres of recreation and cultural venues -- everything from jazz and craft-making to cafes, picnicking, antiques and flea markets.

Ontario Place, a semi-theme-park open only in summertime, has an IMAX theater encased in a geodesic dome, outdoor concerts and a marvelously imaginative park for children under 12. New this year: the Amazing Maze, a challenging three-dimensional labyrinth, and a $20-million touring exhibition of actual dinosaur fossils.

Two centuries isn't a long time in the age of some cities, but in the case of Toronto, it's a lifetime.

The city got its start in the summer of 1793 when Britons John and Elizabeth Simcoe established a military post where Historic Fort York now stands at the eastern end of Toronto Bay.

He christened it "York." The city did not regain the Huron Indian name of Toronto -- meaning "place of meeting" -- until 1834.

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