Note: This week our little writing group “the Bloomfield Circle” was assigned a topic: CHANGE.
Upon reflection, I determined that there is not much change in my life since I retired. Aside from the weather, each day is much the same as the next. That got me reflecting back on the crazy twenty odd years I spent working out of Toronto City Hall. Change was a constant. It was addictive. We craved the adenain rush of last-minute projects, adjustments to a report, the final additions just moments before a presentations. The whole building pulsed with swirling energy, speeding up and bouncing off its powerful walls. It was a privilege to be a witness.
Toronto City Hall
The design of the iconic Toronto City Hall is bold and domineering. It brands this metropolis. Massive and in-your-face, this building provokes and demands an opinion. The public have called it The Alien; a massive mushroom, and a space ship. Others see the two uneven towers as white hands tenderly cradling a white orb which represents the people’s will or democracy. It is the center of Toronto, Canada’s largest city. It is the head of the beast. A living changing hive of humanity that reflects back its residents’ values, wants and needs.
In time, everyone comes to City Hall and you can tell a lot by the door they use. Toronto City Hall has four doors. Each attracts its own: the powerful, the wealthy, the ambitious, the curious, the worried, angry and the hopeful.
Stretching broadly cross the front south façade are the main front doors. Coincidentally the Mayor’s office looks out onto the square from the windows directly above these 28 massive teak doors. Each door is fitted with very sculptural curved handles made of laminated wood and echo the distinctive ribbing of the buildings double curved towers. Their warmth is welcoming as if you are about to enter a Finnish ski chalet. These are the very public main front doors.
This is where the general public enter. The homeowner looking to pay his taxes, buy a dog’s license or a street parking permit. This is where the contractor comes when seeking a building permit. A bridal party congregates before proceeding on to the wedding chapel. There are swarms of foreign tourists pouring in from a string of waiting buses parked along Queen Street; teams of male cyclist dressed in spandex riding shorts looking to find a washroom and giggling swarms of school children excited for a day out of the classroom.
Pass through the two rows, inner and outer doors and it hits you – a direct contrast. The inside rotunda is austere and shiny, built of grey and white stone.
There was always something newsworthy happening in the rotunda: A sudden protest, a Red Cross blood drive, a politician giving a scrum press announcement, cameras flashing. Watch now. There are eyes following you. Security within Toronto City Hall is strict. There are camera everywhere. You can’t get far off the rotunda without having a computer activated security clearance card to access any interior doors or to operate any elevator. The counter to your right is the outward face of the City Hall security team offices. Ever on guard. Poor City Hall is a continuing target attracting the angry and the delusional.
Front and center inside the rotunda is a large marble stair case leading down to the underground PATH, to the subway, union station and underground parking. Most of City Hall employees enter by these stairs, preferring to slip past the masses as quickly, quietly as possible. Here are the clerks, analysts, inspectors, auditors, accountants, consultants, managers and office administrators. 90% of the City’s 32,000 employees work elsewhere – within libraries, fire halls, community centres, arenas, work yards and former civic center offices. Most entering now are visitors for the day, here for a specific meeting.
Running east and west from hallways leading to the tower elevators is a long information desk and discretely hidden behind that counter is a large two-sided brass elevator. This private elevator provides direct discrete access from the executive parking garage up to the second-floor offices of the Mayor and Counsellors. This entrance is frequented by the elected.
In direct contrast, all the way around to the north side of this building, hidden in a shaded back ally is a final small door for employees only. It provides a quick quiet escape – out to China town for lunch, or to visit a shop in the nearby Eaton’s center. Shrrrr you use this exit when you don’t want to be noticed. The City Hall press offices are located just inside.
Café on the Square is the name of the popular little restaurant located inside of City Hall. Everyone wants to pick up a coffee or salad to go. It’s the whos who of city life. The Mayor or Counsellors come here along with other urban decision makers and lobbyists. This restaurant is also favoured by the legal profession. With Osgood Hall as a neighbour and four Superior Courts immediately beside City Hall this restaurant is a handy spot for barristers to regroup. It is also favoured by big city developers, friends of criminals waiting for their trials, the press, police officers, foreign dignitaries, union reps and at time Local 416/79 picket line strikers.
Outside the building is the massive Nathan Phillips Square which has its own personality and draws it’s own visitors. It is always a shock to leave the temperature-controlled building and step outside onto the square. Bright glaring light reflects off the white concrete. The square is always windy and exposed. Nathan Phillips square was designed to hold mass crowds. It was always a lonely intimidating walk across its vastness.
At any hour, seven days a week this square is occupied by a slice of humanity. It’s hot air vents and accesses to the underground parking provide warmth for the homeless. and toilets. Avoid the gardens. All shrubbery smells like urine. The winter brings the skaters. On Wednesdays in the summer the square holds a farmer’s market. In July – the Toronto Outdoor Art Show. Nathan Phillips Square is the end destination of most parades, protests and rallies. For five and a half decades it has housed New Year Eve celebrations, held bands on stage, speeches and welcomed home winning sports teams. It is the heart beat of its residence.
Toronto City Hall is a giant white mirror ball in the center of the city; reflecting back, showing us ourselves and what we value.