Toronto Star: Toronto's appetite for street food too long thwarted
By: Christopher Hume Urban Issues, Published on Fri Mar 14 2014
There are cities that allow street food, others that celebrate it.
Toronto, we know from the bad taste in our mouth, is terrified of the idea of allowing the sale of anything much more than hotdogs on city streets. Perhaps it harks back to some terrible case of food poisoning in Toronto’s infancy, maybe it’s the crippling North American fear of liability, or simply the result of the civic bureaucracy’s typical no-can-do attitude.
But other cities somehow manage to survive despite a steady diet of road fill. One of the more unexpected is Helsinki, which kicks off its first street food festival, Streat Gastro, on March 22. Vendors from as far away as Cape Town, New York, Sweden and northern Finland will be on hand for the event, which will be served up in downtown Helsinki.
“It’s something we need,” says Helsinki Deputy Mayor Pekka Sauri. “There are more and more gastronomic things happening here. We expect it will be a family occasion. It’s a way to make the city attractive. We’re competing with up-and-coming places like Tallinn in Estonia, St. Petersburg, which is only three hours away, and the Scandinavian capitals.”
“Finns traditionally eat at home,” Sauri explains, “but that has started to change in the last 10 or 15 years. We have six Michelin star restaurants here, which is pretty good for a town this size.”
With a population of 1.1 million, greater Helsinki is less than half the size of Toronto. On the other hand, it is an enormously ambitious city. In addition to Streat Gastro, Helsinki recently did a stint as the World Design Capital and is now actively pursuing a Guggenheim Museum for its waterfront. Expect an architectural competition to be launched later this year.
Meanwhile, back in Hogtown, a city of great restaurants, street food consists mainly of wieners, French fries and gravy. Food trucks here tend to be greasy spoons on wheels, and the most exciting item on the menu at the carts is Polish sausage.
Toronto’s last attempt to enter the real world of street food was an embarrassing and expensive fiasco. Even after years of trying, the city seems no closer to figuring out how to make it work. Of course, there are legitimate concerns, health being the most obvious. In Toronto, restaurateurs also worry that street vendors will hurt their bottom lines. Clearly, many jurisdictions have managed to deal with these issues, as difficult as they may be.
It’s interesting, though, that Helsinki looks at street food as an opportunity, one it can exploit to make itself a livelier place for residents and tourists. As Sauri points out, his city is itself in competition with others and does what it can to remain competitive.
By contrast, Toronto, which thinks of itself as remarkably diverse and open to the world, is becoming inwardly focused and insular. Caught up in its own internal bickering, it has lost sight of the larger context and its place therein. Toronto, which takes its success for granted, has come to feel it deserves acclaim without having to earn it.
The future may not depend on street food, but our attitudes towards it are an indicator of a culture of fear and loathing, complacency and negativity. Why do something when it’s so much easier to do nothing?
And so another opportunity is lost through inertia, lack of imagination and missing political will. And, really, who cares? The good burghers of Toronto like things just the way they are – hold the mayo and pass the gravy.
Christopher Hume can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org