Toronto is on the verge of an historical opportunity to welcome the attention and investment of the world while being driven by a catalyst to develop our city, to build transit and leave a legacy in the Portlands.
I spoke to the Executive Committee about my experience in the 1998 Lisbon World Fair transforming not only the city but my entire perception of that city.
The following is my deposition:
I moved to Lisbon, Portugal when I was 12, in 1991. One of my first memories there was driving from the airport through an industrial area with rusting containers, muddy roads, and shipyards. I immediately realized what a mistake it had been to leave Toronto. I had no love for Portugal and so I spent my teenage years resenting the country. Until 1998 that is.
A modern neighbourhood was being proposed as a part of a World Fair. I saw the plans: the beautiful Santiago Calatrava architecture and public spaces stood out to me. It felt like a little bit of Toronto’s modern city feel was now coming to Lisbon — Ironically enough, it turns out that Lisbon beat Toronto to host the 1998 World Fair.
Expo 98 captured everyone’s imagination. It brought the country together, it gave us motivation, made us realize what we were capable of and inspired us to aim high.
But it wasn’t always like that. When a world fair was proposed, Portugal had a desperate deficit of infrastructure and the last thing anybody wanted to do was throw a giant party and invite the world as our guest.
Every other part of the country resented spending so much money on what was seen as a vanity project for Lisbon. Opponents said that this “fairy tale place” was too ambitious and that it couldn’t be done on time. But something changed with the country once the theme of the Oceans was announced. Portugal had a historical connection to the oceans, as world explorers. It was deeply ingrained in our culture, in our history and in our spirit and it brought the skeptics on board. A vision started coming together and suddenly everyone was enthusiastic.
When Expo98 closed after that Summer, there was a national mourning. I was there on the last day and I recall seeing grown men, openly crying when the Expo flag came down. But there was also excitement for what was coming next. Lisbon had arrived. It was now a World City.
In October of 2000, I was on the verge of fulfilling my dream of returning to Canada. On the ride to the airport as I passed through the neighbourhood that remained as a legacy from the world fair, I realized that Expo98 was in fact that derelict muddy port that I had driven through a decade earlier, now a bustling modern part of Lisbon.
I smiled, and I was proud of Portugal.
Toronto has an opportunity to use the world fair as a catalyst to pursue waterfront transit, to naturalize the Don River, to set the groundwork to develop the Portlands, and to inspire the city to get behind preparing Toronto to welcome the world. It’s time that we properly introduce ourselves.