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I thought I knew Toronto. Countless treks there -- for concerts as a kid, and more recently for seminars and lectures -- provided me plenty of rambling-around time.

But little did I know. The city's urban renewal has not been about just bulldozing blight, but also about real transformation.

That transformation is on full display at the 19th-century Gooderham & Worts Distillery, now converted into a jewel of urban hip -- a hangout and a neighborhood where people can live, work and play. Especially play. When I came into the know, I had to go.

It is a place where people can see what a little vision can do, a place where business is viewed as art (which is a large part of what is being created here).

The Distillery District is set on a historic site "where you get a sense of the city's culture," says Mathew Rosenblatt, a Cityscape Development partner. "It is a place people would be drawn to, and return to."

Drawing them in has not been a problem, as the Distillery District is one of Toronto's hottest spots, attracting businesses, retailers, artists and tourists. It isn't every day, even in this city renowned for its innovative ways, that entrepreneurs are able to take what had mainly become rubble and turn it into a cultural oasis.

Sure this is a retail center. Yes, there are businesses and living spaces, a combination that does indeed make the Distillery different. But the Distillery District goes beyond different to significant. As virtually everyone I encountered either employed a camera, or was posing for one, my fellow visitors seemed to also sense the significance.

I immediately got the picture when entering Parliament Street, where people are greeted by "Koilos," a 14-foot-tall, crouching sheet metal sculpture by California artist Michael Christian. This was not going to be your ordinary walkabout. Moving down Distillery Lane into Trinity Square, I found "Still Dancing," a 36-foot-tall sculpture by New York's Dennis Oppenheim, which he calls a "combination of sculpture, architecture and theater" that "evokes the extraordinary transformative drama inherent in the distilling process."

After 158 years of continuous operation, even distilling through Prohibition, the curtain closed on that particular play, when the last barrel of rum rolled out of the distillery in August 1990. Left behind were 44 buildings, the largest collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America.

Enter Rosenblatt and his Cityscape cohorts in 2001. Walking amid dilapidated remnants but sensing opportunity, they asked, "Do the streets come with it?" With an affirmative answer, a deal was made, and more than 600,000 red bricks were purchased from Cleveland and laid down on the Distillery's cobblestone streets.

Several fine dining, formal and less-so eating venues are available here, such as the Boiler House, Pure Spirits Oyster House & Grill and the Mill Street Brew Pub. But I opted for a casual lunch at Cafe Uno. Sitting in its Distillery Lane patio, listening to Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," it was apparent that people were enjoying themselves walking the lanes, hitting the shops and sampling the wares.

The sprawling complex exudes a small town, if not European, charm, but it sports a big city, sophisticated product line. I stepped into one store, and then another, finding many having been bestowed as "Best ..." by Toronto media.

I learned of the Mill Street Brewery and Balzac's Coffee collaboration that resulted in Mill Street Organic, Ontario's first organic beer. I visited chocolatier Soma, where chocolate devotees can indulge their desire, and Euoko for skin care. Bergo Designs features a gallery of industrial design and fun things for your home, while Horse Feathers also offers housewares amid antique work tables. The Sport Gallery sells fine art from the sporting world, and if you find your feet failing you, you can always revert to motoring your way around, on a Segway spin.

I wandered into Artscape, the Case Goods Lane building where artists are at work alongside offices for arts organizations. And I also discovered several galleries where proprietors, like Joanne Thompson of Thompson Landry Gallery, are frequently on hand. Billing itself as "All Quebec all the time," Thompson Landry has two Distillery locations, and Thompson is eager to share her love for "The Masters of Quebec." Adjacent to its Cooperage Space is A Taste of Quebec, where connoisseurs can sample some Quebec cuisine.

Fay Athari, Artagallery's director and an Iranian native, has a passion for promoting art in everyday life with color and movement, and Arta (Persian for wisdom) showcases contemporary Canadian and international artists. The Engine Gallery is an incubator for emerging and midcareer painters, sculptors and installation artists, while all the way from Tel Aviv, the Julie M. Gallery brings contemporary Israeli art to Toronto.

Filmmakers have also been drawn to the Distillery's streetscape. Actors Russell Crowe, Rene Zellweger, Richard Gere, Samuel L. Jackson and Geena Davis have been here to shoot "Cinderella Man," "Chicago" and "Long Kiss Goodnight," to mention a few of the movies made here.

And ensuring that the drama carries on, the Young Centre for the Performing Arts has space for plays, musical performances and films, and future stars are testing the waters at George Brown College's Theatre School and the Soulpepper Theatre Company.

How little did I know. The Distillery District puts on quite a show.

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If you go:

The Distillery District (www.thedistillerydistrict.com) is bordered by Parliament, Mill and Cherry streets. From the Gardiner Expressway East, exit at Jarvis Street, stay right onto Lakeshore Boulevard East, take a left onto Parliament Street, then a right onto Mill Street.

Walking tours are led daily at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.; $19. Segway Spins are available hourly from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; $39.

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Upcoming events:

*Stone Distillery, Building 5: Contact Festival (photography), through May 31; also, exhibition featuring Sylvain Tremblay, June 16 to July 10, opening reception, 6 to 9 p.m. June 16.

*Artisans at the Distillery District (www.artisansatthedistillery.com) spring craft show, May 21-23.

*Doors Open Toronto (www.toronto.ca/doorsopen), May 28 and 29.

*Luminato, a festival in public spaces featuring theater, dance and visual arts, June 10-19.

*TD Jazz festival at the Distillery, with Dave Brubeck, Aretha Franklin, Jessye Norman, Los Lonely Boys, Los Lobos, Bela Fleck and more, June 24 to July 3.

*Mountain Equipment Co-op Bikefest (www.mec.ca), June 25.